Inspirational Stories

Returning to Judaism in the Galilee: Sparks of Jewish Life in the Ben Ami Village

A married Torah scholar welcomes me at the entrance to the secular Ben-Ami village. It’s Rabbi Israel Golombek, a member of Ayalet Hashachar which disseminates the light of Judaism to kibbutzim and villages. It turns out that the religious Golombek family lives in the village. The rabbi welcomes me in his yard that borders cut firewood, with steaming coffee and chocolate flavored sandwich cookies. On a chilly, bleak day like today, it does good to a person’s heart. “I am the mezuzah of the village,” he says with a big smile.

We relax slightly from the convoluted route to the north. After several minutes, we have a brief conversation with Rabbi Golombek.

“I came here ten years ago,” he begins his story, the story of how Judaism developed in a secular village in the Galilee. “Ayalet Hashachar suggested that I live in the village and organize Jewish activities. At first, I admit, it sounded patently absurd. But, with divine providence, I ended up here. By the way, I have to laud the people running the organization — Rabbi Aryeh Siroka, the energetic operations manager, and Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, who had the ingenious idea to make Judaism blossom in places of spiritual desolation. You surely know that Ben Ami is just one place out of many where Judaism has blossomed where there was nothing before. After nearly two decades of being spiritual wastelands, Judaism is now heard in 125 secular and traditional villages and kibbutzim from Poriya in the north to Ein Habosor in the south.


14:26, on the eve of the holy Shabbat

“You won’t believe it, but when I arrived, the village didn’t even have prayers here on the holiest day of the year — Yom Kippur. When I walked down the street, people who saw me just stopped their vehicles, astonished that a ‘black-hatter’ had landed in their neighborhood.”

When he first arrived in the village, there was no synagogue and certainly no quorum for prayer (minyan), so Golombek had no choice but to go to the synagogue in the Western Galilee Hospital which was located right next to the village. After six months, he decided that the situation was sufficiently ripe to ask for services on Shabbat. The village community center agreed to allow him to hold services for the Shabbat prayers in a small room. Needless to say, getting together a minyan was not something easily accomplished.

A decade later, one can state with satisfaction that the spiritual situation has changed dramatically for the better. Instead of a small room in the community center, the village now has a beautiful, stunning synagogue near the village square. Every morning, there is a minyan reciting the morning prayers, every Wednesday there is a midrasha (study program) for youths from the area, and on Sunday and Tuesday, classes are held in the evening.

Gil Tal on his doorstep (Photo: Israel Abraham Friedman)

It seems that Rabbi Golombek, a graduate of Yeshivat Knesset Hagedola (or, in the yeshiva jargon, “Rav Hillel’s Chevron”), feels at home in this village. I later discover that he is greatly esteemed for his pleasant manners and gifted tongue, which has touched the hearts of many of the secular villagers.

How do you manage to speak the language of the villagers? What is the formula for good communication?

“I really hope that this is the case. Listen, if you’re living with people for a long time, at some point you understand them and realize what they’re like. Nevertheless, I believe you have to be equipped with a little inner talent.”

“The villagers at first gaped at me,” continues the rabbi, “but you will not believe who completed our first minyan: the secretary of the village, who was fiercely against Judaism and of course any Jewish activities. It was during the evening and we were looking to put together a minyan. At the time, we were holding prayers in a small room allotted to us in the community center. He came in to turn off the lights. I do not know to this day where I got the daring from, but we asked him if he would complete our minyan. He agreed. We always remind him of this commandment he did, which aroused his pangs of Jewish conscience.”

Welcome to Ben Ami village.

Ben-Ami is a Galilean village belonging to the Villages Movement and is under the jurisdiction of the Asher Regional Council. It is located a few meters from the Western Galilee Hospital and within driving distance of Nahariya.

The settlement was established in 1949, and it was called after Ben Ami Fachter who was a Carmeli Brigade battalion commander in the War of Independence who fell in the battle over the Yechiam convoy. The settlement was established on lands belonging to the former Arab villages “A-Tel”, “Umm Al Faraj” and “A-Nahar” by a group of demobilized soldiers.

