Rabbi Shmuel Tal, whose yeshiva was originally located in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, attempted to form a “pure” community in the new Israeli town of Yad Binyamin. But then Rabbi Tal tried to convince at least one married woman to leave her ...


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Rabbi Shmuel Tal Maintains Cultish Hold on Yad Binyamin and more...

Rabbi Shmuel Tal Maintains Cultish Hold on Yad Binyamin

Rabbi Shmuel Tal
Rabbi Shmuel Tal

Rabbi Shmuel Tal, whose yeshiva was originally located in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip, attempted to form a “pure” community in the new Israeli town of Yad Binyamin. But then Rabbi Tal tried to convince at least one married woman to leave her husband, claiming that she and Tal were the reincarnation of Bathsheba and King David.

Yerachmiel Lopin summarizes the events in his blog Frum Follies:

Rabbi Shmuel Tal had a scam. As head of Torat HaChaim yeshiva as well as several other religious institutions in the central Israeli town of Yad Binyamin he went around claiming ruach hakodesh (Divine or prophetic inspiration). Tal counseled a young married woman to get a divorce from her husband in order to marry him. Tal claimed he knew through ruach hakodesh that Yifat, his wife, would die shortly. He also claimed to know through ruach hakodesh that he was the reincarnation of King David and she was the reincarnation of Batsheba. 

The woman got the divorce but the quite healthy wife didn’t die on the predicted date. Tal now tried to get his wife, Yifat, to agree to him taking this woman as a second wife but she refused this polygamous offer. So Tal ignored the woman. 
Realizing she had been taken, she remarried her husband. They both sued R. Tal for damages and got a hefty award (500,000 Shekels/$140,000) and Tal made a first partial payment toward the total. Based on that settlement, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu ruled that Tal had repented and could continue leading his yeshiva and other institutions. This all happened about 4 years ago and the public was left in the dark about this shady, manipulative, cultic, marriage-wrecking rabbi.

Please visit Frum Follies to get the whole story, including analyses by the blogger Yerachmiel Lopin and by Rabbi Yosef Blau, Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual advisor) at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical seminary and long time anti-abuse activist.

Today, Rabbi Blau published his thoughts in a blog post, Rabbi Shmuel Tal’s authority is intact. Everyone should be asking why. He writes:

As an outsider to the community, but as one who has been informed that Rabbi Tal’s authority in his community is absolute, a claim of teshuva that does not change the fact that the community’s internal dynamic is questionable.

We have received more hints about the dynamics of the community from two responses after a rabbinic court recently ruled that Tal could maintain his position as rosh yeshiva.

The first, by state-appointed rabbi of the community Yigal Hadaya, includes his official stamp:

Letter to Yad Binyamin community from its chief rabbi Yigal Hadaya

Rabbi Hadaya writes:

My rabbinic friends and I have refrained from commenting on this case.

I waited until the rabbinical court issued its ruling as I didn’t want to comment while it was going on.

Even now that it’s been published, I am keeping my opinion to myself because anyone can see it and read it for themselves, and we all understand that it’s complex. It has various implications, some are more pleasant and some less. Whoever has gripes about the ruling, or doubts, may approach the rabbinic court directly and not the local rabbis.

Today, the most important thing [emphasis mine] is to stop lashon hara (evil speech), slander and fighting in any framework.

Don’t pressure rabbis or public figures to respond or speak out in any way.

Every beit din has the right to choose its way, according to its understanding of the ruling, and its worldview. I suggest that no one try to “explain” to another what he should do. Everyone has the right to independent thought and behavior. Everyone has the right to decide how to educate his children whether in one type of institution or another, and with which beit midrash to affiliate.

[Signed with stamp of Rabbi Yigal Hadaya]

In other words, we want everyone to keep their opinions to themselves because if you don’t, he suggests, some of the community’s sheep might realize that they have been manipulated. Anytime you need to control people by stopping discussion, it is too late. The barn door can’t be closed.

Journalist Avishai Grinzaig, a journalist at Maariv, posted an anonymous letter from a resident of Yad Binyamin. The author, who is about to leave the community after twelve years, wrote about his pain over being slandered and ostracized because he had expressed concerns about Rabbi Tal. When he first heard the allegations, he had kept quiet, assuming that this sensitive matter would be taken care of appropriately.

