Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Tishrei 5765 - October 13, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Home and Family

A Different Journey
Portrait of a typical Israeli Baal Tshuva -- An interview with R' Eliyahu Kaufman

Today's head of the "Ohel Sarah' Kehilla in Bucharest, Romania

Part I

"I dedicate the story of my life to all my friends out there who haven't been fortunate enough to escape the jaws of secularism. Those of us who were saved have to take up the banner to fight the horrible side effects of secular Zionism."

When I heard this introduction, I remembered a piece I had come across years ago. It had been written by a new baal tshuva who was still busy settling his accounts with the friends he had abandoned for a Torah life.

And here are a few lines of what he wrote:

"We dreamed... fostered illusions. We saw the world. We had an opinion about everything. We criticized governments; we knew better than everyone else what had to be done. We made money, went into business and were the brilliant men of high tech. We toppled parties, heads of government. We were a rare breed. We reached the ends of the earth, and there, at the end of the path, at the end of the road, we were left suddenly very weary. We wanted life, pleasure, depth, power. We were left alone. We were deluded, humiliated. Squeezed dry of our small talk and that of others; empty from a wildness of our senses and our dreams. Distant from our souls, we were looking for another journey."

I rememberd this when I spoke with R' Eliyohu Kaufman. During our entire conversation, he held to account all those who led him astray in his secular past: people from the establishment, state leaders, the state to whose borders he was called to give his life. Now his eyes have been opened to the truth, while the State has continued with equanimity to pursue its perverse ways.

This is the country that tried to cut him off from his Jewish roots; whose leaders run after materialism in the guise of worrying about its masses. They continue to mislead and they trap in their web of deceit young innocents who are tempted to buy into hollow ideologies. He, at least, got away in time and with Divine Providence, understood the Big Lie.

In the Extreme Left Wing Youth Group

Eliyohu has been on a long journey since he decided to explore his Judaism. He didn't return through a Kiruv organization but took a more independent path. In the short time that he's been active in Bucharest and Vaviassi, two cities in Rumania, he has succeeded, according to him, in restoring dozens of Jews to their Father in Heaven.

Eliyahu Kaufman was born in the Ramat Eliyahu section of Rishon leZion in a home whose ties to religion were very weak. In any case, in contrast to other youth in the area, his family was considered more traditional by virtue of his mothers' Shabbos candles and her fluency in Yiddish. During his high school years in Ramle, Eliyahu was chosen as chairman of the national council of high school students. This was after the Yom Kippur War when extreme left wing youth groups sprouted one after the other. "The left wingers weren't self acclaimed anti-religious," says Eliyahu. "The only one among them who displayed animosity towards religion was Shulamit Aloni."

In high school, he belonged to a youth group that defined itself as socialist- Zionist. Even then, he knew people who would later become famous, like Ran Cohen, today a Meretz MK, and Udi Aloni, son of Shulamit Aloni.

Besides Eliyahu, there were eight other boys from Rishon leZion who came from established anti-religious families. Years later, all eight became full fledged Torah-observant Jews.

Most of the activities and conferences of the Students' Council took place in Tel Aviv, so that as a matter of course, the affluent Tel Aviv representatives, graduates of the elite Herzliya Gymnasium (high school) and the like, were always in the know and acted like they owned the place.

Eliyahu was aware of this. He had to crowd into stifling buses from Ramat Eliyahu to Tel Aviv. So, understandably, he preferred to forge relationships with the less privileged right wing children from the disadvantaged southern towns, and with Arabs.

The Arab knew how to evaluate logically

In the 1980's, he started to become affected by the discrimination against Sefardic Jews. For some reason, this issue connected in his mind with the humiliation which Arabs suffered. Although he defined himself as Zionistic, he began to understand that something was rotten. He didn't stop to analyze the issue thoroughly because "It's not the nature of a secularist to probe philosophical subtleties," he explains. "But my mind kept sending me signals," he adds with a smile.

Today he can point to the incident that guided him to the recognition of the vanity in the Zionist ideology. "The truth is, that in the path I am following today, I am actualizing the same points of view that I had then, but from the other side of the fence."

He was so far removed from religion in the 1980's that he didn't even have an idea what a chareidi was. The only kippot he ever ran into were knitted ones. But he does remember Rechov Achad Ha'am where Belzer chassidim lived. The high school students would make cynical remarks and even sneering grimaces at the chassidim. Eliyahu would feel his heart cringe at their mockery, feeling himself violated.

"In time," he relates, "my eight friends from Rishon, who also became baalei tshuva, admitted that they had also felt uncomfortable with the antics of the Tel Avivians who were following the popular trend of chareidi-bashing or besmirching the "blacks".

Eliyahu was more extreme than his friends. He excelled in dialogues with Arabs. His good friend was the chairman of the Arab Students' Council. One Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach, Odi came to visit the Moked youth group branch in Tel Aviv. In those days, Pesach was properly kept in public and even those who opened their stores on Shabbos Pesach sold only matza. Eliyahu will never forgot how on Motzaei Shabbos, one of the group ate a pita in the middle of the street without anyone saying anything to her. Suddenly, Odi B'Saareth's voice was heard criticizing the perverse behavior. It was he, as a Christian Arab, who asked her, "What connection does your behavior have with your political opinions? What statement are you trying to make? You're after all, only a political party."

Eliyahu sighed. "The Arab knew how to make a logical analysis -- something which is difficult for a Jew to do. We just stood there quietly. Even today, a leftist doesn't know how to differentiate between his political opinions and his hatred of religion and the religious. This is the generation that then filled the high school benches. This is the same generation that grew to lead the State. And what's worse, some of these same people have turned into ideological leaders, pacesetters whose voices are heard over and over again in the media."

[continued next week]


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