Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Cheshvan 5767 - October 25, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Yemenite Activism that Led to Torah Learning . . .

By D. Tzfasman

"Warm greetings to my dear madrich and teacher: I am sure you have already heard that I have come back to yeshiva and am continuing to learn in the spirit of the Torah. I will never forget what you did for me — for you restored me to life. You restored my soul and woke me up from my sleep and I will carry on be'ezras Hashem to live a life of eternity and a life of Torah" . . .

These moving words are taken from a letter written by a young Iraqi immigrant boy who came back to yeshiva as a result of the efforts of an activist from the Iggud — the Organization of Yemenite Immigrant Bnei Yeshivot in Israel.

What is the Iggud? What is the story behind its operation?

Some of the first sources of information we found were letters in the papers of HaRav Shemarya Barzilai, the founder and rosh yeshiva of Mishkan Shimon, pioneer of the yeshivos of the Oriental communities.

Other information in this article comes from issues of HaMesillah, a newspaper published by the Iggud. These rare documents were made available through the courtesy of HaRav Shlomo Korach of Bnei Brak, one of the prominent activists of the Iggud in those days.

The Iggud began in the year 5716 (1956) a few years after the founding of the State and the trauma of the immigration from the Oriental countries. The systematic campaign of destruction affected the Oriental immigrant population at all points of the Diaspora. At the same time, dots of light were found throughout the yeshivas in the country. They were yeshiva bochurim from the Yemenite community who had crossed the hurdles of destruction and had arrived at a place of spiritual security.

A few individuals arose from this group and, imbued with a sense of communal responsibility, attempted to consolidate an independent organization whose aim was to take care of the young people of the community and the Oriental Jews as a whole. These individuals came from a variety of different yeshivas, but what they had in common was they were bnei Torah with a Torah hashkofoh.

HaMesillah — the Newspaper

We were able to trace the founding of the organization, how it developed and how it came to an end, through copies of HaMesillah — the newspaper published by the Iggud. This was not merely an informative tool but also part of its action. It therefore became a point of contention in the dilemma in which the organization became embroiled.

The first issue came out in Jerusalem in Nisan 5716 (1956). (The price: 200 perutahs.) The cover of the newspaper was a picture of some Yemenite boys in traditional garb sitting behind shtenders and learning, with the caption underneath, vehogiso bo yomom voloyloh, a clear allusion to the Torah hashkofoh of the publishers.

The newspaper was divided into three topics: Informative — news of what was going on in the organization and putting its contents into writing. Philosophical — articles dealing with tradition. And in-depth study — in which members of the organization published discussions on sugyos of Shas. The last part became the object for the internal controversy which flared up.

The first issue of the newspaper presented the platform of the Iggud. Among other things, the background for the establishment of the Iggud was discussed: " . . . Every party takes pity on our Yemenite brethren. They set up clubs for them and the like. The time has come for us to establish ourselves on our own, without favors from other people. We are not going to affiliate ourselves with any specific party, but we have to collaborate with religious groups that can help us to consolidate our goals."

Then appeared the words that perhaps hinted to the seeds of future controversy . . . "We have to congratulate ourselves that, even though we have among us members from various religious parties, we are in complete agreement on those issues of the Iggud which bind us into a single unit."

By studying the list of council members, the various nuances among the group become apparent through the names of the yeshivos. Paragraph 7: A council of nine members was elected, as follows: Rabbi Reuven Sinai, chairman. Rabbi Shimon Ba'adani, vice chairman, Yeshivat Porat Yosef. Shemaryahu Barzilai — Yeshivat Kol Torah. Yishai Meshullam - - Porat Yosef, Rechovot. Shlomo Amram Korach, Ponovezh Yeshiva. Shalom Mauda, Yeshivat Bnei Akiva. Yosef Melamed, Yeshivat Chabad. Yechiel Zaid, Yeshivat Hadarom. Ezriel Tzadok. We can grasp get an idea of the variety and difference of opinions that prevailed among the members.

