My Incredible Tiyul (excursion) to the North - Blog #5
My first tour so far has been to the Galil, about a 1½ hour bus ride north from Modi’in. Our first stop was at Beit She’arim, not far from Mt. Carmel and from Yokne’am -- St Louis’ Israeli sister city -- which has emerged as Israel’s Silicon Valley. This first stop was something very historically special; the second, a moving and compelling human wonder of our time.
Israel’s modern highways in the north cut through picturesque valleys and rugged “mountains” via a three-quarter mile tunnel. From our bus I could observe tree-covered high hills and green and brown farmland. It is May; the winter rains have kept the land fertile, but once the dry summer season arrives, the browning will begin.
Beit She’arim is an official Unesco Heritage Site. Mentioned by Josephus (1st century CE), it was apparently founded during Herod’s reign as far back as the 1st century BCE, but archaeological evidence indicates settlement in biblical times.
One day in 1936, Alexander Zaid, an early halutz (pioneer) who would customarily walk and poke around with his stick, happened to pierce through a hole -- ultimately revealing a series of caves. The Talmud records that one of the most impactful rabbis in Jewish history was buried there. Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi was the final editor of the Mishnah. For 200 years, rabbinic teachings were collected and organized into blocks, and R Yehudah ha-Nasi put them into the form we have had for 1,800+ years. The Mishnah is the basis for the Talmud -- so the Mishnah’s influence is incalculable -- reflecting long traditions of the past, the teachings of its two centuries, and spawning the future great foundational work of rabbinic teaching.
Northern Israel: This is where some Jews migrated to following two generations of Roman brutality in the center of Israel. After the first war in 66-70, the Romans assumed full control over Israel, destroying the Temple and killing and wounding many. Two generations later -- the embers of Jewish resistance remained unquenched: from 132 to 135 an unsuccessful revolt was led by Bar Kochba. Hadrian then barred Jews from Yerushalayim. Survivors joined their fellow Jews in the north, a few rabbis among them. In the next generation, in the northern village of Usha, away from Roman eyes, the rabbis met, studied, and continued to produce Mishnah and Midrash.
Now in the late 2nd century into the 3rd, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi emerged as the most revered rabbi. He moved from Shefar’am to this slightly larger and more vibrant town -- Beit She’arim. Jewish relations with Rome had improved largely due to Rabbi Yehudah, since Jews supported the victor in a Roman power struggle. Still later, he moved to a larger place, the city of Sepphoris, but requested to be buried in his beloved Beit She’arim. R Yehudah passed over in 220. In the next century, Beit She’arim was destroyed -- and remained hidden until the 20th century.
At Beit She’arim 30 caves have been discovered and preserved by Israel. Amidst a beautiful park (the weather was excellent), the entire excavated area also includes the ancient living area of the town (which, unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to explore).
There Jews were buried in the catacombs in stone sarcophagi. Our group was only able to see two large caves; they are vast, with several side chambers. With the aid of modern, gentle strategically-placed electric lights, we gazed at the 1,800-year-old sarcophagi incised with Hebrew and Greek writings, two other languages, and pictorial representations.
From there, after a 15-minute drive, we came to our second destination -- Migdal ha-Emek and the institution called Migdal Ohr.
A large campus of buildings integrates within the city of Migdal ha-Emek. Migdal Ohr was the brainchild of Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman. (You can find more about both Migdal Ohr and Rabbi Grossman on the internet https://www.migdalohrusa.org/) A winner of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Honor and now probably in his upper 70’s, 50 years ago he became popularly known as the “discotheque rabbi” -- all the more ironic because he came from Mea Shearim, one of Jerusalem’s well-known ultra-Orthodox Hasidic neighborhoods. (He still looks as one would imagine.)
