Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

9 Nissan 5764 - March 31, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Learning Jewish Values through Arachim

by Arachim Staff

A Jew who was very far from Torah, suddenly finds himself wanting to know more about his own religion. It could be something that someone says or does, or maybe something in the news. Sometimes a shock or trauma is involved, but in many cases there is no apparent explanation at all.

Arachim is a source of information, inspiration and guidance for such people. At Arachim Seminars, budding curiosity blossoms into an unquenchable thirst for deeper understanding. A closer union with our priceless heritage is finally forged. The small glowing ember is fanned and the heart fills with warmth, until the Jewish soul flames forth with love for its Creator.

All sorts of stories can be told of Jews who miraculously find their way "back home." Each tale is different; Jews from all walks of life return to Judaism, each following his own unique path. Over the years, we have collected many such true stories: about athletes, movie stars, doctors, karate experts, university professors and others. In each case, the spark that caused their return is described, and the Hand of Heaven is clearly revealed.

About Arachim

The individuals mentioned here followed their own route to Har Sinai; but for them all, the Arachim Seminar was a major turning point. Readers might come away with the impression that Arachim is only its Seminars. The truth is quite the opposite, for Arachim's programs are many and diversified, not only in Israel, but also around the world. Even the Seminar takes various forms, as we adapt it for different audiences, whether single men or single women, or couples and their families.

Other variations of the Seminar cater to specialty groups. Many secular Jews attempt to fill the vacuum in their lives with myriad hobbies and pastimes. They seek something new and fresh in life, to satisfy their souls. They delve into hobbies and fads, often alternative medicine, health food and natural diets. Our fellow Jews are searching and cannot put their finger on what they want.

Why not harness the great thirst for knowledge and channel it towards what is ultimately important and meaningful?

Arachim reaches out to them all. If someone cannot get enough of nature, we tell him about the monthly blessing on the new moon, to show him that Judaism is in tune with nature. We add that our nation is like the moon, which appears to vanish but always comes back. How many times in the course of history did it look as if our tiny nation was about to disappear? We have Hashem's promise, though, that the Jewish nation will always be here! Show a Jew that he, too, is like the moon, and he can "come back and shine again" no matter where he was in the past! We thus use nature to teach a principle of our faith.

We even went to the Himalayan Mountains and held a Seminar for hundreds of young Jewish "drop-outs" who spend their days on drugs, listening to oriental music and sitting with gurus. With Hashem's help, we were able to rescue many of them.

By holding special interest Seminars, Arachim reaches countless lost, seeking souls. One recent Seminar was entitled, "Health and the Creation." Amongst other topics, we discussed alternative medicine and ancient remedies mentioned in the Talmud.

Such unique programs are carefully designed for special audiences. To complement the Arachim staff, we invite experts in the featured field who are graduates of our other programs. Now religious, they come from a wide gamut of backgrounds and have much in common with the audience, and constitute living proof that all the varied interests of modern Jews can find a place in Judaism.

For four enjoyable days, in comfortable hotel settings away from the distractions of everyday life, participants in our Seminar retreats are free to think over the fascinating material that we present to them. They also experience a real Shabbos, with singing and divrei Torah. Not only are their intellects stimulated, their hearts are touched as well. Our concerned professional staff meets people around the clock, speaking on a personal basis with anyone who wants to converse, to ask questions, or to pour out his heart. Especially during Shabbos, life's spiritual dimension becomes wonderfully real, sometimes for the first time in the secular Jew's life.

Seminars are held on four continents in six languages. Through its Seminars, Arachim has lit sparks that are now full fledged fires, shedding the light of Torah where once there was darkness. We receive letters and phone-calls from Jews even in localities we have never visited. They seek our advice, for they want to bring the Word of Hashem to alienated brethren in their area. Often we send staff members to far-off places to set up the necessary programs.

Over sixty percent of the people who attend our Seminars undertake mitzvah observance. Accordingly, we have continuous, intensive follow-up programs for Seminar "graduates." An individual or a family who embrace Torah, face a difficult test when the Seminar ends and they return to their familiar environment. They now appear in public with head coverings and tzitzis. They now keep Shabbos. How will they face critical or unsympathetic reactions of relatives, friends and co-workers?

Well aware of the potential pitfalls, Arachim wastes no time in initiating follow-up support. In addition to visits to our graduates in their homes, we have a full schedule of classes and shiurim, for men and women separately, and arrange learning partners for the men.

For a family to return to Torah Judaism successfully, it is essential to provide for the security and happiness of the children. Our follow-up staff helps place youngsters in appropriate religious schools and then monitors their adjustment. Special Arachim tutors help the children catch up. Our Youth Division sponsors group activities such as field trips and holiday gatherings. No effort is spared to make the children feel as comfortable with their new lifestyle as do their parents.