Operations Throughout the Country

The discussions show a network of activities by activists of the Iggud throughout the country. These activities were in a wide variety of subjects. The activists' motivation was expressed to a great extent in the debates. It was clear that there was no need to push them. They worked out of an inner awareness and a personal intuition.

Here is a discussion of a characteristic case: The Y.M.s of Givat Shaul are a family of 11, the parents are sick and the material situation is extremely bad. Missionary delegates have already paid them a visit, interested in the five young children. It is interesting that the application to our absorption coordinator actually came from a social worker who thought it best not to depend on the government. The same week that the mother passed away they went right down to arrange the matter. The children, who were dressed in rags, were taken to Sokolovsky, a clothing store in Strauss Street, and came out dressed very nicely.

In the meantime, a Shomer Hatzair person came to visit their house, who promised to set them up in a "religious" kibbutz. When he did not find the children, he went to the office of yours truly. There he began a fierce argument, which almost ended in a fist fight. In the end, he did the smartest thing and left.

Since this happened in the summer vacation, the children were set up in a summer camp, and at the same time prepared for examinations, etc. They were then set up in a religious agricultural institution. This example shows the urgency and great difficulty involved in getting the children placed in institutions, as well as the great expenses incurred in relation to this.

An operation of another type is described in the following report:

The teacher, H.S., from the school in the Maabara of Ramla, requests aid in giving out school books for the first grade. Her request was given the appropriate attention in a special way. In the second letter, she asks for activists to be sent during registration to give information on religious education.

Reports such as this, and others like it, overflow the journal of activities which appeared in the newspaper. We can get a picture of the scope of operations implemented by the activists from the entry of the bochur Shlomo Yigali (today the rav of Rishon Letzion).

The document signed by Shlomo Yigali gives a report on the establishment of a religious school in Yaknim, in the Jezreel Valley. There had been a meeting of the community which was divided into three synagogues, in which great bitterness was expressed that there was no religious school and that all the promises they had been given by various institutions had not been kept. Our representative promised them that he would not rest until a school was started.

Indeed, with a tremendous amount of exertion lasting a few weeks, "a school was begun to the delight of the residents, and to our great joy, following a difficult struggle with various elements and with extensive explanations to the residents." The member notes in his letter that the school was founded in conjunction with the Pe'elim group who took care of most of the financial expenses, and with enormous aid from the local rabbi.

He goes on to report the scope of its activities: "Operations in the month of Nisan, 5717, included lectures in the area of the Jezreel Valley. Meetings were held in Moshav Elyakim and in Midrach Oz about the difficulties in religion and education in the country. Teachers' meetings and youth meetings were held about "the yeshiva problem," in which the issue of directing students to yeshivas was emphasized.

For Shabbos Acharei Mos, he traveled together with Rabbi Shalom Tzadok to Kiryat Yam and lectures were given before a large audience. In the course of the Shabbos, there were activities for the older youth as well as for 7th and 8th grade pupils at the school. Classes were given on the mitzvos that specifically pertain to Eretz Yisroel, according to a program which was outlined for the yom iyun.

After the success in Yokne'am, he turned his sights southwards to Moshav Mishan where, though all the religious residents were from Yemen, the school there was not religious at all and residents were extremely upset over this. Indeed, after various explanatory activities and applications to the relevant institutions, it was expected that a religious school would be opened.

Activities were varied: Lectures on the registration of boys and girls to yeshivas and Torah institutions. Escape from the clutches of the missionaries.

So that people would not get the impression that activities were focused solely on the immigrant Yemen community, the administration emphasizes in the report on its activities:

"It should be noted that, though the Iggud might appear to be an organization for its own community, its operations, especially against the missionaries, were to aid children from other communities. Because, when it came to the field of action, we did not make distinctions between people, and many of those young people whom we sent out to yeshivas and various institutions were from other communities."

