The Jerusalem Kollel
Purim 2008

From the words of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits

One of the lesser-known characteristics of the month of Adar is its auspiciousness, or, simply put, good mazal. In light of this mazal, the Rabbis suggest that a Jew with a court case pending against a non-Jew should try to schedule the case during the month of Adar. The month in which the Jews snatched victory - no, were handed victory on a silver platter - from the jaws of defeat, retains an element of salvation and redemption for Jews in all future generations.

The question here is obvious: Why specifically Adar? In what way was the victory of Purim superior to other miraculous deliverances the Jews have experienced through the ages, for example, the exodus from Egypt on Passover, culminating in Kriyas Yam Suf (the splitting of the Red Sea)? On the contrary, the liberation from Egypt was more logistically daunting than the Purim victory, and, unlike Purim, was highlighted with open miracles in the dramatic manipulation of nature. Why not push off one’s trial to the time of spectacular, miraculous redemption in the month of Nissan?

We need to first clarify the essence – and the message – of these Holidays in order to answer this.

The message of Pesach is emunah (faith). The redemption from Egypt, with its open manifestation of divine intervention, resulted in the Jews standing at the shores of the Red Sea, beholding the destruction of their enemies, and attaining a state the Torah recounts as, "Va'ya’amenu Ba’Hashem (they believed in God...)". The Rabbis describe matzah eaten on Pesach as lachma d’meheimanusa (bread of faith). The essence of Pesach is the stark awareness of Hashem’s omnipotence over every aspect of existence. Seeing is believing.

Purim, by contrast, is not about believing what we see (or have seen); it’s about bitachon (trust), particularly with regard to that which we cannot see. In the tapestry of seemingly unrelated events, woven inconspicuously into the story line of Megillas Esther, we witness a loving God Who sees to the needs of His children, even as they can only see tragedy unfolding all around them. In the deliverance of Purim – with the benefit of hindsight - we learn to feel Hashem’s love for us, even when events seem bleak and foreboding. On Purim we learn to trust. In a sense, the inebriety of Purim hints of a recognition that the perception and acuity of our sober senses the rest of the year are very limited, and ultimately finite, relative to Hashem’s vast, infinite, eternal plan.

This trust in Hashem is more present on Purim than on Pesach precisely because the Passover miracles were nigleh (revealed) and overt, whereas on Purim, God acted in a far less noticeable manner. The Rabbis point out that the name Esther is derived from the Hebrew root seser, which means hidden; the Book of Esther is openly devoid of open miracles. And, it is specifically when God’s salvation is not with the zeroah netuyah (the outstretched arm) of Passover, but through the concealed, inconspicuous pulling of the puppet strings from behind the stage, that ahava is expressed at its truest and deepest. When we notice how, with the chips seemingly down and the odds against us, in reality Hashem was putting into place a series of events that would ultimately bring about our salvation, we feel His love. When, in hindsight, we see Hashem preparing the proverbial medicine before the wound, we feel secure. When we live with an awareness of Hashem doing what’s best for us, even when we can’t see Him, and events seem anything but promising, we have learnt the message of Purim.

This love Hashem has for us permeates the month of Adar, and potential litigants are advised to capitalize on this “mazal”.

We are enjoined to emulate the ways of Hashem, and the different seasons offer opportunities for self-improvement in consonance with their respective themes. Purim, when Hashem acted with loving-kindness, yet in such a quiet manner, presents us with cause for introspection: As friends, as parents, as spouses, how do we give to others? How do we truly love?

Let’s face it: we live in a world of noise. Once upon a time, admiration and attention were reserved for those whose accomplishments and intrinsic worth warranted it. With the "progress" of society, we began worshipping at the altar of media darlings. Today it seems that hype is the only criteria for recognition, and whoever manages to generate more of it gets disproportionate focus, attention, and a degree of credibility. Sadly unnoticed in our noisy, flamboyant world is the true, refined virtue that is so often cloaked in silence.

Larger society aside, on a personal level, there is an important lesson here. True chesed (kindness) is not about launching big projects, accompanied by fanfare, and splashed around town in P.R. campaigns. It is about learning to truly care about other people on a personal level, to become sensitized to other peoples’ needs and wants. The laws of tzedakah demonstrate that to whatever extent we give covertly, it is more loving and altruistic. Where the recipient remains unaware and is spared the embarrassment of being on the take, charity at its highest level is realized. Domestically too, one is more caring when he doesn’t need recognition for every kind act; to act out of sensitivity to a spouse’s feelings, without putting it “on account”, is to truly care. Moreover, when out of sensitivity we don’t act, when we resist saying that which we know to be hurtful, when we don’t do what bothers those around us, we are giving in a very deep way. Opportunities abound. To pray for a friend’s needs, unbeknownst to him, is the height of giving. In fact, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz used to suggest that people allocate time each day to think about other people, their needs, wants, difficulties, etc. The common thread in all these scenarios is that no one may ever know. And that is precisely why they’re the height of giving, of chesed, of true care and love.