But once it became clear that he did not support Rabbi Tal, the resident wrote, his family was ostracized despite having given “hundreds of thousands of shekalim” to the community’s institutions. His wife, who was employed by the women’s seminary, had always been praised for her work. Yet she stopped being invited to her students’ weddings.

The resident concludes by saying:

Perhaps the community will start to think about why over so many years, so many people are hurt and were harmed by the community and its institutions? Why are there so many bitter employees? We need to ask forgiveness from all of those who lost emunat chachamim (faith in the sages) like I did, along with my ostracized friends.

The rabbinic court did not see fit to address the ostracizing and the excommunications, the disputes and the slander, the active and passive pressure, and the blood that has been spilled in the streets of my, my wife’s and my friends’ Yad Binyamin. The repentance was only for the divine spirit [that Tal claimed to have], not for the derech eretz that was missed in a big way.

The truth is that for us, it doesn’t matter. My wife and I are leaving the holy community of Torat HaChaim. We are going to a community that knows that if there isn’t any “between man and man,” there is also no “between man and God.” That prohibiting ostracism and excommunication comes before skirt length, that slander and love of one another comes before kashrut standards.
I love you and judge you all favorably. I nevertheless think that we missed the mark in a big way.

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Event in Israel on the Jews of Ozarow, and Ben Zion Wacholder

I have written here about doctoral student Lukasz Rzepka’s research on the Jewish community of Ozarow, where both he and my father, Ben Zion Wacholder, were born. My father’s memories of the liquidation of Ozarow are recorded on the website maintained by my niece Shifra Goldenberg. Thanks to Lukasz, creator of the BOZnica series to preserve the memories of the Jews of Ozarow, my father’s story is now available in Polish as well. 

Cover of Wspomnienia (Memories) by Ben Zion Wacholder, the first of the BOZnica series.

Lukasz explained to me the symbolism of the graphic design of the cover: 

The whole plant has the shape of a menorah. Man is a flower, part of a plant. It is a symbol of a survivor who shines like a lamp. Red correlates to the red doors in the BO?nica logo, which symbolize the martyr’s death of Jews from O?arów.

Lukasz arrived in Israel and will be speaking in Petach Tikva tomorrow evening (20.12.18) about his research and the Jewish history of the town. The slides will be in Hebrew and English. My relative Professor Zeev Safrai, whose father Professor Shmuel Safrai was a close friend of my father, will be speaking (in Hebrew) about my father’s scholarship. See the flyer below for more details.

Evening with lectures about Ozarow, Poland and Ben Zion Wacholder. Speakers: Hannah Katsman, Lukasz Rzepka, and Professor Zeev Safrai. Thursday, December 20, 2018, Netzach Shlomo Synagogue, 5 Wolf St., Petach Tikva, at 19:45.
Designed by Gali Dub

Those coming by car are advised to park on one of the surrounding streets as the synagogue is located on a small street. For more information, please text me at 054-4602372.

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Recalling My Father and the Jewish Past in Ozarow, Poland

Lukasz Rzepka holds the Polish translation of my father Ben Zion Wacholder's Memories: Wspomnienia. My father's picture is hanging in the background.
Lukasz holding “Memories” next to a picture of my father Ben Zion Wacholder z”l

Several months ago, I wrote about Lukasz Rzepka, the graduate student who, like with my father Ben Zion Wacholder z”l, was born in Ozarow, Poland. After months of preparation, Lukasz has published the first volume of the BOZnica project. It contains my father’s “Memories” of the last days before the liquidation of the town’s Jewish community in 1942, along with a great deal of supplementary material.

On Sunday, the eve of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot and my father’s birthday according to a list of residents from the time, Lukasz hosted a standing-room-only ceremony in Ozarow to launch the project. One of his goals was to recreate for the residents, in some small way, the experience of living among Jews. Before the war, almost 70% of Ozarow’s 5000 townspeople were Jews. The event was filmed and I hope to be able to share it soon, along with English and Hebrew subtitles.

