It's a battle for the neshomos of Israel's children --
and the early results are in. Children from non-religious
homes are flocking to religious schools thanks to Lev
L'Achim's school enrollment program.
The Torah school system, according to Yediot Acharanot,
Israel's largest daily, has expanded by a colossal 60
percent since 1998 and now represents 12.3 percent of the
national total. "Deeply concerned" Education Ministry
officials ascribe this unprecedented growth "to the intense
efforts of certain chareidi individuals to register children
who do not necessarily come from religious families into
The statistics tell the story. In 1998, all Chinuch Atzmai and
Shas schools in the country combined had only 75,000 students,
representing 7.9 percent of all school-age children. This
year, the number has jumped to 127,000. The secular school
system, meanwhile, has shrunk by a staggering 4 percent and
has closed hundreds of classrooms and even, in many instances,
entire schools. For the first time its future looks
precarious: the system is on the verge of an irreversible
nosedive and even may lose any appearance of the "national
consensus" it has maintained for the past 50 years.
Lev L'Achim director Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin said that
Education Ministry officials have been aware of his activities
and have been trying -- without success -- to stop him for
"No one can stop this," he said. "It's beyond anyone's
control. They are fighting Hakodosh Boruch Hu, and He
wants His children back.
"They are fighting something far more powerful than all the
clout they can muster against us," he added. "They are
fighting the gedolei Yisroel. They are fighting the
power of limud haTorah, of the tefillos of
thousands of Jews from recent generations -- the grandparents
and great-grandparents of the children we're enrolling today --
who saw their children swept up by the secular movement that
shaped the modern State of Israel over the last century."
Even with all that power behind them, Lev L'Achim enrollment
workers aren't taking any chances. The ones contacted for this
article were reluctant to take time out from waging their
local wars against troublesome municipal officials just for
the sake of speaking with a reporter. Every second counts.
Every phone call has to be answered and dealt with on the spot
because the future of a Jewish neshomoh could be at
Bentzi Rotenberg in Chadera, for example, was too busy dealing
with first- day-of-school crises such as delayed school buses
and forgotten lunch boxes and calls from totally non-religious
parents who didn't realize that the "high-level Tanach
curriculum" he had described to them includes Mishna
Between calls, Bentzi said that he is running a new school,
funded by Keren Nesivos Moshe, comprised entirely of "non-
religious kids from totally non- religious homes whose parents
have no interest whatsoever in religion." Clearly, this
required some explanation.
"They read an article in the local paper about our school-in-
the-making," Bentzi explains. "We billed it as `a religious
school for non-religious children' focusing on `traditional
Jewish values.' It sounded good to a lot of parents."
One mother, Bentzi said, confided to him that she was scared
that her son will become a chozer beteshuvah, "but she
said that she's even more afraid of what will happen to him if
he goes to the secular public school next to their house,
where violence and crime are rampant."
On the first day of school, Bentzi says, "Eighty percent of
the kids showed up without a yarmulke." I spotted one
first-grader sporting an earring on his left ear. "It just
goes to show you," he says, "what kind of a background these
kids are coming from."
Moshe Zeivald, Lev L'Achim's northern region supervisor, says
it was crucial to create the new school in Chadera. "We
enrolled 270 children here last year in local schools," he
says, "but there were about 70 kids who didn't fit in
anywhere. They didn't come from mesorati homes where a
semblance of Shabbos is kept, but from homes where religion
was a non- issue. This year we decided to create a school just
for them, and boruch Hashem, so far, so good."
Unfortunately, not everyone thinks so.
For the mayor of Chadera, the new school has turned into a
royal headache. Public school officials, outraged over the
prospects of closing down classrooms as a result of losing so
many children to Lev L'Achim, are putting pressure on the
mayor and the city's municipality to condemn the school and
close it down -- by force, if necessary.
The city is investigating how local Lev L'Achim enrollment
workers allegedly obtained the names and addresses of
virtually every parent in the city with children of eligible
age for first and second grades, to whom they allegedly sent
information packages about the new school along with a signed
letter of recommendation allegedly printed on municipality
Bentzi also has plans for the students' parents in the way of
"I'm hoping this school won't offer anything higher than fifth
grade," he says with infectious enthusiasm. "By then, I hope
all of the parents will have become completely frum,
and will insist that we transfer their kids to regular
yeshivas and Beis Yaakovs." One gets the feeling that Bentzi
is idealizing slightly here, but considering his
accomplishments, he has the right to. And then again, maybe
Local enrollment workers like Bentzi are the backbone of the
Lev L'Achim enrollment apparatus. Kollel yungerleit for
the most part, they are well connected with the local scene
and know which words will convince parents to entrust their
children to them, and which words will turn them away. Often
personal initiative and sharp instincts will accomplish more
than weeks of training. For this reason, Lev L'Achim gives
local enrollment workers plenty of leeway and room to
Yitzchok Gottlieb in Ohr Yehuda is a good example.
