Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Elul 5763 - September 4, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








From HaShomer HaTza'ir to Degel HaTorah

by Betzalel Kahn

This interview was conducted some time ago, but it is especially appropriate now in Elul. When we are all thinking about personal teshuvoh it is inspiring to read about the story of someone who came from an anti-religious background who made a radical change in his own life to Torah.

When we see how someone changed his entire life, we are inspired to change ourselves. There are numerous interesting stories of baalei teshuva who are famous because of their past. This story, however, is not about a baal teshuva who was once famous nor does it contain any "thunder and lightning." This story underlines the strength and courage of a man, the grandson of a prominent anti- religious Zionist, who has made a complete change from the extreme left to authentic Judaism. Now he is an avreich who sits and learns Torah day and night, who is constantly learning and growing. In addition to being an avreich kollel, the subject is also a community activist.

Rabbi Eliezer Greenbaum is the Degel HaTorah city council representative of Beit Shemesh. Many years ago, as a youth, he set policies according to HaShomer HaTza'ir ideology, a movement the farthest away from anything holy. Today he has a completely different mindset.

The story of Rabbi Greenbaum, or Eli to his friends, does not end with the fact that he was once in HaShomer HaTza'ir, was chozer beteshuva by himself at a young age, went to yeshiva and became who he is today. His grandfather, Yitzhak Greenbaum, was one of the senior leaders of the State of Israel fifty years ago, and was connected with the Zionist Vaad Hatzoloh during the Holocaust. Recent research claims that not only did this "Vaad Hatzoloh" not help Orthodox Jews escape from Poland to Israel, it tried to make sure they stayed there.

The Minority Party in Poland

Yitzhak Greenbaum was one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Poland, a movement that caused untold suffering to Polish Jewry. That large movement unified thousands of secular Zionist Jews. Greenbaum also served as member of the Polish Parliament (Siam) for many years, representing the Zionist movement. (There were always representatives of Agudas Yisroel as well.)

A few years before World War I broke out, Greenbaum almost became the head of the Polish government. He had established a Minority Party which unified almost all the minorities in the country, including Jews, and thereby had gained the trust of a third of Poland. The other two- thirds were divided between the extreme right and the extreme left. The Minority Party won the most votes, and Greenbaum could have formed a coalition with the right or the left. Not willing to allow a Jew to rise to power, the two extreme opposites--the right and left--formed a political alliance and prevented Greenbaum from becoming the head of the Polish government.

A few years later, right before the elections, Greenbaum and the chareidi Jews of Poland waged a sharp, difficult ideological battle. Nevertheless, chareidi Jews who lived in Poland at the time said that any Jew who needed help could turn to Greenbaum at all hours of the day and night, even a chareidi.

Despite this fact, the battle between Greenbaum and Orthodox Jewry in Poland over ideological issues was very sharp, and it showed Greenbaum as a man who fought against Orthodoxy. However, when the Orthodox Jews fought for the right to do shechita, Greenbaum helped them greatly.

Not long after the Holocaust began, Greenbaum came to Israel with impressive credentials. He had served as head of the General Zionist Movement in Poland, a very influential party. He was one of the heads of the Israeli Vaad Hatzoloh, which was controlled entirely by the Zionist Movement. This Vaad Hatzoloh absorbed sharp criticism over the years for not having helped European Jews come to Israel, mainly because they were largely Orthodox.

The Presidential Candidate Who Lost

When the State of Israel was established the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, sensed that Greenbaum could threaten his political control. He therefore did not allow him to become too prominent and appointed him as the first Minister of Interior of the State of Israel. Greenbaum subsequently ran for President, lost, and continued in his political position.

Greenbaum's approach to Yiddishkeit was extremely heretical. He fought against the chareidi establishment in Israel and even became an extreme left-winger. His reputation in the chareidi world was very negative. He lived in Kibbutz Gan Shmuel where he served as the "educator" of the National Kibbutz. Two of his most famous students are MK Ran Cohen of Meretz and the spy Odi Adiv.

Yitzhak Greenbaum's son Yonatan, Rabbi Eliezer Greenbaum's father, was active in Sheli, a former Communist political party. He had been a Communist and, together with Moshe Sneh (father of Labor MK Efraim Sneh), was active in Rokach, another formerly active party that was more extreme Communist. The two split away from Rokach to the (relatively) more moderate Sheli after they had a fight with other high- ranking members over who is the "sun of the nations" (Stalin).

This was the house into which Rabbi Greenbaum, then Eli Greenbaum, was born. It was a bona fide secular home in north Tel Aviv, a home that did not take note of Yom Kippur and did not celebrate a bar mitzvah for their sons. They actually did have mezuzas on their doors, but for another reason. "We had rented the apartment to a religious family, and we never bothered taking the mezuzas down," Rabbi Greenbaum related. "They asked me if I wanted to celebrate my bar mitzvah and I said no! I was not accepting the ol mitzvos, so why should I celebrate something that I don't relate to?"

