To go or not to go? The nerve-racking question bothered me incessantly. My son had invited me to come to Yerushalayim and experience the taste of Purim in Yerushalayim for real but, his enthusiasm aside, I was skeptical. What with the security situation as it is, my doubts were rising. In the end, it was the pleading of the children that persuaded me. "Zeidy, it's really not scary here at all! The only Arabs you'll see in our neighborhood are our friends in their Purim costumes."
By the time it came to mid-morning on Purim I was not sorry I came. Walking through the streets I was simply inhaling the Purim atmosphere, my eyes unable to focus on all the hustle and bustle around me. (Perhaps I had drunk one too many already?)
Then at 1:40 suddenly the pace around me quickened. Everyone was rushing in one direction. As I was propelled forward in the moving mass of humanity, my heartbeat quickened. I was worried, but a nervous glance at those nearest to me showed that none of their faces radiated fear. In fact, they were all smiling, heading forwards together with purposeful strides. And then again, it wasn't everyone in one direction. One crowd was turning off into a side street and disappearing into a building. Another group of men and boys were actually streaming in the opposite direction.
Rather perplexed, I allowed myself to be swept along, up the broad steps and into the wide hall of a shul. And that's when the walking stopped. The sight that met my eyes shell- shocked me more than my previous, unfounded fear.
Rows upon rows of fathers and sons were laid out before me as a Purim feast, with brightly colored costumes, strange wigs and hats of every size and shape. Cheeky faces grubby with makeup and shalach manos nosh were seriously poring over seforim. A cross-eyed clown gestured articulately in kushyos and teshuvos to a white- bearded man in a Turkish fez.
And all around, the familiar sound towards which every Jew has a particular nostalgia. That of his yeshiva days.
Time stood still and I, transported into another world, felt my eyes again unable to focus. But I was sober now, wasn't I? Deftly I wiped away the tear forming in the corner of my eye, so I could absorb what I was witnessing: Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik 5753.
@Sub Title=How It All Began
If Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik is the yeshiva gedolah, then its springboard and yeshiva ketana must be Ovos Uvonim.
Ovos Uvonim is an initiative that was started in Gateshead, England some ten years ago. Rav Yechiel Cohen and Reb David Shleider, organizers of the local youth group, sympathized with all the fathers who never had time to learn with their children — and with children who never got a chance to learn with their fathers — and they invented a scheme that would solve this once and for all. All winter, every motzei Shabbos, any child who came to learn with his father in shul would get a prize. For one designated hour, avos and bonim would learn together. The kids would go home with a treat, and the regulars would earn points towards large prizes.
This was a win-win-win idea. Everyone was happy. Within a few years, this extremely successful program had grown to the point that it was thriving in Eretz Yisroel, where people were coming not only on winter motzei Shabbosim, but on Friday afternoons in the summer as well. Whole families would finish their Shabbos preparations early so that the fathers could go to shul with their sons to learn.
It was in Eretz Yisroel that Ovos Uvonim took off in earnest. Rav Yechiel's father, Rav Yisroel Cohen, and Reb David Hershkowitz picked up the idea and brought it back home to Bayit Vegan with them in 5758/1998, starting with a group in a local shul. Within two weeks so many people were attending that the program had to move to the nearby Gra shul, and by the end of the year, branches had opened in Har Nof and Ramot. The second year, ninety branches opened all around Yerushalayim, Bnei Brak and other main chareidi centers.
Then in 5761/2001, Ovos Uvonim went international. In 5761/2001 the number of branches all over Eretz Yisroel reached 254, and HaRav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the rosh yeshiva of Mir, sent Reb David Hershkowitz to America, where he helped Rav Shlomo Zalman Unsdorfer start over 100 branches there. By this time, there were ten in England and a few in Belgium and Australia as well.
This year's around 1,200 branches worldwide include Marseilles, Montreal, Vienna, Venezuela, and even a few in Tel Aviv.
