In 1914, before the outbreak of World War 1, a group of leading rabbis representing the Old Yishuv began an outreach tour of various settlements of the New Yishuv in the Upper and Lower Galilee (northern region). The chief architect and organizer of this outreach campaign was Rabbi Benzion Yadler, the Yerushalmi Maggid – the famous preacher and storyteller from Jerusalem. He was also engaged in outreach to the pioneers of the New Yishuv. He thought of the idea of sending a delegation of leading rabbis to visit the settlements – to inspire the people to renew their bond with Torah, the heritage of all Israel. Rabbi Benzion Yadler prepared the groundwork for this “renewal” tour by traveling to all the settlements in the Upper and Lower Galilee in Elul of 5673 (1913). He spoke to the settlements’ leaders, and they agreed to properly receive the rabbinic delegation.
The delegation set out the following year in the fall. It was led by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, a leading Rav in Jerusalem who had previously visited some of the settlements, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, then Rav of Jaffa, and Rabbi Yonasan Binyamin Hurvitz, the director of Kollel Amsterdam in Jerusalem. They were accompanied by Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop and Rabbi Benzion Yadler. En route, they were joined by Rabbi Moshe Kaliers, Rav of Tiberias, Rabbi Raphael Zilberman, Rav of Tsfas (Safed), and Rabbi Baruch Marcus, Rav of Haifa. The group gathered at the home of Rabbi Kook in Jaffa, and from there they set out on their month-long journey.
When they arrived at the village of Merchaviah, it was reported that two Jewish youths, Moshe Barsky of Kibbutz Deganiah, and Yosef Saltzman of Kibbutz Kinneret, had been murdered by Arab raiders. After hearing the tragic news, the rabbis asked to be allowed to publicly eulogize the fallen youths. Following the evening prayers, the young residents of Merchaviah filed into the large dining room where they heard Rabbi Sonnenfeld and Rabbi Kook give moving eulogies.
Another farming village they visited was Kfar Tabor, a settlement of the first aliyah, where most of the residents were steeped in the traditions of Judaism; however, the teachers at the local school were not religious. Here too, the two slain youths were eulogized by the rabbis.
The question then arose whether to spend the night in Kfar Tavor or to continue that very night to nearby Sagerah. Several farmers suggested that the rabbis spend the night in Kfar Tavor, as a deadly quagmire had formed as a result of the morning rain which made night travel almost impossible. Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, however, explained that they should proceed immediately to Sagerah, as there would be no other time to visit this village. He then offered the following second reason for going that night: As a result of the recent murder of the two young men, there were farmers and workers who were afraid to do any traveling at night. It was therefore important to go by foot to Sagerah at night in order to demonstrate to all that we should not be afraid, and that we should not abandon the roads between each settlement – even at night. Accompanied by his son, Rabbi Sonnenfeld set out by foot for Sagerah that very night. They arrived safely, and the other rabbis arrived later.
Early Friday morning, the rabbis left Sagerah for Yavnael and Bet-Gan in three small wagons. On the high road, they discerned eight horsemen racing towards them from the distance. The speeding horsemen drew nearer, bringing their Arab kafiahs and waving rifles into plain view. It then became clear that the riders were Jews who had come to greet them. Drawing their steeds to a halt before the wagons, the riders dropped down. They then approached the rabbis, and kissed their hands, according to the Sephardic custom. (Sephardic Jews are known for the great respect and affection that they show to their rabbis, whom they address as “chachamin” – a Hebrew term for scholars and sages.)
The rabbis felt joy and elation when they realized that the riders with rifles and Arab kafiahs were Jewish brothers coming to greet them. Rabbi Kook, Rabbi Hurvitz, and Rabbi Benzion Yadler demonstrated their elation by mounting the horses. The men from Yavnael who had come to greet them were inspired when they saw the venerable rabbis skillfully maneuvering their mounts as they journeyed to Yavnael. The men from Yavnael then burst into the song, “God will build the Galilee,” and the rabbis joined them in the singing. When they approached Yavnael, they were met by the rest of the villagers, who joined in the singing while several began a spirited Bedouin dance.
When the rabbis later arrived in Bet-Gan, an old man with a long flowing beard got up before the assembled crowd and began speaking in Russian. This man, who was a convert by the name of Yoav Dobrobyn, spoke very loudly, with tears streaming down his face and with his entire body giving way to periodic sobs. The rabbis asked for someone to translate, and one of the farmers gave the following translation:
“I am a convert from Russia. I come from a family of Sabbatniks (a Russian-Christian sect which observed the Jewish Sabbath) for which I was persecuted in my hometown in Russia. After a while, I moved to Charkov where I converted to Judaism, and from where I finally came to Eretz Yisrael. I am here ten years, working the land and living in peace with my neighbors. The Hebrew nation which I have joined I love above all others, and I revere God greatly. I study the Torah regularly, and I know what it says there about those who do not honor the name of Hashem and do not observe His mitzvos. To my sorrow, I find among my neighbors here many who make light of the mitzvos of the Torah and who desecrate the Shabbos. When I admonish them, they make fun of me. And now the evil has finally penetrated my home. My children have been taught in school that they may work on Shabbos and that the Bible is not a holy book but only a collection of nice stories. My children have accepted this and my home has become a hell. Holy men, now that you have come among us, please save us. Have pity on our souls, on our lives.”
