Torah scholars often study Talmud while standing, placing the text they are using on a plain wooden lectern – called a shtender in yeshivas. If you go to the Torah MiTzion Beit Mirdrash in Washington D.C., you will notice an unusual shtender, unusual because the name of the Gush Etzion community Neve Daniel is written on it in bold, large letters.
The shtender belonged to a Torah MiTzion shaliach (emissary from Israel) who had written the words Neve Daniel as a daily reminder to everyone – including himself - of the fact that his real home is in the Holy Land.
When this shaliach finished his stint in Washington and returned to Neve Daniel, several families and young men followed him to the same community – and this was not coincidence.
A young man from Kansas City made aliya to study in the Otniel hesder yeshiva and then went on to serve in the IDF Golani Brigade, just as his Israeli chavruta (Talmud study partner), a shaliach of Torah Mitzion, did.
The shaliach in Perth, Australia was looked at by many congregation members as a model for them to emulate and a number of them made aliya in his footsteps.
These stories are just a small taste of the fruits the Torah MiTzion shlichim (plural of shaliach) harvest upon returning to Israel from their educational missions overseas.
Torah can be studied everywhere
Torah MiTzion, the international network of Zionist Kollels, is celebrating twenty years since its founding. The idea was born when a challenge was handed to Religious Zionist activist Ze'ev Schwartz by Solly Sachs and Avraham Duvdevani (Duvdev) of World MIzrachi and the Jewish Agency's Religious Zionist Department.
They charged him with raising a new generation of World Mizrachi leaders.
Schwartz came on aliya from Johannesburg 31 years ago, so that he realized that this was an absolute necessity, but while planning how to accomplish it, he found that something was bothering him.
"I noticed that most of the young people who come to Israel for a year and study in our yeshivas and young women's midrashot go back to their country of birth and break the connection with the kind of Torah study they experienced in Israel. If they are serious learners, they join hareidi institutions and if not, they let the whole thing fade away. There is no follow-up to their uplifting spiritual year in Israel."
Schwartz is a great fan of Bnei Akiva and its work in Jewish communities outside of Israel, but noted that in its youth groups, those who wanted to study Torah seriously did not have a properly organized framework for learning.
In order to make sure that the Israeli learning experience continued, he felt that there had to be some kind of Beit Midrash available. He took the hesder yeshiva model of a Zionist Kollel extant in Israel and built a similar model, basically a Zionist Kollel for the Diaspora that included a Rosh Kollel to head the men's learning program, unmarried and married students and their wives, with a women's midrasha headed by the wife of the Rosh Kollel.
After creating the model, he had to market it in hesder yeshivas. "This was a revolutionary idea for Religious Zionists, one that did not exist in the definitions of Religious Zionist emissaries to the Diaspora. Although Bnei Akiva had many branches overseas, their clients were youngsters. Rabbis and congregations were occupied with their own community issues. A place of Torah, a model to live up to in learning – did not exist in the Religious Zionist lay congregation. We had a lot to learn from the hareidi world and Chabad."
The first shlichim came from the Kerem Beyavne Yeshiva, the first hesder yeshiva to be founded in Israel. "The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Greenberg, told us to market the idea there. I met the fifth year students in order to tell them about the kollels planned for the coming year. Of the fifteen who came, nine signed up for more information."
"At the same time, I travelled to overseas congregations to sell the idea. I spent three weeks going from place to place until I reached Memphis, Tennessee in the center of the USA. It was actually not on my schedule, but I wanted to visit a childhood friend who had moved there from South Africa. The local rabbi heard about me and asked for a meeting. It was totally unplanned, but Heaven was on our side, because six weeks later the first kollel was established in Memphis with those Kerem Beyavne boys."
"After that first kollel, the idea spread like wildfire. We reached Melbourne, Australia, Johannesburg in South Africa, Moscow, Montreal, Uruguay and more. The project gained impetus from day to day. At first, we called ourselves 'The Overseas Zionist Kollels,' but eventually we changed that to 'Torah from Zion', Torah Mitzion.
"Our vision was taken from the verse in Isaiah, 'For out of Zion shall come forth Torah and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.' We wanted a living link between Israel and the Diaspora, and although in this virtual age people send files and hyperlinks, we send real people."
Schwartz explains that, unlike the Chabad "shlichim," who travel to spiritual deserts and build Jewish communities, the shlichim of Torah Mitzion go to existing congregations, large and small, some of them thriving centers of Jewish life and some simply places where people meet to pray.
