Finding Common Ground in Rehovot
by Moshe Shapiro
Reprinted with permission from Yated Neeman USA
Photos © Stephen Epstein and may be licensed directly from the photographer.
This article was written in 2000. Since then the yeshiva has grown to 500 students.
Crossing a typical street in Eretz Yisroel is much like crossing a traffic-logged avenue in Manhattan during rush hour: motorists assume that they, rather than pedestrians, have the right of way.
Unless, that is, if you are crossing the streets of Rehovot, a bustling city with nearly 100,000 residents some 15 miles south of Tel Aviv, and 40 miles south of Yerushalayim. Residents are so polite that the city has an almost American feel to it. Motorists don't just stop for pedestrians; they occasionally even stop for drivers coming from the opposite direction angling for a left-hand turn.
But Rehovot's uniqueness isn't limited to its good manners. In fact, those manners are likely an outgrowth of what makes Rehovot truly unique-the fact that it is perhaps the only city in Eretz Yisroel where religious and secular Jews live side by side in peace.
And this isn't because the city is divided into exclusively religious and non-religious neighborhoods, as is the case in Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak. In Rehovot, the communities are mixed, with many apartment buildings housing both religious and secular residents. How is it that in Rehovot religious-secular relations are growing warmer everyday, while in the rest of the country they have soured to the point where analysts discuss the possibilities of a civil war breaking out?
Many people say it has a lot to do with the city's chief rabbi, Rav Simcha Hakohen Kook. Over the last quarter of a century he has turned a largely ceremonial post into an active effort to bridge the gap between the city's secular and religious residents, thereby raising the level of overall religious observance in the city.
Rav Kook, 70, made Rehovot his home 30 years ago. Back then, only 12 percent of the city's children were attending religious schools, and the number of kosher food stores could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
At the time, Rav Kook's brother, Rav Shlomo Kook, served as Rehovot's chief rabbi. But in 1980, Rav Shlomo Kook was killed in a car accident along with his wife and two of their children.
The position was then offered to Rav Kook, who had been poised to accept a rabbinical position in Tiveria. His brother's untimely death made him wonder whether he should reconsider that decision. He consulted his rosh yeshiva, Rav Meir Chadash of Chevron Yeshiva, and Rav Menachem Man Schach, who had served as rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Kletzk in Rehovot years earlier, and with whom he was particularly close. Both encouraged him to accept the position in Rehovot.
One of the first things Rav Kook did in his new role was establish a local yeshiva together with his brother, Rav Avraham Yitzchak, who learned in Yeshivas Ponovezh, and Rav Chaim Zelivansky, zt"l, who learned in Yeshivas Beer Yaakov and later, in Brisk. Though a small kollel existed in the city, he says that he felt the only way to really have an impact on the city was to open a yeshiva that would serve as its spiritual dynamo.
Yeshivas Meor Hatalmud started with just 20 students. Today it has more than 300, including a thriving kollel. Rav Kook also established a mesivta in Rehovot and two mesivtas and a cheder in Yerushalayim, which are run in accordance with Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman's personal guidance. All of these institutions, which accommodate 850 students, are part of the Generations Educational Network, of which Rav Kook serves as chairman.
Rav Kook says that visitors to Rehovot often don't realize just how great a role Yeshivas Meor Hatalmud is playing in the city. He says that many people are under the misconception that the city has a special atmosphere because it is home to the prestigious Weizmann Institute of Science and has a large Israel Air Force base nearby.
Rav Kook, however, sees things differently. "The city has a certain electricity," he says, " and the yeshiva is the generator. Like the child who flips on the light switch and fails to comprehend that there are electrical circuits making this possible, visitors come to Rehovot and are charmed by its special atmosphere without comprehending the role the yeshiva plays in it.
"The yeshiva," he explains, "is the generator humming in the background that creates this special atmosphere."