The Appeal

Immediately, right at the beginning of the road, the activists organized appeals in synagogues throughout the country. As usually happens with appeals, it led to a broadening of the awareness of the activities of the Iggud. Hamodia exclaimed: "Every person in the country should be forced to give at least symbolic aid to these people, to say, `I am with you in your struggle for the sacredness of your community.' "

The newspaper Hatsofe, though it did not bring up the money issue, wished the Iggud "success in its difficult and honorable mission," even the bad angel answered Amen, against its will. The Labor party newspaper Davar saw in this organization the creation of "Israeli-born rabbis" of the future.

But it became clear that the establishment of the Iggud was a thorn in the flesh for various political public figures, as member Shemaryahu Barzilai reports in a letter of outrage under the heading: Ha'od Elokim Bekirbeinu, in which he relates:

"As we know, there is a national appeal being organized at this time for the benefit of the Iggud. One of the shameful incidents which was done to thwart it in Jerusalem was initiated by one of the members of the General Committee, who went to the gabbais of the synagogues and asked them to freeze the money [that was collected], since the money was going into the pockets of the organizers. When called to Rabbi Y. Kapach, he argued that the Iggud should have asked for the Committee's consent. The rav responded that this was a national issue and not one limited to Jerusalem. Upon which the man argued that the Iggud was party-related. However, one of the clauses of the operation, which institutes that the Iggud is nonpolitical, disproves this claim."

And here the writer challenges: "In such a situation, when the community is wavering in its spirituality, and its youth are going to waste, can we allow ourselves the luxury of stirring up a quarrel, strife and warfare among the bnei yeshivas, when the biggest apikorsim from other communities have not yet dared to touch them. Ha'od Elokim bekirbeinu . . . ?"

On the other hand, member Ezriel Tzadok reports on the success of the appeal among the simple people, and this is what he says:

" . . . We could say that one of the places which has given us great satisfaction during the appeals is Migdal Gad where there are about five hundred of our Yemenite brethren, who are well set up al taharat hakodesh. The young people are all filling up the synagogues, and the atmosphere is completely saturated with Torah and yiras Shomayim. There are no breaches at all in their streets. O that they might serve as a shining example to the rest of our brethren."

Merging with the Hamachane HaTorani

The goals and activities, in their nature and essence, were very much identical to the activities of the organization of activists known as "Chever Pe'ilei Hamachane HaTorani" (today evolved into Lev L'Achim). It is worth noting that the Hamachane HaTorani organization, which was identified with the Ashkenazi bnei yeshivos, stood behind the Iggud, as can be seen from a report in HaMesillah, which confesses the following:

" . . . We must praise the readiness of a member of the Hamachane HaTorani activists to place their printing machine at the disposal of the Iggud for this purpose. Thanks are due to their dedicated staff for their good will."

There was also collaboration in the field, for example as reported in the following:

" . . . In the summer vacation, members of the Iggud traveled to the camps — in Kvutzat Yavneh and in Yeshivat Hadarom — which Chever Pe'ilei Hamachane HaTorani set up, and also in the following farms: Mishmar David, Kobiba, Maabarat Rechovot, Zarnuka, Shikun Hamizrach Rishon LeTzion, Marmarok, Midrach Oz, Chadera, Tirat Shalom and Ein Karem. The members worked with great dedication, and as a consequence, dozens of new students were signed up for various yeshivas around the country."

This situation definitely brought up the question of why not officially merge with the Hamachane HaTorani operation? It is interesting that the question was brought up on the conference table of the Iggud. Among other things, the friendship between the activists of the Iggud and their counterparts in Hamachane HaTorani stood out. Here are some of their interchanges:

The debate was opened by Comrade Shlomo Amram Korach who offered the suggestion that every member should be committed to bringing in at least one person to a yeshiva.

Comrade Yechiel Zayad asked what was the need for the Iggud, when Hamachane HaTorani's goals were the same as theirs. His suggestion was to join with Hamachane HaTorani and work together.

In response to the words of Comrade Yechiel, Comrade Shmuel Giat said that from an organizational standpoint, they should not join the activists' group, since they have difficulties relating to our youth. With regard to organization he said that pupils of the eighth grade in the elementary schools needed to be organized. With regard to appeals, a special Shabbat should be arranged to induce contributions in all the synagogues.

