Yes, There Is Cause For Optimism

By Dovid Landesman

Many tell me that I am too critical, constantly finding fault [and regrettably it doesn’t take a sophisticated search engine] within the observant community in Eretz Yisrael. Their criticism has had its effect; although I still peruse the blogs, my fingers are reluctant to go to the keyboard to comment or contribute because I am uncomfortable in constantly harping on the shortcomings I perceive. Thus, it is with a great sigh of relief that I pen these words, sharing observations about the perceived state of our people.

Last Thursday night, Erev Yom Kippur, my wife and I drove to the Old City to attend a presentation at the Aish ha-Torah World Center. Our youngest son, who recently completed three years of army service in the Netzach Yehudah brigade, works there and we were curious to see what it was that made him such an enthusiastic supporter of the program. Cognizant of the ever present parking problems near the Old City, we left our car in Sanhedria and hailed a cab to take us to the kotel. We made it as far as French Hill; all roads leading to the Old City were closed so we transferred to the light rail to Sha’ar Shechem instead. Although the train was packed, we had little portent of what we were about to witness.

Disembarking, we were joined by hundreds, if not thousands, of people heading slowly toward the kotel, most of them young and by outward appearance not overly observant. Walking alongside us was a very pregnant young woman accompanied by a friend; neither of them dressed in a manner that would have suggested any fealty to the minimal halachic standards of tzniut. As we strode slowly because of the crowds, we heard the friend ask: “Are you going to fast on Kippur?” The woman replied that she was not sure, she was in her 36th week and it might be dangerous, whereupon her friend responded: “You can’t make such a decision on your own! Ask a rav what you should do!” Slightly ahead of us, a young boy with his head uncovered walked with his mother who we had no reason to assume was in any way religious. She was leaning down to him and told him that when they reached the kotel they would recite hatarat nedarim which she then preceded to explain.
Passing through security, we reached the kotel plaza at about 11:30 PM. Forward progress was basically impossible. An enormous crowd filled the entire kotel plaza, a mass of people that police estimated at somewhere between 125 to 150,000 people! We made our way up the steps toward the Jewish quarter and entered the new Aish center facing the kotel. The building’s rooftop promenade commands one of the most mesmerizing views in the world.
We went into the presentation center, found seats along with some three hundred other attendees and waited for the special selichot program to begin. I must admit that I have never been a great fan of the kiruv materials and videos which Aish presents on its website; I find the emphasis on being contemporary and hip a tad bit distasteful and inappropriate. Having been informed that the program was created for non-observant Jews, I was quite prepared to be underwhelmed.
I owe Aish an apology. The presentation was absolutely brilliant; a combination of traditional Sefardic piyutim and music, a short skit by two immensely talented actors on why we love our children, interwoven with thought provoking ideas from Rav Itiel Goldvicht [son of one of the roshei yeshivot of RIETS and a great nephew of the late rosh yeshiva of Kerem b'Yavne]. There was no preaching, no fire and brimstone, no admonishments about our failures and shortcomings; rather the theme was discovering what unites us a people and using that as a bridge to creating a community that can withstand the external dangers we face.
I was struck – although not surprised – by the fact that the majority of the Sefardi audience knew both the words and the tune of the selichah of “chatanu l’fanechah” and enthusiastically joined in. Many in the crowd were teenagers and they were no less familiar nor were they in any way reluctant to be seen in public prayer.
After the presentation we went up to the roof to listen to selichot [it was hard to participate as the tefillah was led by a single chazan according to Sefardic nusach]. The tightly packed crowd filled the entire plaza from the staircase and tunnel that lead from Sha’ar Yaffo and Sha’ar Shechem all the way to the security point near Sha’ar ha-Ashpot. When the chazan began to sing the familiar piyut of “aneinu”, the entire crowd joined in. Although my grandmother claimed that my veins are filled with ice water, tears came to my eyes when I heard the thundering “y’hei shmei rabbah” at the end of selichot. Can there be a greater segulah to merit Divine grace in the coming year than to have been a voice in a assembly of “rivevot amcha beit Yisroel” accepting the yoke of heaven?
Heading home at about 3:30 AM, we were informed that to facilitate crowd control, all those leaving the Old City were to exit either through Sha’ar ha-Ashpot or Sha’ar Tzion; Sha’ar Yaffo and Sha’ar Shechem were only open to the thousands of people still making their way toward the kotel. With tens of thousands of others, we walked from Sha’ar Tzion along the Old City walls toward the David Citadel hotel where we were finally able to find a cab to take us back to our car. Again, much of the crowd was young and many were singing – “anachnu ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim” the predominant song. Did they really believe what they were saying? I don’t really know. But I am prepared to go on record and claim that I don’t think that there is a mass group of teenagers anywhere else in the world who sing songs that focus on belief in the Ribbono shel olam!
A news item on Erev Yom Kippur reported that 75% of the Jewish population in Eretz Yisrael fasts. Even if that figure is off the mark by a third, we’re talking about three million people who find reason to fulfill a mitzvah that is far from easy. Maybe it is fear, perhaps its source is superstition. No matter; if I were Yair Lapid I would find the statistic far more threatening than the chareidi birth rate.

