Ephraim Paktor blends in well with the tide of humanity
bustling down the streets of Bnei Brak. He's dressed like
your typical kollel scholar, wearing a black hat and
jacket despite the intense heat and humidity that envelops
the city like a great clammy hand. But beneath his mild-
mannered exterior lies a restless and dynamic individual
yearning to spread Yiddishkeit among as many secular Israelis
as he can. The man does not talk in terms of merely fomenting
change, but of igniting revolutions.
Yet Paktor was not always this assertive. Years ago, when he
first began working with Lev L'Achim, he felt himself impaled
on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand he had a strong
desire to continue learning Torah full-time; on the other, he
felt a personal responsibility towards the hundreds of
thousands of secular Israelis who can be reached and brought
back into the fold.
Faced with this dilemma, Paktor turned to his rav for
guidance and received an unequivocal answer -- every member
of the Torah community in Eretz Yisroel has an obligation to
set aside time and participate in Lev L'Achim's outreach
activities. And that is exactly what he did.
Today Paktor supervises Lev L'Achim's activities in the Tel
Aviv area and, judging by the results of his division, his
revolutionary aspirations are well on their way to being
The Tel Aviv area consists of a densely populated strip of
land where most of the country's citizens live and work.
Neighboring cities such as Rishon Letzion, Cholon and Bat
Yam, which were once separate entities, are now annexes of
that sprawling metropolis that Israelis refer to as Gush Dan.
The region is one huge, contiguous slab of concrete, dotted
with rows and rows of low-rise apartment buildings. It's a
smoggy, dirty, lively section of industrialized Israel where
the poor live in abject poverty and the rich hide in their
sealed-off colonies in luxurious comfort. And it's also Lev
L'Achim's biggest success story.
This is where Paktor spends his days -- as well as his long
nights -- coordinating the activities of 53 full-time
enrollment workers, 450 volunteers participating in the Door-
to-Door program, 87 female outreach volunteers, and 48 staff
members who run evening adult programs held in five different
cities. For now, his main concern is meeting the school
enrollment quota imposed on him by Lev L'Achim's planners --
at least 2,000 children need to be enrolled in Torah schools
in the Tel Aviv area.
Realistically speaking, Paktor's outrageous workload means
that on the average, he leaves home at 8:00 a.m. and comes
back somewhere around midnight. This is the way things have
been ever since 1998 when Lev L'Achim initiated its school
enrollment program, which aims to bring tens of thousands of
secular children into the Torah school system. Over the last
two campaigns over 10,000 children were enrolled; this year,
Lev L'Achim hopes to enroll several thousand more.
"In the last month we've received over a thousand telephone
calls from people wanting to find out more about religious
schooling," he says, rifling through the stacks of computer
printouts piled on his desk.
"These are not just pieces of paper," he adds. "These are
neshomos waiting to come back to the Ribono shel
Secular parents hear about the enrollment program through
various means: radio talk shows on the religious channels,
flyers, newspaper advertisements, and a wide variety of
outreach activities conducted by Lev L'Achim workers and
volunteers. Parents call the organization's toll-free number
to receive additional information about the program, and
shortly afterward a representative from Lev L'Achim shows up
at their door to begin the enrollment process.
The impact of Lev L'Achim's enrollment drives is being felt
throughout the Tel Aviv area.
In Rishon Letzion, two back-to-back enrollment campaigns have
resulted in every religious school in the city being filled
The Hamesilah School for Girls was opened in 1997 to
accommodate 40 students. In 1998, due to Lev L'Achim's
enrollment campaign, the student population doubled; in
September 1999 it reached 152. Mrs. Yehudit Yifrach, the
school's principal, describes how it happened:
"Two years ago Lev L'Achim started bringing us dozens of new
students a week. We soon ran out of room. To create classroom
space for additional children, we obtained two prefab
structures and plunked them down -- with the municipality's
consent -- on a plot of land appropriated from the adjacent
public school, whose student body has dwindled to
Last year Mrs. Yifrach performed the same trick, but with a
"We obtained another prefab structure," she says, "but the
problem is that we didn't have any place to put it. Finally
we decided to put it on the roof of the school building." The
idea worked, she says, though from an architectural
viewpoint, the school's facade is what one might call highly
unusual, with the ends of the long prefab structure jutting
out over the sides of the school like some sort of monstrous
hammer. Parents of new students, Mrs. Yifrach concedes, are
always wary of letting their kids step into what the students
refer to as the school's "executive lounge."