Comrade Shemaryahu Barzilai supported Shlomo Korach's proposal, that every member should bring in a person to a yeshiva. With regard to merging with the Chever HaPe'elim he said that there was a need for the Iggud, but they should also collaborate with the Chever HaPe'elim.

Mr. Shlomo Machpud appealed to the members to work on drawing in the youth, and Mr. Zecharya Amram suggested assembling the youth and to show them that there were Yemenite bnei yeshivos.

Comrade Yosef Lavie said that, in his opinion, there was a danger that not all the boys could make it in the yeshivas, and therefore they should take steps to ensure that those already in yeshivos continue with their studies, and only then should they work on the new youth.

Comrade Aryeh Nadav concurred with Yosef Lavie's opinion, while stressing that this was not one of the goals of the Chever HaPe'elim, and therefore there was a need for the existence of the Iggud.

The chairman, Rabbi Reuven Sinai, wound up the discussion, and ruled out merging with any other body whatsoever, while emphasizing that the essential purpose of the operation of the Iggud was not only to get the youth to go to yeshivas but also to take care of those already in yeshivas and enable them to continue learning.

Activities Within the Yeshivas

As we traced the development of the operation it became clear that the subject of the bnei hayeshiva was becoming more and more central. The character of the operation revolved around the issue of the yeshivas, registration to them, and the survival of the bnei yeshiva.

The newspaper reports on the enterprise of two of its members below:

"Shlomo Yigali and Shemaryahu Barzilai hosted eighth-grade pupils of the elementary school at their yeshiva, Kol Torah, in order to draw them closer to the spirit of the yeshiva. We welcome this effort, and hope that many other members will follow in their footsteps. We will be soon announcing a Shabbat in which all the members of the Iggud will need to host eight grade elementary pupils in their yeshivas, and explain to them about the importance of learning in yeshiva."

It was an approach that attempted to influence others from within the yeshiva. Similarly, approaches were made outside the yeshiva, particularly geared for the period of bein hazmanim. The newspaper reported that "during the Pesach vacation members will be given the opportunity to take action, each in his own surroundings . . . " For this purpose, the report continued: "the administration has decided to hold a convention of activists, in the course of which members will be handed out a program of Torah activities which include Torah shiurim."

In the decisions of the assembly of the Iggud convention in Adar Beis, 5717 (1957) the following initiative appears:

"Every older member [comrade] will be given a list of young students that he needs to adopt. The member will need to keep in constant contact with them and keep track of their diligence in their studies. We hope that through this we will be able to prevent young talmidim from dropping out of yeshivos."

Original evidence of the effort required to get students to register in yeshivas, given the difficulties of the times, appears in the following letter:

Greetings to my dear Madrich and Teacher:

I am sure you have already heard that I have come back to the yeshiva and am continuing to study in the spirit of the Torah. I will never forget what you did for me. You restored me to life, you revived my soul, and you woke me up from my sleep, and I will continue, be'ezrat Hashem to live a life of eternity (netzach) and a life of Torah. It is true that where there is a will there is a way, but still, my teacher, it was you who roused my will [by telling me] do not look at the obstacles and do not despair. Your words touched my heart and they are true.

How can I thank you? Please do forgive me that I disappointed you and did not come to the Petach Tikva municipality, even though I knew that the matter was only for my own good, but my parents would just not let me go. After some time I just ran away, . . . and if only the yetzer hora not tempt me, so that we can continue serving Hashem without interruption.

The Iggud took as one of its goal to centralize the subject of "the yeshiva." Rabbi Aryeh Nadav, the rav of Ramat Amidar, told the writer of this article about the turnabout that took place among the adult members of the community in terms of the concept of the "ben yeshiva." In a community that had a strong traditional hierarchy with hard and fast rules there was a big chiddush in the way a young scholar began to be honored for being a yeshiva student, especially since the whole yeshiva setup was something entirely unknown in Yemen.

