Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Shevat 5766 - February 22, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Come to Learn Torah, My Boy! — Rav Nissim Sova's Story

by Binyamin Y. Rabinowitz

Thousands of bnei Torah are indebted to HaRav Nissim Sova, director of Or Le'acheinu, for the spiritual transformation that he wrought in their lives. Thousands of Torah homes have been established thanks to his efforts over the past forty-five years.

The first soul that he saved was his own, when he boldly made his way back to his religious heritage after having been torn away from it by the treatment meted out to immigrant youth by the Zionist establishment. He brought other lost souls back with him and has not stopped since. With the encouragement of the Ponovezher Rov zt'l, he started working with Pe'eylim and with Agudas Yisroel's Absorption Committee at what became his life's mission — enrolling youngsters for Torah education. Over the years, he was directed and encouraged by the Steipler zt'l, HaRav Shach zt'l, and HaRav Chaim Shaul Karelitz zt'l.

A Builder of Torah

I first met Rabbi Sova almost thirty years ago. The occasion was the opening of yet another mesivta in the Negev and Rav Nissim was called in to assist with the holy work. With his pleasant manner and approach, he once again managed to win the hearts of children and parents alike, persuading them to taste the sweetness of Torah education and investigate what it had to offer.

Thanks to Rav Sova, many thousands of youngsters from all over Eretz Yisroel have taken a taste and gone on to dedicate their lives to imbibing Torah's sweetness, building their homes and lives around it and conveying it to others. Some of them serve today as roshei yeshiva, rabbonim and heads of Torah institutions.

The list of yeshivos and Torah institutions all over the country that Rav Nissim has either opened himself or in whose establishment he played a part is very long indeed. "Whoever saves a single Jewish soul is akin to having sustained an entire world," say Chazal — Rav Nissim has indeed saved countless worlds during his long years of Torah activism.

Torn from his Roots

He was born in Izmir, Turkey nearly seventy years ago. In 5705 (1945), when he was seven years old, he set out with his brother for Eretz Yisroel on a journey that was fraught with danger. The British then controlled the country and Jewish immigration was illegal. Those who were caught trying to cross the borders were imprisoned in British jails. Rav Nissim's father had made the same journey twenty years earlier and had been caught. It was only thanks to a miracle that he was freed from jail.

Like the vast majority of North African Jewry at that time, Turkish Jews also adhered to their ancestral traditions. The Jewish Agency officials who processed the new immigrants did all they could to sever them from Torah observance and from the Torah, directing their principal efforts at the children of the olim. That is how the Sova brothers found themselves living on one of the kibbutzim of Hashomer Hatzair, where they were enrolled into an irreligious school.

After a short time, the brothers were reunited with their family who had reached Eretz Yisroel ahead of them. The family was living in Tel Aviv's rundown Hatikvah neighborhood. The Agency officials did not let their prey escape though, and Nissim was taken away from his parents and placed with an irreligious family that lived in Yarkona, a settlement in Hod Hasharon.

On his very first Shabbos with them, the head of the family asked Nissim to accompany him to the neighboring farm where there were several jobs that he needed to do.

"At first I refused and wouldn't agree to do anything," recalls Rav Nissim, "but as time passed and I got used to being in their home it became very difficult to refuse what they asked of me."

It didn't take too long before he became part of the family, with all that that entailed.

In the end, it was the food he was served that brought Nissim home to his family in Hatikvah. "I was given all kinds of foods that caused me to vomit," he relates. "Things reached a point where I used to dispose of all the food they gave me, in the yard. When they discovered what I was doing, they decided that I wasn't for them."

However even at home, living in an irreligious neighborhood, even when one's family is traditional, is not altogether conducive to adhering to one's religious traditions. Together with the other neighborhood youngsters, Nissim was sent to the local state-run Bialik school. In such an environment, moving into the secular world became just a question of time.

Nissim's mother was a G-d-fearing woman who wept and bemoaned her bitter fate, on the day she saw her son throw off the yoke of Torah and mitzvos. She made huge efforts to transfer him to the only state religious school in their neighborhood, where she hoped he would receive religious instruction and return to the path of his forbears.

Needless to say, the education he received in the new school brought about no great change. That type of instruction, together with the influence of neighborhood in general, kept him just as he was. A majority of the other students there were children of olei Teiman who had been Torah observant when they arrived in the country but were irreligious by the time they completed their studies.

"At that time, the peer pressure to follow the trend of throwing off all religious obligations was so strong that anyone who swam against the current was utterly ostracized," Rav Nissim recalls.

