Rav Elefant had not come to America from Jerusalem to deliver a report, but to issue a "call to action"
Rav Yosef Elefant of the Mirrer Yeshiva had an important message for the Motzaei Shabbos session of the recent convention of Agudath Israel of America: There is an opportunity at present in Eretz Yisrael to bring back thousands upon thousands of our fellow Jews to Torah observance that has not existed since the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.
Behind the scenes, he argued, there is an earthquake currently taking place, with the collapse of all the ideals, beliefs, and systems that formerly provided secular Israelis with a sense of both security and identity — in particular the IDF, which not only was unable to prevent 3,000 Hamas terrorists from crossing the border from Gaza, but, in many cases, did not reach southern kibbutzim and communities under attack for over six hours.
Nor would this be the first time that out of disaster came a national religious awakening. Something similar happened in 1973, when Israel was caught completely unprepared for the assault of Egyptian and Syrian forces on Yom Kippur. Even though the complete war plans of the attackers were in the files of the IDF Intelligence — a remarkable achievement — they were never shared with the relevant commanders and proved of no use when the war broke out. (See Uri Kaufman's new book Eighteen Days in October: The Yom Kippur War and How it Created the Modern Middle East.) The unfounded confidence of the intelligence branch, AMAN, imperiled Israel's very existence, and demonstrated for many the danger of placing one's exclusive faith in men of flesh and blood.
And a similar shattering of the idols has taken place today. Rav Elefant related what he had heard from his close friend and neighbor, Rabbi Tuvia Levenstein, the southern regional coordinator of Lev L'achim, whom I also interviewed and quoted a few weeks ago. On a visit to the refugees from Sderot in a Dead Sea hotel, the parents begged him to send yungeleit to teach their children. Singers and magicians they had had aplenty. But now, they clamored for learning Torah.
But Sderot is a traditional city. Thus even more amazing to Rabbi Levenstein were the pleas for avreichim from members of left-wing communities and kibbutzim in the area surrounding Gaza, which had for 15 years always been a closed "Do Not Enter" zone for Lev L'achim. Rav Elefant's brother is the rav of Dimona, another southern community, and he told him that everyone in the city is now wearing tzitzis, some with kippot, some without.
Rav Elefant told the audience that he had confirmed his feeling about the massive opportunity in conversations with professionals in all the kiruv organizations in the weeks leading up to the Agudah convention.
But taking advantage of that opportunity will require efforts to overcome logistical and financial challenges; it will require leadership and initiative. And the window of opportunity will not be open indefinitely.
Rav Elefant had not come to America from Jerusalem to deliver a report, but to issue a "call to action." But he wanted all those listening to first understand the magnitude of the obligation. The Gemara says, "One who hides his eyes from tzedakah is as if he worshipped avodah zarah" (Kesubos 68a). The Maharal explains that harsh judgment is based on the Torah's warning against anyone who would hesitate to give a loan to "your brother, who is impoverished," because of the impending shemittah year, when debts are cancelled. Such a person is referred to as a bli'al, as are those who worship avodah zarah.
To refuse to help a Jew in need — "your brother" — leads to the unraveling of Klal Yisrael. For we are only a unique nation — am echad b'aretz — and thus brothers to one another, by virtue of the fact that we have a one Father in Heaven. Our unity reflects and represents His unity, and when we do not manifest that sense of unity, our brotherhood, we are, in effect, lessening the perception of Hashem's unity, which is tantamount to avodah zarah.
And just as "your brother" can be an evyon materially, so can he be impoverished spiritually, through a lack of connection to Torah, Rav Elefant added, critically. When we are in a position to remove that impoverishment, we must.
The response to Rav Elefant's derashah was powerful: A group of balabatim who heard the message loud and clear gathered afterward and began working on an action plan. The first stage of that plan is already being implemented. Further stages are already taking shape and will be fully fleshed out in the coming weeks.
The last time I can recall an Agudah convention derashah generating such a concerted response was in 1990, when Rav Avraham Pam ztz"l made an impassioned plea to create a school system for the mass of Russian-speaking immigrant children arriving in Israel, after having been denied almost any access to their Judaism over the 72 years of Communist rule. Rav Pam's call resulted in the creation of the Shuvu school system, which today covers Israel (and also serves native-born Israelis), with a network of ganim, elementary schools, and high schools.
THE MESSAGE RAV ELEFANT DELIVERED was powerfully reinforced by a meeting in my living room early this week. My guests were Rabbi Doniel Faber, rosh yeshivah of Yeshuas Yisroel, a yeshivah and kollel for baalei teshuvah attracted to chassidus, and Rabbi Josh Friedman, a ram in the yeshivah. I had never met Rabbi Faber before, but I've known Rabbi Friedman for years, primarily as a fundraiser for a variety of projects that fire his imagination and fill him with the courage to reach out to wealthy Jews with whom he has no previous connection through his organization Israel Select Charity Fund.