In particular, Rabbi Nadav spoke of how much encouragement and aid in this area was given by the president of the Iggud, HaRav Sholom Yitzchok Halevi zt"l, one of the great figures who led the community in those years. Thus, when Rabbi Nadav and his brothers came as young bochurim to spend Shabbos at home, HaRav Halevi gave them the honor of speaking at the synagogue. The congregation of older people were amazed at the unusual honor that their distinguished rov was bestowing on such young boys. Such steps as these helped to trigger the positive revolution that occurred in the status of the "ben yeshiva" in the Yemenite community.

The Great Dilemma

This direction that the Iggud was moving directly caused a reduction in the Iggud's operations. Members of the administration, most of whom were among the top boys in the yeshivos, found themselves immersed in their gemoras and less available for public service. Being a relatively small group they did not have the resources to pursue both at the same time.

This was expressed, in a symbolic way, in the newspaper, a large part of which became devoted to the publication of Torah novellae from the Yemenite immigrant bnei yeshivos. A letter (perhaps planted) signed by "Shmuel Zanvil Klein — New York" challenges: ". . . You have to decide to whom are you directing yourselves in your newsletter, either bnei Torah or baalei batim. If the latter there is no place for halachic arguments in a newspaper that is published infrequently. In my opinion, it is not worth trying to satisfy all types of people, you will just end up losing both ways . . ."

This question placed a question mark of the continuation of the Iggud, especially with regard to its scope. It came up on the agenda of the Iggud administration at its fourth convention and in full blast.

Comrade Ezriel Tzadok referred everyone's attention to the goals of Iggud as being: 1) To unite all the talmidim of the yeshivas. 2) To encourage them to continue their studies. 3) To increase their numbers. 4) To explain to the general community the value of learning in yeshiva. 5) Taking care of the needs of the bnei yeshivos and helping them, both materially and spiritually. The obvious common topic of all five goals was the yeshiva.

Following this statement, a lively argument developed. We will present it in full:

Comrade Zecharya Ramati (Porat Yosef — Rechovot), who was given permission to speak, claimed that there was an indifference on the part of the organizers, and consequently the operation was not satisfactory. In his opinion, HaMesillah is a vehicle of expression for the broader community, and the scope of the journal needs to be broadened.

Comrade S. K. (Mercaz HaRav) spoke after him. After surveying the current plight of the Iggud, he concluded that the Iggud had strayed from the borders that they had initially set up and made what was unessential to be essential, and what was essential to be unessential. The Iggud — according to him — was focusing its activities on matters of secondary importance. His suggestion was that from hereonin they should keep to the platform which was presented at the first convention, and according to the list of priorities in its clauses.

Comrade Shemaryahu Barzilai (Knesset Chizkiyohu) disagreed with Comrade K.: "I can attest and bring facts to show that the Iggud has been well accepted in the community." He added that if bochurim sit and learn Torah, that was enough, and they should not be asked to get involved in other activities as well. Rabbi Yosef Melamed (Tomchei Temimim), though he identified with Comrade Zecharya Ramati and argued that there had not been enough action in the past, but — he stated — they had to consider the future.

He suggested organizing a group of twenty members who would be responsible for supplying material to HaMesillah and publishing it. He also suggested that the publicity operations be done by the members at their own locations when they went away for Shabbos, vacations, and the like, so as to cut down on costs, and especially so as not to cause bitul Torah. He stated that it is necessary to hire a secretary to coordinate the activities of the Iggud. For that reason the members will have to pay their dues, as well as to raise funds from the general community.

Comrade Saadya Barzilai, during his appeal to the members, brought up the subject of the mindset that was prevalent at the time, in which people were more and more drawn to materialism and therefore it was up to them — the yeshiva students — to draw them back and instill in them what is man's purpose in this world.

In contrast to the first speakers, Rabbi Shaul Achrak (Petach Tikva) argued that the administration was only the seal, while the real work and initiative had to come from the members themselves.