Follow-up efforts continue for a least a year. While less dramatic than the Seminar, this aspect of our work is no less essential, and requires an even greater budget. Each Arachim success story is the result of far more effort and much more thought than can be described and documented even in a book, let alone in a mere magazine. We pray for continued help from Above in our efforts to strengthen Torah and the Jewish nation. When Moshiach comes -- may it be speedily in our days -- may Am Yisroel greet him as one, united under the banner of Torah.

Changing the Gears of the Spirit

It is easy to be fooled by Francois Wasservogel's casual dress and unassuming manner. Here is a man who served as Corporate Director of Renault's Product Planning Division back in the 70s, and as Vice President of Usinor Sacilor's Automotive Division in the 80s. For those of us who don't happen to know the steel business, the Paris-based Usinor Sacilor Corporation is one of the world's largest steel companies, employing 66,000 people worldwide.

Since becoming observant and moving to Israel a few years ago, Francois Wasservogel has not changed professional gears too drastically. He is still very much involved in industry. As a special advisor to the president of a major Israeli bank's investment subsidiary, he assists European companies in establishing themselves in Israel by finding local partners for joint ventures.

However, it wasn't professional achievements that Dr. Wasservogel wished to discuss during his interview at Arachim's international headquarters in Bnei Brak. Rather, it was his own odyssey, and the Hand of Providence which he and his wife saw over and over again.

Wasservogel was born in Auschwitz. Not the concentration camp itself--he is quick to clarify--but the prison next door. Long before he sounded his first cry, the Nazis had murdered his father, a mathematician and pianist, when he resisted arrest. His mother was shipped off to the Auschwitz prison camp, where she gave birth to Francois. An attorney who spoke perfect Polish, she managed to foil her captors' efforts to identify her as a Jew.

Following the Liberation, the young widow set out with her baby for South America. A stopover in Paris gave rise to second thoughts. She decided to stay in France and try to rebuild her life in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. A kindly Jewish intellectual from Berlin came into her life, and the two refugees decided to try to rebuild their lives together. The second husband, Wasservogel, treated the young Francois as his own son in every way.

The household the new couple built together was identifiably Jewish -- complete with gefilte fish and the accouterments of Passover. But earnest mitzvah observance and an appreciation of Hashem as the Giver of Torah were lacking. That was to come to Francois Wasservogel long after leaving his parents' home, after accumulating not one, but two doctorates, writing a book on the appropriate role of the car in modern life (L'auto Immobile), and carving out a notable career for himself in French industry.

Why Change Gears?

While Wasservogel's wife Batya had begun taking an active interest in Jewish practice already in the 80s, his own movement towards Torah Judaism began more recently, thanks to his daughter Sophie. A college friend of Sophie's suggested that she might enjoy a talk given by R' Eli Lemel, the Coordinator of Arachim's Paris center.

Did she enjoy herself? Suffice it to say that Sophie's dialogue with the speaker after the presentation stretched late into the night, so late that the venue had to be moved to the Lemel's home. Here, Sophie also had an opportunity to hear Mrs. Lemel's perspective.

For this "liberated" young French intellectual, the evening was an eye-opener. She had never encountered such eloquent spokespeople for Jewish Tradition. The next day she shared her find with her parents.

Although Sophie herself let her enthusiasm for Torah wane, aliyah to Israel not withstanding, Francois and his wife made the Arachim connection, and became more and more interested. For about a year, they attended weekly classes at Arachim's center, developed relationships with a number of staff members, and discovered that authentic Judaism consists of infinitely more than gefilte fish.

The Wasservogels did not rush to attend an Arachim "Case-for- Torah" Seminar, and even turned down a friendly invitation or two. But when they felt the time had come, they indeed registered. Dr. Wasservogel sums up their experience this way: "Seminar participants can be divided into three categories: those who are convinced, those who are not convinced, and those who cry. I was in this third category."

A surprising reaction! Despite their intellectual and academic credentials, the Wasservogels found that their awareness of G-d's Presence and His bond with us did not need a barrage of evidence and argumentation. Rather, it required a specific environment that allowed it to emerge from the recesses of the soul and express itself. They actually attended several Arachim Seminars, growing closer and closer to G-d and Torah with each one.

Dr. Wasservogel invokes the symbol of Jacob's Ladder, sulam Yaakov, to explain his new perspective:

"Previously, I related to G-d much in the way a person relates to his parents: They gave me my start, the wherewithal; now let me climb on my own. In other words, G-d was at the bottom of the ladder which led to wealth, fame, and prestige."

"Afterwards, I began to appreciate that I should turn this ladder upside down, so that I use my education and material resources to climb up to the Creator."