A boys' school in Rishon Letzion has undergone a similar
transformation, albeit somewhat more reluctantly. The school,
which for at least two decades has catered exclusively to the
city's chareidi community, is slowly becoming what it was
originally created to be -- an out-of-town school for out- of-
town kids. As a result the school's student body, which today
consists of 185 children, has increased by 40 percent in less
than two years. According to Paktor, if the school were
willing and able to accept them, up to 100 more children
could be enrolled there.
The school's administrators candidly admit that they would
never have accepted many of their new students had it not
been for Lev L'Achim's afternoon tutorial program, which
helps children from secular homes make up the gaps in their
religious education so they can pass the school's entrance
"You see this child?" asks the vice principal. "His father is
a professional soccer player. As a rule we don't accept
children from nonreligious homes. But Shraga Elfer [one of
Lev L'Achim's local enrollment workers] begged me to give him
a chance, telling me his parents are on the verge of becoming
"When I expressed my concern that he would not be able to
keep up in class, he said to me, `If he falls behind, I
myself will sit beside him in class and make sure he
"It's not the only time they've done this to me," the vice
principal says with a smile. "They simply refuse to take `no'
for an answer."
With the existing school reluctant to accept more children,
Keren Nesivos Moshe, which was established by the gedolei
Torah of Eretz Yisroel and America to create schools for
the children being enrolled by Lev L'Achim, is well aware of
the urgent need to establish a school for boys from secular
homes in Rishon Letzion and, as of last Thursday, its
representatives were scouring the city for a suitable school
"If the Keren can do it in time," Paktor says, "the sky is
the limit as far as enrollment is concerned in Rishon
Letzion. There are dozens of families whose girls are already
learning happily in Hamesilah and who would transfer their
boys to a religious school tomorrow if they had the
opportunity. We could certainly fill up grades 1-3 with at
least 20 children in each class."
The bottleneck caused by the lack of religious schools for
boys is particularly sad when one considers the accelerated
level of religious activity in Rishon Letzion. The children
from secular homes who began attending religious school in
1998 and 1999 are already beginning to have an effect on
their parents, and today their homes are not as secular as
they once were. The fact that Lev L'Achim now runs a well-
attended evening learning program for adults is a good
indicator of the city's gradual transformation. But the boys
have nowhere else to go to school, so they continue in public
The city of Cholon is undergoing a similar transformation,
and although classroom space in religious schools is equally
tight there, the attitude of local educators is different.
Rabbi Yosef Aharon, principal of Bnei Tzion Boys' School,
says that even though in his school students from religious
and nonreligious homes sit side by side, the sky hasn't
"When Lev L'Achim started bringing us waves of new students
two years ago," Rabbi Aharon recalls, "I held a meeting with
the school's chareidi parents and I explained to them the
situation -- that we have an opportunity to participate in a
historic process whereby hundreds of nonreligious children
can be brought under the wings of the Shechina.
"Some parents said they were concerned that the new students
would have a negative effect on their children, so we took
the question to a godol. He told us that when you are
on a boat and you see someone drowning, you don't let him die
out of fear that you'll get your clothes wet while pulling
"I can honestly say," says Rabbi Aharon, "that not only have
the new students not lowered the school's prestige, but
they've also actually made it a better place to learn in.
Avshalom Sarig [Lev L'Achim's local enrollment worker] is
doing wonders with the families of the new students, and many
of our chareidi parents have opened their homes to the less
religious parents and are helping them along. It's a
tremendous kiddush Hashem."
As we continue on our way to our next destination, Paktor
suddenly stops and says, "I want you to convey to our fellow
Jews around the world the following message."
He pauses for a moment to compose the words in his mind, and
then he begins speaking at lightning speed:
"If we had the means at our disposal -- more enrollment
workers, more radio time, more volunteers, more buildings,
more schools -- we could turn this country around in a matter
"Is that all you'd like to say?" I ask him.
He thinks about it for a moment, and then he nods.
"Yes," he says. "That's all."