Comrade Asher Sharabi went further and requested that the administration think less about public activities, because it took the members away from their learning. In his opinion, the bnei yeshiva must not be overburdened since their sole purpose was to learn Torah. With regard to activities during the vacation, he stated that it was the task of the members themselves to create an organization of Torah shiurim, information, etc.

Also, Comrade Ovadiah Yefet concurred with him, with regard to the complaint against the members that they were not active enough in raising funds for the Iggud. His suggestion was that the older members organize that matter, in conjunction with the youth.

The last of the debaters was Shlomo Amram Korach who expressed his delight that a lively debate had developed between the members and that criticism had been expressed. That, he said, was proof of the development of the Iggud and, consequently, the members' interest in whatever pertained to it. In response to Rabbi Ramati he stated that the articles on Torah novellae are obligatory in the current situation, since this is the only thing that demonstrates the development of the bnei Torah in relation to the community. With regard to the marriage fund, he said that for the moment they did not have the means to handle the burden of a fund of this type and it had to be put aside for a later date.

The reply of the chairman, Rabbi Shimon Ba'adani, was as follows: He dismissed the criticism of S. K. explaining that it was impossible to ask the bnei yeshivos to abandon their learning and become active in realizing the goals of the Iggud, for their main function was to learn Torah, and whatever had to be done was done with the most minimal of effort.

With regard to HaMesillah, he supported the opinion of Comrade Shlomo Korach, that HaMesillah is a platform for the members in which they express and present to the wider community their development in learning, which necessitates publishing Torah novellae. He also explained the difficulty in the publishing HaMesillah and all that it entails. In his response to Comrade Melamed, he stated that the administration was currently looking for a part time male secretary.

In Summary

The sequel of the ideological conflict over the path the Iggud would follow did not appear on the pages of HaMesillah because it soon fell silent, as did the Iggud itself. However, the real outcome is known through work of the people mentioned above, who became famous in their rabbinical status, contributing to the development of Torah among the people as a whole and in their community in particular, and in that sense their attitude undoubtedly triumphed in the end.

Shekin'as haTorah Tarbeh Lomdeho . . .

This survey of the Iggud is based largely on documents which were left among the papers of HaRav Shemaryahu Barzilai zt"l. His presence in the administration of the Iggud was reflected in the content of the newspaper HaMesillah, and particularly evident was his contribution in guarding the ideology and the purity of hashkofoh that were visible in the organization and its goals. Rabbi Shemaryahu, for his part, wanted to keep his activities quiet, as can be seen in this response of the newspaper to: "S.Y. and S.B. — Kol Torah," who are easily identifiable as Shlomo Yigali and Shemaryahu Barzilai. This is how that interesting response reads:

Regrettably, we are unable to conceal your names, and in the section "What is Being Done in the Iggud" we have stressed your names in connection with its activities. We very much want kinas haTorah tarbeh lomdeho (the zealousness for the Torah will increase its learners), in that your ideas and deeds should serve as a shining example and heritage for the whole community of our members. Chizku ve'imtzu!

All of HaRav Shemaryahu's life was devoted to the pure dissemination of Torah, as can be seen in the establishment of his yeshiva Mishkan Shimon, the pioneer Torah institute for the Oriental communities. Alongside the dissemination of Torah in the yeshiva he worked to give over the purist hashkofoh and the principle of compliance with the gedolim of the generation. His principled approach led to various problems that he encountered from several sources.

In a letter from the year 5724 (1964), written to HaRav Shalom Yitzchak HaLevi, Rabbi Shemaryahu reports on the comprehensive operations concerned with the shiurim in the Neve Achiezer and Givat Shmuel — neighborhoods close to his home.

Among other things, Rabbi Shemaryahu writes amazing things showing how pure were his intentions: "If I do not take money, I feel that it is easier for me to work, because if I were to take money for the organization of matters, there is no possible way that I could work . . . and he continues: . . . In the meantime, I have neither money nor reward in Gan Eden because I am taking pride in my actions before His Honor . . . "

HaRav Shemaryahu saw the reward for his actions in the illustrious yeshiva that thrives with numerous talmidim that are diligent in Torah and avodas Hashem.


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