The village has 65 farms. It also has a new housing project of 65 units each of a half acre. The village is famous for its many avocado groves, its tourist guest houses and other tourism businesses, such as its goat cheese dairy. The area of ​​the village is about 3,000 hectares and 550 residents live in it.

We were going for a short village to the house of Gil Tal — who is the synagogue’s Torah reader.

Gil Tal (47), lives on the Cyclamens Trail street, close to the synagogue which is adjacent to the village square. He came here a decade ago, took part in the religious renaissance, and is now part of the village landscape. In his early youth, he received religious education, but not afterwards. He says he always had many questions about the place of a Jew in G-d’s creation, but after he married into an observant family, these questions became even stronger. After studying and asking and receiving answers from a religious lecturer at the Technion, where he studied, and also with the help of Rabbi Israel, he received clear answers, and his way to Judaism solidified.

“In Israel,” he explains, “People suffer from boredom. They try to dispel it with probing questions of existence, but they do not get deep answers. The very probing, from their point of view, is an occupational activity. Nothing more.”

The village accepted him, whether they wanted it or not, due to the fact that he wanted to rent an apartment in the place, and they couldn’t discriminate against him according to law.

Has the village experienced a spiritual change since you came to live there?

“Of course. Today, it has a completely different atmosphere. A different spirit, more Jewish, can be felt. I will show you just a small example: one of our acquaintances was a Jew who sold forbidden foods. Then some time ago he was observed in the synagogue saying the blessing “Hagomel” (when one escapes a life-threatening situation). The worshipers miss a heartbeat and rubbed their eyes in amazement at this unbelievable sight.”

For Tal, an engineer, it didn’t end in adopting a religious lifestyle. A few months ago, he celebrated concluding the Talmud, which he learned by himself (!) outside of an organized framework. “Gil just swallows pages,” says Rabbi Golombek, who studies sometimes with him. “You can see him at the end of the day meditating on the Gemara and falling asleep from exhaustion after a day of work. His love of Torah is like what you hear about in the stories from long ago.”

At Tal’s Shas Siyum (celebration at concluding the Talmud), many of the villagers participated. “You would not believe who came to the Siyum. It was a great celebration. Like a ‘mini-wedding’. It was an amazing thing.”

Is it because the secular public is experiencing today, in our apocalyptic era, a burning desire for spirituality? Or Is It that once they’ve tasted a “little of the light” that you’ve radiated here, it is “dispelling much darkness”?

“I think,” reflects Tal, “that the villagers are realizing, with the help of our community, that religion is not something threatening. They are changing the perception that prevailed in the past.”

“There is no doubt that our community members are radiating light over the entire village,” adds Rabbi Golombek. “I can prove it from a village near Caesarea. This village had a militant secular character, but since a Kollel began at the place, it has changed character beyond recognition. People there listen to Jewish teachings. It is clear,” he says decidedly, “that a place of Torah impacts on the entire town.”

He talks about a community, but it’s a puzzle to me. Maybe some observant Jews live here, I think to myself, but a whole community? From where? Soon I will understand what he means.

Shabbat will soon spread its wings over the world.

Next to 21 Gedud street, a chareidi looking Jew is walking contentedly — his name is Yigal and he is making his way to the synagogue. A kind of Friday eve feeling. I follow him in order to find the synagogue. A non-religious child rushes outside with his skateboard, reminding me that we are in a secular village and not in Safed.

At first, the quorum of people barely arrives, but after a few minutes, about twenty-five worshipers are there. “Some of them,” they will explain to me later, “are family members of patients in the Western Galilee Hospital located nearby where it’s difficult to find a quorum.”

“Draw me, we will run after you; the king brought me to his chambers. We will rejoice and be glad in you.” (Song of Songs 1:4).

