Broadcasting Away Assimilation
A mandate from gedolim to establish a television station in the United States to disseminate Yiddishkeit. A visit with the Belzer Rebbe and Rav Chaim Kanievsky, as well as a conversation with Rabbi Zamir Cohen, the founder of Hidabroot
Sometimes the most amazing stories—or even life-altering missions—just fall into your lap, or even walk into your office. Such
was the case two weeks ago when Rav Zamir Cohen, the revered chairman and founder of Hidabroot, the kiruv television channel in Israel that is under the auspices of the country’s leading gedolim—visited Ami’s offices almost unannounced. Rav Zamir was accompanied by Rabbi Isaac Fried, Hidabroot’s chairman of the board, and David Topik, its CEO, as well as an entourage of Belzer chasidim.
The mixture of Sephardim and chasidim is always invigorating but never surprising, certainly not for anyone familiar with Hidabroot and its astonishing accomplishments. On previous trips to Eretz Yisrael, I had the great privilege of visiting Hidabroot’s offices in Kiryat Belz, as well as its previous studios in Bnei Brak and new multistory headquarters in Petach Tikvah. I was thus able to witness firsthand Hidabroot in action, including the filming of a popular puppet show for children and an interview with one of its star anchors: Rabbi Shimon Peretz, formerly a stand-up comic.
There are many thriving kiruv organizations that exist today. Hidabroot, however, is a standout not only because of its astonishing success, but due to the fact that its primary means of outreach is a TV channel that broadcasts a wide range of Torah-based shows, thereby reaching millions of secular Jews in their homes. At the end of every program a telephone number appears on the screen, inviting the calls of anyone who has a comment or question.
Thousands of viewers have accepted the offer, and Hidabroot’s phones have been ringing off the hook ever since its inception in 2008. A dedicated staff of dozens of men and women return each call, offering advice and guidance on topics as diverse as the requirement to fast on Yom Kippur or the suitability of a prospective marriage partner. Hidabroot also directs people seeking complicated rabbinical advice to the proper authorities.
When Rav Zamir shares with me that Hidabroot intends to expand its reach with an English-language version of its programming in the United States as a counter to assimilation, I am immediately hooked. Such an enterprise would, of course, require a major investment and undertaking by philanthropists, activists and media-savvy types—all of whom have not yet been put in place or even located. But surely a partner in the media to publicize the cause would bring attention to its venerated mission.
Accordingly, I offer Ami’s services as well as a cover feature in our expanded Sukkos issue—but with one caveat: I would first have to speak with the gedolei Yisrael about the organization. If Ami were to receive a mandate from leading gedolim to publicize the plan, Hidabroot’s mission would become Ami’s.
In truth, I threw this out rather nonchalantly and almost in passing, not believing it would ever transpire. This was not because I doubted the gedolim’s endorsement of Hidabroot but because I’m aware of their demanding schedules during Elul and before the Yomim Nora’im—particularly the Belzer Rebbe, who has hardly enough time in the day to receive his own chasidim. Thousands of people come from afar to participate in the tefillos on the Yomim Nora’im in Belz, and there is a crunch, to put it mildly. But then the near miraculous happened.
Upon his return to Jerusalem, Isaac Fried telephoned me excitedly that I should get on the next plane to Israel. He had spoken to the Belzer Rebbe, he elatedly shared, and the Rebbe had said he would receive me with regard to Hidabroot. However, the Rebbe requests that I go to other gedolim for a brachah as well. When one considers the Rebbe’s oft-repeated statement that Hidabroot will facilitate the coming of Moshiach, it should really come as no shock that he set aside time from his demanding schedule. In fact, the Rebbe has conveyed many times that it is of vital importance that Hidabroot succeed in establishing a foothold in America.
I arrived in Eretz Yisrael on the Wednesday evening before the week of Selichos. Early Thursday afternoon, I merited to be warmly received by the Belzer Rebbe. Later that day I accompanied the distinguished people of Hidabroot on a visit to Rav Chaim Kanievsky.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
Rabbi Zamir Cohen, who founded Hidabroot and is the channel’s most celebrated anchor, is soft spoken and affable, but his refined demeanor doesn’t stand in the way of his determination.
