The Silver Platter : What I Learned on my Recent Stay in Eretz Yisrael


Over the years, I have written articles after a visit to Israel. No matter how many times I have been there, each visit opens my eyes to another aspect of the Land and its remarkable people. Let me start with one anecdote. One morning, in the hotel, I was waiting in line for an omelet. In front of me was a man and his two children, and I started a short conversation with him. He was a non-Jew from the Midwest on his first trip to the Holy Land with his family. He appreciated my interest and gave me a warm pat on the back as we parted.

I remarked to the omelet lady that it is important to be nice to visitors to Israel and to make them feel welcome. She responded, “Of course we have to be nice to any human being. Anachnu rachmanim bnai rachmanim – We are merciful children of our Merciful Father.” This once again demonstrated that not only is Israel a Jewish country, but we are truly one mishpacha.

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The impetus for this trip was the bat mitzva of our darling granddaughter, Gefen Roz Oberstein. I arrived on Friday morning, December 30, in time to celebrate Shabbos Chanukah in Modiin, where it all began. Four of our children have made aliyah, and two live in Modiin. Yoni, our single son, joined us for Shabbos. On Sunday, we joined our daughter Esti and her family in Ramat Beit Shemesh. We had a family Chanukah excursion to the Biblical Museum of Natural History which is located in Beit Shemesh.

On Monday, our son-in-law, Zach Abramowitz, took me to visit the yeshiva that he once learned in and to which he still goes once a week to learn, Yeshiva Har Etzion in Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion. As you may know, Jews in Gush Etzion were massacred just a day prior to the declaration of the State of Israel. For 19 years, the widows and orphans of the slain fathers would ascend to a high point and look down on the one and only remnant of their former home, the Etz Haboded, the Lone Tree. Right after the Six Day War, they returned and rebuilt their kibbutz.  Seeing the Etz Haboded again was emotional for me. So much of our struggle is embodied in that symbol of our deep roots in Eretz Yisrael.

Today, the whole area is thriving with Jewish communities, and the yeshiva occupies a gorgeous campus, surrounded by a large community. We saw many things, but I was especially touched by a number of special bookcases in the library that contain the sefarim of each of the yeshiva’s students who fell in defense of Medinat Yisrael. Amid the splendor of a bustling Torah community, the pain of the loss of so many of our finest young people is ever remembered. I remember the late Rosh Hayeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, zt”l, saying to me many years ago, “I have so many talmidim in the Mesifta D’Rakia ( the Heavenly yeshiva) that I have decided to support the Oslo agreement.” Later, he and many others were disappointed that it did not lead to peace. Today, the yeshiva that he and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, led together for so many years does not have that “peace” ideology.

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Monday afternoon, Zach dropped me off in Yerushalayim at the Grand Court Hotel, where I joined the Ohr Somayach Mentors Mission. Who has not heard of Ohr Somayach, which for over 45 years has inspired so many young Jews who were drifting away from their heritage? Ohr Somayach occupies a large campus in Yerushalayim and conducts a vast number of programs geared to many levels of commitment and background. Mentors Mission was created in 2007 to enable mentors to learn and tour with unaffiliated college students enrolled in Ohr Somayach’s Jewish Learning Exchange. The mentors are primarily balabatim, who empower the mentees to change their outlook on a Torah lifestyle by demonstrating their success living such a lifestyle while balancing a career. A number of Baltimoreans have participated in this program in the past, and I highly recommend it. Serendipitously, it turned out that the entire Mentors Mission took place during the time I was in Eretz Yisrael, and it certainly filled my stay with meaning and inspiration.

I want to share some highlights of the Mission, which began Monday evening, January 2, and ended a week later. Prior to the start, all the mentors received a packet with the sugya, the Talmudic topic that we would be learning bechavrusa with our mentees. The theme was “Recovering Stolen Property from Innocent Buyers,” and we were supplied with pages of the Gemara in the original and in translation, as well as the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. The goal was to show the wisdom and intricacy of the Talmud and to share the concepts even with those who are not yet at the stage that they can learn on their own.