The secret of the program is the way it taps deep into the hidden power of Klal Yisroel. Children tired of wandering around underfoot on Friday begin nagging to be taken to shul. The combined appeal of Torah, an hour of undivided paternal attention and a bag of chips is irresistible. And given the choice of doing one more errand or appeasing their insistent kids, fathers are not unwilling to let the kids have the day. Our desire to do right is so strong that this minuscule incentive is all that is needed to overwhelm the monstrous yetzer hora that was holding everyone back all along.
It would be worth every tourist's while to put an Ovos Uvonim stop on his agenda. The image of shuls around Eretz Yisroel on Friday afternoons nowadays is truly a taste of Moshiach's tzeiten. Botei medrash are packed wall-to-wall with fathers and sons, with yeshiva bochurim and their younger brothers, with adult chavrusas — all cashing in on the intense, unique temimusdik atmosphere of children learning, with whole communities united in bringing Shabbos in through Torah. The atmosphere can be described, but the truth is, it deserves to be joined.
@Sub Title=In Spite of the Naysayers
After Ovos Uvonim, Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik was the next logical step.
Perhaps the original model was formed in Lakewood, where there had been a Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik made up only of children for many years already.
The name was now adopted and the style changed to that of Ovos Uvonim — where fathers and sons come together to learn. This idea, too, originated in Gateshead, where it was proposed in 5754/1994, by HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon, the renowned mashgiach, then of Gateshead, now of Lakewood.
He wanted to see people learning on Purim and recommended the Ovos Uvonim model - - giving prizes to the children if their fathers come — as the approach most likely to encourage men to learn. Since then, Purim has become synonymous with learning, in Gateshead, where the only place large enough to hold Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik has been the main beis medrash of the Gateshead Yeshiva. But as with the weekly program, the real learning explosion happened in Eretz Yisroel.
HaRav Naftoli Falk, a native of Gateshead, had been running the Ezras Torah Ovos Uvonim for a few months when he started thinking of the yearly Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik back home. Having innovated the Friday afternoon program with startling success, he was determined to bring in dozens of fathers and sons on Purim, too. Obviously, the prizes would have to be impressive enough to overcome the many enticements of the day, and the program would have to be touted long and loud enough for everyone to know about it and want to join.
Sparing no expense and despite the short notice, he optimistically bought two hundred calculator watches, put up posters, and by Purim afternoon discovered that Am Yisroel was more special than he had imagined. Two hundred extra watches were quickly bought and distributed by the end of the week.
For its second year, the program went national. Graphic artists prepared professional posters, organizers were drafted to make arrangements in all the Ovos Uvonim branches in the country, and 15,000 desk shtenders were ordered from China at $2.50 apiece. The size of the undertaking was unheard of. Word got out and the excitement started to build. Kids everywhere were talking about the upcoming Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik, about the containerful of shtenders that had arrived at the dock, about whether they would wear their costumes to shul when they came to learn, about whether their little brothers were old enough to come — in short, fathers had no choice but to make the time, because otherwise their children's Purim would be ruined.
And somehow, the time was found. Between mishloach manos and hosting dancing bochurim, at 1:40 everything stopped, and the streets around Yerushalayim were suddenly filled with throngs of fathers and sons streaming to all the shuls in every neighborhood. By 1:50 the only sounds were bubbling pots in the homes and the roar of Torah in the shuls, as thousands upon thousands filled up the botei medrash with the kol Yaakov that had been so sorely missed on Purims past.
The idea caught on like wildfire as every circle of Yidden embraced the idea as its own. From the various communities in Eretz Yisroel the idea went global and then there was no stopping the overflow. Last year's countries of Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik included: Australia, South Africa, France, Switzerland, Belgium, and all over North and South America from Montreal, Toronto, Denver, and Chicago to Sao Paulo.
And in every shul, in every beis medrash, it began with a local member taking the initiative and organizing a program of its own.
Yet people who haven't seen it think it can't be done.
Rav Efraim Zelaznik of Yerushalayim always thought it was impossible to learn on Purim. That was until the levaya of HaRav Moshe Feinstein, almost two decades ago. That Purim, all of Klal Yisroel took off two hours to pay their last respects to the godol hador. They all found time; Purim suffered not a whit. Ever since, Rav Zelaznik has been learning on Purim.