“When we first started,” he tells me, “I spoke to a rosh yeshivah in Bnei Brak for chozrim b’teshuvah. He maintained that what we were doing was prohibited and that television may not be used as a tool for education and outreach. He argued that Orthodox people who don’t have televisions would now bring them into their houses because Hidabroot was giving it a hechsher. I countered that his argument might have been valid in the past, when television was the entryway to secular culture, but today there are cell phones and other things. Someone who wants to deviate from Yahadut doesn’t need a TV, so we should be able to use it to save people.
“I asked him who his rav was and he said, ‘Rav Aryeh Leib Shteinman,’ so I suggested that we go to him together. I already had haskamos from Sephardic chachamim and chasidic rebbes but not from the roshei yeshivos. So I was actually looking forward to going to Rav Shteinman and obtaining his endorsement.
“I explained to Rav Shteinman what I was doing and why I believed it was necessary, and also why the rosh yeshivah for baalei teshuvah had held that it’s forbidden. Rav Shteinman thought for a minute and then picked up his head and said, ‘Veshachanti itam besoch tumosam—And I will dwell among them even in their tumah.’ Rav Shteinman subsequently lent his full support to Hidabroot.”
I ask him whether he realized right away that Hidabroot would be successful in reaching secular Jews.
“There was a lot of speculation at first as to whether people would really give up their time to listen to a lecture for an hour. Most people are used to switching from one channel to another, and there was skepticism that they would have the patience to listen to a lengthy dissertation. We decided to perform a test run to see how people would react. We were surprised by how many were interested in sitting through our hour-long lectures.”
“How would you define the goal of these programs?”
“Most of the Israeli public is only familiar with chareidim from politics and from things they see and read in the general media. They don’t know Judaism as it really is. The idea was to make a TV channel for them, so that people can see what Judaism is all about.
“There are two ultimate goals. The first and most important is to be mekarev Jews to be shomer Torah and mitzvos. Then there is another goal, in that even if some Jews won’t become fully observant at least they’ll understand that the Torah has depth and content, which will lower the antagonism towards the chareidi public.
“We were astounded when we saw the results of a survey on the number of Jews who have been strengthened in Torah and mitzvos in Israel and around the world by watching Hidabroot. It’s seen all over via the Internet.
“Let me share with you one interesting story out of many. I was once giving a lecture in Holon. When I finished, a secular boy approached me and told me he had been studying medicine in China for the past seven years and had recently gotten engaged to a non-Jewish Chinese girl. He told me during our conversation that he’s actually related to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, through his grandfather.
“Having been in China all that time he was already forgetting Ivrit, so he had asked someone to send him some tapes in Hebrew. His friend had also sent him a link to Hidabroot so he could watch shiurim on its website. When he returned to Israel to visit his parents he saw an announcement that there was going to be a shiur from the rabbi he knew from the Internet, and that’s how he came to my lecture.
“He admitted that he understood that it wasn’t right to be married to a goya and was very conflicted. I explained to him the meaning of the whole shalshelet from Avraham Avinu until our generation, and told him he would break the whole chain if he went ahead with his plans. Before we separated, I added that I thought he should think about joining a yeshivah for a short period of time in Eretz Yisrael.
“A year later I was in Yerushalayim in the yeshivah of Rav Yosef Tzvi Ben Porat. After my shiur the bachurim escorted me to my car. One boy asked me if I recognized him. I said no. Then he asked if the name Shmuel L. meant anything to me. I said, ‘Is that you?’
“‘I took your advice,’ he told me, ‘and came to yeshivah for a little while.’ He later opened a Chinese medical clinic in Yerushalayim and learns half a day. This is an example of how people can be reached through Hidabroot.
“But that’s not our only target audience. There are many chareidim who are shomrei Torah and mitzvos but don’t feel enough vitality in their avodas Hashem. We also produce shiurim on discs that have mamash changed lives.
“The Admor of Belz pushed us to make special Shabbatonim for the chareidi public. Some people came to spend Shabbos in a nice hotel. But others came to get answers to questions.”
“Do you consult with the Belzer Rebbe often?”
