Elisha learns Torah in Gaza
Elisha learns Torah in Gazacourtesy of family

Click here to support

Congregation Reshit Tvu'ato and Hadas Loewenstern, the widow of Elisha Loewenstern, a Harish resident who fell in the line of duty in Khan Yunes, have teamed up to launch a project in his memory that goes straight to the heart: the establishment of a communal Beit Midrash for Torah study. A crowdfunding campaign is getting underway, to raise money for this new facility’s construction.

"My amazing husband loved the Torah," says Hadas. "He truly loved the Torah. We want to see Torah study in Harish double, inspired by his spirit. It will be a living Beit Midrash with a beating heart, for both bnei Torah – those who dedicate all of their time to Torah study – and for those who integrate Torah into their other activities."

A fascinating interview

When the war broke out on the 7th of October, Elisha Loewenstern, who had lived in Harish over the past decade, volunteered to join the reserve forces fighting in Gaza.

As a 38-year-old father of six, Elisha was exempt from military service, but there was no doubt in his mind that he would volunteer to fight and participate in the defense of the State of Israel.

He worked as a Java programmer in the hi-tech industry, and in addition to his full-time job and to parenting a troop of small children, Elisha always found time to study Torah – an activity he was particularly fond of.

Click here to support

Elisha fell in battle on the seventh day of Hanukkah, during a battle in the southern Gaza Strip, while attempting to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield.

In the hours that preceded his death, he was seen studying a chapter of Daily Rambam Study program. He was finally able to extend his legs after days of sitting inside a cramped tank.

This image accurately depicts who Elisha was – a man who combined the sacred and the mundane at every opportunity, and used every spare moment to study and to stay active.

In recent months, Hadas, Elisha's widow, has become a figure whose words have inspired many.

The dozens of interviews that she has given over the past few months have resounded throughout the country, and her faith and emotional fortitude have served as a beacon for women who were newly widowed and who had joined the community of Israelis who have lost loved ones since the beginning of the war.

Hadas's faith-filled and encouraging words, which she punctuates with her sense of humor and accompanies with a smile, cause us to focus on what matters most, to keep our eyes set on the future, and to blossom.

It was this spirit that produced this project, established in Elisha's memory – a Beit Midrash in Harish where men, women, and children, religious and secular, can gather daily to study. They will study the Torah that Elisha loved so dearly.

We met Hadas for an intimate and moving interview to learn about how Hadas, a recently widowed mother of six, copes with her challenging new reality, day after day, and about the project that will be named after her late husband, Elisha.

Hadas, before getting started, tell me – how are you doing, these days?

"Thank G-d, I'm doing well. We're doing our best to make our peace with this new reality and everything it has in store, out of love and through our faith."

Three and a half months have passed by since Elisha fell. What has it been like for you, coping with your new reality? Both as Hadas the individual, and Hadas, a mother to six children, each of whom are coping in their own, distinct ways.

"First of all, we have a wonderful family and an embracing community, and the entire city has gone the extra mile to help us with anything we need. This includes helping out with the children, taking our car to the shop, cooking meals for us, and helping us in countless other ways. So firstly – I want to thank everyone for their help.

This new reality means that we have complex things to deal with, things that have to do with the kids, which I won't specify here, of course, but I will say that along with the difficulties they've experienced, I've seen so much inner strength emanating from my children. They really are superheroes. So much fortitude, fraternity, responsibility and maturity… and they really look out for each other. I'm so proud of them."

Click here to support

Could you tell us about the project in Elisha's memory, which you've been working on recently, and why you've gone with the idea of the Beit Midrash?

"Elisha would come home from work and deal with the kids and other things around the house, but as soon as he had a moment to spare, he would delve into Torah study.

Regardless of whether he did so on his own, in a study group, or as a participant in a Torah lesson, what mattered to him was that he was studying Torah. What makes this Beit Midrash unique – the Beit Midrash that we'll create, with Hashem's help – is that it's a house of study for people who work.

For me, this is the crux of the matter. It makes a statement. We are part of the Beit Midrash, whether we study there for an hour a day or an hour a week. The point is that Torah study is the most important part of our lives. It's Torah study connected to life.

Torah that reveals itself in the mundane parts of our lives, as we go about our day-to-day lives and even when we go to work to provide for our families. At the fundraising drive, I said that I had a dream – that people would fall asleep in the Beit Midrash.