Rabbi Golombek is the prayer leader for the prayers. The village is mostly Ashkenazi, but due to the fact that the hard core worshippers are Sephardim living in the village’s new housing project, prayers are recited in the Sephardic version with fiery enthusiasm. I feel the special atmosphere. This is not the dry prayers of an dispassionate community. Somebody lights a flame in our hearts. During the evening prayers, when Cantor says aloud, “the words of Your Torah with love,” you feel it is being said from the depths of the heart. A special ecstasy emanates from our prayers.

Between Kabalat Shabbat (welcoming the Shabbat prayers) and the evening prayer, the rabbi gives a short but profound discourse on the meaning of Sarah’s laughter after hearing the prediction of the angels (who were dressed like Arabs) that she would have a son the coming year, despite her advanced age. “Finally there is good news from the Arabs,” one participant says jokingly. “How I wish we would have more days like this.”

“And He finished the heaven and the earth and all its hosts.” (Kiddush)

Kiddush in the Golombek family. The children, meanwhile, are also seated around a table laden with Shabbat delicacies. The hostess, a cook by profession, is presiding over making Shabbat a pleasurable experience. The large table is too small for the great abundance of food.

“The Shabbat day of rest is a taste of the Hereafter” – even in Ben Ami village.


21:07, Friday night

The Shabbat meal is over. On a regular Saturday, there is a Shabbat party in the synagogue hall, but since the winter clock came into effect from this week on, the rabbi prefers to take a break for a few weeks.

“We have a guy in the village named Ohr,” the rabbi says. “Once he saw me holding an etrog (citron) in my hand that I had bought Sukkot eve for NIS 300. He expressed to me his amazement about the astronomical price, but I simply reminded him of the words of our sages that G-d pays back Shabbat and holiday expenses in full. This secular guy raised his eyebrows at this saying of the Sages which he was hearing now for the first time. A few minutes later, he was standing at my front door with an envelope in his hand. ‘A few months ago you taught my children for their bar mitzvah and I forgot to pay you,’ he said, ‘Here’s your payment.’ I opened the envelope and … there was exactly NIS 300 inside.

“Ohr was the national youth champion in swimming. After his unexpected success in the swimming competition, he became aware of G-d’s hand that directs the universe and decided to become more religious. Today, hard to believe, he is contemplating studying Gemara and becoming observant. This is, don’t forget, a boy who had no interest in Judaism!”

The following story is absolutely thrilling. “Every year during the reading of the Megillah on Purim, the eyes of the late Mr. Carmeli, a local villager, would be moist with tears. I didn’t understand why. One year I went to him and asked to hear the secret behind the tears. He told me: “After the terrible Holocaust, I returned to my hometown of Budapest, Hungary, to see what happened to everyone I knew. I roamed around the city and discovered only ruins — a memorial to the life that had been cruelly decimated. After a few minutes of walking, a Jew emerged from  nearby basement and asked me: ‘My fellow Jew, will you complete a prayer quorum with us so we can read the Book of Esther?’ Of course, I hastened to fulfill the mitzvah. But when I sat on the bench, I realized that this single minyan was all that was left of our glorious city, and tears began to flow from my eyes nonstop. Since then, every year when we read the Book of Esther, I sit and weep bitter tears … “

“I’ll tell you another interesting story: We had a kibbutz Jew named S. He was a real Jewish intellectual. One day, he told me, he went for a walk in the mountains of India, and discovered that is was the eve of Yom Kippur. What should he do now? He was empty of any connection to Judaism, so he climbed down the mountain and went to have his meat and milk meal before the fast in a restaurant, so he would be able to fast on the holy day. Imagine,” Rabbi Golombek points out,” Look at how much devotion and good will a Jew has. Today he is meticulous in observing Judaism.”


8:45, Shabbat morning

Shabbat morning. The sun sends rays of warmth. A light winter wind blows and the many orange trees in the village sway back and forth slowly. We walk to the synagogue for morning prayers. Unfortunately, there is quite a lively movement of vehicles in the streets.

Like yesterday, Rabbi Golombek presides over the fiery and inspired prayer, which is prayed according to the Sephardic version. The children of the congregation, few in number, also came, some of them with bicycles. Gil Tal is the Torah reader, as we mentioned. The fervent prayer in the synagogue is finally over.