“Quite frequently, particularly on matters of kiruv, what to say and what not to discuss. The Admor is worried about each member of klal Yisrael to an exceptional degree. His vision is very broad. I can speak to him about anything, and I am always taken aback by his insight and knowledge. He has an expert’s familiarity with so many issues.
“We always consult with him on important sh’eilos. I was just by the Admor before coming to America to discuss our intent to have a channel in English. We’ve been considering it for a long time. He was very encouraging, and added that it’s kedai [worthwhile] to make Shabbatonim for American mechanchim to train them to answer questions.
“I asked him if it’s a problem in America because non-Jews might see our programming, and it would look bad if we say that Jews shouldn’t intermarry with them. He answered that we have to speak about it, but it should not be presented as anti-Christian or anti-Muslim. Instead, we should emphasize that it isn’t good for any people of different ethnic or religious backgrounds to intermarry.”
Though Hidabroot has been backed by virtually all of the gedolim, the Belzer Rebbe’s passionate determination to reach out to Jews who are estranged from Yiddishkeit has made him its de facto leader since it was established, and the reason that many Belzer chasidim are involved in running it, together with Sephardim. Still, the Rebbe has insisted that it not be officially affiliated with Belz or any other religious faction. “Hidabroot belongs to the Eibershter,” he often says.
Another gadol who was one of Hidabroot’s most avid supporters was the late Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l. I ask Rav Zamir about their interactions.
“We didn’t consult with him on details in the same way we consult with the Belzer Rebbe. I would only pose to him the big sh’eilos. For example, I once asked him what we should do if people were so inspired by Hidabroot that they wanted to get rid of their TV sets but were reluctant to give up our programs. Should we make a special device or gadget that would enable them to receive only Hidabroot and no other channels? He said yes. It’s interesting that Rav Shteinman came up with the same idea without any prompting from us. Then I brought the idea to the Belzer Rebbe and he also supported it.”
“You were a talmid of Rav Ovadia Yosef when you studied in Porat Yosef?”
“Yes. That’s where I got my semichah. Even after I left yeshivah I consulted with him frequently and attended his shiurim. My father also learned in Porat Yosef and then in Eitz Chaim under Rav Meltzer. My father’s parents came from Afghanistan. He was born in Yerushalayim and so was I. I grew up in Beit Yisrael [a neighborhood in Jerusalem].”
It is not an overstatement to say that it’s amazing that a television channel would receive such widespread support from gedolim. It’s almost an oxymoron.
“Were you surprised by the support you’ve gotten from leading gedolim?”
“Well, if you look at Hidabroot’s accomplishments it’s not that surprising. They all apparently foresaw what it would do.”
“Judging from its success in the Sephardic community it seems that it’s somewhat easier to reach the Sephardim. Do you agree?”
“Yes. I think it’s because the break from tradition was relatively recent and hasn’t gone on for too many generations. Even the grandchildren today who aren’t shomer mitzvos remember their grandfather who was and transmitted to them his emunat halev.
“As for the Ashkenazim, it’s a little harder because several generations have already passed since the Haskalah. On the other hand, many immigrants from Russia have become observant once they come to the realization that there’s a Creator. So it’s harder to be mekarev them, but once they’re reached there’s no middle ground.”
“What message do you have for readers who may harbor some doubts in emunah?”
“Two things: First, they should know that every question in Judaism has an answer. It says in Gemara, ‘Im reik hu mikem—if there’s a deficit, it’s coming from you.’
“I see this from experience. In seminars people ask me any question they want. I’ve been asked if I’m worried I’ll be asked something I can’t answer and then the whole seminar will fall apart. But there is no question that doesn’t have an answer. Anyway, the questions are usually easy. Some people come prepared with questions they’re sure will demolish the whole shiur and get an answer that’s much better than the question!
“Also, they should know that they can’t ask just anybody. Lots of people set themselves up as authorities without having the necessary expertise. You have to go to someone who’s involved in these types of questions, just as you need to go to a cardiologist for a heart issue and not to a podiatrist. We have lots of videos answering questions like this.”
“Do you feel that kiruv is your shlichus?”
“For my own personal sippuk [satisfaction] I have the sefarim I authored. I published the sefer Nezer Cohen, a compilation of halachic responsa, five years ago. I am now working on the second volume. Of course, when I see someone changing his ways from secular to Torah-oriented it’s also a big sippuk.”