"In every community there is someone who loves the idea or a synagogue group that wants us to come. They invite us, accept financial responsibility for our stay so that we can teach the 'Torah of Eretz YIsrael'."
"A prerequisite for our mission is wholehearted partnership with the community. We don't come from Israel to run their community for them, we work hand in hand with them. When we are invited to strong communities with day schools and synagogues, including places with significant numbers of hareidim, our goal is to establish a place for Torah study that is imbued with Zionism, with the spirit of Eretz Yisrael, to show that Religious Zionists, as Rabbi Kook envisioned when he coined the term Torah of Eretz Yisrael, are also dedicated to studying Torah on a high level, not just the hareidim."
"Sometimes, in contrast, we find ourselves in communities that are a spiritual desert. You are the only one there, you are everything for them, and if you were not there, nothing Jewish beyond the prayer schedule would be there. In these places, you must teach Judaism on different levels, in the school, in chavruta learning duos, in the study hall and even on the soccer field. It is exciting to see people's love for Torah study awaken."
How do the shlichim cross the language barrier? After all, not everyone speaks the local language.
"We try to find shlichim who do speak the language, children of olim, for example. We need shlichim who speak French, German, Russian and even Polish, the last for our kollel in Warsaw. Of course, they have to have educational potential that equals their proficiency in languages. We try to ensure that at least one member of every group speaks the local language, but our students begin to study the language using apps from the minute they know what their destination is. They really work on it and some of them, who studied German, reached the level where they could converse with local students in Munich without problems as soon as they arrived."
Schwartz emphasizes that language is important, but body language is even more important. "It's the way you present yourself, your manner of speaking, the way you approach someone. We want them to see the shaliach as someone who is imbued with Eretz Yisrael. Our shlichim were in the IDF, fought in Operation Protective Edge, lost friends in battle. On IDF Memorial Day they hold a meaningful and emotional ceremony, teach about someone who gave his life for Israel, for the sanctification of G-d. They organize a study evening during which they tell about that soldier - this year they talked about victims of the recent terror wave."
In Washington, for example, they will be learning about Dafna Meir and Yanai Weisman, Hy"d, murdered in terror attacks during the past year. The brother of the shaliach in Montreal fell in Gaza, so there they will talk about him and dedicate their Torah learning to his memory. Everywhere we go, we bring out the aspect of courage, the personal example to emulate."
Finding your bashert in Uruguay
The time spent overseas in one of the Zionist Kollels has lasting influence on ever widening circles of people. Schwartz says that the shlichim feel that they have received as much or more than they have given the community. "I know some who went to study in a kollel but then went into business, and those they studied with or met him in the communities became partners or board members. The families that adopt the shlichim become their lifetime friends. We have even had marriages, young men who met their future wives in the community and then came back to Israel to raise their families. It happened in Capetown, Sydney and Uruguay – so far."
"One of the most significant contributions the Zionist Kollels have given Israeli society is the shlichim themselves. They return to Israel better people than they were at the start, suffused with the spirit of giving to others and the continue contributing to Israeli society. They become more sensitive and empathetic while overseas.
"Religious Zionists often have a built in 'bug' that makes them think they know everything and that all the truth is on their side.
"When you arrive at a community, you have to come with courage tempered by humility, learning to combine the two, because you will soon realize that there is truth there as well. These people are not moving to Israel so fast, they lack for nothing, they live good lives. You cannot start lecturing them or become judgmental about them. Each shaliach must find his own way,look for ways to connect with people, to enjoy pleasant times with them. That kind of connection also has a long term influence on the shlichim and then on their families and all of Israeli society."
Jewish communities the world over
Over the years, there have been kollels in 18 different countries and in the coming year there will be shlichim of Torah MiTzion in even more, but this time with smaller groups in each location due to budget cuts. The number of shlichim varies in each community.
In Poland, the shaliach and his wife are all there is, in Moscow there is a Rosh Kollel and three young married couples with him. In Montreal there is a couple, a married couple and four unmarried young men.
The number of people is a function of the community's needs. The amount of work, the population, the budget and the type of activities depend on the community. Unmarried shlichim are considered part of the Rosh Kollel's extended family where they have a place to discuss problems and receive guidance.
The unmarried shlichim stay for only a year, a married couple signs up for a minimum of two years, but often stays for up to four years. The record number of years is in Moscow, where Rabbi David Yeshuvyev and his wife Ayelet have remained for 18 years! They were invited by Moscow's Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt to come and established the only Religious Zionist institution in all of Russia.
