Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

7 Shevat 5761 - January 31, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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The Man Behind Rechovot: Finding Common Ground
By Moshe Schapiro

Crossing a typical street in Eretz Yisroel is much like crossing a traffic-logged avenue in Manhattan during rush hour: motorists assume that they -- not the pedestrians -- have the right of way.

Unless, that is, if you are crossing the streets of Rechovot, a bustling city with nearly 100,000 residents some 15 miles south of Tel Aviv and 40 miles south and west of Yerushalayim. Residents are so polite that the city has an almost American feel to it. Motorists don't just stop for pedestrians; they occasionally even stop for drivers coming from the opposite direction angling for a left-hand turn.

But Rechovot's uniqueness isn't limited to its good manners. In fact, those manners are likely an outgrowth of what makes Rechovot truly unique -- the fact that it is perhaps the only city in Eretz Yisroel where religious and secular Jews live side by side in peace.

And this isn't because the city is divided into exclusively religious and nonreligious neighborhoods, as is the case in Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak. In Rechovot, the communities are mixed, with many apartment buildings housing both religious and secular residents.

How is it that in Rechovot religious-secular relations are growing warmer every day, while in the rest of the country they have soured to the point where analysts discuss the possibilities of a civil war breaking out?

Many people say it has a lot to do with the city's chief rabbi, Rav Simcha Hakohen Kook. Over the last quarter of a century he has turned a largely ceremonial post into an active effort to bridge the gap between the city's secular and religious residents, thereby raising the level of overall religious observance in the city.


Rav Kook, 70, made Rechovot his home 30 years ago. Back then, only 12 percent of the city's children were attending religious schools and the number of kosher food stores could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

At the time, Rav Kook's brother, Rav Shlomo Kook, served as Rechovot's chief rabbi. But in 1980 Rav Shlomo Kook was killed in a car accident along with his wife and two of their children.

The position was then offered to Rav Simcha Kook, who had been poised to accept a rabbinical position in Tiveria. His brother's untimely death made him wonder whether he should reconsider that decision. He consulted his mashgiach, Rav Meir Chodosh of Chevron Yeshiva, and with HaRav Elozor Menachem Man Shach, who had served as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kletzk in Rechovot years earlier and with whom he was particularly close. Both encouraged him to accept the position in Rechovot.

One of the first things Rav Kook did in his new role was establish a local yeshiva together with his brother, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok, who learned in Yeshivas Ponevezh, and Rav Chaim Zelivansky zt"l, who learned in Yeshivas Beer Yaakov and later in Brisk. Though a small kollel existed in the city, he says that he felt the only way to "really have an impact" on the city was to open a yeshiva that would serve as its spiritual dynamo.

Yeshivas Meor Hatalmud started with just 20 students. Today it has more than 300, including a thriving kollel. Rav Kook also established a mesivta in Rechovot and two mesivtas and a cheder in Yerushalayim, which are run in accordance with HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman's personal guidance. All of these institutions, which accommodate 850 students, are part of the Generations Educational Network, of which Rav Kook serves as chairman.

Rav Kook says that visitors to Rechovot often don't realize just how great a role Yeshivas Meor Hatalmud plays in the city. He says that many people are under the misconception that the city has a special atmosphere because it is home to the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science and has a large Israel Air Force base nearby.

Rav Kook, however, sees things differently.

"The city has a certain electricity," he says, "and the yeshiva is the generator. Like the child who flips on the light switch and fails to comprehend that there are electrical circuits making this possible, visitors come to Rechovot and are charmed by its special atmosphere without comprehending the role the yeshiva plays in it.

"The yeshiva," he explains, "is the generator humming in the background that creates this special atmosphere."


While being the city's chief rabbi and chairman of its yeshiva might seem like an unusual mix, Rav Kook says the system benefits everyone. First, he says, it has made the position of chief rabbi "more yeshivish."

Second, not only does the chief rabbinate benefit from the yeshiva, the yeshiva also benefits from the chief rabbinate.

