Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Adar I 5763 - February 5, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Story of Values

by Aryeh Zisman

During one of the Shabbos meals, the sound of singing rang out from the dining hall: "If a Jew knew what an Arachim seminar is, he would stay there another twenty years." The singing was both rousing and poignant. The participants in the Arachim seminar in Zichron Yaakov on Chanukkah sang the song from the bottom of their hearts.

A man who sang the words and also lived them in practice, is the director of Arachim, Rabbi Yosef Wallis. Twenty years ago he attended an Arachim seminar and was drawn in: "I came to one with Tzvi Inbal (now a rabbi) from the Technion in Haifa, in order to criticize and undermine. I was sure that none of the lecturers could answer the questions I had. During the seminar I got the answers -- and I stayed."

Twenty years have passed and now Rabbi Yossi Wallis is the director of the organization.

Arachim has been active for 25 years and in that quarter century it has touched the hearts of more than half-a-million Jews in 35 different countries on five continents. The idea behind its establishment was the need to halt the breakdown of Jewish values and to give meaning to Jewish identity, which had been degenerating due to a lack of knowledge. The founders understood that if the problem was due to a loss of values, then restoring those values was the answer.

It was enough to take part in the closing symposium on Saturday night this past Chanukkah to understand exactly what Arachim does to spread Jewish awareness. The participants, most of whom had been exposed for the first time during the previous three days to authentic Jewish values, were visibly moved and had a hard time expressing themselves. Each one attempted to articulate his gratitude in his own way. Some of them could not hold back and simply burst into tears. The other participants in the room also wiped away a tear -- some openly and some less so.

"I came with an empty container and I left with a box full of tools," said one of the participants. One of the participants said that he works as an air steward and that, by chance, he met someone in Australia from Arachim who registered him for a seminar. He marvelled that he had to go all the way across the world in order to be exposed, for the first time, to authentic Judaism in Israel: "From there, I made it to Arachim."

Others told of the small details they noted over Shabbos among the staff members and their families, which made them reevaluate their own lives. "I couldn't help but be impressed with the sight of Rabbi Stavsky's Shabbos table," one of those present said emotionally. "It was absolutely perfect. That was how a Jewish home should look."

Others said that the seminar completely shattered the distorted impression they had of the chareidi public. "You have no idea what a change you have caused in my heart," one of the participants said. At the closing symposium each participant talked about his personal impressions. The general feeling was that something positive had happened to them; something that they had not experienced before.


"This doesn't come easily," Rabbi Wallis says. "Each seminar is the result of a lot of work over a long time, beginning with parlor meetings, lectures and a lot of activities all around the country."

At Arachim they like to say that it's a production line, like a factory. First, the R&D department goes to work -- that's the people at Manof who collect material for lectures.

After that, the advertising people go into operation, to market the seminars. After them, come the salespeople -- the registrars. And later on comes the `production,' the seminar itself.

"But the factory never stops working: after the production we offer customer service -- ongoing contact between the lecturers and those who have been through the seminars. And here we're already talking about product liability."

Unlike a factory, however, there are living and thinking products; the work is much more difficult and complicated, but most of all it is interesting and fulfilling.

The seminar over Chanukkah in Zichron Yaakov was intended for academics, those with a university-level education. "We divide the seminars according to different sectors of the population," they say at Arachim. "We interview the participants about their education level, their profession, and their level of religiosity. We do not accept religious people into our seminars. After the interview we can put together a homogeneous seminar."

Indeed, the targeted Arachim seminars are intended to bring out the Jewish aspect of each participant's own world. That is why a separate seminar for each field of knowledge is needed: from the intensive seminar on education in Judaism to a series of lectures on other topics in Judaism, including the lessons of the European Holocaust and even "Martial Arts and Judaism" for those interested in Eastern martial arts. There is a series of lectures on Jewish law for those in law, and other lectures for those involved in medicine. Arachim insists that "you have to get to every Jew and quench his thirst for Judaism, that's the motto."


At Arachim, they say that they are surprised each time anew at the great thirst for Judaism. "We have had seminars at which even the waiters and the manager of the hotel where the seminar was held returned to the faith and changed their lifestyles," Rabbi Wallis says. In one instance, the hotel manager approached the organizers of the seminar and marveled at the change in the guests. "You came here with totally different people, and now I see a changed group of people," he said, in amazement.

"Over the course of the seminar, people even change their outward appearance," relates the director.

The organizers also recall incidents that began in a very unpleasant manner, but ended surprisingly. One took place when the media "discovered" Arachim and sent reporters to investigate a seminar. The media claimed that it was brainwashing and sought to expose, so to speak, "the great bluff." However, the reporters who came to cover the seminar were blown away by the lectures and by the truth that was laid out before them. "I remember reporters who handed us the articles that they wrote and said that they had come with the objective of writing antagonistically, but they can't write a single negative word," recounts Rabbi Wallis.