Today, Torah MiTzion in Moscow consists of three permanent families and shlichim who run a kollel, student programs, a women's Beit Midrash and a men's Beit Midrash for after work hours, all this to spread the Torah of Eretz Yisrael. Ayelet is responsible for the women's Beit Midrash and teaches female students. She spends much time seeing to the hospitality offered to those in search of a Torah learning experience.
Rabbi Yeshuvyev was born in the USSR, raised in Tashkent and made aliya at the age of 11 with his parents. Although Russian is his mother tongue, he forgot the language when he attended a yeshiva high school. Hesder yeshiva and served in the IDF, where no one else spoke the language (his command of Russian is improving…). When he was 23, while studying at Yeshivat Hakotel, the Iron Curtain fell and he was asked to join the yeshiva that Rabbi Shteinsaltz was starting in Russia. After his marriage, he went there for a year and then returned to Yeshivat Hakotel.
Following a four year break back home, he received another offer, this to head the Zionist Kollel in Moscow. "I came for a year and thought that was enough both for me and my family, but we realized the significance of what we were doing and stayed on – and now it is our 18th year here," he says.
How did you adjust?
"It was not easy. Our acclimatization was tough going. Eighteen years ago Moscow was a spiritual vacuum in every way. The shul I was to lead was only attended by the elderly and we had no idea how to reach the young people. We suffered psychologically and of course socially. Thanks to G-d, we began to see some results, slowly but surely. Our community began to grow and so did others. Just a short while ago one of our students was married and made aliya".
Do you intend to stay longer?
"Sometimes we really feel that the time has come to leave, but how? We are saving souls for Judaism. We plan to come to Israel more often and look for someone to take our place, but that too is difficult. It's hard to leave and hard to stay. We have a son in an artillery unit in the IDF.
"On the whole, our other children are happy. They are used to a special home filled with guests every Shabbat and sometimes when we spend Shabbat with our family in Israel, the house seems empty to them. They see our outreach activities and feel the power. Children of shlichim are special."
Chabad does a lot in Russia. How are you unique?
"We are the connection to Eretz Yisrael. We are the only ones who have a festive celebration for Yom Haatzmaut. Also Jerusalem Day. Our attachment to the land is much deeper and at present, no one else imparts these values in this way.
Two generations of shlichim
Fifteen years ago rabbi Moshe Pinchuk and his wife Chassida returned from a three year stint in Melbourne. The couple were the first Torah MiTzion shlichim in Melbourne where Moshe started the kollel and Chassida the midrasha for women.
Moshe's family made Aliya from the USA but Chassida was born and raised in Jerusalem. "We were offered positions as shlichim several times but I always said that I see no reason to leave Israel when we are doing significant work right here. At some point, when I met the students who come to Israel for a year, I realized that we are most needed when they return home. That is when they need opportunities to continue learning Torah and to stay connected to Israel. We understood that it was important enough to reprogram our plans for the near future."
"Thank G-d we did it, it changed our entire lives and our children's lives for the better. Two of our daughters did national service of that nature. Rivky was in Vienna and Hadas in San Francisco, working with the Russian community there."
They established was a multi-generational community Beit Midrash. "We had grandmothers with their daughters and granddaughters, a mixed body of students,from chabad to non-observant and traditional. There was something special about them all learning together," she recalls.
The Pinchuk family has continued to be in touch with the Melbourne community. Moshe continues to study with one of the members of the shul by Skype. People came to Israel for their daughter's wedding 13 years after they had been shlichim there. It has remained a kind of family across the miles.
Chassida has used her experience to become the advisor to potential shlichim and those in training. "Being a shaliach is a life changing experience. It is an upheaval but also a new dimension to your life. You are basically on your own without the support of family, friends and the society with which you are familiar. Although we are English speakers, this was a different world."
Aaron Willinger, currently a hesder student in Jaffe and a resident of Kedumim in Samaria has just completed the intensive four day seminar, even including a session on how to share living quarters with others, in order to prepare him for the role of shaliach which he will begin this coming summer. Like the Golani Brigade soldier he was for the past three years, he sees this as another objective to conquer. His brother, tragically, was killed in an auto accident two years after returning from being a shaliach in Cleveland, Ohio.
"During the shiva his students came to comfort us and I realized what a significant role he had continued to play in their lives, how meaningful each and every shaliach's work is. I hope that I can also show people how wonderful it is to live in Israel, but my main goal is to teach the Torah of Eretz Yisrael to those who have never experienced it."
"if, when I do get married, and depending on my choice of career, my wife finds it an exciting challenge as well, we might continue...who knows?" He adds with a smile.
Translated from Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky