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
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."
A TWO-WAY STREET
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
"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
"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
AN OPEN HOUSE
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
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."
`THE DRINKS ARE ON THE HOUSE'
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
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
"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
`WELL WORTH THE EFFORT'
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
"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."
FROM RUSSIA TO RECHOVOT
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
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.
`ALL I SEE IS A JEW'
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