After completing school he filled the time with odd jobs until joining the army, where he served in the engineering corps on a base in Jaffa not far from his home. After his army service, Nissim and his brother set up a company that specialized in road laying and development and in ground leveling. There was great demand for work of this nature at the time and the brothers did very well indeed.

Turning Around

The Jewish spark still flickered inside him though. Despite the success of his endeavors, Nissim constantly felt that something was amiss. "I carried a burden of sadness all the time and the fact that I had plenty of money did not relieve it," he says. "Throughout the period that I worked, I got to know no small number of people who had done very well and earned large amounts of money. Yet they were virtually all corrupt. Whatever they possessed was not enough; they went and stole from others and they ended up in jail."

Such close acquaintance with his environment exerted an influence that was thankfully positive. He thought long and hard about the irreligious circles to which he belonged. Slowly he came to the realization that working hard around the clock would never bring him genuine happiness and peace of mind. That would be his only if he returned to the path of Torah and observed the mitzvos in the way he had been raised in his parents' home in Izmir.

His thoughts crystallized into resolution, which he courageously implemented. At the age of twenty-three, in top condition and at the height of his profession, Nissim told his brother and partner that he had decided to opt out of their prosperous business. His brother couldn't grasp what had led him to take such an unaccountable step but he understood that Nissim's decision was final. After selling his share, Nissim began to make slow progress in learning Torah, influencing other friends and acquaintances who had drifted far from Torah and mitzvos to join him on his new path.

He wanted to make up as much as he could of what he'd missed as a youth. "I thought to myself, if I could get up at three o'clock in the morning to work on tractors in the back of beyond, I can certainly do so in order to serve the Creator of the world and to learn Torah."

Having taken himself in hand, he began encouraging others. "I would gather idle youths from the neighborhood and bring them to learn every evening in the local beis haknesses in Hatikvah, where we heard a shiur from Rav Eliezer ben David" (who, together with Rav Pardo zt'l, later opened the distinguished Or HaChaim girls' seminary in Bnei Brak and other Torah institutions in both Eretz Yisroel and abroad).

Rav Ben David really went out of his way for the sake of the young men. "Every few weeks, he would have everybody (there were tens of bochurim) over to spend Shabbos with him in Bnei Brak or in the yeshivos of Yerushalayim, to impress them with the special Shabbos atmosphere and with the holy yeshivos."

Within just a few months, Nissim found himself working hard at bringing Torah to others. He opened his neighborhood's first Torah institution, a kollel in Beis Haknesses Yosef Chaim, which operates to this day. He also became involved in other facets of communal activities.

"The committee of the local beis haknesses wanted to open a hall on the premises. I asked them to open a kollel avreichim instead so that there should be more activity in the place, leading more and more of the local youngsters to gravitate towards the straight path. When they told me that running a kollel meant raising funds, I told them that I would undertake that responsibility."

That is how Nissim found himself making his way around the stalls and stands of the local market every few days, obtaining donations from the many stall holders and peddlers. A short while later, he began making appeals during the Shabbos prayers in numerous batei knesses in the Tel Aviv area, in which he would speak about the importance of strengthening religion. These donations were earmarked for a yeshiva ketanoh that he'd opened in the old, well- known beis haknesses that had been built by olim from Egypt and named for Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

On the Threshold

One of the sheva brochos for Rav Nissim and his kallah was held in Yeshivas Ponovezh. This came about thanks to the chosson's meticulous mitzvah observance. "We set the date of the wedding for Tu B'Av. I was concerned about having the sheva brochos where I lived because there would be many irreligious guests there who would render the wine forbidden."

It was about this time that the Ponovezher Rov zt'l, started the annual Yarchei Kallah summer program. Through a friend who learned in Kollel Ponovezh, Rav Nissim joined in the learning in the yeshiva, and the sheva brochos was held in the yeshiva's dining room, with the Rov taking part. "I remember that occasion to this day," Rav Nissim recalls, "and the blessings and the encouragement that I received, that accompany me to this day."

Even before his marriage, he had considered moving to Bnei Brak — but when the neighborhood residents found out, they refused to let him go. They would not agree to part from the man who had drawn them close to Torah and changed their lives.

Rav Nissim did not know what to do. On the one hand he knew that he would be unable to raise a family properly in an irreligious environment, while on the other hand, he did not want to abandon the community that was so attached to him.