A Two-Way Street
While being the city's chief rabbi and chairman of its yeshiva might seem like an unusual mix, Rav Kook says the system benefits everyone. First, he says, it has made the position of chief rabbi more yeshivish.
Second, not only does the chief rabbinate benefit from the yeshiva, the yeshiva also benefits from the chief rabbinate.
"It's a two-way street," explains Rav Kook. "Because of my dual role as chief rabbi and nassi of the yeshiva, the talmidim get a better sense of what it means to have communal responsibilities and disseminate Torah among the populace at large."
Rav Kook gives his students that sense by discussing with them his experiences as chief rabbi and the decisions he makes in that position. He even asks them how they would handle some of those situations if they were in his shoes.
"They become keenly aware of the needs of Am Yisroel and become sensitized to what works and what doesn't," he says. "This gives them a tremendous experience that not too many yeshiva students get nowadays before they are thrust into the real world of communal leadership and rabbanus."
Rav Kook adds that his dual role is something that Rav Yosef Shalom Eliyashiv strongly supports. He says that it is built on a similar model that has worked well in Yerushalayim, where Rav Yosef Efrati, one of Rav Eliyashiv's closest disciples, serves simultaneously as senior halachic authority of the Yerushalayim Rabbinate's kashrus department and head of a prestigious halachic kollel.
"Rav Shach and Rav Eliyashiv encouraged me to go into the rabbinate," says Rav Kook. "They felt that my presence in the rabbinate would enable the Torah authorities of Eretz Yisroel to have a greater impact on the religious standards prevalent among the general populace. That's the main reason I did it."
An Open House
For Rav Kook, being the city's chief rabbi means exactly what the title intimates-that he has a responsibility to serve all of the city's Jews, regardless of their background, level of religious observance or political leanings. He takes the time to listen to every question and every point of view and, as one reporter discovered, he shows every person respect-often a lot more than they expect.
This may explain why thousands of city residents of all stripes visit Rav Kook on Chol Hamoed Sukkos, when he holds an annual open house in his Sukka.
City employees such as firemen and policemen are often among the guests, though the self-effacing Rav Kook says he believes that for the latter group, at least, the visit has more to do with an old legend than anything else. According to that legend, any police officer that visits the Rav's sukka during Sukkos will receive a promotion.
"It's actually quite an uncanny thing-many of the officers who have come to the sukka are now in the top echelon of the police department," says Rav Kook with a chuckle, and starts counting them off on his fingers. "They see it as a sort of segula."
But there are many others who visit the Rav's sukka even though no segulas are involved-like members of the traditionally anti-religious Meretz party.
"I think its one of the only places in the country where members of Meretz, the NRP and the religious parties get together under one roof and just relax and talk together," says Rav Kook. "It's a very special atmosphere."
Rav Kook also hosts American yeshiva students and seminary girls on Shabbos and Yom Tov. But for many members of the community, the most unique event of the year in Rehovot is Simchas Torah, when Rav Kook's expansive living room seems to expand even further to hold the more than 250 people who come to sing and dance there until sundown.
"We have men in one room and women in the other, and people with absolutely no religious background sing and dance together with the yeshiva bachurim," explains Rav Kook. "This is another way the yeshiva has an influence on the city-an event of this sort has a more lasting impact than most people imagine."
The Drinks Are on the House
Rav Kook's role as chief rabbi of Rehovot is not limited to bringing religious and non-religious Jews together. It is also about the much harder task of raising the level of religious observance among all of the city's residents.
When Rav Kook first came to Rehovot, many businesses operated on Shabbos. But ever since his arrival, things have improved.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Rav Kook's brother and rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Meor Hatalmud, recalls how several years ago Rav Simcha Kook began his campaign to close the city's businesses on Shabbos by single-handedly shutting down a centrally located disco.
According to Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook's account, his brother the chief rabbi walked into the disco one Friday night, sat down at a table and began talking to a group of teens. It wasn't long before the owner, who was none too pleased with the effect this unexpected client was having on his business, came over to Rav Kook and politely asked him to leave. Rav Kook calmly replied that he thought the disco was open to the public and that he wasn't bothering anyone. He resumed his conversation with the teens at his table.
