More than the Calf Wants to Nurse
One aspect of the Torah community in Eretz Yisrael that never ceases to amaze me is the incredible number of "mitzvah entrepreneurs" who see a problem and sally forth to fix it. Though they may do so in Don-Quixote fashion, unlike Cervantes' hero they often achieve remarkable results. Tapping the energy of these "entrepreneurs," and providing them with the tools they need is a communal priority.
A week or two ago, a young man knocked on our door. From the look on his face, I assumed that he was collecting for himself. I was wrong.
About four years ago, he and another friend heard about a 40-year-old man stricken with cancer who had a great desire to meet some of the famous singers in the religious world. With that Chaim L'Nefesh Yisroel was born.
Many wonderful organizations today work with childhood cancer sufferers and their families. But few deal with adult cancer sufferers. It was that niche that Chaim L'Nefesh Yisroel attempts to fill.
At present, about 30-40 volunteers take out one or two adult cancer patients every Thursday night for an evening of dancing and song, usually led by a famous performer like Lipa Schmeltzer.
About 18 months ago, Rabbi Yehuda Vizner, the newly installed rabbi of the Prison Authority, heard about the work of Chaim L'Nefesh, and asked whether they would be interested in bringing volunteers and musicians to prisons around the country. In those prisons, they found men thirsty for anything to take their minds off their situation – a kind word, some music. Among those prisons is one that deals exclusively with juvenile offenders from 13 to 17.
With the strong encouragement of the Prison Services rabbinate, as well as some financial support, Chaim L'Nefesh has opened morning batei midrashot in the wings of the three adult prisons, in the middle of the country, and afternoon batei midrashot in the juvenile prison. The director of the juvenile prison is very excited about the positive effect on the young boys incarcerated there, and eager that Chaim L'Nefesh find the funding to open up in other wings of the prison.
One thing that puzzled me about the organization: What connection is there between adult cancer patients and prisoners? My young visitor could not, however, understand the question. For him, the connection is obvious: He and his friends saw various ways to brighten the lives of their fellow Jews, so they did it.
LAST THURSDAY I FOUND MYSELF riding from Bnei Brak to Tzoran, a community of 1,300 families near Netanya in a car so noisy we had to keep the windows closed. Somehow this car, which should have been consigned to the junkyard at least 100,000 miles ago, navigates this trip four times a day.
My host was Rabbi Aharon Betzalel. Ten years ago, the then 26-year-old avreich received a call out of the blue from someone in Tzoran who had picked up his just published Kuntras HaChaim and wanted him to come to teach in Tzoran. Rabbi Betzalel called Egged and found out that there was one late afternoon bus a day, from Bnei Brak to Tzorah. (No return bus existed.). Thus began what was to be a life-changing relationship for Rabbi Betzalel and the residents of Tzoran and its environs.
Tzoran's town plan did not even make provision for a shul, so far removed were the residents from any connection to religion. In the thirty nearby settlements, home to approximately 30,000 families, it was almost impossible to find a religious Jew under 65,
Upon arriving in Tzoran, Rabbi Betzalel noticed an abandoned caravan. He told a group of young boys to clean it out, and he would tell them a story and give them a prize. Within a few months, a daily minyan started, even though none of the participants were yet shomer Shabbos. After half a year, Rabbi Betzalel opened a kollel with ten avreichim.
Next he started raising money, a few shekels at a time, for a mikveh, With the money raised, he launched a worldwide appeal for a donor. In the end, a donor was found for a beautiful mikveh, which today sanctifies the lives of 400 families, and another donor came forward to build a much needed mikveh in Beit Shemesh.
Ten years after Rabbi Betzalel first arrived by bus, there are two Nesivos Moshe schools (one for boys and one for girls) in nearby Kadima, with 300 students. And Rabbi Betzalel runs a Talmud Torah with 86 boys from kindergarten through fifth-grade. To register in the Talmud Torah, the family cannot possess a TV and the mother must cover her hair. None of these families were religious ten years ago. Rabbi Betzalel has been the spiritual guide and posek for over 300 families who have become fully observant – many of whom have moved to Elad -- and an equal number of families who are at various stages on the path towards mitzvah observance.
All this has been done without making it to the radar screen of major benefactors, and with incredible mesirus nefesh. The Talmud Torah cannot afford to pay a cleaner or hire a secretary. That too falls on Rabbi Betzalel. Before we returned to Bnei Brak, he stopped at the Talmud Torah to clean the floors in two classrooms. And we are talking about a talmid chacham whose sefer has sold 8,000 copies and is found in almost every Israeli yeshiva.
In the car, I had to repeat all my questions a number of times. At first, I attributed that to the horrendous noise, but I noticed that Rabbi Betzalel did not hear all the questions asked by the boys in the shiur that he gave after Maariv. (Not one of the boys was born into a religious home.) He confided that at 36 he already suffers from hearing loss, which his doctors attribute to the incredible pressures on him, including taking out mortgages on his small Bnei Brak apartment and to keep the Talmud Torah going. Every night he has to raise the 100 shekels for gas to ferry the Talmud Torah staff the next morning, and to return again in the afternoon to teach and minister to families.
When I asked Rabbi Betzalel how he can live under such pressure, he told me that he remembers going with his father as a young boy to shiurim of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Rabbi Reuven Elbaz, in Jerusalem's Bukharian Quarter. Those Torah giants did not consider it beneath them to teach three or four simple baalebatim. So he does not consider it beneath him to do whatever has to be done to bring Torah to other Jews.
That memory and the berachah of Rav Chaim Kanievsky – "Even with Torah and ma'asim tovim, one cannot reach the level of your activities" – keep him going.
This article appeared in Mishpacha on October 31