"I went to consult the Steipler zt'l. He told me to continue my activities, because I was needed there. He quoted the posuk, "He gives and lends all day long and his offspring are blessed" (Tehillim 37:26) — HaKodosh Boruch Hu takes care of the children of a person who is engaged in bringing merit to the public."

The family moved to Bnei Brak several years later, when Rav Nissim saw that his work in Hatikvah was being safely continued by others.

Immediately after his marriage, he broadened the scope of his activities and began working with Pe'eylim and with Agudas Yisroel's Absorption Committee at enrolling children into Torah education, the project that became his life's work. "I received direction in all my work and was informed of its supreme importance by the Steipler, HaRav Shach and HaRav Chaim Shaul Karelitz zt'l. They directed me to do everything possible in order to save children's souls and have them placed in institutions where Torah was taught in purity."

The immigrant absorption centers were the main focus of his work in those days of the large aliyot of Yidden from North Africa, Georgia, the Caucuses, Bukhara and Syria. An old British ambulance was bought for him and it took him across the length and breadth of the country in his search for families receptive to his message.

In later years, he used his own car — an Israeli Sussita model — for taking children from their homes to schools in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim. "The Sussita was opaque on all sides," says Rav Nissim, "which allowed me on several occasions to squeeze twenty children into the car at once. I would take them to different institutions in Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim."

Once, during bein hazmanim, he traveled to Ashdod. Talmidim of Grodno Yeshiva who were also working on enrollment at the time loaded twenty children from families of olim from Georgia and Bukhara into the car. "I said to myself, first I'll take them, then I'll carry on with them to some schools to register them. I arrived with them in Bnei Brak but I had nowhere to leave them overnight. I went into Kollel Chazon Ish and asked for help. One of the avreichim told me that there was an empty building in Botei Ovos (the orphanage and schools founded by the Ponovezher Rov). That is how the first yeshiva for olim from Georgia and Bukhara opened in Botei Ovos."

Spreading the Message

Over the years, Rav Nissim went from one Absorption Center to another and to outlying towns all over the country, attracting more and more youngsters to Torah education. He established many institutions, among them Yeshivas Chomas Tziyon in Tel Aviv (today in Bnei Brak), Yeshivas Or Yosef in Chaderah, Nesiv Or in Chaderah, the yeshivos Neve Eretz and Toras Yisroel in Bnei Brak, the girls' high school in Moshav Kommemiyus, Chesed Le'Avraham in Kadimah, Yeshivas Ohel Moed in Yerushalayim's Bayit Vegan neighborhood. Together with Rav Eliezer ben David and Rav Rachamim Cohen, he also founded Yaavetz, the first talmud Torah in Yerushalayim.

When I asked Rav Nissim how he succeeded in influencing thousands of children and parents to enroll them for Torah education his reply was brief: "People know when they are hearing the truth.

"It is enough to describe the state of affairs accurately and explain the stark truth. Nowadays, not too much persuasion is required. The ruinous secular `educational' system has done the work for us most effectively. All one has to do today is present parents with the information about the alternative education that their child will receive in a Torah institution. One just needs to go and propose it to them."

According to Rav Nissim, in many places in the country there are parents who would be happy to give their children a Torah education, but there is simply nobody to do the liaison work and the children are ultimately put into the secular system. "It's worthwhile bearing in mind," he adds, "that saving a child from a ruinous education usually saves the entire family."

Rav Nissim at Work

Although I witnessed Rav Nissim at work, he describes his methods best himself. "In the past, we would go from city to city and from one settlement to another, making straight for the schools that had absorbed the children of olim, who would have received a pure education in their countries of origin. We simply persuaded the students and their parents to transfer to a better, more Jewish type of education. Today of course it's a little more difficult. Inflexible bureaucracy doesn't allow it. More sophisticated methods have to be employed."

He has developed several such ideas, such as setting up a stand offering enrollment in chareidi education at large gatherings (e.g. on Lag B'omer at Meron) that are attended by many irreligious Israelis. The main standbys, though, are the time-honored, straightforward method of knocking on people's doors or, even simpler, of striking up a conversation with a family at a chance meeting. "It's impossible to predict the ultimate effect that even a word or two can have," Rav Nissim stresses.

When he first started working, he often had a hard struggle with the irreligious officials of Youth Aliya (the body that organized and supervised the aliya of unaccompanied Sephardi youngsters to Eretz Yisroel and the arrangements for their education upon arrival). They looked askance (to say the least) on Rav Nissim's work and the fruits it bore. "It was terribly painful to see children who had just arrived from Morocco, where they were used to learning in talmudei Torah, being sent to irreligious institutions that lacked the slightest whiff of Yiddishkeit. The same thing happened when the olim from Georgia and Bukhara arrived. The Jewish Agency officials who supervised their absorption accommodated them in large housing blocks without giving a thought to batei knesset for them. Since a majority of the olim were observant, batei knesset had to be improvised immediately in those neighborhoods."