We also sat among the guys, and all I can say is that they were so positive and so eager to discuss Judaism and the meaning of life with us. It is inspiring to see how fresh and vibrant the Torah is in the eyes of someone who has just been introduced to learning and living Yiddishkeit. I was introduced to the young man with whom I would be spending a lot of time over the next week. Tuvia, formerly Tom, had already spent a year in Sh’or Yoshuv and is learning in Ohr Somayach’s Mechina Program.

Tuesday morning began with learning at Ohr Somayach and included several excursions. First, we went to the Temple Mount Sifting Project. The Muslim Waqf, which controls Har Habayis, destroyed a massive amount of historical relics when they bulldozed the mountain to build another mosque underground. The Sifting Project is under the direction of Israeli archeologists, and volunteers come and sift through the rubble; many times, they find items of real historical value.

At this point, I had to take leave of the group so as to get ready for my granddaughter’s bat mitzva. I thus missed the Segway activity on the promenade overlook, Armon Hanetziv. Just one week later, four young soldiers were killed in a terrorist attach at this very place (more about that later). I took an Arab taxi through East Jerusalem, and it felt like a foreign country. At the time, I felt no fear, but what did I know?

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Gefen’s Bat Mitzvah was the reason I was in Israel and her other grandparents, Professor Charles and Rebecca Sprung picked me up and took me to Modiin. The amount of food served in Israel is unreal. I took photos of all the items at the shmorg and sent it to Feigi, who had to remain in Baltimore. Gefen is a very smart young lady. She is a wiz at robotics and recently won second prize for the entire Modiin region in a national robotics contest, besting high school students much older than she. Israel is the “start-up nation,” and youngsters like my Gefen are the future of Israel’s high tech revolution. Her parents were busy while I was there checking out high schools (starting in seventh grade) for next year. Fortunately, Shmuli and Nina had some very good options to choose from, religious high schools that emphasize science and technology.

I was asked to give her a bracha, and this is what I said. (By the way, the whole speech lasted one minute and 32 seconds. This proves you don’t have to go on and on to make your point.) The phrase “invei hagefen b’invei hagefen” describes a wonderful shidduch. The grapes of one vine mingled with the grapes of another vine. I told Gefen that she was descended from a number of grape vines: her parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, and now she has the best qualities of all of them.

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Returning to the Mentors Mission, I discovered that my chavrusa, a big, healthy, and strong young man, fell off the Segway and had to stay in bed for a day. I am happy I listened to my wife and didn’t try it.

The next morning, Wednesday, we boarded buses for the Dead Sea. On the way, we visited a base of frum soldiers of Netzach Yehuda (Nahal Chareidi). The soldiers put on a display of capturing a hill under fire.

I am very positive about this program because my Yoni served in Netzach Yehuda and became a “locheim,” an expert in munitions. He is in the reserves now. Yoni is a soldier; he is ready whenever am Yisrael calls him Otherwise, he is a gemologist who grades diamonds for the G.I.A. in the diamond exchange in Tel Aviv.

Some things are good for one time and, never again. One of these is ATV (all-terrain vehicle) riding. As we zoomed along the edge of desert cliffs, I told my partner, Harry, that we could talk about Hashem later, to just keep his eyes on the road (what road?). We then headed to Eretz Bereishis, which is supposed to look like Abraham’s tent in the desert, for supper and very leibidik dancing. We reached the Leonardo Hotel later than night, where we sat and learned with our mentees.

On Thursday, I had another once-in-a-lifetime experience: riding on a camel for a whole hour. Never again. My partner on the poor camel was the founder of Mentors Mission and Chairman of Ohr Somayach, Danny Lemberg of Lakewood. We got to know one another while being bumped and trying not to fall off as the camel ambled along. If this is what you have to do to bond with college age baalei teshuva, so be it. Upon return to the hotel, we again sat and learned. It’s the combination that seems to have the desired impact.

Friday included a learning seder in the morning and then the choice of going on the bus directly back to Yerushalayim or stopping off at Masada. Most of the mentors chose to return and get ready for Shabbos. I met with my two grandsons, Dovid and Meir Lasson, who are both learning in Yerushalayim. We took a bus to Ramat Beit Shemesh to spend Shabbos with our children Estie and Avi Fertig and our grandchildren. I missed a very spiritual Shabbos at Ohr Somayach, but life is full of choices.