His grandfather and father loved the Kotel with religious devotion, but in 1949, Jordan seized it in Israel’s War of Independence and forbade Jews from going there. For 18 years, his family was distraught. But in 1967, after Yerushalyim was recaptured by TZaHaL, Rabbi Grossman was among those who rushed to the Kotel. He asked God what he could do to repay Him for this miracle. He decided, subject to his wife’s consent, to devote a year to underprivileged children, and so he came to Migdal ha-Emek. To his shock, there were no Yeshivahs there -- only one small synagogue. But, nevertheless, he stayed to fulfill his vow to God.
He went to find young Jews -- they were dancing at the discotheque. He said it was like Purim -- singing and dancing. To show you his frame of reference, he had thought “disco” was the name of the shul! He began dancing with the youth and would hear stories of spiritual emptiness and of broken homes. He began to invite these young Jews for Shabbat dinner. On one occasion one young man told him that his brother was in prison. Rabbi Grossman told him that his brother was also his brother, and went with him to visit him.
Ever since, Rabbi Grossman has devoted himself to bringing children like these, from homes where they were not supported, or who ended up in prison, to him. What began in Migdal ha-Emek in 1972 with 18 pupils now enrolls over 6,000 boys and girls in 15 high schools and elementary schools, along with seven daycare centers. So far he has saved more than 15,000 kids from a terrible life, often a life of crime. Israel’s prison recidivism rate is typically high; Rabbi Grossman’s is very low. Of course, he teaches them Torah and hopes they will live a religious life; I understand that nearly all do. Now, that does not mean that they become Hasidic; but rather spiritually strong, loving, religious Jews.
Rabbi Gordon (l) with HaRav Grossman (r)
To understand the full picture -- it is not all Torah. The school is part of an entire community, a Torah-observant Boy’s Town in Israel. It includes an equivalent number of girls -- on a separate campus in Migdal Ohr. The foundational lessons are geared to shed them of their self-deprecating self-images and teach them how to be caring toward others. But beyond that, they learn various life skills -- music, art, science, woodwork, and cooking -- a number of them serve as chefs in the army and in the commercial world. Many serve as officers in TZaHaL. Many have built their own solid and meaningful families -- and more than 1,300 work for Rabbi Grossman on campus as paid and volunteer teachers and counselors.
There are entire units for children aged 10-14. Each unit houses 12 young men (there are other units for women on the women’s campus). In each, we saw three neat and clean bedrooms, four bunks per bedroom, wth a shower and a separate bathroom. Each unit also contains a communal dining room and a communal kitchen. A young parental couple is part of the unit but has their own apartment.
Bedroom for 4
The Communal Kitchen and "Mother"
Communal living/dining area
We also visited a bridal house. Initiated by the Rabbi’s wife, it is named in memory of her sister who was killed in a car accident just a week before her wedding. There, soon-to-be brides can choose -- at no cost -- from among hundreds, perhaps a thousand, wedding dresses, which will be tailored -- as well as jewelry and shoes, etc., for their wedding. They are also given money for support as they begin their married lives.
Gifts for the brides
A sitting area of the Bridal House
The success of this program -- by the numbers and by the spirit -- is miraculous. Similar issues and solutions manifesting into institutions -- secular and religious -- are found throughout the world. But if Rabbi Grossman’s numbers are accurate, and I have no reason to think otherwise, I wonder whether similar results are found elsewhere. If so, wonderful!
But I suspect that his success may be noticeably greater. Good religion -- despite how religion is too often mocked or dismissed -- provides the kind of spiritual rooting, direction, and support that others can only hope to replicate. A world without God is a world only unto itself and a world of merely human trial and error, devoid of life-enhancing answers to the great underlying questions of life. And with Jewish teaching, when done well, others rally around in religious spirit.
This does not mean that there are not good secular people. This does not mean that the science of a this-world inquiry hasn’t produced life-saving and life-enhancing results. Our lives, in so many ways, are far better due to these people and these inquiries. But there are places that with religion -- good religion -- our Torah goes, that they cannot. Migdal Ohr/Rabbi Grossman is one undisputable shining example.
If you would like to join the cause with a contribution -- please send your donation to Traditional payable to Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, and we will then send one communal contribution from our Traditional community. Thank you.
To hear HaRav Grossman speaking, click on the picture below.