As Purim nears and leaflets are distributed, the excitement in the air gathers momentum. Boys surround their menahalim and eagerly read the pamphlets and the upcoming top-secret prize is the question on everyone's lips.
For the upcoming year, 55,000 prizes have been ordered from Shanghai for distribution in Eretz Yisroel alone.
@Sub Title=A Source of Blessing
As people have found, running or sponsoring a beis medrash is a source of blessing: the more people who have helped, the more yeshuos that have resulted. This is particularly true for Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik. Rav Aryeh Finkel, who guides the organization in every detail, instructed the Purim committee not to look for corporate funding but rather to "let private people get the zchus." Purim is the day when kol haposheit yad, nosnim lo, and he felt that individuals would want the zechuyos. In fact, there are people who won't let go of them.
A Boyaner chossid's two-year-old daughter was hit by a van and suffered such serious skull fractures and liver damage that the doctors only shook their heads as they took her into surgery. The case was hopeless by all natural experience, but the father wouldn't give up. He started searching for zechuyos and came up with Ovos Uvonim.
On the spot, the father made a neder to begin an Ovos Uvonim program in Boyan, which did not yet have one, and before the day was out, he called the committee to ask what he could do for Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik. Two weeks later he brought home a completely healthy child, leaving the doctors befuddled in the hospital. A few months later, he set up his third Ovos Uvonim branch in Boyan.
On Purim last year, Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik in Rachmastrivke on Givat Moshe was in full swing. But one of the regular organizers, a yungerman who had so far had a childless marriage for seven years, was missing. He had been helping out annually and for Purim 5752 had given a large donation to Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik.
A call to Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik down the road in Ezras Torah's Beis Yisroel shul confirmed that he wasn't there either. Just as the hour of learning came to a close, Reb S. H. Greenwald came bursting into the Beis Yisroel Shul, having run from Rachmastrivke with the thrilling news. Our missing friend and benefactor had just become, Boruch Hashem, the father of twin boys!
A thirty-four year old girl in Bnei Brak who had not had a shidduch suggested for a whole year, asked to donate last year for a Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik. By the time the administrator wrote to us after Purim to report on the turnout and results in his beis medrash, he included the besurah that the donor was engaged!
The yeshuos are indicative of Heaven smiling down on us in nachas ruach.
This has been true on a communal scale as well.
HaRav Aharon Leib Shteinman has said that he feels strongly that the zchus of the tinokos shel beis Rabban learning on Purim was directly responsible for thwarting the bombing that was planned in Meah Shearim three years ago. It was a 60-kilogram, 132-pound behemoth, larger than anything attempted before or since, and would have seriously damaged buildings all around, not to mention what it could have done to the people, had it gone off, Rachmono litzlan. Instead, it was discovered and defused without anyone being hurt.
During the very hour of learning in Emanuel on Purim, a terrorist on the way to commit a suicide bombing was caught in that same town.
However, the fax that arrived to Ovos Uvonim in Yerushalayim from a branch in Haifa two years ago (publicized last year) is perhaps the most startling.
Haifa was in the throes of an uproar over its ness Purim that it had experienced. Two terrorists about to carry out shooting attacks were caught in the city center. The newspapers that trumpeted reports of the miracle were not informed of the details that we at Ovos Uvonim received.
Wrote HaRav Yehuda Englard of Beis Haknesses Mekor Boruch, Haifa:
"The first terrorist was caught during the hour of Ovos Uvonim in the Tiferes Yisroel shul and the second one when the branch at Ramat Vishnitz was learning."
It was clear that the Kol Yaakov of innocent children and their fathers had thwarted our enemies' plans.
@Sub Title=Sons Without Their Fathers
Purim 5752. In the Meor Chaim shul of Sanhedria Murchevet, Yerushalayim, an Ovos Uvonim organizer watched with satisfaction as smiling boys and their fathers started streaming towards the benches after Mincha was over, ready for Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik. Suddenly, he noticed a boy with a tear- streaked face making his way to the door, trying to exit the shul as fast as possible without being noticed. With a jolt, he recognized Chaim, who had lost his father, R"l, that past winter.