“You have a yeshivah too?”
“Yes, there are two, one for chareidim, Nezer Hatalmud, with 60-70 students, and one for baalei teshuvah in Beitar Illit, where I live. I also have a cheder with close to 1,000 students, Netivot Shalom.”
“How many baalei teshuvah would you say Hidabroot has made?”
“We don’t have a number but we reach everywhere, including kibbutzim. A boy from a kibbutz in the north once told me, ‘You succeeded in breaking through all the barriers and teaching me things I was never told.’”
“And you have an amazing call-in center,” I say.
“The people on staff answering queries do a phenomenal job. A lot of them are Belzers, people like Rav Reisman and Rav Ausch. It’s a terrific organization.”
“If I receive a mandate from gedolei Yisrael to spread the message about Hidabroot, Ami will become your media partner and will try to assist you in every regard,” I say before he departs.
Outreach in Belz
There are countless baalei teshuvah today as a result of Belzer outreach, but one would actually have to be intimately familiar with Belz or else read up on the movement in order to know this. It is certainly not obvious when paying a cursory visit to Belz, not because they’re trying to hide it but because outreach has been kept separated from its main institutions. Belz has insisted upon this strict separation in order to preserve the authentic character and norms of a traditional chasidic court and not dilute it with the cultural influences newcomers may bring along.
Belzer chasidim trace the Rebbe’s interest in kiruv, or teshuvah as some refer to it, to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. One Shabbos afternoon shortly afterward, they relate, the then-25-year-old Rebbe announced during shalosh seudos, “I was thinking why all these troubles have befallen the Jewish people. Did this occur because we don’t sit and learn Torah? In truth, the Jewish people do learn Torah. Is it because we don’t study lishmah, with pure motives? Who could possibly make a demand like that in the present day and age? Were we punished because we don’t give charity and are not benevolent? This can’t be so, since wherever one goes there are Jews assisting each other. I am thinking, rather, that it must be because of the generations of Jews who came to Israel and their children were torn away from Torah and mitzvos. Their grandfathers must be pleading in Heaven before the Heavenly throne and complaining why no one is doing anything to bring their offspring back! This tremendous kitrug [accusation] against the Jewish people has undoubtedly caused the recent calamities.”
The Rebbe’s directive to engage in outreach struck many of the more inward-looking chasidim as a bolt from the blue. But soon enough Belz opened a yeshivah for baalei teshuvah. Nonetheless, in order to insulate Belz from any foreign cultural influences they might introduce, they established separate educational facilities. The Rebbe would often visit those facilities and address the talmidim.
Several years later, in 1980, the Belzer Rebbe paid a visit to Crown Heights to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, who was perhaps the forefather of contemporary kiruv, although he never referred to it as such. The hour-long conversation that ensued between the 78-year-old Lubavitcher Rebbe and the 33-year-old Rebbe of Belz is fascinating. Of particular interest is their give and take regarding outreach, as it sheds much light on their different perspectives.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe remarked that in light of the secular and even anti-religious education girls were getting in public schools there was a need for a higher-level religious education for girls than was once customary.
The Rebbe of Belz: “Do our children attend schools of that sort?”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe: “That depends what you mean by ‘our’ children! Please forgive me, but I think that when you say ‘our’ children it should have a far broader meaning. I know you don’t believe in narrowness.”
The Rebbe of Belz: “Notwithstanding that [as the passuk states], ‘Each person to his own camp, and each to his own flag.’ We cannot mix pious girls with those we still need to draw closer to religion.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe: “I’ve been told that you established special yeshivos for baalei teshuvah.”
The Rebbe of Belz: “Yes.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe: “When you separate a baal teshuvah from another bachur, you in effect pronounce that he was formerly a sinner, which is prohibited.”
The Rebbe of Belz: “Would the Rebbe suggest integrating the chasidim who are standing here with those we still have to draw closer to Hashem?”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe: “I think it would have no negative effect, but rather to the contrary, they themselves would gain, gleaning additional insights and coming to a higher degree of worship.”