Genuine Aliyah

When the Wasservogels made aliyah to Israel a few years ago, they took with them a growing commitment to spiritual growth. That commitment has expressed itself in any number of ways -- even in Dr. Wasservogel's exit from a meeting of VIPs at his bank when the discussion began to contain loshon hora. (The problem has not returned to the meeting room, due to his polite but firm explanation.) Among the fruits of the family's aliyah has been increased Torah study. Their eight-year-old son, David, is enrolled in the local Chinuch Atzmai religious school.

Israel also provided their daughter Sophie a second opportunity to "come on board." Her original excitement about discovering Torah was rekindled by Arachim lecturer Rav Moshe Bolak, a French talmid chochom who has been living in Israel for many years. Rav Bolak travels back to his native France periodically to speak at Arachim Seminars, but Sophie didn't have to board a plane to hear him speak. The Bolaks invited Sophie to spend a Shabbos with them. Eventually she enrolled in the Nevei Yerushalayim Seminary.

The oldest of the Wasservogel children, an attorney, was the last to join the family in their odyssey of return. Who knows? Perhaps Sophie's weekly summaries of her studies were the catalyst--faxed to him hot off the pen from Jerusalem to Paris.

Thanks to the Wasservogel's "change of gears," they no longer remain at ground level, circling around the same spot again and again.

Now they are moving higher and higher, from rung to rung, on one ladder that leads upward to the House of Hashem.

His First Solo Flight

One thing Avraham Arbel recalls about his birthplace, Zichron Yaakov, is his grandfather going to shul every Friday night, and how he would come home and make Kiddush on wine. When the senior Arbel passed away, Avraham lost his connection to Jewish tradition.

He was still young when the family moved to Nazareth, where his father sold real estate. Avraham became an outstanding student, but most of his energy he devoted to the hobby at which he excelled, karate. For nine years, from age ten to eighteen, he was a national champion. At twenty-two, Avraham had earned a black belt and was teaching youngsters. A few times a year, he would travel with other Israeli karate champions to take part in competitions abroad.

By age twenty-four he had seen much of Thailand and was familiar with the city of Singapore. In university he was head of the Student Union and spokesman for the Right. This was understandable, for his father was the head of the Likud Party in Nazareth, and was very active in many of his party's affairs. Knesset members and party officials often came to their house, and young Avraham shared his father's deep interest in social, political and national affairs. In short, he led a full, active life.

In the army, too, fortune smiled on Avraham. He entered flight school intending to become a helicopter pilot. During his training, an instructor was scheduled to give a pep talk to motivate the class. Presumably, the goal was to impress the men with the great need for skilled pilots in Israel, where the threat of war is ever present. Avraham wasn't looking forward to it; he already knew full well why he enlisted -- to protect his nation, his home and family from the hostile Arabs nations who surround tiny Israel and seek her destruction.

As it was, the instructor's theme turned out to be entirely different. "Pride is man's greatest motivation. To gain the admiration of his colleagues, a person will do almost anything, even at the risk of his life. If you realize how much you will be respected as a skilled pilot, you will do well in this course. Difficult tests and exams await you, and if you fail them, you will be embarrassed; so seek perfection, learn well and avoid even the slightest mistake."

Avraham was astounded that his classmates accepted the instructor's words. No one remarked that this officer, who was supposed to inspire them, didn't even mention patriotism, love of one's homeland, or realization of the Zionist dream. When Avraham mentioned these points the others, one of his comrades jeered at him. "Come off it! Stop the flag waving. Give me a one-way airplane ticket out of here and you'll never see me again!"

Avraham was dumbfounded. Then another classmate interjected, "Don't you understand? We're just at a way-station here. My grandfather wasn't born in this country, and my grandson won't be born here either. Look around you! The aircraft are manufactured abroad; the training programs for flying these machines and keeping them maintained are from abroad, too. The instruction manuals are in a foreign tongue, and so are the films they show us. What can this country give you, anyway? Why should you give up your life for it?"

At the time, the Right and the Left were in bitter conflict. The army sided with the Left. The new popular policy for dealing with the Arabs was to appease them by giving them land, aid and autonomy. Maybe there would be peace if the Jews would concede to practically every demand the Arabs made. In fact, Avraham's army mates didn't think that the term "concession" was accurate; a person can concede only what is rightfully his. When a thief returns stolen goods, he's not making a concession.

The Leftists had so cuddled up to the Arabs, that they saw the Jews of the Zionist era as thieves who had stolen territory from them! Therefore, to award the Arabs large tracts of land and smile upon them in other ways was not a "concession" at all. On the contrary, it was proper and just, for Israel had wronged these people.

Avraham strongly disagreed, saying that the Jewish People have historical rights to the Land of Israel. His words fell on deaf ears. In the army, he was not simply in the minority. He was almost alone in his views.

