Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight


A Window into the Charedi World | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Lev L'Achim -- A Grass-Roots Kiruv Movement

by Moshe Schapiro

The antagonistic attitude of the Israeli media towards religion in general and religious people in particular leaves the uninformed bystander with the distinct impression that the overwhelming majority of non-observant Israelis are avidly anti-religious and perfectly satisfied with their secular way of life. However, this is all part of a deliberate attempt of the forces that be to delegitimize the Torah and those who adhere to its ways in the eyes of the populace.

The fact is that most Jews living in Israel today are more eager to explore their roots than ever before. They feel the aching emptiness inside and yearn to find meaning in their lives. All of the false gods have been shattered -- Socialism, Zionism, militarism and materialism. Israelis now seek alternative lifestyles, and religion is becoming an increasingly popular choice.

Anyone who has been to Israel lately can see the handwriting on the wall. Often, men and women dressed in clearly non- religious garb can be seen reciting Tehillim on the buses, or holding hands with sons wearing kipot. Taxi drivers seem to be listening constantly to taped shiurim, or to one of the numerous religious radio stations that have cropped up over the past few years. Storeowners and repairmen unabashedly punctuate conversations with their clients with plenty of "be'ezrat Hashem's" and "beli neder's." Clearly, the media's portrayal of Israeli society belies the reality in the streets.

Social statistics corroborate this profound change in mentality -- a recent survey carried out by pollster Mina Tzemach for Yediot Acharanot (Israel's largest daily newspaper) indicates that 515,000 Israelis have become fully- observant in the past six years. In other words, over one- tenth of the population of the State of Israel returned to the ways of the Torah since 1993! There is no doubt about it - - Israeli society is undergoing a major change.

This has not always been the case. As recently as ten years ago, religion was by no means considered trendy among secular Israelis. What has brought about this drastic change in mentality? Perhaps the trend back to tradition is simply a reflection of successful kiruv work -- at least in part.

I called up a friend who is active in kiruv and shared my musings with him. He suggested that I call up the people at Peylim / Lev L'Achim and see what they had to say. Their answer was, "Come and judge for yourself. Our regional administrators are meeting in Netanya tomorrow. Feel free to join us and observe."

Thus I found myself standing by the thoroughfare leading out of Jerusalem on a hot autumn afternoon. I had come to the prearranged location to catch a ride to Netanya with one of the Jerusalem-area regional administrators. I kept a watchful eye on the steady stream of cars flowing by and looked forward to the moment when I would finally enter the cool air- conditioned interior of the car.

A few minutes later, a tiny dust-brown car of nondescript make deftly crossed three lanes of traffic and screeched to a halt before me. The rolled-down windows and the stacatto noises emanating from the engine compartment swiftly dispelled my illusions of a cool smooth drive to Netanya. I braced myself and squeezed in next to the driver.

R' Yitzchok said hello and then resumed a cell-phone conversation he had started before he picked me up. He talked into the microphone attached to the sunshade while the second party's voice came in over the speakers (as required by law in moving cars), so I was able to overhear every word.

They were discussing mezuzos; apparently the person on the other end of the line was wondering whether someone from Lev L'Achim could deliver a set of mezuzos to his sister in Kfar Saba and show her how to attach them to the doorframe. R' Yitzchok jotted down the address on a note pad, made a second call to a Lev L'Achim activist in Bnei Brak, and called back the caller to confirm that everything would be taken care of -- his sister would have mezuzos on her door by next morning. I was impressed by the efficiency of the organizational structure that enabled such smooth inter-city coordination.

We stopped to fill up with gas when the phone rang. Someone wanted to take up R. Yitzchok on his offer to trade in a television for a Shas. Two more phone calls, and everything was arranged. We were hardly ten minutes out of Jerusalem.

"Tell me, does your phone always ring so frequently?" I began asking him just as the phone rang again.

It was a young girl in her early teens. "Look, I just want to tell you that I've changed my mind -- I'm not going to religious school next year," she firmly declared. From the charged atmosphere in the car, I could tell that this was an emergency. Slowly, persistently -- and with the help of a few well-timed jokes -- R' Yitzchok broke through the ice and got the girl talking. Her tone gradually softened, and she revealed the real reason for her change of heart: she and her family had recently become observant through Yitzchok's group of avreichim, and her first year in religious school had turned out to be a very difficult experience.

I was amazed at how familiar he was with her background -- he knew her parents and siblings, and even her two closest friends. She was in a much better frame of mind by the end of the conversation, and before she hung up, she even agreed to visit a different religious school with Yitzchok on the following afternoon. As an extra precaution, he called her two closest friends -- Sharon and Oshrat, also from recently observant families -- and asked them to give her a little emotional support and encouragement.

I looked at Yitzchok with awe. "You are a natural at kiruv," I said.

He rejected my appraisal. "Whatever success I may have in kiruv is first and foremost due to siyata diShmaya. Furthermore, Lev L'Achim has given me extensive training and guidance. I've also accumulated a lot of hands-on experience and learned how to deal with a wide variety of situations. I certainly was not this confident back when I started working for Lev L'Achim three years ago! I began like all the other two thousand avrechim who work for Lev L'Achim -- by knocking on doors at random in non-observant neighborhoods and offering to discuss religion with whoever answered the door."