Last year he was instrumental in setting the stage for the
opening of a Keren Nesivos Moshe school in an uppity
neighborhood called Ganei Savion. The school -- a prefab
structure -- actually arrived two weeks after the opening day
of school. Where did the children learn in the interval?
"In the park," he says. "I found a shady spot on the grass,
and we set up blackboards and everything." Understandably, the
uppity parents who enrolled their children in the new school
were somewhat perturbed by the primitive learning environment.
But Yitzchok pacified them somehow, and 26 of them didn't pull
their kids out before the prefab structure arrived.
Contending with the irate neighbors was another matter
entirely. There was also the police to deal with, and of
course, the problem with the municipal authorities. But
everything worked out in the end, Yitzchok says.
One problem he had difficulty with was what to do with the
handful of teenagers whom he managed to enroll into Ohr
Yehuda's virtual yeshiva high school, which existed only in
Yitzchok's mind but, unfortunately, not on the ground.
"I couldn't just tell them there was no school for them," he
says, using animated hand movements to amplify his emotions.
"I enrolled their kid sisters and brothers. What was I
supposed to do with them? Throw them in the garbage?"
So Yitzchok did the only logical thing: he opened a yeshiva
high school all on his own.
It was no big deal, he says. Everything was Heaven-sent. He
located an empty building. Lev L'Achim took out a huge loan
and turned the vacant structure into a beautiful beis
medrash, hired staff, and now Rabbi Yitzchok Gottlieb,
rosh yeshivas Ohr Yehuda, has 19 dedicated talmidim.
Their earrings and body-piercing utensils have given way
to black yarmulkes and tzitzis.
"They're on their way," Rabbi Gottlieb says with immense
"When he first suggested that we open a yeshiva for the Ohr
Yehuda kids," recalls Rabbi Ephraim Paktor, Lev L'Achim
regional supervisor in the Tel Aviv area, "I told him he was
dreaming. It's a good thing he was persistent. Eventually he
convinced me and I convinced Lev L'Achim's planning board and
here we are."
Yitzchok Gottlieb is one of five enrollment workers active in
the city. They are helped by 20 volunteers, avreichim
from nearby Kiryat Sefer who literally risk their lives by
traveling to Ohr Yehuda via the Modi'in road, which has
recently become an ambush venue for Palestinian gunmen.
"It was a private decision, no one asked me to do it," says
Yerachmiel Geffner, one of the 190 Kiryat Sefer volunteers.
"The section of the road we travel is not the dangerous part.
But also, the Chazon Ish says that safeguarding a fellow Jew's
spiritual well being is as much pikuach nefesh as
saving him from drowning to death. So I figured, how can I
stop going to Ohr Yehuda? Who is going to be mekarev
Evidently, Geffner and his fellow Kiryat Sefer volunteers are
not the only ones willing to risk their necks for his fellow
Jews. Every week, two busloads of avreichim from Beitar
undertake the twenty-minute journey to Gilo, where they walk
down the streets and visit families who called Lev L'Achim's
information hotline and expressed an interest in learning more
"It's this level of dedication that is at the root of the Lev
L'Achim revolution," says Rabbi Sorotzkin. "Only something of
this nature could have brought about a 60 percent increase in
the Torah school system."
It really is happening all over the country.
In Kfar Sava, there is no more room in any of the city's
religious schools or kindergartens for a single additional
child. This year alone, Lev L'Achim enrolled 100 children.
Next year three new kindergartens and a new school will have
to be opened, says Rabbi Paktor.
Also the schools in Petach Tikva are full to overflowing. No
less than 200 children were enrolled this year. The local
Keren Nesivos Moshe branch now serves over 110 children, and
The list goes on and on: Yehud, 96 children in kindergarten,
30 from last year moving up to first grade. There is no more
room and a new school will be needed for next year. Lev
L'Achim has only been active in the city since last year.
Modi'in, 5 kindergartens opened; Rishon Letzion, all schools
and kindergartens in the city are full, with some of the
children studying in bomb shelters; 26 had to be turned away
due to lack of space. Cholon and Bat Yam have reached
saturation level, with a whopping 200 children registered this
The situation in Ramle has spiraled totally out of control:
600 children registered in a single year, which necessitated
opening six kindergartens. All schools are full to the
maximum. More kindergartens and at least one new school will
be needed for next year.
The school in Ramat Gan was evicted by order of the mayor, so
the children spent a few days learning in a park until they
were finally relocated to a vacant building in Bnei Brak that
didn't have, among other things, running water or electricity.
But this too was overcome.
The names of cities and their particular stories of miracles
and wonders keep spooling out of the mouths of dozens of
pumped up, excited, psyched-up Lev L'Achim enrollment workers.
Tel Aviv, Hertzliya, Ramat Hasharon, Kiryat Gat. It's
impossible to digest what they are saying. It's too big, too
No, those worried secular school system officials don't know
the half of it. If they would, they'd throw in the towel right