INTERVIEW: “We Must Explain to the Masses in the Diaspora About the Importance of Torah in Eretz Yisrael”

Hagaon Harav Shmuel Kaminetzky, shlita, Rosh Yeshivas Philadelphia and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America, speaks to Hamodia about the current situation in Eretz Yisrael. The Rosh Yeshivah adds that it must be explained to Diaspora Jews what a calamity the yeshivah bachurim draft is. Most of them are not aware that spending even a short time there causes terrible spiritual damage. He added that despite the precarious financial situation all over the world, chareidi Jewry in America will support Torah institutions in Eretz Yisrael.

“We have never yet seen a battle like the one we are facing now in Eretz Yisrael, where they are actively trying to uproot Torah. This is a new trend. With siyatta diShmaya, bastions of Torah were built in Eretz Yisrael­ — and I don’t know if there has ever been so much Torah there, bli ayin hara. But with all that growth, they [the government] do not understand why they need lomdei Torah. They are looking for means to uproot Torah, which is a very grave situation.”

This was how Harav Shmuel Kaminetzky began our conversation. The Rosh Yeshivah is a vast fount of Torah, and everything he says is clearly elucidated and pleasantly presented. This time, the Rosh Yeshivah’s voice trembles; he is clearly distraught over the plight of chareidi Jewry in Eretz Yisrael.

This conversation, in contrast to others I have had with him, was full of worry and apprehension at what the government is planning to do to the Torah world, yeshivos and schools, and especially the draft law.

“Let me start by saying that there are two points here. The first is that since the establishment of the state, the government leaders knew that yeshivos were part of building up the land. The yeshivah students knew that in Eretz Yisrael they could sit and learn in peace and to their heart’s desire. In the past 35 years, the government even financially supported the construction, establishment and operation of yeshivos. They understood that the yeshivos needed to exist for their own continued existence. And this was their merit that gave them the right to exist to this day—their support of Torah.

“The second point is that the generation that founded the state and the one that followed it still had a trace of feeling for religion and tradition. They had a bit of knowledge about their connection to the Torah. Today, the young generation has no clue about the traditions and legacies handed down for generations. And for most of them, the Jewish religion is no different, l’havdil, R”l, from any other religion. They perceive the chareidi sector as some type of cult, and have no connection themselves to religion. Who would have believed that the day would come that we would have to talk of saving the Torah world from being destroyed?”

The biggest disappointment is that the damage is being done by a government that includes representatives of the National Religious sector, who are called Shabbos observers…

“It is unbelievable that they are partners to such a thing as harmful to the Torah world and the status of bnei yeshivah. Already then, most chareidi Gedolei Torah did not pay attention to them and did not cooperate with them. My father, zt”l,[Harav Yaakov Kaminetzky] also did not take them into consideration at all.”

Chareidi Jewry in America has expressed concern about the situation in Eretz Yisrael. What action can be taken?

“The first thing, before we begin to take action on a variety of fronts, is to increase Torah learning in yeshivos and kollelim. They want to reduce Torah, and therefore, before we do anything, we have to increase Torah. Through learning and davening, the terrible decrees will surely be annulled. With that, there are different things that must be done to minimize the damage to bnei yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, such as working with business leaders and government figures…

“It’s not simple at all. The concern is that if, chalilah, the situation will get worse, many families, primarily foreign ones who have settled in Eretz Yisrael, will have no choice but to return to their native countries. It is even possible that those who were born and raised in Eretz Yisrael, who have family abroad, will make efforts to move to where those relatives live, even if it means uprooting their lives and resettling in a foreign country. Yidden will simply flee from Eretz Yisrael. Who will be able to stop them?”

Does the Rosh Yeshivah remember such a struggle in Eretz Yisrael in the last generation?

“I remember many battles waged by chareidi Jewry in Eretz Yisrael. My father, zt”l, was involved in some of those battles and worked from America to annul the decrees. One of them was the issue of drafting girls into the army. My father  worked tirelessly against the government then. I remember that he sent several askanim who explained to the government leaders that if, chalilah, this decree would be carried out, then all Torah-true Jews would flee to other countries. The Zionist leaders did not want that at the time. It would have been an embarrassment for them at a time when they were busy settling the land, and working to persuade entire groups to come and settle there. They didn’t want word to get out that Jews had left the Jewish state because of them [the government].

“Unfortunately, today, they don’t care. On the contrary. They would be very happy if those Torah-observant Jews would go elsewhere. In the past, the secular government leaders thought they would have some type of influence on the Torah-observant population, and tragically, they succeeded in swaying many off the path. Today, they know very well that they will have no influence. Chareidi Jewry is organized and united; Gedolei Yisrael navigate their every move. And therefore, they want to slap the Torah-observant public with financial sanctions, and thus to impose a catastrophe on the Torah and yeshivah world.

“Not only would they be happy if the chareidim would leave the country, they themselves have no value for Eretz Yisrael. Most of the secular public who have served in the army—or their relatives—have left the country. At first they travel abroad for vacations, and then they move to these places. They have chosen to give up anything holy and precious, and a large majority of them have assimilated, R”l, and married gentiles. It is unbelievable that in Florida and California there are more than 100,000 Jews, part of whom have assimilated and there will be no trace left of their Judaism.”