When it became clear to the owner that Rav Simcha had no intention of leaving, he started threatening him, and for a moment it looked like things were about to turn ugly. But then Rav Kook drew support from an unexpected quarter-the teens sitting at his table. 'Leave him alone,' they said to the owner, 'he's not bothering anyone.'
Rav Kook, not wanting to stir things up further, got up and told the boys, 'Look, its obvious I'm not wanted here. But I have an idea-instead of you buying your drinks here, why don't you come over to my place? Drinks are on the house.'
And that, says Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, was the beginning of the end of the disco.
Following the showdown, the boys followed Rav Kook to his apartment and peppered him with questions. "They got everything off their chests," Rav Avraham Yitzchak recalls. "They asked my brother the usual questions: Why don't religious people serve in the army? Why don't they sing the national anthem? Why don't they hang Israeli flags from their balconies on Independence Day? They left in the wee hours of the night. And then they came back on the following Friday night, and on the next, and the next."
Soon the disco closed down, and eventually many of the boys in that group became religious and are today respected members of Torah communities in Eretz Yisroel.
"Even the ones who didn't do teshuva," says Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, "told my brother, 'We may not agree with you, but now we understand your point of view and respect your right to live this way of life.'
"In Israel's fractured society," he concludes, "that is quite an achievement."
But Rav Kook himself concedes that his fight for Shabbos observance in Rehovot that began years ago with the disco episode is far from over. While no large shopping centers in the city are open on Shabbos-thanks largely to Rav Kook's diplomatic efforts-there are a small number of coffee shops that remain open. And that's a situation that Rav Kook, along with the city's Mishmeres Shabbos, are actively working to change.
Members of the Mishmeres, including Rav Kook, spend their Friday afternoons visiting each and every store, restaurant and coffee shop in the downtown section of the city. Their approach is straightforward-and noncombative. When Rav Kook enters a store, all he says is Gut Shabbos. Shabbos is coming soon, when are you closing?
He explains that storeowners who close their shops on Shabbos are happy to see him, but the same can't always be said for those who don't.
"Some get a little upset with me," says Rav Kook, "but most just smile and say, 'Well, maybe someday.'"
Thanks to the Mishmeres efforts, in recent weeks, someday actually arrived for two more coffee shops, whose owners decided it was time to close on Shabbos.
"It's an ongoing effort," says Rav Kook. "But the point is that its done with Darkei Shalom."
But aren't their cases when even the amicable Rav Kook needs to resort to something other than Darkei Shalom to fight anti-religious sentiments?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook could think of only one instance in which his brother took a stand against another Jew-but even then his trademark Darkei Shalom was still an inherent part of his approach.
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook explains that, as a rule, his brother always remains impartial in municipal elections. But during one mayoral election, one of the candidates went on an anti-religious ticket and vowed to open up the city on Shabbos, and here Rav Kook felt he had no choice but to break his long-standing policy of impartiality and back the other candidate.
"When Rav Simcha's candidate lost," recalls Rav Avraham Yitzchak, "he called the new mayor to congratulate him, and he sent him a tallis and a silver Kiddush cup."
According to Rav Avraham Yitzchak, "the mayor was so touched by the gesture that he called Rav Simcha Kook and asked to meet with him. After one conversation with Rav Kook, the mayor decided not to open up the city on Shabbos after all."
Over the years, says Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the mayor became very close to my brother. When he ended his term of office, he dropped by the yeshiva to say goodbye. He told Rav Simcha, 'I didn't always agree with you, but you were one of the few people I knew I could trust-even more than my so-called friends and allies.'
Well Worth the Effort
In an effort to raise the level of religious observance in Rehovot, Rav Kook has not only worked tirelessly to curb Shabbos desecration. He has also raised the level of kashrus by building his own kashrus supervision body, Badatz Mehadrin Rehovot, which has since become universally recognized by members of the Torah community.