"An Israeli and a Citizen of the World"

Did you consider yourself a Jew then? If so, what kind of Jew?

"I considered myself a citizen of the world and an Israeli, because I loved the land and felt at home in it. I grew up here, but I did not feel Jewish. We had `Zionist Seminars' in school. We were asked the question `Are you Jewish, Israeli or Zionist?' The answers were not surprising. One boy said that he is Jewish, the madrichah said that she is Zionist and the rest of us said that they're Israeli."

At first, until ninth grade, he was one of the most non- religious characters in his class. And this was in north Tel Aviv, a famously secular neighborhood.

Did you hate religious Jews?

"I didn't hate them. I viewed them like some strange African tribe, which I don't understand and which has no logic. From an anthropological point of view, it may have been very interesting to study them."

Greenbaum was a member of the HaShomer HaTza'ir movement. One interesting story from this period indicates how the youth decided everything. The general council of Shomer HaTza'ir convened. Greenbaum was the representative of his local branch. The National Kibbutz (Kibbutz Artzi -- the settlement movement of HaShomer HaTza'ir) had a rule that they did not establish just one kibbutz. They always established two kibbutzim at a time, next to each other. Kibbutz Geshor was established in the Golan and it did not have a twin. Some people proposed establishing Kibbutz Nator for the aforementioned reason. A debate erupted as others claimed that since the kibbutz was already established, and it was itself now considered a mistake in principle since it was on land conquered from the Syrians, they should not establish another kibbutz.

The young Greenbaum took upon himself to prepare a defense brief in which he cited many considerations as to why it was necessary to establish a second kibbutz. In the end it was decided to establish the kibbutz, and Kibbutz Nator came into existence because of this brief.

(Some years after Greenbaum was chozer beteshuva, he toured the Golan. When he was standing near Kibbutz Nator waiting for a ride to the center of the country, someone driving a car came out of the kibbutz. He refused to give him a ride, saying that "he doesn't allow dosim [a derogatory nickname for chareidim] into his car.")

A Club for One

The spiritual upheaval in the life of a Tel Aviv youth, active member of HaShomer HaTza'ir, actually had its first beginnings at about the age of twelve. "The foundation began with a certain feeling which I later saw described in the beginning of Emunoh uBitochon of the Chazon Ish, when he explains the middoh of bitochon.

"The midda of emunoh is a fine inclination [that stems] from the refinement of the soul. If a man is a baal nefesh, and he has a quiet hour, free from hedonistic hunger; and his eyes are amazed by the sight of the height of the sky and the depth of the earth, then he is excited and amazed, because he views the world as an unsolved mystery, secret and wondrous. And this mystery wraps around his heart and brain; he is like one who faints and no life breath remains in him. His entire self and goal is the mystery; his soul thirsts to know its solution, and he would go through fire and water for it. Because what is life [worth] to him, if the hidden purpose of this pleasant life is concealed from him? And his soul is dizzy and mourning and yearning to understand its secret and to know its roots, and the gates are locked.

"This was the foundation. My natural inclination was to search for answers in the field of science, and I wanted to become a scientist. It never occurred to me to think about Judaism. That was the last thing I considered. The fields of science and philosophy interested me. I set myself a goal to work in the sciences. My parents were happy, of course," he related.

Greenbaum actually had a religious neighbor who lived across from him. The two used to conduct deep discussions through their windows and that's where everything really began. The neighbor introduced him to a friend of his, the son of the neighborhood rov, who tried to teach him in shul, which was not very successful. The rov's son also tried to make a club for Jewish studies in the neighborhood and asked Greenbaum, who was fourteen at the time, to help him. He asked him to sign up first for the club to show everyone that the club exists and someone was really going to come.

Greenbaum was in an uncomfortable position. On one hand, he felt bad saying no. On the other hand, should he commit himself? He didn't mind having debates, but to come to a regular shiur? That was not something to even consider back then. However, he felt bad saying no, so he signed.

The club did not materialize, because only one boy showed up. The founder of the club was not happy, and he decided to continue on and at least try to convince Greenbaum. And so, the rov's son succeeded in dragging the HaShomer HaTza'ir boy to the Na'ase Venishma center in central Tel Aviv. A very interesting group of men met there: HaRav Moshe Frank, Rav Moshe Grilak (later a founding editor of Yated Ne'eman and writer), Rav Menachem Grilak (who was the center's director at the time), Rav Yaakov Sheinfeld and others. The fourteen-year-old boy who came to the center held long discussions and many debates. The young Tel Aviv boy, who had never received a Jewish education, considered these men to be on a high intellectual level. "I mainly argued with them. It was an intellectual challenge for me, to fight with them," he related.