We have always known that chareidi Jewry in America has supported Torah institutions in Eretz Yisrael. Even before the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael was established, American Jewry supported the building of yeshivos and Torah institutions. One of the prominent examples of this is the visit of the Birchas Shmuel, Harav Baruch Ber Leibowitz, zt”l, to America for two years to raise funds for his yeshivah. Harav Elchanan Wasserman also came to America from Baranowitz for the same reason. The funds provided today by American Jews to yeshivos are many times as much as they were then. What does American chareidi Jewry have to say about the current situation in Eretz Yisrael, namely the financial blows that the government is dealing the yeshivos?

“Chareidi Jewry in America has always supported the Torah world in Eretz Yisrael. But we have to know two things: First, today the financial situation in America is not the best either, to put it mildly. People are not giving as much as they have in the past, and even those that do give, are not giving the same amounts. We have heard about the decrees the Israeli government is planning, not only on the Torah world, and they will affect tens of thousands of families. If, today, we see many meshulachim in America going from one philanthropist to another to solicit funds to marry off their children, who can imagine what will be if even some of these decrees are enacted? Thousands of meshulachim will be walking through the streets with their hands outstretched. Although there are generous philanthropists, who give large sums of money, it will be very hard if the number of collectors skyrockets.

“And the second thing we have to know—and which we have to work toward very strongly—is that there are many baalei batim who unfortunately do not understand the value of Torah and do not understand why in Eretz Yisrael, anyone who wants to be called a ben Torah has to sit and learn all day long. They ask all sorts of questions like, why don’t people go to work to support their families? This is one of the problems that American Jewry has. There are people of means, who can help with generous funds, but they do not know the value of Torah, they do not understand how precious the Torah of Eretz Yisrael is. They do not grasp what the ruckus is about. And this is something that we must work with all our resources to explain to them, because without Torah there is no Klal Yisrael.”

And what about the yeshivah draft law? Don’t these baalei batim understand that you can’t just pull bachurim and avreichim out of yeshivos and draft them?

“Not at all. Unfortunately, these baalei batim ask questions on this too, and it comes from a lack of knowledge and understanding. After all, what is so bad about them being drafted to the army? There are some who understand that secular frameworks are problematic, but to them the solution is to establish chareidi divisions in the army. Those who live far away are not aware and do not understand the severity of the situation, that in every army framework, the soldiers are liable to sink to terrible lows.

“And that is your job, to explain to this sector of the public how serious this matter is. You have to describe the terrible decline that is prevalent in such frameworks. It is impossible for a bachur to enter the army and emerge as emotionally and spiritually strong as he went in. The worst deprivation comes from these frameworks. It is not for naught that they want to enact laws making these frameworks mandatory for everyone. The government knows that this is their greatest means of having influence on the young souls. That is the melting pot for the benefit of the state, in their opinion. A bachur or avreich must not depend on them. And unfortunately, there are those who do not understand this, and that is very serious.

“We’ve heard all sorts of things about punishments that they want to impose on bachurim that don’t go to the army. It is clear that they cannot actually penalize the entire chareidi community in Eretz Yisrael. We remember the prisoners of Emmanuel, when the government thought they could imprison avreichim over religious matters and it would go over quietly. But they can impose financial sanctions on anyone who doesn’t follow their path, and even worse than that. People will not have money to buy bread. I don’t know what is worse…From where will our salvation come?…It is possible that some will have to leave Eretz Yisrael. Yes, that’s how serious the situation is. They will simply have to flee to be able to sustain themselves. And if you explain this situation to the baalei batim, they will understand and begin to take action…”

Are there askanim in America who will look for solutions and ways to influence the government in Eretz Yisrael so that their plans will not come to fruition?

“There is no doubt that we have to work in different ways in order to save as much as possible and to minimize the damage of the government’s plans. However, unfortunately, there aren’t that many askanim who understand how serious the situation is. There are a few who understand the importance of Toras Eretz Yisrael, and they are the ones that must be galvanized to action.

“There are tycoons who do a lot of business with government entities in Eretz Yisrael; that is very lucrative for the government. Perhaps they should be urged to make it clear to them [their business associates] and to persuade them not to be a part of the uprooting of religion because it would have ramifications. Chareidi Jewry in America has significant financial influence on the Israeli government. Just as an example, calculate the masses of chareidi Jews that travel on El Al, the enormous sums of money that foreign Jews invest in the Israeli economy and more. If we take such actions, it will surely have an effect.”

The Rosh Yeshivah concludes: “Despite all the activities that Agudas Yisrael activists in America are planning, we must strengthen the representatives of chareidi Jewry in Eretz Yisrael, the emissaries of the Rabbanim who are working tirelessly to annul the decrees. We hear from afar that they are investing endless efforts. But there is no doubt that we have to exert efforts and shtadlanus [lobbying] in different ways to influence the heads of the government against destroying the Torah world. These activities, along with an increase in learning and davening, will surely help annul the decrees, and may this evil government see its end.”