A new Yeshiva of Higher Torah Learning for post-high school students will open in the ancient city of Yafo (Jaffa) in September 2008. Rabbi Eliyahu Mali of Bet El is leading the initiative alongside the existing Rosh Yehudi Jewish Outreach core group in the seaside southern neighborhood of Tel Aviv.
Over the years, the Arab neighborhoods of Yafo grew and Arabs purchased homes from Jews who could afford to leave for nicer locations. Some of the town's old, beautiful synagogues closed down. The Jews who remain thus welcome the influx of college-age religious youth to strengthen the Jewish presence there.
Once a flourishing spiritual center with over 100 worshippers, the Ohr Yisrael Synagogue now holds prayers only on the Sabbath and holidays with just over ten regular attendees. The synagogue members, plagued with maintenance costs, reduced the size of the main sanctuary by building a wall down the middle of it.
When the worshippers of Ohr Yisrael heard of the new yeshiva, they rejoiced and are doing all they can to help. They rebuilt the roof, which was caving in, but could not afford to renovate other parts of the structure that are on the verge of collapse.
In mid-January, tens of potential students came to Yafo with Rabbi Mali for the Sabbath on which the story of the splitting of the Red Sea is read in synagogues worldwide. As part of the program, Rabbi Mali took them for a walk on the Yafo shore to teach about that week's Torah portion.
On the beach, a 75-year-old non-religious resident of Yafo came running towards the group and greeted them enthusiastically. "Yafo is emptying out of Jews. We need Jews just like you," he told them.
Rabbi Mali and his staff are organizing solutions for dormitories and classrooms, and seek to purchase and renovate nearby structures.
When asked if the yeshiva has funds to purchase buildings, Rabbi Mali replied, "We don't, but we know that if we act to redeem the Land of Israel and spread Torah, then donors and investors will come."
The Rabbi elaborated: "According to many writings, we are in the period of the Messiah from Joseph, which precedes the Messianic era of the son of David. Regarding Joseph, our holy Torah says, 'and all that he did, G-d caused it to prosper.' The secret of this period is to act and initiate as did Joseph, and G-d will cause our actions to prosper. We have faith that people who wish to participate in this national endeavor will donate money to purchase the buildings, or buy them in their own name and allow us to use them."
Rabbi Mali emphasized that one must not wait for money to begin redeeming the Land. He noted that when Joshua Hankin purchased lands in the Jezreel Valley at the turn of the 20th century, he signed contracts without a cent in his pocket, and only then gathered the funds.
Rabbi Mali further drove home the point that in our time, Divine blessing follows behind our initiative: "The students of the Vilna Gaon who came to build the Land of Israel were inspired by a particular teaching from their master, which they turned into their motto. The verse in Isaiah 28:16 says, 'Behold, I lay in Zion a foundation stone, a test stone, a costly corner-stone of sure foundation…' The students said that in Zion, you must lay the corner-stone, and then G-d can build on it. But without the first stone, nothing moves forward. In rebuilding Yafo physically and spiritually, we are adopting this approach."
An interview by the Rosh Yehudi weekly magazine with Rabbi Eliyahu Mali appears below.
Question: Who are the residents of Yafo?
Rabbi Mali: Today, there are some 30,000 Jewish residents of Yafo. Most of them are traditional Jews. There is an artists' colony, primarily in the Old City of Yafo, and there is a very wealthy neighborhood on the ocean front. All of them welcome the new Torah-oriented population.
Question: Is this the purpose of the yeshiva?
Rabbi Mali: Absolutely. We seek to establish a large spiritual center, revive Judaism, and create a greater role for Torah in the life of the city, together with the core group that already exists in Yafo.
Question: What is unique about this yeshiva, besides its extraordinary location?
Rabbi Mali: It was here that Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935) issued his famous call to establish a yeshiva for the mostly-secular new Zionist agricultural settlements in the early 1900s. He called for a yeshiva imbued with a fresh dynamism and deep study of the why-questions in Jewish faith and philosophy. We identify with this calling. Like other yeshivas, the primary focus will be on Talmud, but there will also be in-depth encounters with Jewish thought, a strong emphasis on Tanach (the Jewish Bible) from the perspective of the modern era, and other subjects.
Question: Tanach from the perspective of the modern era? Please elaborate.
Rabbi Mali: The events of the Tanach occurred at a time when the Jewish People dwelt in their land. Today, we can understand the Tanach's messages much better than in previous generations who hadn't yet returned to a national Jewish life. We must learn from the Tanach, and seek its ramifications for the modern State of Israel.
Question: Are today's students looking for a different approach to study than those from a generation ago?
Rabbi Mali: Students today have a broad spiritual quest. For many years, Torah study in religious-Zionist circles focused on Klal Yisrael – the national manifestations of the Torah. The encounter with Torah matters concerning Klal Yisrael must not come at the expense of building the individual's character. Today, there is a great demand for understanding the soul, and clarifying the different aspects of one's character.
Question: Are you referring to Hassidut?
Rabbi Mali: Absolutely.
Question: Rabbi Kook and Rebbe Nachman together?
Rabbi Mali: Yes, and not just their works. Reb Tzadok, The Noam Elimelech, the Tanya of Chabad and others. Of course, all of these will compliment a broad program of in-depth Talmud study. We envision a synthesis between intellectual study and development of spiritual and psychological faculties.
Question: Reaching out to the city of Yafo likely emanates from lessons learned from the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza. Is this the answer?
Rabbi Mali: Let's say it this way: The first years of religious-Zionism were a must. We invested great and important resources in developing the Land, and this great enterprise succeeded with great blessing. But today, it appears that G-d is hinting at us to increase our efforts to influence in additional directions, as is already being done in various places.
Question: To penetrate the Greater Tel Aviv region?
Rabbi Mali: To understand that this is an important mission like no other. If every large community in Judea and Samaria (Yesha), would send one tenth of their residents to large cities, the strength of the Yesha communities would not be compromised, since the vacant houses would fill up again immediately. And this one tenth of people imbued with faith will establish a community, a yeshiva, and a center amidst the Jewish populace, which will create a different reality than we know today.
Question: Are you talking about young families?
Rabbi Mali: Not only. There are many large established families that very much want to join our endeavor. The local schools will happily accept them on their teaching staffs.
Question: But not all of them are charismatic educators with a twinkle in their eyes…
Rabbi Mali: It doesn't matter. Personal example is very significant. I'll give you an example. My friend moved to Tel Aviv. He told me that one day while waiting at a bus stop, he started up a conversation with one of his neighbors standing there. Before they parted, my friend said, "Why don't you all come for a Shabbat meal?" His neighbor was startled. "You don't know me. Why would you invite me for Shabbat?"
We are not aware of how great the alienation is that exists today. People do not know their fellow residents in their own apartment buildings.
Question: Did his neighbor come for Shabbat?
Rabbi Mali: He came for Friday night dinner, and they spoke until 2am. It was a wonderful experience for both sides. A few days later, the neighbor called and said that their conversation was one of the most captivating he had in years.
"When King Solomon set out to build the First Temple," says Rabbi Mali, "he shipped Cedars of Lebanon along the shores of the Mediterranean to the Yafo port. The path to building the Holy Temple passes through Yafo."
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