One pleasant villager, Breslaver style, called Ophir, asks us to come to his home and hear Kiddush and partake of some delicacies. We have to refuse him because our families are waiting for us at home. “They also call him Abraham,” explains Rabbi Golombek with typical grace, “because he is always looking for some guests, just like Abraham did.”

“In general, I want to tell you that he is a special man. He has an avocado plantation of 40 hectares and is always asking me: How can I connect it to Judaism? We are thinking of setting up an agricultural farm for school dropouts who will work on the plantation. A professional farm, not a primitive one.”

The meal is over. The cholent and breaded chicken were eaten. Now it’s time to shmooze around a plate of nuts and seeds. In the pastoral and tranquil atmosphere which you can only feel in a village, Shlomi brings up current issues. “Yesterday I saw a lot of pecans on a neighbor’s grounds, is it permitted to take them?” He asks the rabbi. “The question is — if these pecans grew during the Sabbatical year, can anyone can take them, or does the owner have to explicitly make them ownerless?”

“This is a dispute between the Beit Yosef and the Mabit,” says Rabbi Golombek, but immediately mentions a reservation: “But if the man is secular, then even according to the Chazon Ish who usually rules leniently, it would be a desecration of G-d’s Name. After all, that man does not know who the Mabit is or the law that his produce was ‘confiscated by the King’.”


16:10, Afternoon Prayer and the Third Meal

During the afternoon prayers, a quorum didn’t show up. It took a long time until we put together the group. This prayer is probably less dominant here. But in the end, we had a little more than a minyan. “People have not become accustomed to the new winter clock yet,” the rabbi will explain to me later. Meanwhile, he gives a short talk at the side of the synagogue. The regular Torah reader, Gil, goes over to read the Torah.

“Lover of my soul, merciful G-d, bring your servant close to Your will. Your servant will run like a gazelle, to prostrate before Your glory.” (Third Meal song Yedid Nefesh)    

The Third Meal looks more like an enthusiastic chassidic get-together. Rabbi Chaim Sabag from Nahariya is giving an interpretation of the verse from Psalms “the righteous will blossom like a date palm”. “The palm tree”, he explains, “is thorny. This shows that one must be very careful with the sages, because, as the words of the Mishnah in Avot say, “their words are like coals of fire.”

Gil Tal then discourses to those present fiery words of reproof about the unrestrained secular “culture”. He cites the words of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, the head of the Baranowitz yeshiva in Europe [who died in the Holocaust] on the verse, “If there is no fear of G-d, they may kill me.” It was incredible that the noble Europeans changed their spots and behaved like beasts. “Worse than beasts,” he immediately corrects himself. “to compare them to beasts in an insult to these animals.

“I was in Italy last week,” he says. “Imagine that one day the Italians, who seem outwardly refined and subdued, suddenly become bloodthirsty. But this is what can happen when morality is not built on the foundations of Torah and ethics. Without ethics, there is no humanity,” he says sharply.


Signposts in the village

The participants sit speechless, and we with them. You can hardly believe you are in an ultra-secular village.

Between the Torah interpretations, the audience sings popular Shabbat songs like “Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah” or “Who is the man who desires life.”

Twilight in approaching. Yedid Nefesh is sung: “Your servant will run like a gazelle, to prostrate before Your glory” becomes alive.

Rabbi Yigal, who looks like a typical chareidi Jew, brings fascinating interpretations of our forefather Abraham’s hospitality and acts of kindness. It turns the Third Meal of this sleepy village into a vibrant and animated study hall.

What did Rabbi Golombek tell me after the Shabbat ended? “There is a ‘fire’ during the Third Meal. Many times we have 15 people participating, with each sharing his Torah thoughts with the others. You just can not believe where you are. There’s a fire burning here.”


19:15, Saturday night

After reciting the Havdala ceremony concluding Shabbat at the Golombeks, the children gleefully go with their bikes outside.

Now I go to the home of Shlomi Landau on the outskirts of the village, not far from the goat dairy. I ask him to open a window on the world of tshuva (return to Judaism) which the villages and kibbutzim are experiencing. While serving steaming tea and waffles, his warm heart opens up.

“There is a trend of strengthening the observance of Judaism all over the country,” he opines. “There are huge groups of non religious Jews who are moving towards Judaism. I’ve been following the phenomenon and I know it well. This is a growing trend, and in another a decade or two, we shall be the majority of the country.”

He sips from a steaming cup of tea, and continues on: “Yigal, a farmer who has a farm in the village, is a living computer when it comes to end-times prophecies. One day he dropped everything and went to study in a kollel (married scholars academy). Today he is fully chareidi. ‘He told me once in sorrow that in his distant past, he viewed Shabbat as an official working day.

“And here’s another anecdote that will put into relief how things are going: Ayalet Hashachar organized here a Shabbat with the renowned lecturer, Rabbi Michael Lasry. I want to tell you that the synagogue was as full as on Yom Kippur. There was no room to insert a pin. They had three meals presided over by the rabbi, and the place was bustling with whole families including the women and the children. And do not forget that this is a staunchly secular village. I assume that they came to witness the event with their own eyes and scoff, but in a mass affair like this, you understand, there wasn’t much to laugh about.

“We are in the process,” he concludes. “We are far from reaching the peak. Today, and this is important to emphasize, people’s connection to Judaism is not external. It’s an internal connection which is much stronger than before.”

Landau received a religious education in his childhood, but when he became a youth, he got into mischief and veered away from the family path. “The straw that broke the camel’s back occurred after the army,” he recalls, “My father’s death actually was the major trigger of my return back. The reality compelled me to go to the three daily prayers to say Kaddish for my father. From there, it’s all history.”

A decade ago, he came to live in the village. A year after, he began to slowly return to his origins. He says his old/new image was graciously accepted. “The vast majority of people in the village do not like things done by force,” he explains. “Their ways are ways of pleasantness. The Secretariat of the village actually is happy to see me. We wish each other a friendly hello.”

“We owe many thanks to Ayalet Hashachar, “he adds. “During the Sabbatical year on the land, they sent us materials about how to keep it. Without a doubt, it has accomplished great things in the villages and kibbutzim to make Judaism appealing and disseminate Torah.”

And back to the Golombek family. I’m going to take my leave from the friendly Golombeks, but not before I want to say something connected to their sublime deeds. This event happened in 1932. Representatives of the Torah Foundation came for an illustrious visit to the Chochmei Lublin Yeshiva in Poland which produced so many luminaries. Twenty representatives participated in the visit but only a few of them remained to spend Shabbat in the renowned yeshiva.

The delegates took their meals at the table with the distinguished head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Shapiro. Rabbi Yosef Carlebach, the head of the Altona – Hamburg Jewish court, asked Rabbi Shapiro: Why has the Chochmei Lublin yeshiva achieved fame beyond many others? What turned it into a legend?

Rabbi Shapiro asked a student, Pintshe Perliger of Berlin, to reply. The following were his incisive words: “in the Mishnah of Shabbat (34:1) we learn: ‘A person should say three things in his home when it starts getting dark on Friday night: Did you take tithes? Make the eruv? Light the candles?’

“Today,” the gifted prodigy stressed, “We are going through a period of ‘Shabbat eve close to darkness’. We are missing light. It’s getting dark. And here comes the Mishnah and teaches us to say “Did you take tithes?” Take a tithe of the youths, the best ones of them, “Make the eruv?” when you leave the yeshiva and mix (erav) with all the Jews, “Light the candle?” and remember to turn on the light of the Torah among all the Jewish people. Remove the darkness and illuminate the darkness of exile … “

“When Rabbi Shapiro heard this,” Rabbi Michael Isaac Tannenbaum, a yeshiva student and witness to the conversation, later said, “two tears flowed from his pure eyes.”

“Good night,” I wished Rabbi Golombek. “We are in the era of ‘Shabbat eve getting dark’. But you — you are turning on the light.”


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