He explained to me Lev L'Achim's general strategy: target a particular neighborhood, visit people in their homes and arouse their interest in Torah, organize a large-scale evening lecture to bring everyone together, and then set up local study centers. Lev L'Achim's long-term goal is to establish self-propagating Torah networks in every neighborhood in Israel.

"We're talking about changing the face of Israeli society," Yitzchok stressed. "Ultimately, we want to spark a popular grass-roots teshuvah movement that will gain its own momentum and spread to every corner of Eretz Yisroel."

He excused himself again as he took out his electronic organizer, looked up a number, and dialed. No one answered. "I've been trying to get in touch with this girl for days," he says. "Last year she showed up at a neighborhood shiur and sat in the back row. Afterwards she requested to discuss a private matter with me. She confided to me that she was seeing an Arab, and that she had mixed feelings about the entire affair."

Yitzchok paid her a visit at home. The girl's parents admitted that they were concerned about her bizarre behavior, but it quickly became apparent that they had no idea that she was seeing an Arab. That first visit was a turning point for her as well as for her entire family. Yitzchok talked with the girl and her parents about belief in Hashem and Torah values until the wee hours of the night. Now, a year later, they are all fully observant, and the girl is studying in a religious seminary.

Yitzchok has fond memories of that night. He recalls taking his leave of the family at 1:45 a.m. On the way home, he was stopped at an IDF roadblock just outside the Yerushalayim neighborhood of Ramot. One of the young soldiers on guard asked him where he was going. On the spur of the moment Yitzchok tilted his yarmulke at a rakish angle and answered the soldier with the Hebrew equivalent of, "What's it to ya, buddy?"

The straight-faced young man could not hold back a smile. Yitzchok did not squander this golden opportunity.

"Tell me," he said to the soldier, "don't you have more interesting questions to ask me than, `Where are you going?'"

"Such as?" the surprised soldier responded, somewhat insulted.

Yitzchak parked the car and disembarked. "Don't you ever wonder what is the purpose of life?" he began. "Don't you ever look at all those stars up there and wonder why we were created?"

An impromptu kiruv discussion unfolded between Yitzchok and the unit of soldiers manning the roadblock. It went on until 4:30 a.m.

"We're still in touch," he explains. "They call me on their cell-phones from wherever they may be stationed. All of them are kibbutznikim who had never heard of the basic tenets of Judaism. One of them recently admitted to me that secular life is pure misery."

The phone jangled and interrupted us once again. An avreich in Yitzchok's group excitedly announced that he had finally succeeded in convincing a non-religious youth group comprised of 150 teenagers to attend a Lev L'Achim lecture. "Please try to arrange for Rav Uri Zohar to deliver the lecture," the avreich asked. "These kids mean business. They are going to come armed with tough questions."

"Terrific!" Yitzchok answered with a smile. "Tell them that the tougher the questions, the better!"

As Yitzchok parked the car, I suddenly realized that we had reached our destination -- Lev L'Achim National Headquarters in Netanya. I had hardly felt the one-and-a-half hour ride in the cramped, stuffy car.

The convention hall was already buzzing with activity by the time we arrived. Most of the thirty regional administrators were already there, exchanging views on the issues that would be raised during the conference, or just sharing information and matters of common interest with one another.

One of the men -- R' Hoffman from the Haifa district -- was recalling some of his recent experiences in Denia, a yuppity neighborhood that he was in the process of "developing." He had formed a strong nucleus of eight dedicated families who were participating regularly in a weekly shiur on Kitzur Shulchan Oruch. The enthusiasm of these newly observant men and women was truly inspiring -- as soon as the men reached the laws regarding tefillin, all eight of them placed orders with R' Hoffman for the finest tefillin that money could buy. Hoffman channeled their initiative into a field trip and took the men to Jerusalem to visit the sofer and battim macher, followed by mincha at the Kotel. When the women reached the laws of Shabbos, all eight of them placed orders for automatic clocks, hotplates and every other conceivable Shabbos apparatus known to man.

As I listened to Hoffman's account, the realization slowly sank in that I was in the presence of thirty "Yitzchoks." Indeed, many of the avreichim were talking into their cell-phones, most likely dealing with issues as delicate and vital as those that Yitzchok had so skillfully dealt with during the drive up to Netanya. This group of thirty men was mobilizing a force of over 2,000 avreichim that had influenced the lives of untold thousands of families throughout Eretz Yisroel.

I learned that Lev L'Achim's executive directors had convened the regional administrators to hear how the new evening study programs were progressing, and to discuss ways by which to increase "productivity." Each of the regional heads stood up and presented a brief summary of activities in his area, including numbers of participants and projected figures for the coming months.

As I looked around at these intense young Torah scholars enthusiastically working together to bring knowledge of Hashem to their fellow Jews, a verse came to mind: "At that time, the G-d fearing people spoke to one another. G-d listened and heard, and a scroll of remembrance was written at His command concerning those who fear G-d and contemplate His name" (Malachi 3:16).

Yitzchok's cell-phone was kept hard at work throughout the return trip to Jerusalem. Just before dropping me off, he made an appointment for 1:00 a.m. with a newly-observant mother experiencing domestic strife.

As I gathered my things and prepared to disembark, I asked him one last question: "But how do you do it? Where do you get the strength?"

"Look," he said, "there is a revolution taking place here. In thirty years from now, people are going to write about the Great Kiruv Revolution of the 5750's. My grandchildren are going to read about this era with awe and ask me all about it. I want to be able to tell them that I was part of it. Don't you?"


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