In these days of Adar we can discern the quiet presence of Hashem, His constant love and care, the boundless good He provides for us in all areas of our life without the fanfare. When we feel this love, and it moves us to the Rabbis’ marbin besimcha (increased joy), we are feeling the message of Purim. If we begin assimilating the principle of quiet giving into our own lives, we are not just learning the message of Purim, but living it.

Happy Purim to all!

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Field Update

Rabbi Akiva Gilbert - Outdoor Jewish Experience in South Africa

In 2004, upon his completion of The Jerusalem Kollel three-year Rabbinics and Jewish Outreach Program, Rabbi Akiva Gilbert arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa to launch a new, out-of-the-box Jewish education organization. Rabbi Gilbert co-founded the Outdoor Jewish Experience, the "OJE," to help Jewish college students enhance their Jewish identity through some unusual and exciting programs. The OJE offers students week-long retreats at a luxurious South-African resort featuring Torah classes and adventures into the nearby wilderness. The classes expose students to introductory Jewish concepts and the adventures expose students to ''extreme sports'' like river-rafting and abseiling (that's what ''rappelling'' is called in South Africa). Aside from being an attractive incentive for students to participate in the retreats, these wilderness trips foster a feeling of closeness and interdependence among participants and provide them with an opportunity to form new relationships with other Jews. Upon completion of each retreat, the students can become part of the OJE network of Torah classes and other events. Many students also choose to participate in trips to Israel to attend programs that continue to explore the topics they began to learn about while on the retreats.

The post-retreat events that the OJE offers its alumni are also not typical learning experiences. Rabbi Gilbert hosts, for example, a weekly Braai - the South African version of a barbeque - featuring a class, schmoozing, and plenty of good food. These get-togethers, aside from their being an opportunity for students to increase their knowledge, provide a relaxed setting for students to build relationships with the OJE staff. In one instance, Rabbi Gilbert got to know a student that regularly attended OJE events and classes. The student eventually decided to spend time studying in Israel – and his girlfriend decided to do the same. Some time later, they asked him to officiate at their wedding ceremony. The Gilberts also host regular Shabbos programs for the students in their home.

Last year, on the back of OJE's popularity among students (there have been ten programs since its inception), Rabbi Gilbert and his team diversified the organization by expanding their sphere of influence to include programming for business executives and professionals. They demonstrated that their ability to provide the best in Jewish inspiration against the backdrop of nature’s beauty and excitement extends even to the less adventurous of us as well. The first Executive Torah Experience was held at Leopard Creek, a beautiful South African golf resort, and featured South-African born Rabbi Akiva Tatz, an author and educator well-known in Jerusalem and England for his unusual depth and creativity. The resort borders the Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest wildlife reserve, where the thirty participants were treated to an authentic African safari.

This year, Rabbi Gilbert and his crew are going global. In June, the OJE is collaborating with NCSY, the North-American teenage Jewish youth group, to host a two-week program in South Africa for sixty teens. In August, they will join up again with Rabbi Akiva Tatz to bring together student leaders from North America, England and South Africa for a special OJE experience.

The Outdoor Jewish Experience, in its relatively short history, has managed to touch hundreds of people-in a territory which, upon its arrival on the scene, was already rich with opportunities for Jewish Education. Rabbi Gilbert, in his quest to help more Jews appreciate their heritage, continues to launch fresh and inspiring educational initiatives...and expeditions deep into the African bush.

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Field Update

Rabbi Dovid Rose - Berlin, Germany

Dovid Rose is the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of Lauder Yeshurun in Germany, a branch of the Torah Projects division of the Ronald S. Lauder foundation, and the largest Orthodox Jewish organization in Germany today.

Dovid graduated the Kollel at the end of 2005, and set off to Berlin - along with his wife Talya and their two children – to take the helm of Yeshivas Beis Zion. The Yeshiva, founded in 2000, was originally conceived to cater to the educational needs of the rapidly growing Jewish community, fed by a steady immigration from the former Soviet Union, and numbering upwards of 150,000 Jews. Besides overseeing the running of the Yeshiva (not to mention teaching there) Dovid was presented with a mandate of expanding the sphere of influence of the Yeshiva, both socially and geographically; to take the Yeshiva from being an educational academy for its student body and to transform it into the basis of what would become a larger Torah community in Germany.