What I meant was that it would be inconceivable for someone to go through the day without coming to study, even if it's just for an hour, and even if that person isn't at full focus. The idea is for people to just come – and to belong to the Torah community.

How did Elisha find time to study Torah in his hectic schedule, while working a full-time job, and then some?

"What impressed me most about Elisha was his uncanny ability to make the most of his time. The soldiers in Elisha's company told us, during the shiva, about how he would always find time for everything. At night, when everyone was exhausted and felt like doing nothing other than collapsing in their tents, he was the first to volunteer for any tasks that needed to be done, and he would always wake up early to go to prayers." Hadas then adds with a smile: "Elisha lived in the world's "extra minutes".

In sports, you get a one-minute break between sets. During that minute, Elisha would run to the sink and wash a single cup... or open up a book of mishnayot for a minute, and study it until the next set. He preferred commuting to work, in the center of the country, using public transportation, rather than drive, so that he could use that time to study, both on the way to work and on the way back. When people live with a mindset that compels them to use every minute they have, they find time for what's truly important. And what was truly important for Elisha? His family, his children, and Torah study."

Hearing about his great love for Torah study is truly moving. Is part of the idea behind this project to have religious and secular people study together at the Beit Midrash? That seems like something that's sorely needed these days.

"Absolutely. The idea is to keep this place bustling with life, and to keep it open to anyone who wants to study Torah. There are incredible connections forged between religious and secular people that are based on learning together in a chavrutah – in a study group – and I'd be delighted to see this happen at this Beit Midrash, as well."

You, yourself, have said that your upbringing was completely different from your current lifestyle. Tell us a bit about your background and the transformation you went through.

"I came from a non-observant family. My father is a member of the Kaplan Force [a group the defines itself as people dedicated to safeguarding Israel's liberal democracy and "preventing as dictatorship's takeover of Israel”].

My father was brought up in a kibbutz, he has never donned tefillin, there are no mezuzahs in his house, no kashrut, and no shabbat. I had an amazing childhood. I had the good fortune of being born into a family with firm values, one that could teach everyone else how to fulfill the precept of ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’.

We read that Sukkot is all about the unity of Israel, and that all of Israel is worthy of sitting within one tent. When we weren't able to sit together, Hashem made us sit together in a different kind of tent – a tent of mourning. There are the two available options in Israel – a single tent of brotherhood, or a tent of mourning".

משפחת לוינשטרן
משפחת לוינשטרןצילום: באדיבות המשפחה

The past year has been a complex one, socially and politically. A different type of discourse has emerged – a discourse about unity. Soldiers who fought side by side tell us about the friendships and connections that were made between the secular and the religious, or left-wingers and right-wingers. Everyone was there, together. How did Elisha feel about being an observant soldier, a religious man working in a hi-tech company, within a secular environment, and living in a mixed city?

"Elisha was curious. He liked to listen and to look into things. He was a true Torah scholar who had no qualms about hearing people express opinions that were contrary to his own. To the contrary – he enjoyed hearing the opposite perspective and other points of view.

We come off as very observant. We could have managed with living in a monolithically observant place, but here we are, living in one of the most diverse buildings – a wonderful building, with both haredi and secular families living here. That's what Elisha was all about. He could toe the line and choose to be a teacher at a religious school. But he loved diversity, which he considered the source of much of the world's strength.

That is how he lived. What we can learn from my husband is that you can stay true to your views and live the way you believe you should, while being a pleasant person, and without hurting anyone else. He was extreme in his moderation. He was well-balanced. He was one of Hashem's rare treasures – a beautiful gift given to me over the past 13 meaningful years.

It was a great loss for the entire Jewish people. How would you like Elisha's Beit Midrash to look?

It should be a bustling and diverse place, with people of all ages and vibes, where Torah lessons are taught for those at all levels – from the basics to advanced lessons for Torah scholars. Men should study there with their sons, and women should study there with their daughters. It should be a place that is lit up for most of the day, until late at night. I mean that both literally and metaphorically. It needs to be a place that increases the light of Torah in our beloved city."

You've recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to build this Beit Midrash. What do you still need to complete its construction? What can the general public do to get involved?

"We're now conducting a crowdfunding campaign to raise the money we need to establish the Beit Midrash dedicated to Elisha's memory, and it's incredible to see how the community and our friends and family have come on board to make this happen. Anyone who can contribute anything is invited to do so – small donations add up to the amounts we need to spread a great light in Harish. I invite you to be a part of this."

Click here to support