In advance of the event, Lukasz visited the two local high schools to talk about the project. He also met with readers from four of Ozarow’s libraries, who regularly get together to discuss books. The schoolteachers  and the library-goers both recalled their relatives telling them about their Jewish neighbors.

We are looking forward to meeting Lukasz and his fellow researcher when they visit Israel in December. 

I would like to share the letter I wrote for the volume on behalf of my family. It appears there (with minor changes) in both English and Polish.

My father, Ben Zion Wacholder of blessed memory, was a kind and learned man who made important contributions to the world of Jewish scholarship. Born in Ozarow in the early 1920’s, he was the only survivor of the destruction of the Jewish community in October 1942 and the murder of its citizens.

My father writes that he felt his job was to bear witness to the destruction of the Jewish community of Ozarow. In these short chapters now being published in Polish for the first time, Ben Zion Wacholder describes the community’s history, its personalities, the vibrant Jewish religious life and scholarship, the touching relationships with his parents Fayga and Pinchas Shlomo and siblings Sarah Hendel, Aaron and Ruchla Shifra, as well as the moral dilemmas faced by the community during the three years of German occupation. Ozarow was already undergoing enormous social change in the years before the war. His experiences there, along with the Talmudic skills passed down to him from both his father and his maternal grandfather, Mordechai David Lederman, contributed to his ability to analyze ancient Jewish texts including the Talmud, exegetical writings, Judaeo-Greek literature, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

When I began to correspond with Lukasz Rzepka, I was struck by his sincerity and his quest to uncover the knowledge of my father’s family and other members of the community. Both his and my father’s work involve a careful examination of the written record in order to recreate an accurate picture of the thoughts and actions of those who lived long ago.

My father and Lukasz, both scholars born in Ozarow who trained under two different religious traditions, share a love of knowledge and scholarship. We are honored that Lukasz chose to study the lost Jewish community of their common birthplace, and that he saw the value of sharing my father’s writing with the Polish people.

While many in the Jewish and scholarly community have taken an interest in my father over the years, my family never imagined that someone from the mythical town of Ozarow, which we have not yet visited, would suddenly play an important role in our lives. On behalf of my family, especially my sister Nina, my brother David, and my brother Sholom of blessed memory who would have thoroughly supported this project, we thank you. Thank you for nudging us to look through old documents and pictures and for the many discussions your project has sparked among our family and friends. Thank you for persisting when we were slow to respond. Thank you for being a shining representative of the Polish people. Finally, thank you for your part in allowing our father to continue to bear witness on behalf of all of the murdered Jews of Ozarow and Poland.

For more information: 
Website about Ben Zion Wacholder, including the English version of “Memories,” maintained by my niece Shifra Goldenberg. 
Facebook page of BOZnica project
BOZnica website Easily accessible in English via Google Chrome
News report about the BOZnica launch
The Story of the Treblinka Extermination Camp

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Choices in Religious High Schools for Girls in Israel

Jerusalem Post Magazine cover

Four years ago, when my younger daughter was in 6th grade, I looked for an alternative to the standard ulpana (high school for girls in the national religious sector). After enrolling her in a new program in Tel Aviv, I became interested in innovations in other schools. This ultimately led an article that appeared in last Friday’s Jerusalem Post Magazine.

In the article I quote from an interview with Dr. Miri Shlissel, who has held key roles in teaching, administration, teacher training, and supervision within the sector. She lays out the history of the ulpana, and how societal changes in women’s roles have led to divergence from the standard model.

Shlissel describes what she views as two competing outlooks within the national religious community, calling them “religious Zionist” and “modern Orthodox.” The former is prevalent in the Tel Aviv and center of the country, while the latter is more likely to be seen in Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. I tried to imagine two prototypes of schools from the outlook and how they would compare regarding secular and Jewish studies, their attitude toward feminism, 
In addition, I spoke with educators from various schools, to illustrate how some of these questions play out in real life.

Hope you enjoy: Educating Israel’s religious young women, Jerusalem Post Magazine, August 31, 2018.

I wish all readers and their families a wonderful year of health, growth, satisfaction, and learning. 