As their conversation continued, the two chasidic leaders seemed to agree to disagree on this essential point of immediately integrating new adherents into the community’s existing educational facilities. This divergence of approach is intriguing for anyone interested in the dynamics of outreach and in the history of these two movements, and perhaps even more important for understanding Hidabroot, my subject of interest today.
Separate but Together
Right across the entrance from the Belzer complex in Kiryat Belz is a small sign in Hebrew with the word “Hidabroot,” marking the organization’s below ground-level offices. This morning they are bustling with activity in both the men’s and ladies’ sections.
I have come to meet my host, Isaac Fried, and he is as friendly and welcoming as ever. I met Reb Isaac for the first time just a few short days ago, but it feels as if I’ve known him forever. There are no airs about him, which I guess is what makes him such a people person.
He shares with me that he spent an hour and ten minutes speaking with the Rebbe upon his return to Yerushlayim, primarily about his visit to America, and that the Rebbe expressed great vexation about the length of time it is taking to establish an organization similar to Hidabroot in the United States. “What are we going to tell the beis din shel maalah when we are asked what we did to stem the plague of assimilation and intermarriage there?”
Anyone who is familiar with the recent Pew survey of American Jews testifying to their soaring intermarriage and assimilation rates can appreciate the Belzer Rebbe’s sense of urgency. According to the study there are an estimated 6.8 million Jews in America. However, a growing segment is unlikely to raise its children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions. The percentage who say they have no religion and are Jewish only on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture is growing rapidly, and two-thirds of them aren’t raising their children Jewish at all. Overall, the intermarriage rate stands at 58%, up from 43% in 1990 and 17% in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is a staggering 71%.
While some Orthodox Jews feel they have other issues to contend with, gedolei Yisrael, who care about each and every member of the Jewish nation, see things differently. Isaac tells me that the Rebbe agreed to see me despite his taxing schedule because of the importance he ascribes to this issue. As I already know, the Rebbe has stipulated that I speak to other gedolei Yisrael too, as he has always insisted that Hidabroot be an organization for all of klal Yisrael, whose mission is to draw people closer to G-d and G-dliness.
I share with Isaac that in addition to Ami’s interest in being Hidabroot’s media partner, various philanthropists have expressed an interest in helping to fight assimilation. These people might be interested, I proffer, in getting involved in founding an English version of Hidabroot. We agree to discuss these issues with the Rebbe.
Isaac suggests that I return to my hotel and he will contact me later in the day to advise when we can have a private audience. As the hotel where I am staying is some distance away from Kiryat Belz, I ask him to double-check with the gabbai if the Rebbe might have time to see us soon. Isaac gives me a look strongly implying that I don’t know how things work around here. But I insist, and from the anxious smile on his face when he returns, I know he’s been successful.
We have been told to come over right away, as the Rebbe will see us after he finishes Shacharis.
With Both Hands
On the floor below the Rebbe’s residence, adjacent to the building that houses the mammoth Belzer beis hamidrash and its countless shteiblach, is a fairly large shul known as the Beis Hatefillah. The Rebbe’s minyan for Shacharis, however, is in an adjacent room, next to the office where he receives people. The Beis Hatefillah and these other communal rooms are in a portion of the huge complex that appears from the exterior to be part of the Rebbe’s residence. The Rebbe’s public and private spaces, as I noticed during my first visit, merge almost seamlessly.
When we arrive a little after 1:00 p.m. the Rebbe is finishing Shacharis, with a minyan that seems to consist of approximately 40-50 people. He blows the shofar himself upon finishing, then immediately starts davening Minchah, in which I participate.
Shortly afterward, a line starts to form outside the Rebbe’s office consisting of bar mitzvah boys, who donned tefillin for the first time that day, and their families. Various people who arrive unannounced, including rabbanim, are turned away. Then the Rebbe receives the fish that will be eaten on Shabbos at the Rebbe’s tish.
Chazal relate (Shabbos 119a-b) that the Sages went to great lengths to personally take part in the preparations for Shabbos, and recount that Rava salted a shibuta fish in honor of Shabbos. The fish brought to the Rebbe by a group of yungeleit to salt seems to be a whitefish. Shortly thereafter we are received by the Rebbe.