On the local level, this means that in his hometown, which years ago had just a handful of kosher shops, the majority of stores now bear a hechsher that is among the best the Torah community can offer. And on a national level, it means that thousands of Torah Jews around the country are benefiting from products with Rav Kook's highly regarded hechsher.
"The entire chareidi community and virtually every yeshiva in the country uses meat products carrying our hechsher," says Rav Kook proudly. "It's also our fifth shmitta, and our reputation remains beyond reproach."
While creating the kashrus supervision system was a difficult task that took much time and effort, Rav Kook says in retrospect that, it was well worth the effort.
From Russia to Rehovot
Because Rehovot also has a large immigrant population, in addition to his many other duties, Rav Kook also spends considerable time and effort assisting Russian Jews.
Rav Kook is an enthusiastic supporter of Shuvu, which provides social assistance and Torah schooling to underprivileged children from the former Soviet Union. Shuvu Chairman Mr. Abe Biderman, and Shuvu Director in Eretz Yisroel Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman, both credit Rav Kook for being a driving force behind the recent establishment of a Shuvu elementary school in Rehovot.
"I think the Shuvu school system is a very important contribution to the Russian immigrant community," Rav Kook says, "and during my last meeting with Rav Pam a few weeks ago, I made sure to thank him for opening such a school in our city."
av Kook also travels to the Ukraine several times a year to promote Jewish education among Jews still living in the former Soviet Union. He was instrumental in the appointment of the chief rabbis of Russia, Moscow and Ukraine, and assisted a number of organizations that established Jewish schools there, including Ohr Somayach's school in Odessa, which serves 300 students.
Daniel Pochovitz is one of the many Russian immigrants whose lives Rav Kook has personally touched. Seven years ago Daniel came to Eretz Yisroel as part of the Youth Aliyah Program run by the Jewish Agency. Rav Kook addressed the members of this group on several occasions, and Daniel felt himself being gradually drawn to Rav Kook and his message of the importance of a Jewish way of life. Daniel began visiting Rav Kook in his home, and he soon told his counselors that he wanted to join Yeshivas Meor Hatalmud.
The counselors response was to refer Daniel to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, however, confirmed that Daniel was completely sane. When the counselors still refused to allow Daniel to attend the yeshiva, he threatened to convince all of the members of his group to become religious.
The next morning a smiling Daniel arrived at Rav Kook's doorstep. Rav Kook, however, didn't return the smile until he contacted the Jewish Agency and asked for a letter verifying that its officials had let Daniel leave on his own accord. The last thing Rav Kook wanted was to be charged with kidnaping.
Daniel's story, however, didn't end there. Though Daniel's father was a Jew, his mother wasn't, and so despite Daniel's strong religious feelings, he had to go through a lengthy conversion process.
Today Daniel, a wiry fellow with a ragged beard and a ready smile, looks like any other bachur at Meor Hatalmud.
"This Simchas Torah, my family went to Rav Kook's house," says Daniel, "and my father danced with the sefer Torah in a way I've never seen anyone dance before. And its all because of Rav Kook."
All I See is a Jew
Much has changed since Rav Kook's early days in Rehovot. Today 35 percent of children in Rehovot attend religious schools. The majority of stores have kashrus supervision and most businesses are closed on Shabbos. Many local Russian immigrants are finding their way back to their roots, and the city's Jews respect each others differences.
Rav Kook has been the driving force behind these changes, though he isn't quick to take the credit. For him, it's all just part of the job. He says he's learned much over the last two decades about how to bridge the gap that is tearing apart the rest of Israeli society: "First," he says, "one has to learn to understand others-yet without compromising Torah values. And second, the best way to bring people closer to each other, and to Hashem, is by showing them respect, regardless of who they are.
"When I see a person," he says simply, "I look for the Jew inside."
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