You may also enjoy:
Questions to Ask when Choosing a School

Ethiopian school integration in Petach Tikva: Interview with Yifat Kasai

Breastfeeding Preschoolers: Not Sensational at All

Fasting on Yom Kippur for Breastfeeding Mothers

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Everything Is Okay, Except when It Isn’t: A Fresh Approach to Jewish Education

Review: Not at Risk by Menachem Gottesman Ph.D. with Leah Leslie Gottesman, M.A.

cover of Not at RiskI cried while reading Not at Risk: Education as a Work of Heart, the story of the alternative Jerusalem high school Meled. Meled, which stands for Merkaz Lemida Dati (center for religious learning) was founded by the book’s author Dr. Menachem Gottesman, after his own son was expelled from a yeshiva high school. Gottesman soon found that unlike in the secular system, the national religious Jewish education system offered few opportunities struggling students whether for academic, familial, or emotional reasons, or simply because the children did not comply with rigid expectations of religious observance.

I experienced something similar when one of our children was kicked out of yeshiva high school a few days after the start of 11th grade. Many view the long hours of yeshiva high school to be counterproductive not only to Jewish observance and to personal development, but to serious learning of Talmud. Fortunately, in recent years, many yeshiva high schools are offering a less pressured curriculum.

Although that yeshiva would have taken my son back had he agreed to conform, he found a high school that, like Meled, offered a welcoming “home” to large numbers of yeshiva “dropouts.”

In the book, written with his wife Leah Leslie, Dr. Gottesman describes how he based the school’s philosophy on the works of A.S. Neill, author of Summerhill, A Radical Approach to Child Rearing; psychiatrist Milton H. Erickson; and Rabbi J. B. Soloveichik. Enlisting men with protektzia, such as Rabbi Daniel Sperber, who wrote a foreword to the book, and now deceased Knesset Member of the National Religious Party Hanan Porat, Meled received recognition from the Jerusalem municipality and the education ministry. Originally, only boys attended but after a few years of separate programs for boys and girls, it became fully mixed in 1998, with great success.

Gottesman structures the book around stories about the former students, and the accounts of the students themselves via a questionnaire. The school offers a welcoming and nonjudgmental approach, training its staff members to abide by it consistently. In turn, the students internalize the message and relate to each other in similar ways. Many graduates shared the heart-breaking situations that led them to consider Meled, with each one explaining how the staff and students enabled them to began studying again at their own pace, with satisfaction and enjoyment. Most of the students ultimately found a field of study that they enjoyed, whether or not they completed their matriculation exams.

Many students mentioned Meled’s unique intake interview. After rounds of unsuccessful interviews or long periods of absence from school, the children expected a grilling. But instead of asking for excuses and promises, Gottesman focused on listening to the students and explaining what the school can offer them. He assured them that they did not have to attend class or study until they wanted to. The main rules are no drugs and alcohol in class. While Jewish studies are offered, there is no requirement of religious observance. Staff members go out of their way to help the students succeed in their studies, but above all to make them feel valued as individuals.

Gottesman describes the intake interview as follows:

When doing intakes at Meled, I have often been presented with a background of upheaval, of chaotic experiences including school failure, abuse, strife and/or trauma. Therefore, I deliberately marginalize the applicant’s history, avoiding any listing of rejections. the focus, instead, is on relating to the adolescent on the basis of projected success. The message conveyed is that we have never changed a student; the students create their own change with our help. Moreover, others who had faced challenges similar to, or even more difficult, than those faced by any individual interviewee have succeeded in overcoming them. Our interview is about allaying the anxiety of both parent and child and instilling hope.

So why did I cry? I went to a large academic secular high school, which was right for me in many ways. But I felt sad for my younger self that, unlike at Meled, my school offered so little acknowledgment of my emotional needs and difficulties.

In Israel it’s common to say hakol beseder, with means “everything is okay.” But at Meled, staff members respond to that statement saying,  “except for what isn’t okay. If something isn’t okay, it can be fixed, but if you don’t know it isn’t okay, you have a problem.” Within families, schools, and ourselves, things can fester because we believe they can’t be fixed. Fortunately there are places like Meled that can help “fix” the children from our community that need it most.

You may also enjoy:

Book Review: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Book review: Through the Narrow Gate

Questions to Ask When Choosing a School

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