In accordance with his vision for the Yeshivah as a focal point for all Jewish activities in the country, an iconic Makom Torah around which all other kiruv activities would develop, Dovid began by setting up a Kollel. By the end of 2006 there were six kollel families studying Torah in Berlin, upping the level of learning and strengthening the atmosphere in the Yeshivah, in addition to taking active roles in various outreach programs.

In just over two years, the community has gone from 3 Shomer Shabbos familes to over twenty, approximately half of whom are graduates of the Yeshivah, most married to girls from the Lauder Midrasha (a sister school to the Yeshiva, which recently relocated from Frankfurt to Berlin).

The progress in the community, in such a short time, is astounding: The Yeshiva and Midrasha students are continuing to marry and join the community (six weddings coming up in the coming months alone!), other families around Germany are excited at the prospect of joining such a community, pre-school education has started, and a school is planned for after the summer. Active outreach programs also abound, and the influence is spreading: There’s a Morasha Program, in which tens of students in Berlin, Hamburg, and Leipzig attend weekly shiurim for a stipend. Satellite branches of the Yeshiva are already in place, in the ToraZentrum in Leipzig, and Lauder Nordhause in Hamburg, both providing rich recruiting grounds for the Yeshiva.

As Dovid is currently in the process of handing over the operations of the Yeshivah in Berlin, as he assumes responsibility for the further development of vibrant Torah Judaism on a national scale, one thing is clear: Dovid’s vision is becoming a reality.

We managed to pull Dovid from his busy schedule to chat with him for a few moments:

JK: You spent three years studying under Rabbi Berkovits at the Kollel, covering the entire gamut of the Kollel curriculum, including Halacha (Torah law) in all pertinent matters, Hashkafa (Jewish perspectives), and practical Rabbinics. Do you feel that you were adequately prepared for what you’ve been encountering in the field? What do you think could be done differently?
DR: Looking back, I find the time I spent at the Jerusalem Kollel highly productive both from the scholarship point of view, covering large areas of halacha, hashkafa, as well as practical Rabbinics. But, even more importantly, the time I spent under the guidance of Rabbi Berkovits himself, has stood by me successfully in the endeavors that I came to be involved with. I refer to not just the learning, but also to his sensitive advice on how to deal with situations and with people, and I find myself in many different situations being very well prepared having been under the influence of this tremendous scholar.

JK: Would you compare yourself to Yosef in Mitzrayim, with the image of his father Jacob appearing in front of his face?
DR: I think that would be a little exaggerated, but at the same time, I can say that not a day goes by that one of the fundamental principles that Rabbi Berkovits would impress on us - that I don’t find myself saying over to other people or saying it to myself.

JK: Everyone in the field of outreach seems to be in agreement that time is running out in the battle against Jewish ignorance and assimilation. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what the kiruv establishment could or should be doing differently. Based on your experiences, what do you think?
DR: I’ve only been exposed to a very small portion of the larger Jewish population, here in Germany, with very unique circumstances. Within the context of this particular group of Jews I do feel very strongly that time is running out. In terms of the rest of the Jewish world, there is certainly a tremendous sense of how much needs to be done. From my experience – as with others I know in the field - it seems that those people who value every individual Jewish neshama and each word of Torah to be precious - above and beyond other considerations like numbers – I find them to be the most successful. One person at a time – one Jew at a time – bringing them back to Hashem…to a life of Torah and Mitzvos.

JK: Rabbi Berkovits suggested recently, in the daily chumash class, that that too much emphasis is being invested by kiruv personnel into programs that create and cultivate Jewish awareness by bring together Jewish people, entertaining them, giving them a Jewish "feeling", and creating a "comfortable" Jewish medium, in short – the fun stuff. And while all that is a necessary starting point, he feels that it is disproportionate with what should be the heart and soul of any kiruv project – namely a drive towards authentic Jewish education and personal growth. What are your thoughts?
DR: From my experience in running programs for ”disconnected” Jews, I have found that the social aspect is an essential element to get them to listen to what we have to say, but ultimately what lights the spark in them is hearing is hearing truth, hearing Torah, in being connected to what they have not been connected to before. If we are trying to compete with the secular world with our social events, we are going to struggle. We have a special marketing tool which is unique to us, that our competitors don’t have, and that is the Torah. And ultimately through cultivating and nurturing people through the exposure to this Torah, this is going to bring the real success, and should ultimately be our major focus.