In addition to Reb Isaac Fried we are joined by Reb Yeshaya Wind of Hidabroot. I am also accompanied by my son Shloimy, a talmid of Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, and my photographer Ezra Landau. The Rebbe shows immense interest in each of us and asks what we do. He then hands us each a luach given out by Belz for the coming year. The Rebbe does this without offering any explanatory remarks, only a broad expressive smile. But that may be more important than anything else.
The Rebbe inquires about Ami Magazine and listens intently as I describe what we do. True leaders, as is known, are listeners more than they are speakers. Connecting to people on a personal level influences the people who come to them for advice as much as any guidance. The Rebbe is an inquisitive listener.
I tell the Rebbe about the visit of Rav Zamir Cohen, Isaac Fried and others to our offices at the beginning of the week and their expressed interest that we write an article about Hidabroot. I also tell the Rebbe that while an article is certainly important, I believe we need to do more than that. If we receive a direct mandate from the gedolei Yisrael and use our “shofar,” as I refer to the publication, to publicize the organization, we may be successful in “arousing those who slumber from their sleep.”
The Rebbe listens attentively and then says with a smile, “You say ‘arousing those who slumber from their sleep,’ but what we actually need here is ‘techiyas hameisim.’”
I tell the Rebbe that I understand the point and stand ready to help. I share that I have a friend in Los Angeles who has expressed an interest in combating assimilation and believes he can get major commitments toward that end from various philanthropists. In fact, a Shabbaton in the Canadian Rockies especially for millionaires was being planned in order to stimulate their interest in the issue, with Ami partnering up with them in this vital cause.
But we were facing a bit of a quandary. While everyone recognizes the problem, that in a few generations secular Jews will disappear into the abyss of assimilation, what’s the solution?
“I would like to propose a shidduch,” I continue, “between the gedolei Yisrael and these negidim. If the Rebbe gives me his ‘mazal u’brachah’ for this, I’ll work on the philanthropists to get their ‘mazal u’brachah’ as well.”
The Rebbe answers readily with a broad smile: “Farvoos nisht—why not? The Eibershter should help that you have siyata dishmaya and hatzlachah.” He then tells me that I should certainly work on this when I return to the United States.
Next I ask the Rebbe if he will send emissaries to the convention for philanthropists if we are successful in organizing one. I wanted to ask if he would personally take part, but I know how difficult it is for the Rebbe to travel these days. “In Canada there are very nice mountains. And if it works out, it could be an impetus for future generations. People would turn to Hidabroot for all matters relating to assimilation and outreach.”
“We usually make such Shabbosim for baalei teshuvah or people we are trying to be mekarev,” the Rebbe replies, “not for nadvanim. But it is something that can be arranged.”
“Should we also reach out to mechallelei Shabbos who have an interest in combating assimilation?” I ask. “There are philanthropists who give millions to promote Jewish identity.”
The Rebbe thinks about the question for a minute and then answers in the affirmative. “It’s hard to make an organization to make people shomer Shabbos with people who aren’t shomer Shabbos. But we need to garner all the help we can.”
The Rebbe next tells me that in order to stimulate the interest of this type of people they must see Hidabroot as promoting their values. The Rebbe asks me what I think those values are.
I suggest that some people are cultural Jews even if they aren’t religious and are interested in promoting cultural Judaism. They may want to eat honey cake on Rosh Hashanah even if they hardly have an interest in anything else about Yahadus.
“America is a mix,” the Rebbe responds. “There are a lot of voileh Yidden in America, a lot of ehrliche Yidden, and a lot of nebach… Some people, even if they’re mechallel Shabbos don’t want their children to marry goyim. That itself is a madreigah. At least they appreciate some degree of Yiddishkeit. These kinds of people can get involved.
“The Eibershter should help that you have siyata dishmaya and brachah. We have to chap them and entice them towards Yiddishkeit. It’s easier to do kiruv in Eretz Yisrael because they’re culturally Jewish. It’s much harder in America.”
The Rebbe then suggests that Hidabroot’s American counterpart be given a suitable name in English.
Isaac Fried interjects that the Rebbe once suggested a certain name but he doesn’t express any preference, indicating that it is something to be determined by the askanim.