"It's a two-way street," explains Rav Kook. "Because of my dual role as chief rabbi and nosi of the yeshiva, the talmidim get a better sense of what it means to have communal responsibilities and disseminate Torah among the populace at large."

Rav Kook gives his students that sense by discussing with them his experiences as chief rabbi and the decisions he makes in that position. He even asks them how they would handle some of those situations if they were in his shoes.

"They become keenly aware of the needs of Am Yisroel and become sensitized to what works and what doesn't," he says. "This gives them a tremendous experience that not too many yeshiva students get nowadays before they are thrust into the real world of communal leadership and rabbonus."

Rav Kook adds that his dual role is something that HaRav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv strongly supports. He says that it is built on a similar model that has worked well in Yerushalayim, where Rav Yosef Efrati, one of HaRav Eliashiv's closest disciples, serves simultaneously as senior halachic authority of the Yerushalayim Rabbinate's kashrus department and head of a prestigious halachic kollel.


For Rav Kook, being the city's chief rabbi means exactly what the title intimates -- that he has a responsibility to serve all of the city's Jews, regardless of their background, level of religious observance or political leanings. He takes the time to listen to every question and every point of view and, as one reporter discovered, he shows every person respect -- often a lot more than they expect.

This may explain why thousands of city residents of all stripes visit Rav Kook on Chol Hamoed Sukkos, when he holds an annual "open house" in his Sukkah.

City employees such as firemen and policemen are often among the guests, though the self-effacing Rav Kook says he believes that for the latter group, at least, the visit has more to do with an old legend than anything else. According to that legend, any police officer who visits the Rav's sukkah during Sukkos will receive a promotion.

There are many others who visit the Rav's sukkah -- like members of the traditionally anti-religious Meretz party.

"I think it's one of the only places in the country where members of Meretz, the NRP and the religious parties get together under one roof and just relax and talk together," says Rav Kook. "It's a very special atmosphere."


Rav Kook's role as chief rabbi of Rechovot is not limited to bringing religious and nonreligious Jews together. It is also about the much harder task of raising the level of religious observance among all of the city's residents.

When Rav Kook first came to Rechovot, many businesses operated on Shabbos. But ever since his arrival, things have improved.

Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, Rav Kook's brother and rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Meor Hatalmud, recalls how several years ago Rav Simcha Kook began his campaign to close the city's businesses on Shabbos by single-handedly shutting down a centrally located disco.

According to Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook's account, his brother the chief rabbi walked into the disco one Friday night, sat down at a table and began talking to a group of teens. It wasn't long before the owner, who was none too pleased with the effect this unexpected client was having on his business, came over to Rav Kook and politely asked him to leave. Rav Kook calmly replied that he thought the disco was open to the public and that he wasn't bothering anyone. He resumed his conversation with the teens at his table.

When it became clear to the owner that Rav Simcha had no intention of leaving, he started threatening him, and for a moment it looked like things were about to turn ugly. But then Rav Kook drew support from an unexpected quarter -- the teens sitting at his table. "Leave him alone," they said to the owner, "he's not bothering anyone."

Rav Kook, not wanting to stir things up further, got up and told the boys, "Look, it's obvious I'm not wanted here. But I have an idea -- instead of you buying your drinks here, why don't you come over to my place? Drinks are on the house."

"And that," says Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, "was the beginning of the end of the disco."

Following the showdown the boys followed Rav Kook to his apartment and peppered him with questions. "They got everything off their chests," Rav Avrohom Yitzchok recalls. "They asked my brother the usual questions: Why don't religious people serve in the army? Why don't they sing the national anthem? Why don't they hang Israeli flags from their balconies on Independence Day? They left in the wee hours of the night. And then they came back on the following Friday night, and on the next, and the next."

Soon the disco closed down, and eventually many of the boys in that group became religious and are today respected members of Torah communities in Eretz Yisroel.