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After Shabbos, we returned to a very lively Melave Malka with Chaim Dovid on Mount Zion. I really let myself dance with fervor, which is not my natural style. But, hey, you’ve got to have as much ruach as these 20- to 30-year-olds and celebrate our Jewishness. These guys are intoxicated with Hashem – and maybe some other spirits.

Sunday was Asarah B’Teves and our plan was to go to Hebron and then later to Har Hazeisim. The passing of Hagaon Rav Moshe Shapira, zt”l, a beloved figure in the Ohr Somayach world, who was on their faculty in the past, caused some of the mentors to stay to attend the funeral. Others went to Hebron, leaving at 8.30 in the morning in order to get back for the funeral. I was present on the Mount of Olives and witnessed the kevura of this very beloved scholar. I will suffice it to say that the young soldiers patrolling in Hebron, especially in areas next to hostile neighborhoods, are in constant danger, and my heart goes out to all of them. I view every chayal (soldier) as my child.

The Mission closed with a farewell dinner, and we all promised to stay in touch. There is much more, but space is limited. I highly recommend this program and will be happy to speak to anyone about the details if they want to go on a mission. The Yeshiva has two a year: summer and winter.

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Monday was spent buying presents in Meah Shearim, after which I was picked up by my daughter-in-law Nina, who took me back to Modiin. Tuesday was my last day in Israel, and Shmuli took off the day from work so he could spend quality time with his father. We are blessed with wonderful children, all of them, and we get so much nachas from them and our einicklach (grandchildren), kein yirbu (may they increase).

This leads me to the title of this article, Magash Hakesef – The Silver Platter. We visited several museums in Tel Aviv, the last one being the Palmach Museum. The Palmach was the strike force that did so much to drive the British out and was essential in the War of Independence. It existed only seven years and was then integrated into the Israel Defense Forces. The Museum is educational. As you enter different rooms, you see films and your headphones automatically tell the story in English. The films re-create the events of that time, with actors playing actual historical figures or composites of various people. You follow a small group of youngsters who volunteered for the Palmach and see them as they go on missions and fight in the War of Independence. Tragically, just as you get to “know” these kids, about half of them die.

“The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter” ran the saying popularized by Chaim Weitzmann soon after the U.N. voted to partition Palestine in 1947. As war between the Arabs and the Jews approached, the poet Natan Alterman put into words the tragic understanding of the sacrifices that everyone understood would have to be made for independence. These sacrifices were made by the young people who would soon defend Israel at the cost of their lives.

The poem describes “a youth and a lass dressed in battle gear, dirty, shoes heavy with grime. To change garb, they have not yet found the time. They stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death. Then a nation in tears asks, “Who are you?” And they answer quietly, “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish State was given.”

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At the time when so many were mourning and burying the great talmid chacham, Rabbi Moshe Shapira, not so far away, there was a pigua, a terrorist attack, at the very spot where our group had Segwayed a few days before. An Arab drove his truck into a crowd of young soldiers, killing four and wounding many others. The dead were three girls and a boy, all around 22 years old. They were on a tour when, all of a sudden, their young lives were ended and their families became bereft.

I can guarantee you that every Israeli looks upon these four as their own. They were lovely young people who were starting an officer’s training course. The early reports said that the tour guide who was leading their group was the one who shot the Arab.

The State of Israel is central to my identity. I am proud that four of my children decided to make their lives and raise their children as Israelis. I am proud that my son volunteered for the IDF, but we must not forget the heavy price our people have paid, are paying, for this wonderful little country of ours. These korbanos are the silver platter on which we have been given a Jewish State. May Hashem wipe away our ears and bring about a time when our boys and girls will all come home alive and safe. I love every one of them.

Klal Yisrael is fighting on many fronts. Ohr Somayach and other kiruv organizations are on the front lines saving Yiddishe neshamos. Each baal teshuva who starts a family is filling the void left by so many who drop off the cliff. We must view those who are marbitz Torah as valiant soldiers in the army of Hashem.

The phrase is “sefer vesayif – the book and the sword.” Each of us has a mission, and we must all do the assignment that the General, the One Above, gives us. In the zechus of limud Torah and binyan Tzion, may we be zocheh to bi’as goel tzedek.


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