JK: The Jews that you’re working with - what you referred to as "disconnected" Jews – what is it that motivates them Jewishly?
DR: Unlike Jews from the western world, who have always had the opportunity, these Jews, from the former Soviet Union, were forcibly deprived. They find this as an opportunity – to learn in Yeshiva, to live as a Jew. It’s not so much of a Baal Teshuvah experience, as much as living out something that was not available beforehand.

JK: To turn our conversation in a more personal direction: There seems to be an almost universal experience of couples feeling overwhelmed upon leaving the academic and Torah-focused confines of the Kollel environment and going "OUT". What was your and Talya’s experience like?
DR: We had both reached a stage in our lives that we began to feel that we are ready to start giving back what we had begun to learn. We were fortunate that the responsibilities we took up were not so great that overnight we were suddenly overwhelmed with the task at hand. But, nevertheless, it became clear in a short time that this endeavor that we had undertaken was something that would take all our efforts, and we learned that there’s ultimately no limit to the amount of things that a person can be involved with. A person finds himself in the field faced with so many opportunities that he will ultimately need to prioritize and to find his balance. Regarding this too, we received so much guidance from Rabbi Berkovits - that the foundation of any success in teaching, in building a community, in building people - is to first have completion in your own family life, in your children. As soon as other responsibilities are at the expense of the family and children, one is not going to be very successful. It‘s a very important balance between putting all of ones efforts into the task at hand versus keeping time for one’s family. For us, it’s often having a Shabbos seudah with our family.

JK: I remember Rabbi Berkovits speaking at your seudas preidah (farewell party) and pointing out the poetic irony of your going out to teach Torah and spread Judaism on the same cursed soil upon which the Nazis had come so close to eradicating the Jewish people. Have you been feeling this? What about the people – both Jew and gentile – that you encounter? Is there guilt and apologetics?
DR: We have very little contact with the local gentile population. All of our interaction is with the people with whom we are working. Nevertheless, even in Berlin, having so many signs of the past, in terms of memories, surrounding us in everything we do, that make clear to us, in spite of the passage of time, the horrific occurrences that happened here. We live in an area that was largely populated with Jews before the war, and we often wonder about what happened – even in those apartments we live in now; It’s something that we live with all the time. On the one hand we feel the necessity to move on, to be positive, to create a positive atmosphere; the Yiddishkeit that what we’re trying to build is new and fresh. But on the other hand, we are always aware that we are here right on the scene of such horrific things, guarded to not blind ourselves, and not to ignore everything that has happened in the past. So on the one hand, you can’t be too focused because you become overwhelmed, but on the other hand to not block it out - you should be aware of where you are.

JK: How is Talya enjoying what she’s doing?
DR: Despite the initial difficulty of moving in, and the language barrier (which remains), she enjoys immensely her teaching and being involved with the wives and the girls from the 'sem'. She sees this as a unique opportunity to share what she herself spent time studying in Jerusalem, especially under the program with Rebbetzin Spetner. She’s in constant contact with her teachers in Jerusalem, for advice on how to correctly deal with circumstances, to get guidance on how to deal with complex issues and daily challenges. Overall, this is the time of her life that she has been able to give the most, and she appreciates the opportunity.

JK: What would you say is the most important attitude for a couple going OUT into the field?
DR: I’ll echo something that Rabbi Berkovits always said. We’re not meant to take a job, to negotiate a contract get a deal… We’re going to help Klal Yisrael. Although we may be working for and hired by an organization, ultimately we are working for ourselves to bring out our full potential in what we’re doing. One can be going with so much dedication and sacrifice – and a couple needs to recognize that in every area of what they’re doing in order to feel truly fulfilled.

JK: In closing, how are you going to be celebrating Purim?
DR: Actually there’s a few things going on. The Kollel is working with families with their Purim seudos – a big do with music and all. There is also a group of 18 NCSY students who are coming to spend ten days in Germany, meeting their local counterparts here, discussion history together, etc – so they’ll be having their own Purim event. As for me, we’ll be having a seuda in our home with a few families and a few bochurim, as we have done in past years.

JK: Well, have a great Purim, and keep up all the incredible stuff you’re doing there. Only one word comes to mind: "WOW"! Bracha v'hatzlacha.

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From the words of a donor who recently sent an unsolicited donation:

I know that Rav Berkovits is doing wonderful work, that new as it is the Kollel is already occupying an important position in the world of Kiruv, and I am convinced it will be making a really major contribution in the years to come. And I would like to be of aid.
All the best,
Michael Kaufman

The Jerusalem Kollel