His comrades jeered at him. "What? Who rightfully owns America? The Apache Indians?"

He would counter, "But if you read the Tanach, you see how closely our peoples' history is tied to this land. Ben Gurion used to say that the Tanach is the Jewish People's deed to Israel."

They had an answer, though, "You think the Arabs care about Tanach? Our Tanach obligates the Arabs?"

Avraham would shoot back, his eyes aglow, "Exactly! Who cares what the Arabs think? The Tanach is my deed, my justification for being here!"

But his opponents always had a winning card to play: "You base yourself on the Tanach? But aren't there other things written there, like someone who desecrates the Shabbos deserves the death penalty? I guess those words, too, are only for the Arabs!"

Avraham had no answer. He understood their point. If the Tanach is simply a history book, as students are taught in Israel's secular school systems, then what kind of deed is it? What authority can it carry for someone who accepts only selected sections of its text?

The Leftists in the army compared him to someone who writes up a fake deed to his neighbor's house and goes to court with it.

Still, Avraham intuitively felt that his claims were justified, even though he had no reply to this argument.

One day, a good friend, an engineer for Hercules Aircraft, suddenly showed up on the base wearing a kipah. Everyone was surprised; Avraham was very pleased. "If he has become religious," he thought to himself, "then he can't back the Left."

To Avraham's great satisfaction, the engineer, Nissim Chazan, confirmed the point. "I can't save the day for you, though," he said to Avraham. "For me, the Tanach really is a valid deed to the Land, because I can say that its Source is G-d. You, though, as a secular Jew, deny that, so how can you have your cake and eat it, too?"

"What convinced you that the Tanach is Divine?" Avraham asked.

"I attended an Arachim Seminar," answered Nissim.

Avraham made inquiries and learned that another Seminar was about to begin -- in Netanya. He was there for the opening ceremonies, as an unregistered observer. He remained at the Seminar for the entire day, listening carefully and absorbing everything. He did the same the second day, and then registered for the rest of the program. That Shabbos, he went home to be by himself and mull over what he had heard. After thinking and rethinking, he concluded that the Torah was true. Now he, too, donned a kipah. The next day, when he came to the base, he was also wearing tzitzis.

When his commanding officer saw his tzitzis, he called him over and asked, "What are those?"

"This is how a religious soldier dresses," answered Avraham. The officer turned on a speakerphone and dialed so Avraham could hear what the person on the other end would say.

"Hello, I am calling to ask if a religious soldier is allowed to wear tzitzis over his trousers," said Avraham's superior. The voice answered, "One minute, we have a religious soldier here in the office. I'm transferring your call to him."

When the fellow got on the line, the officer repeated his question, and the answer was, "It is not permitted; it is obligatory!" Avraham smiled broadly, and the officer shrugged his shoulders.

Avraham recalls, "What strengthened me most and kept me going were the Arachim classes given in the evenings."

Arachim sent him pamphlets about topics, times and places of shiurim, and he attended regularly, particularly in Bnei Brak, Kfar Saba and Petach Tikva, where he lived.

When released from the army, Arachim suggested he consult with a godol beTorah about plans for the future. "Are you able to learn a daf of gemora?" he was asked.

"Not yet." He was told to devote half of his day to Torah learning and the other half to learning a profession. "When you are able to learn a daf of gemora, come back and we'll talk again."

Avraham did. Not very long afterwards he was offered a shidduch. The girl in question was raised in a traditional home, but now wanted a ben Torah. She had gone to the Kosel and prayed for forty consecutive days to find such a husband.

They met, and Avraham discovered that her fortieth day at the Kosel was the day he showed up for the opening ceremony of the Arachim Seminar. He consulted the same godol beTorah, told him the story and added; "Now I can learn a daf of gemora. I would like to learn, and she wants a Torah home."

Came the reply, "If so, there is nothing standing in the way. Behatzlacha!"

He went looking for a kollel. Time after time they turned him down, for he truthfully admitted that he had never learned in yeshiva and was just beginning. Finally, one Rosh Kollel said to him, "In Chulin daf 108 the sugya speaks about a drop of milk that falls into meat. In Shulchan Oruch, Yoreh Deah Siman 92 you have the halachos derived from the sugya. Go up to the beis medrash, learn the sugya and the halachos, and come back when you feel you are ready to be tested."

This was his first real test. As Avraham puts it, "It was my first solo flight."

For two days, he delved into the sugya, thought, and rethought. Then he reviewed the material. On the third day, he appeared before the Rosh Kollel, spoke it all out, answered questions, and was warmly accepted into the kollel.

Avrohom's first solo flight into the skies of Torah was just the first of many sweet successes to come.


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