Agudas Yisroel's Immigrant Absorption Committee, which was headed at the time by Rabbi Meir Dovid Levenstein z'l, (who was also the Agudah's first Knesset member), took swift action and funds were obtained with which temporary botei knesset were set up between the supporting pillars of the apartment blocks. The sifrei Torah were donated by Yidden from the United States and England. "I brought the furniture and other equipment from the Jaffa market," Rav Nissim recalls.

Four Families out of Many

Many of the talmidim that Rav Nissim drew closer to Torah are today superlative bnei Torah. Of these, many hold important Torah positions — and all of them owe their spiritual portion to Rabbi Sova.

Rabbi Michael Lasry, a well-known lecturer on Torah subjects, is one of Rav Nissim's protegees. He spent his childhood in a state school in Ramle and he never loses an opportunity to express his gratitude to Rabbi Sova for his subsequent Torah education.

"When I was a child, in Ramle, everybody used to go to the local school, until Rav Nissim Sova, a veteran at enrollment, came to our neighborhood. He went from house to house, persuading parents to enroll their children in talmudei Torah. My brothers and I were enrolled in this way. Afterwards I went to yeshiva and, boruch Hashem, that was how we changed our way of life for the better."

Rabbi Zecharya Shalom is a Torah disseminator who has opened Torah institutions in Bnei Brak's Kiryat Herzog neighborhood. When he recalls his meeting with Rabbi Sova thirty-five years ago, he comments, "My portion and their portion are his."

He relates, "I grew up in the Beit Dagan settlement and like the other children, learned in the local state religious school. One day, Rabbi Sova paid our home a 'casual' visit and persuaded my father z'l to send me to the Batei Ovos Ponovezh boarding school in Bnei Brak. My father, who was a simple, self-effacing man, did not refuse his request, even though I was an only son and it wasn't easy for him to have me in a boarding school far away from home. After I finished at the boarding school, I continued on to yeshiva and, boruch Hashem, I was fortunate to mature in the tradition of the holy yeshivos. Everything that Hashem has given me the fortune to achieve since then is obviously to his [Rabbi Sova's] credit, for he showed me the correct path."

Rabbi Mekabtziel Yechezkel teaches Torah to young children in Elad. He remembers his childhood, growing up in Tel Aviv's Hatikvah neighborhood. "I was bar mitzvah age when I finished studying in the state religious school. After enrolling for high school in Kiryat Malachi, Rabbi Nissim Sova met my father and me in beit haknesses and started convincing us how important and worthwhile it would be for me to enroll for a Torah education in particular. Although at the time it was not the accepted thing to do in my circle, he registered me for Yeshivat Ohel Moed in Yerushalayim and, boruch Hashem, in his merit I got onto the right path."

Like many of Rav Nissim's other protegees, Rabbi Mekabtziel has opened fine Torah institutions himself that teach Torah in holiness and purity.

The story of the Waezmann brothers is similar. "When they arrived in Eretz Yisroel from Morocco I traveled to their home in Raanana but they weren't at home. Their neighbor told me that they'd moved to Ashdod. They left their new address underneath the tablecloth. I went there straightaway. Arrangements were made for one to learn in Kol Torah and two others in Porat Yosef. One of the brothers, Rav Doniel Waezmann, opened the Ayelet Hashachar Seminary in Yerushalayim's Romema neighborhood.

The Child You Save . . .

Rav Nissim recalls another fascinating story that took place at the engagement of his own daughter. "Several years ago, when my daughter became engaged, the chatan's family (olim from the Syrian Chalabi community) arrived at the hall where we made the engagement. Two young avreichim suddenly made their way over to me and shook my hand, grinning broadly. They reminded me that twenty-five years earlier I had taken them out of the irreligious school where they had been learning, after a protracted battle with the board of the Absorption Center for olim from Chalab, in Netanya."

The family connection soon became apparent. "These two were no less than first cousins of my future son-in-law. Had Hakodosh Boruch Hu not brought me the merit of enrolling them in religious education years earlier — who knows? — they might have come to my daughter's wedding wearing ponytails and earrings!"

"I have trained both men and women all over the country to do this work and I have also assisted in the establishment of well-known organizations that save lives."


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