The rules promised prizes for boys accompanied by their fathers. How could Chaim be allowed to lose out, only further deepening his pain? So surrogate fathers were set up as chavrusas for all those who don't have fathers to come with them: orphans, sons of fathers who are ill and boys from broken homes.
Thirty avreichim were sent in to the renowned Blumenthal Orphanage in Yerushalayim. This one hour of learning gave each boy a new relationship with a `father' he could call his own. The following year a woman visitor to the orphanage gave a large donation to Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik after hearing one boy counting the days to Purim, ". . . because I can't wait to feel the warmth of Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik again!"
Through Ovos Uvonim and Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik, these desolate souls have formed strong relationships they would otherwise never have had. One boy has become close to his uncle, another to his grandfather and a third to a warm volunteer.
@Sub Title=Bringing Families Together
But Ovos Uvonim and Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik have worked even more powerful miracles of the covert kind.
A moshavnik's son wanted to attend Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik, but his father doesn't know how to learn anything — not even Chumash. Children are very creative and can be incredibly persistent when they know what they want. This boy had been studying at a religious school, and he wanted to learn on Purim more than anything.
Last Purim, he and his father joined Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik, and the boy taught his father Chumash!
These stories capture the spiritual essence of Ovos Uvonim. Not only does the program inspire Torah study during hours when it is usually missing, but even more important, it strengthens the bonds between parents and children that are so sorely strained in our times.
The principal of a cheder in Yerushalayim has said that before Ovos Uvonim hardly two-fifths of the parents knew what their children were learning, let alone how well the boys were doing. Now 90 percent are involved, revolutionizing the relationship between parents, children, teachers and principals. By following their children's progress, parents see the effort and skill the cheder rebbes are investing, and there is much greater respect all around.
Today's society has become so vast and diverse that the individual becomes lost. Youth are losing touch with their roots as the byword is to move forward and spread their wings. Ovos Uvonim and Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik are bringing us back to kehilloh life, back to a warm, pulsating beis medrash, where the hearts of young and old beat to the same tune.
@Sub Title=To Join the Children
Although it has a Vaad HaRabbonim that it constantly consults, Ovos Uvonim has no rabbinical letters of recommendation. The organization doesn't need them, because the rebbes and rabbonim attend in person.
HaRav Moshe Schloss, a talmid chochom formerly of England, comes to Ovos Uvonim every week even though his grandchildren are too old for him to learn with them in the program. He says he comes for the same reason that the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva asked to be buried in the children's chelka. The kedusha of little children is especially great, and learning with them has the power to work yeshuos and bring one's tefillos and zechuyos up to Heaven.
HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon wrote in a letter to Ovos Uvonim that he envies the zchus of these children. For the upcoming year, the Mashgiach plans to sit on the beis medrash bench with the children "and together nimtzo chein be'einei HaMelech!"
Anyone who has attended knows the incredible sight of so many pure children coming to learn — running and jumping and dancing to learn - - hand-in-hand with their fathers, in their costumes and masks, or just with wide Purim smiles.
But then everyone settles down and the atmosphere becomes absolutely charged with the true geshmack of learning. Fathers are imbued with the intense pleasure of teaching Torah to their sons, and sons are ecstatic over the opportunity for personal attention and precious learning with their fathers.
By the time the hour is over, the prize has become completely secondary. No one is rushing to go home.
Some branches have even added one minute of learning at the end of the hour to be purely lishmoh, not for the prize. Others have added a few chapters of Tehillim as a closing note.
The experience is electrifying and unforgettable. As one person observed, "I saw more heartfelt tears being shed during the Tehillim at the end of Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik, than at Ne'iloh on Yom Kippur. And what's more, while the latter are indicative of our fear of G-d, the former are surely tears of pure ahavas Hashem!"
Never seen it? Sounds too far away? Your local beis medrash could be the next to merit hosting a Yeshivas Mordechai Hatzaddik, if only you'll take the initiative to start it.
On Purim of 5774/2014, all over the world they will be learning. Will you be part of it?