"Even the ones who didn't do teshuva," says Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook, "told my brother, `We may not agree with you, but now we understand your point of view and respect your right to live this way of life.'

"In Israel's fractured society," he concludes, "that is quite an achievement."


But Rav Kook himself concedes that his fight for Shabbos observance in Rechovot that began years ago with the disco episode is far from over. While no large shopping centers in the city are open on Shabbos -- thanks largely to Rav Kook's diplomatic efforts -- there are a small number of coffee shops that remain open. And that's a situation that Rav Kook, along with the city' s Mishmeres Shabbos, are actively working to change.

Members of the Mishmeres, including Rav Kook, spend their Friday afternoons visiting each and every store, restaurant and coffee shop in the downtown section of the city. Their approach is straightforward -- and noncombative.

When Rav Kook enters a store, all he says is "Gut Shabbos. Shabbos is coming soon, when are you closing?"

He explains that store owners who close their shops on Shabbos are happy to see him, but the same can't always be said for those who don't.

"Some get a little upset with me," says Rav Kook, "but most just smile and say, `Well, maybe someday.'"

Thanks to the Mishmeres' efforts, in recent weeks "someday" actually arrived for two more coffee shops, whose owners decided it was time to close on Shabbos.

"It's an ongoing effort," says Rav Kook. "But the point is that it's done with Darkei Shalom, though without any compromise."


In an effort to raise the level of religious observance in Rechovot, Rav Kook has not only worked tirelessly to curb Shabbos desecration. He has also raised the level of kashrus by building his own kashrus supervision body, Badatz Mehadrin Rechovot, which has since become universally recognized by members of the Torah community.

On the local level, this means that in his hometown, which years ago had just a handful of kosher shops, the majority of stores now bear a hechsher that is among the best the Torah community can offer. And on a national level, it means that thousands of Torah Jews around the country are benefiting from products with Rav Kook's highly regarded hechsher.

"The entire chareidi community and virtually every yeshiva in the country uses meat products carrying our hechsher," says Rav Kook proudly. "It's also our fifth shmittah, and our reputation remains beyond reproach."

While creating the kashrus supervision system was a difficult task that took much time and effort, Rav Kook says in retrospect that, "it was well worth the effort."


Because Rechovot also has a large immigrant population, in addition to his many other duties, Rav Kook also spends considerable time and effort assisting Russian Jews.

Rav Kook is an enthusiastic supporter of Shuvu, which provides social assistance and Torah schooling to underprivileged children from the former Soviet Union. Shuvu Chairman Mr. Abe Biderman and Shuvu Director in Eretz Yisroel Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman both credit Rav Kook for being a driving force behind the recent establishment of a Shuvu elementary school in Rechovot.

"I think the Shuvu school system is a very important contribution to the Russian immigrant community," Rav Kook says, "and during my last meeting with Rav Pam a few weeks ago, I made sure to thank him for opening such a school in our city."

Rav Kook also travels to the Ukraine several times a year to promote Jewish education among Jews still living in the former Soviet Union. He was instrumental in the appointment of the chief rabbis of Russia, Moscow and Ukraine, and assisted a number of organizations that established Jewish schools there, including Ohr Somayach's school in Odessa, which serves 300 students.


Much has changed since Rav Kook's early days in Rechovot. Today 35 percent of children in Rechovot attend religious schools. The majority of stores have kashrus supervision and most businesses are closed on Shabbos. Many local Russian immigrants are finding their way back to their roots, and the city's Jews respect each other's differences.

Rav Kook has been the driving force behind these changes, though he isn't quick to take the credit. For him, it's all just part of the job.

He says he's learned much over the last two decades about how to bridge the gap that is tearing apart the rest of Israeli society: First, he says, one has to learn to understand others -- yet without compromising Torah values. And second, the best way to bring people closer to each other, and to Hashem, is by showing them respect, regardless of who they are.

"When I see a person," he says simply, "I look for the Jew inside."


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