Revolution at Na'ase Venishma

For a year-and-a-half, Greenbaum came to Na'ase Venishma whenever he felt like it. He was a very young boy, and he considered it entertaining to debate anything under the sun. Slowly, slowly the words entered his heart, and he began to realize that the assumption he had been fed -- that "they, the chareidim, are like an African tribe" -- no longer carried weight.

In time, he came to the conclusion that this is serious business, that the chareidim's claims have a foundation -- even if it is not yet proven but it is a foundation. At this point, a search that lasted a number of years began. Along his journey, he began to keep mitzvos in cautious steps. In time, he came to the conclusion that after all is said and done, logic indicates that Judaism is true!

At first, Eli's parents didn't know anything. He began keeping a few mitzvos slowly, slowly in high school. When he was fifteen, something very exciting happened to him. In conjunction with various resolutions he took upon himself, the secular youth met with Maran HaRav Shach zt'l in his house in Bnei Brak. For an hour-and-a-half, the boy sat across from the rosh yeshiva of Ponevezh and conducted a philosophical debate with him. Maran zt'l, who discerned with his sharp eyes that the boy's soul thirsted to know more and more, devoted his precious time to guide him in the basics of Judaism and the greatness of gedolei hador. He showed him a Rambam and other seforim and held a lengthy discussion with him.

Greenbaum now says with a smile that because he was a chutzpadik boy from a secular background, he allowed himself to argue with HaRav Shach. Most of the discussion was about actual mitzvah observance, where he should start and the like.

At that time, the secret began to slowly leak out. One day his parents received a dramatic announcement from their child that he was going on a different path, a different way from what they were accustomed to, a path that was as far from theirs as east is from west. The worried parents tried to stop their son from being chozer beteshuva, "cholila."

Greenbaum's parents were not eager to allow him to take this step. His mother had him meet with prominent personages, "half the country," thinkers like Professor Asa Kasher and others, in an attempt to convince him to drop his idea. Among others, Greenbaum met with the head of the Secular Humanist Movement, who argued with him for an entire evening in his house, trying to convince him to change his mind. "During the debate, his wife began to help him and said something in his defense. And then, in a burst of anger, he said to his wife, `Quiet, fool.' I was shocked! This is the head of the Secular Humanist Movement, whose name is supposed to express love of mankind?

"As things progressed, after I had reached the conclusion that Judaism is true and had finished high school, I decided to go to a yeshiva. I wanted to enter this life style completely and to live the matters authentically through learning Torah," Greenbaum related.

A Strange Police Investigation

A number of interesting things happened to Greenbaum during that period. He entered Yeshivas Or Somayach in Yerushalayim for a few months. He entered yeshiva before having served in the army and, like any yeshiva bochur, especially those of a secular past, was summoned for an interview with the officer responsible for draft deferments for bnei yeshiva. He went to the meeting in Tel Aviv where the officer began to question him about when he entered yeshiva, why and many other such questions.

While in yeshiva, Greenbaum kept in contact with his parents, as he does to this day. During that period his mother told him about various people who called the house to ask about him, people with whom he had nothing to do before. There were strange questions from strange people. One morning, Greenbaum was sitting in the beis medrash of Or Somayach when he was told that he had a phone call. The man at the other end of the line was none other than the investigating officer of the national police unit. The officer summoned him for questioning the next day. "I went to Rav Moshe Frank and told him about the phone call, and we reached the conclusion that they are `working' on me," he related.

The next day he did not go to this strange meeting. At the appointed time he received a phone call from the same officer, who threatened that if he did not come immediately, he would send a paddy wagon to the yeshiva to take him by force. The young bochur was frightened. He quickly traveled to Tel Aviv and stood in the investigation room. Soon he sat, shocked, across from the police investigator, amazed at the quantity of lies they had concocted about him in a short time.

A secular organization called Conscience (Matzpun) was active at that time. They were "refuseniks" who refused to serve in the army because of political reasons -- extreme left wingers. The officer said to him at the investigation that they knew about the connection between the Conscience Movement and the chareidi yeshivos, through which the men of "conscience" get out of army service by registering in yeshiva. Apparently they were familiar with his background and suspected that he was a leftist who was hiding in yeshiva in order to escape army service.

Greenbaum did not know what they wanted from him and explained with utmost seriousness that he was sitting and learning in yeshiva and didn't have time for nonsense. It seems that the words of truth were apparent and the investigating officer softened. The officer told him that they had been following him for many months, and many facts came from the officer in the Ministry of Security in Tel Aviv who was responsible for draft deferments for yeshiva students.