I share with the Rebbe that I visited the offices of Hidabroot and was amazed by some of the questions people pose. “One girl asked whether she should marry a certain boy, something that one would ask a rebbe.”
The Rebbe says that this function of Hidabroot has independent importance.
When Isaac shares that someone sent an email asking when to break the fast on Yom Kippur when traveling on a plane
the Rebbe smiles at the incongruity. “There are a lot of people with questions like that in Eretz Yisrael. It’s probably the same in America.”
Taking note of the Rebbe’s warmth, I solicit his approval to have the honor of being his direct emissary in publicizing the importance of countering American assimilation. I share that a year and a half ago my rosh yeshivah, Rav Dovid Soloveitchik, summoned me to Eretz Yisrael to ask me to publicize the issue of giyus bnei hayeshivos, as he believes that the Israeli government will only acquiesce if there is pressure from America. I told him I was willing to become his shaliach in this regard.
My rosh yeshivah then asked if I recalled the fervor with which he used to discuss matters like these. If I could undertake the mission with the same passion, he stated, then I could be his shaliach. “Similarly, I’d like to leave this room being able to say that I’m the Belzer Rebbe’s shaliach with regard to combating assimilation.”
The Rebbe responds again with a broad smile. Then he says something I didn’t initially understand. He asks me if I know when Rav Dovid left Brisk, but then answers his own question. “He must have been a youngster. There must certainly have been mechallelei Shabbos in Brisk at that time.”
I don’t grasp the Rebbe’s point, and Rabbis Fried and Wind later tell me they also didn’t understand what the Rebbe was trying to say.
Then it occurs to me that Rav Dovid would frequently say the following in his Chumash shiurim:
“A hundred years ago, no Jew could have dreamt that there would be such public chillul Shabbos in Israel as there is today. Even 50 or 60 years ago, in my younger days, we didn’t believe it could happen. Yes, there were some individuals who threw off the yoke and violated Shabbos, but the way countless people violate Shabbos today could never have happened.
“I recall that Jabotinsky once came to Brisk, planning to deliver an address on a Sunday. Some of the young men were near the train station and saw that Jabotinsky’s train arrived on Shabbos, but, when asked, his entourage denied it and none of the people in Brisk believed the young men’s report; that’s how serious chillul Shabbos was considered by klal Yisrael in those days. But today? Public chillul Shabbos is everywhere and doesn’t bother anyone.”
I frequently wondered about my rosh yeshivah’s description of the lack of chillul Shabbos in the Brisk of his youth. Was Rav Dovid engaging in rhetorical flourish in order to drive home a point?
I now wonder whether the Belzer Rebbe was somehow alluding to that, particularly after I mentioned that my rosh yeshivah wanted me to address issues with the same fervor he does. Is the Rebbe familiar with my rosh yeshivah’s shiurim, or is he connected to a spiritual reality beyond our physical world and was thus able to read my mind?
Whichever way one chooses to interpret his statement, what he does next is clear and unequivocal. As I am talking, he reaches out and takes my hand with both of his while wishing me brachah and hatzlachah in my undertakings one more time.
Before departing I mention that I’m no stranger to Belz and actually grew up in a Belzer shtiebel that was headed by my cousin, the late Naroler Rav, zt”l. The Rebbe then speaks about him for a bit and his relationship with Belz.
I had been hoping to receive a mandate from gedolei Yisrael to publicize the menace of assimilation. To receive it with two hands was invigorating.
“I feel it’s a zechus before Rosh Hashanah that the Rebbe made me his shaliach,” I say as I get up.
The Rebbe responds with another smile.
Off to Bnei Brak
Having made arrangements to see Rav Chaim Kanievsky after meeting the Belzer Rebbe, my hosts and I head there next. It’s quieter than usual at his residence in Bnei Brak, although some locals are marveling at the recently built iron bridge connecting Rav Chaim’s home to the nearby shul.
After being seated, I tell Rav Chaim that I earlier received the Belzer Rebbe’s blessing to help bring Hidabroot to America, and that I now seek his.
Rav Chaim seems fully familiar with Hidabroot and needs no introduction. He warmly added his blessings to those of the Belzer Rebbe.
As we leave, I tell my hosts that I’m ready to head back home.
Our work has been cut out for us, and has only just begun.