Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

2 Tammuz 5760 - July 5, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Lev L'Achim's Tel Aviv Outreach Efforts Meet With Unparalleled Success

By Moshe Schapiro

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 realized.

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 Olom."

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 to capacity.

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 nothing."

Last year Mrs. Yifrach performed the same trick, but with a new twist.

"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 exams.

"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 religious.

"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 understands.'

"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 facility.

"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 school.

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 fallen in.

"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 him out.

"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 of years."

"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."

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