For more than a month, Rabbi Friedman has been urging me to join one of his trips to army bases in Israel's south to deliver sets of tefillin to soldiers who have requested them. Initially, he had a list of 2,500 soldiers who were willing to commit to putting on tefillin for the rest of their lives, and undertook to raise the $1.25 million needed, at $500 per pair. That list has now grown to 4,700, with new names added every day. The day after our meeting, for instance, five wounded soldiers in Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva requested tefillin. None of them had been on the list before. So far, Rabbi Friedman has distributed 2,800 sets of tefillin on army bases, and as soon as the funding arrives, new sets, which are already prepared and waiting, will be given out.
The story of the tefillin project actually precedes the current war by 23 years, when Mendy Ofen, from a prominent Lubavitch family in Jerusalem, was reading the Megillah for a group of soldiers stationed in Chevron. In the middle of the Megillah reading, a terrorist entered the room and shot Mendy, wounding him critically. He was airlifted by helicopter to Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem. (He jokes that perhaps he received such quick treatment because his Purim costume was the uniform of an IDF general.) While in transit, he vowed that if he survived, he would dedicate his life to helping soldiers.
And so he has. Since October 7, for instance, he has spent every Shabbos on an army base, away from his family. Early on, in his work with soldiers, Mendy began offering tefillin to those about to embark on dangerous missions. Over the years, he found that 90 percent of those who took the tefillin were still putting them on every day, and 40 percent were fully shomer Shabbos. Rabbis Faber and Friedman got involved with Mendy by helping him set up gemachim for tefillin around the country so that he would always have sets available as needed. Since October 7, the demand has exploded.
Rabbi Faber tells me the story of one soldier to whom he gave a set of tefillin in a beautiful white tefillin zekel (also donated). He told Rabbi Faber that he is a living miracle. He was home from his base for "the weekend" — Shabbat was barely familiar to him, much less Simchat Torah — in one of the southern communities. When he opened the front door to his home that morning, he saw terrorists carrying machine guns everywhere. He went back inside and grabbed his rifle, but knew he had no chance of surviving.
At that point he uttered a short prayer, perhaps the first of his life: "Borei Olam, if I escape from here, I will put on tefillin every day."
Somehow, he did survive, and since then he has borrowed tefillin from different friends every day. When Rabbi Faber handed him his own set, the tough-looking soldier began crying uncontrollably.
I press the rabbis to tell me what they have seen from many visits to the troops. The first thing they mention is the achdus and high spirits. The eagerness for tefillin, which is only growing, is one manifestation. Until now, Rabbi Friedman points out, tefillin in Israeli society would always have been thought of as something exclusively reserved for the "religious" — as opposed, for instance, to eating matzah on Pesach. No longer. It is now a mitzvah for everyone.
And the feeling of connection between soldiers, as fellow Jews, is manifest in the fighting spirit of the IDF. Colonel Richard Kemp, today of the Gatestone Institute, but formerly the head of British Expeditionary Forces in Afghanistan and one of the world's leading experts in asymmetric warfare, has joined IDF forces on a number of missions in Gaza. He describes the "fighting spirit, morale, and courage of the soldiers as second to none."
Even more important is the thirst for a connection to Torah. When the rabbis first appeared at the largest southern base, they were greeted with a certain amount of suspicion by the woman checking their identification cards. Now she greets them warmly because she has seen the way the soldiers spontaneously flock around them as soon as they enter. And there is no difference in that regard between younger recruits and older reservists, between enlisted men and officers. One officer recently solicited a brachah for a safe return from Rabbi Faber. But he was dissatisfied with brachah he received for his safe return from the upcoming entry into Gaza and insisted on another brachah for the safe return of all those under his command.
The soldiers do not have to be enticed to hear shiurim with barbecues and the like; they are asking for the shiurim. The aforementioned Mendy Ofen has gathered a team of assistants — one for every ten soldiers on a base to arrange activities, such as enthusiastic Kabbalat Shabbat services, shiurim, and learning individually with soldiers. And the IDF itself keeps asking him to ramp up his efforts and bring in more pe'ilim.
The present moment, as Rabbi Elefant insisted, dictates what must be done going forward. When the war is over, b'ezras Hashem quickly, and reservists return to their jobs and families and enlisted men to their normal routines, their excitement in connecting to their Judaism must not be allowed to dissipate.
That means not only providing those kiruv organizations that have always worked by creating one-on-one chavrusas with the resources to expand their efforts. That is the role of the balabatim stirred by Rav Elefant's call. But it also means that the ranks of bnei Torah and their wives eager to teach and create ongoing relationships with Israeli Jews from less religious backgrounds must swell. And that responsibility is on all of us.