Some of the reporters were so intent on writing positive reviews of what they had witnessed that they stated that even if their newspaper editors fired them, they would still stand behind the truth of their reports.

Rabbi Wallis has many stories. One could easily fill a book with them. He tells of a priest who discovered his Jewish roots at a seminar in Los Angeles, and then he tells of important society-types who came to a seminar and asked to hear more and more. The stories come from all sectors of the population.

And in fact, people of all types, of various socioeconomic levels, and with different backgrounds in Judaism all participate in the seminars. Single people and people with families, academics, blue collar and white collar workers -- all can find something of interest in the various seminars and lecture series of Arachim.


At the seminar during Chanukkah in Zichron Yaakov, famous members of high society and the economic world took part as well. In order not to interfere with their privacy and progress in Judaism and towards observance of Torah and the commandments, we will not publish their names. One of them said that she got to the seminar through a close friend, who recommended it. "I have no lack of money," she said, "I am looking for meaning, and mainly for Judaism, after all of my journeys around the world, out of a desire to pass that along to my family.

"Five minutes after I got to the seminar, I wanted to leave. I stayed another five minutes only because of peer pressure, which brought me here in the first place, and I was captivated."

Today, that woman is in an advanced dialogue with people from Arachim in order to plan out her next steps.

"That is one of thousands of similar stories," says Rabbi Wallis. "In our experience, more than half -- even sixty percent and more -- return to the faith and begin to live a religious lifestyle, keeping Shabbos and laying tefillin."

At Arachim, a lot of thought goes into planning the seminars. They were a pioneering development by the organization, with others coming after them and using the same methods. The seminar program is designed for those hundreds of thousands who want to get to know their own Judaism but were never given the chance to do so. The program encapsulates the fundamentals of Judaism, as it relates to topics of interest to people in our times.

Arachim developed a unique approach in its handling of science and religion, the basis of Jewish faith and evidence of Judaism's relevance to the modern world. Every year one hundred seminars are held around the globe. In Israel there are ten local branches of Arachim. Around the world, as well, there are seminars and lectures -- from North to South America, in western Europe, in the states of the former Soviet Union, in South Africa, and even in the Far East.


Special emphasis is placed on the lectures: "We have a recording department, which videotapes and records the lectures. Afterwards, we go over the lectures and, if need be, fix mistakes and lapses. The footage is used to train the lecturers."

It is easy to see that the lecturers are trained and experienced, and do their work with great selflessness, staying long hours after their lectures are over to answer the many questions raised by the participants. Over the Shabbos that we spent with the seminar participants, the lecturers were always available except for a few lone hours of sleep. After the seminar is over, the lecturers maintain contact and hold follow- up parlor meetings with seminar participants.

In order to make it possible for participants to attend all the lectures, volunteer counselors keep their children occupied. A special program of activities was also designed for the children.

"We attend to every participant, in order to provide him with all the answers he needs, and not leave him without a reply," says Wallis. At the seminars for academics, as mentioned, 60 percent of the participants return to the faith and begin to live a religious lifestyle. At the seminars for the general public, the number is higher. It is hard to remain indifferent to such unique and instructive lectures.

One of best-known lectures is that of Rabbi Dr. Shalom Srebernik, with the vague title, "The World of Michael Barko." It is a two-hour lecture which is particularly fascinating and leaves a deep impression on those hearing it. After that particular lecture, there were indeed many people left rooted in their seats, unable to get up.

There are also lectures dealing with the meaning of life, the puzzle of Creation, what does Judaism mean to you, the song of the soul, and more.

The instructional department of Arachim trains new lecturers, including special enrichment programs run by veteran lecturers. The central program is called "Know What to Respond," which is designed to provide tools with which to actively engage the listener.


In the course of the widespread activity of Arachim, the lecturers come into contact with hostility and ignorance regarding Judaism and the chareidi public of Israel. The hostility is due to both a lack of appropriate public relations tools and to the media, which is antagonistic to Judaism and to the Torah observant.

In response, Arachim established Manof -- the Jewish Information and Data Center, with the aim of handling, explaining and reacting to current Jewish affairs. Similarly, one of its goals is to act as the voice of Judaism in every social and value-based issue that comes to the fore. At Manof there is an updated database of information relating to thousands of Jewish topics, and it serves the needs of public figures, Knesset members, and journalists, as well.

Related to Manof is also the Anti-Incitement League, which monitors the media and files legal briefs in response to media distortions and the like. Among its successes are a drastic reduction in the publication of anti-religious caricatures in the press, as well as a drastic reduction in (negative) reports about religious Jews. Arachim also maintains a huge collection of instructional tapes on various topics, as well as source material and outlines appropriate for lecturers and activists.

At Arachim, they don't rest for a minute. At the end of the seminar in Zichron Yaakov, the organizers were not preparing to take it easy. "We are beginning to prepare the next seminar," they noted, and rushed off. It's a story of values.


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