A few weeks ago, I spent a day with Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, the founder of Ayelet HaShachar, an organization that has placed religious families on sixty-five non-religious kibbutzim and yishuvimin recent years. In almost all of these places, Ayelet HaShachar ran Yom Kippur services this year, some attracting as many as 100 people from the kibbutz or yishuv. Over Succos alone, Ayelet HaShachar ran 265 events – Simchos Beis HaShoeva, Hakafos Shniyos – on different kibbutzim and yishuvim.
It was fascinating to see firsthand the impact that one family can have on attitudes towards Torah and religious Jews, even on the most hardened anti-religious kibbutz. I listened as Rabbi Raanan confirmed with the secretary of one of the veteran left-wing kibbutzim that they had made a request from the regional council to build a mikveh on the kibbutz.
On one kibbutz near Tiveria, the manager of the commissary had once told the young avreich then serving as a mashgiach for a production line of kosher food, "I don’t care if you are living here; I will never let you shop in this store." The kibbutz member, to whom that same avreich had been directed as the most likely to be interested in a Shabbos service, greeted him with, "I hate Judaism and I hate you," a phrase that he repeated about every three minutes during their more than hour-long conversation. Yet little more than two years later, that avreich and his wife were asked to head the kibbutz’s cultural committee (an honor that they had to turn down because of the unsuitability of many of the activities).
I will be writing about Ayelet HaShachar, and what it represents, in the future. But for now, I’d like focus on a comment I heard from one of its emissaries, a young woman who has just opened up a gan nursery school, in Kfar Tabor, just outside of Afula. She and her husband, a budding young talmid chacham, were placed by Ayelet HaShachar, with their young family in Ilania, a nearby settlement.
Their arrival was big news in the sleepy hamlet of 120 families, in which it sometimes seemed that nothing had happened since Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohein Kook, zichron tzaddikim l’vrachah, visited the village on their famous campaign of spiritual arousal more than eight decades earlier. Neighbors who had long since stopped speaking to one another because there was nothing left to say all began to seek out the new arrivals.
Her shocking comment was: "I would never raise my children anywhere else than Ilania." And no less surprising was her reason: "Here I know that they will never go off the derech."
She explained that in Ilania her children will be continually involved in giving. They will have a very clear sense of their role in life: to make Torah real for their neighbors who were not fortunate enough to be born into a Torah family or to have a Torah education.
Apparently, she believed that something like the principle in kashrus ein hapoleit boleia, that which is giving off does not absorb, applies to human beings as well as vessels. And she may well be right that there is no greater protection than the idealism that goes with being a giver.
I have often heard (and had the opportunity to observe myself) from rabbis of congregations removed from major metropolitan Jewish centers that their children are uniquely mature for their ages. They view themselves as part of a family business and, from a very young age, get used to dealing with adults. They know every member in shul – his or her eccentricities and religious level – and every step that one of the congregants takes religiously is celebrated in the home as a major event.
From a very early age, the children of rabbis in such communities are involved in activities like visiting the sick and elderly. That is just part of their role. When these kids eventually go off to seminary or yeshivah, they often stand out from their contemporaries from larger communities, who have never taken responsibility for others or had to relate to people outside of their own age group.
These kids are not only more tolerant of less observant Jews than their peers in larger Torah communities. They often have a stronger religious identity by virtue of having to develop their own identity in juxtaposition to all the other families with whom they interact. That is not a challenge that faces youngsters growing up in communities where everyone adheres to the same basic religious norms. A close friend of mine who raised half his children in Tel Aviv and half in Bnei Brak has told me more than once that those raised in Tel Aviv grew up more deeply religious than those raised in Bnei Brak, for precisely this reason.
Raising children in an all-religious environment can also make parents a bit lazy: They assume that their children will absorb all that they need to know by osmosis or they rely on their schools to instill Torah values. Parents in smaller communities know better than to make any such easy assumptions. Rabbis in such communities know, for instance, that they must learn with their sons if they are not to be behind when they go off to yeshivah. As a consequence, those sons are often surprised to find themselves ahead of their classmates when they arrive at yeshivah.
A rav in Zurich, who was considering moving with his family to Eretz Yisrael, consulted the Brisker Rav before making a final decision. The Brisker Rav advised him to remain in Zurich. "In Zurich, you will raise your children," said the Brisker Rav. "Here in Eretz Yisrael, the street will raise them." In Zurich, the rav would be under no illusions about how much work he had to put into each of his children. In Eretz Yisrael, by contrast, he might well fall victim to the illusion that the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael alone would suffice.
Few of us who are fortunate to live in a thriving Torah community are likely to pick up anytime soon to move to the Jewish boondocks. As Rabbi Yose ben Kisma said, "I would not dwell other than in a a place of Torah (Pirkei Avos 6:9). Still, we can learn a lot about childrearing from those handful of idealists willing to live outside such a community, in order to bring closer their Jewish brothers and sisters.