Rabbi Dovid Landesman teaches at Yeshivat Tifferet Yerushalayim and is the author of There are No Basketball Courts in Heaven and Food For Thought, No Hechsher Required.

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11 comments to Yes, There Is Cause For Optimism

  • chana

    I think Lapid is quite aware of the number of Israelis fasting on Yom Kippur, as per his speech at Kiryat Ono. In fact, such numbers lend themselves to his argument that “religion is more popular when not legislated.”
    Other than that, this was an awesome post that really made me miss Israel :(

  • L. Oberstein

    Glad to see a piece by David Landesman. What he is describing is the fact that Oriental Jews never experienced the Enlightenment. They maintain their belief in the truth of the Torah, even if they personally aren’t so strict. The Shas Party restorred the crown to the sephardim and gave them the backbone to stand up to those who made them feel they were second class in every way. Rabbi Ovadiah is old and weak and who knows what the future holds for that party. I think you can’t draw any comparisons between what he observed and the secular Israelis of Tel Aviv. They are children of scoffers and they had little traditional observances in their homes, they are much different in mentality than the Oriental Jews. Yair Lapid deep down believes these people are “primatives’ and he genuinely fears they will take over the country. Who knows? Time will tell.

  • SA

    Thank you! What a great piece to read on erev Yom Tov!

  • dr. bill

    your last paragraph is reprehensible. how dare you assert that Yair Lapid is threatened by Jews fasting on Yom Kippur. he respects religion, not coercion. your characterization of him requires you to ask his forgiveness, otherwise your fasting would not be sufficient.

    what i see is that the so-called chiloni population becoming less extreme. i wish i could say the same about all elements of the religious population.

  • BTG

    I once heard from Rabbi Berel Wein that the two times on the Jewish Calendar that have the highest participation (approximately 80%) are Kol Nidrei night and the Seder on Pesach. The reason for this, he explained, is that’s when we are most inclusive and less judgmental of our less religious brethren. At Kol Nidrei we ask to include the “avaryanim” – transgressors, while the Seder includes all fours sons, even the Rasha. It’s no accident that people will join in when they are made to feel welcome.

  • jbs

    Great article until the last line. I don’t think Yair Lapid is against religious observance. Just against a culture of dependency and lack of public service.

  • Joseph

    That was an inspiring article … up until, but not including the last line. Even if it were true, it was in poor taste.

  • Allan Katz

    Imho I think R’ Landesman gets it wrong when it comes to Lapid. He is not worried about the % of Jews that fast because most frum Jews including many chareidi Jews agree with him , that the state should limit it support to ‘lomdei Torah ‘ only to the brilliant ones. And that’s his agenda. He further caught people off guard by claiming to respect religion just against lack of public service and a culture of dependency. His merciless and ruthless budget cuts, especially those affecting children and the families of people in learning show his true colors. He is anti-chareidi and does not want that ‘ religion’ should have any power in Israel. My criticism of Lapid does not absolve the chareidi leadership for a certain responsibility for the poverty and hardships of the chareidi community . Time will tell if these 75% of Israelis who fast will support Lapid’s policies and budget cuts against children and the chareidi community

  • dan raten

    Great post. Those offended by the last line of your post clearly dont live or experience the change in culture Lapid is trying to bring about in Israel. His image for the state is clearly not one where there will be this type of public display of religion.

  • Jewish Observer

    “Great article until the last line”

    “That was an inspiring article … up until, but not including the last line”

    - it seems there is an irresistible impulse, even by the good guys, when taking a position that is not classically haredi, to slip in a shtoch. Perhaps this is to, even unwittingly, leaving incontrovertible evidence of not being modern

  • Sam Zimmerman

    Agree with all the commentors who loved the article,except for the last unnecessary line. On a personal note, Dodi, I still fondly remember Succos at your house thirty six years ago. Thank you for that, and regards