The rabbis went over to him and calmed him with a promise to do everything in their power to rectify the religious deterioration of the place. Yoav Dobrobyn then accompanied the rabbis to their next destination, where they would be for Shabbos, and he spent the Shabbos in their room. After speaking at length with the rabbis, he accepted their advice to move his entire family to a more traditional community, Yesod HaMaaleh, where he spent the rest of his long life. (He passed away at the age of one hundred and four.)
The rabbis also visited Moshav Poriah, a settlement which was founded by forty American Jews from St. Louis, Missouri. That evening, the members of the moshav gathered in the community dining room. After some singing, Rabbi Kook rose to speak. His theme was the ever-widening gap that had developed between the New Yishuv and the old Yishuv as a result of the young generation’s abandonment of their spiritual heritage. The leaders of the Old Yishuv now felt that the time had come to reach out with open arms to their brethren. Rabbi Kook appealed to the settlers to return to all that is holy in Israel and thereby live a true national life – one which would bring much good to all the People of Israel and the Land of Israel. Rabbi Kook then said:
“If our ancestors had, Heaven forbid, abandoned the observance of Shabbos, the kosher dietary laws, and other Torah practices one thousand years ago, would there have been any hope that their descendants would be gathering today with such burning love, with such lively hope, to the Land of our destiny? Learn, therefore, our young brethren, from the old Israeli world all the good that she offers. Hearken to her goodness, which derives from holiness. Answer ‘Amen’ to her call.”
Rabbi Kook added: “And then the old world will learn, too, all that is good in the new world. And the generations will go forth together in their full glory to be the nation of Hashem – and to restore hope to those so long deprived of it. Blessed be Hashem forever, Amen and Amen!”
With the conclusion of his words, a prolonged, thunderous applause shook the building, coming loudest from the young people.
The rabbis went on to visit various kibbutzim and villages, as well as the city of Tsfas. They then returned to Haifa, where they boarded a ship which returned them to Jaffa. Upon reaching shore, they proceeded to Rabbi Kook’s home, where they began to discuss measures for following up their initial work.
They all agreed that the first thing to do was to set up a proper Jewish school in each settlement; moreover, the schools were to be tailored to the particular needs of each settlement. The rabbis also resolved to try and settle a qualified Torah scholar in each moshav to study Torah with people and answer their questions. In addition, they agreed to publish a full and detailed account of their trip. After the meeting, the rabbis returned to their homes full of hope, as they were inspired by the noble character and spirit of the people they encountered at every stop on their historic journey.
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos, and a Happy Chanukah,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
The outbreak of World War 1, as well as strong opposition from some secular leaders, administrators, and teachers, prevented the rabbis from achieving most of their goals. Some of the settlements of the first aliyah were funded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. His representatives, who rigidly controlled the settlements, were usually secular-oriented Jews from Western Europe who had a strong prejudice against traditional Judaism. In the end, only four religious schools were set up; one in each of these four settlements – Zichron Yaakov, Yavnael, Kfar Tavor, and Rosh Pinah. The most successful was the one in Yavniel, run by Rabbi Moshe Porush, which virtually emptied the settlement’s secular school.
In retaliation, the representatives of Baron Rothschild imposed economic sanctions against the parents who sent their children to the religious schools, to the point where some were completely deprived of their livelihoods. Nevertheless, most of the parents persevered.
2. The policy of economic sanctions against parents who sent their children to religious schools was later adopted by the ruling Labor Party for a period right after the establishment of the State of Israel. When the religious Yemenite and Sephardic immigrants left the immigration camps and settled in development towns, they were told by the local Labor Party officials that they would not find work if they sent their children to religious schools. For further information, you can review a previous letter in our series about the attempts by the Labor government to eradicate the Torah-based culture of these immigrants:
3. Many of the early leaders and policy-makers of the State of Israel came from secular, leftist kibbutzim that were known for their anti-religious attitude. In our generation, a new Jewish spirit is emerging on the kibbutzim, for a growing number of their members have begun to explore their spiritual roots. One can now find synagogues on these kibbutzim, as well as Torah classes. These kibbutzniks inherited the legacy of the pioneers of the New Yishuv, and many of them are now willing to study Torah with Chareidei men and women who inherited the legacy of the pioneers of the Old Yishuv. For example, there is a Chareidi organization named, Ayelet Hashchar (Morning Star), which has been placing Torah-committed couples on more than 60 kibbutzim and smaller settlements around the country, where they serve as teachers and guides.
4. A detailed description of the rabbinic outreach tour to the new settlements is found in the three-volume Hebrew biography of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, HaIsh Al Hachomah, and in the one-volume English edition, “Guardian of Jerusalem” (ArtScroll). For further information on “Guardian of Jerusalem, visit: http://www.artscroll.com/linker/hazon/ASIN/GUAH