Refusal of Senior Officer

However, the army did not leave him alone. Greenbaum was capable and talented and they didn't want to lose him. The army suggested that he enroll in the Talpiot project, a most exclusive project whose aim was to establish a scientific research in physics and mathematics for the Tzahal. On school recommendations, about 2000 boys came to be tested. After a difficult, twelve-hour test, two hundred boys remained. They went through another twelve- hour test, which left about sixty boys. These boys were personally interviewed by the most senior officers in the army and from them twenty-five to thirty boys were chosen for Talpiot.

The young Greenbaum passed all the tests and, after he was accepted, he told the senior officers who tested him that he was not interested in the project. "I am continuing in yeshiva," he informed them. He told his mother that he was not accepted. A telephone call to Ezer Weizman clarified for her that her son really was accepted--he was the one who did not want to go.

In Yeshivas Or Somayach, Eli Greenbaum began keeping mitzvos completely. He learned the basics and progressed quickly. As he wanted to continue progressing and absorb as much as possible, he wanted to continue in a yeshiva gedola. The youth visited many yeshivos, including Ponevezh, Tifrach and others, while he was still sporting jeans and long hair, an irregular appearance in the yeshiva world. One day he went to see the yeshiva in Tifrach, listened to a shiur, and even actively participated in the learning.

Foundations of Learning

He continued searching for a good yeshiva in which he could grow. One Shabbos, half a year after he began Yeshivas Or Somayach, he spent in Bnei Brak, where he met someone from Or Somayach on the street. The friend suggested that he go see Slobodka and explained the advantages of the yeshiva. The words spoke to Greenbaum's heart.

And so, he went to be tested in Slobodka and was accepted. "In this yeshiva I received the foundation of learning and was put on my feet in Torah learning and the lifestyle of a ben Torah. I would like to praise the devotion of the entire staff, who put in tremendous effort with unusual mesiras nefesh for the students of the yeshiva in general and me in particular. They set me up as a chavrusa with Reb Aharon Cohen zt'l, who became one of the distinguished avreichim of Kollel Chazon Ish, who was niftar young a few years ago. He was my chavrusa in learning, but not only in learning. He instilled in me much inner content, in learning, middos and depth. He taught me to see how a true ben Torah looks in everyday life."

For a number of years he continued to learn, to grow and to absorb Torah and yiras Shomayim in Yeshivas Slobodka, after which he spent one year in Yeshivas Chevron in Yerushalayim. After almost ten years of learning in yeshivos, Rabbi Greenbaum married the daughter of Rav Noach Kabalkin from Bayit Vegan, a distinguished and well-known family in Yerushalayim.

The couple is raising their children bederech haTorah and has established a true Jewish home. The Greenbaum family lives in the Nachala Umenuchah section of Beit Shemesh, a newly developed city, with thousands of other chareidi families. For several years, he has served as Degel HaTorah council member in Beit Shemesh. Even so, he tries to spend most of his day learning in the kollel near his house.

How did you get involved in local public activism?

"There was a public legal problem in this neighborhood, which really bothered me. I felt that an injustice was done to the public, so I tried to help. In the course of the matter, the then head of the municipal department in Degel HaTorah, Rabbi Yaakov Gutterman (now mayor of Kiryat Sefer), suggested that I represent the bnei Torah in the city. I made a few conditions with them. The most important one was that I would be able to continue sitting and learning."

Before he was active in communal affairs, Rabbi Greenbaum was learning all day in kollel. Now communal affairs force him to be involved in various matters for the good of the public. Of course, he does not neglect his studies and learns most of the day.

A Stubborn, Sophisticated Battle

You are the Degel HaTorah representative under the umbrella of Yahadus HaTorah, which is really not part of the city coalition.

"True. We are stuck in an embarrassing political position, that the mayor refused to honor the coalition agreement that was signed with him right before the elections."

It became clear, however, that even sitting in the opposition could accomplish much for the public good. In this case perhaps, even more was accomplished from the opposition than in the coalition, because of opposition fights. For example, the local branch of Degel HaTorah, headed by Rabbi Greenbaum, recently succeeded in a very important issue: the residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh A, a neighborhood that is mostly chareidi, have not been given public buildings and all the basic services. At the end of a stubborn, sophisticated battle, part of it legal, they obtained public buildings for the chareidi community, which numbers about a thousand families. This was a great success for the good of the residents.

There were a number of other successful battles. One prevented the sale of pork in Beit Shemesh: The municipality decided not to allow the sale of pork within the city limits, but only in the industrial area.

Other achievements, mainly for chareidi educational institutions, can be accredited to UTJ activism. Little by little, the city is becoming more chareidi, and it will know many more days of public activism for the good of the residents. Many more families have moved there in recent years, and observers expect the upcoming elections, in Cheshvan, to have different results than in previous years.


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