Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Av 5760 - August 30, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Children of Beer Sheva

By B. Rabinowitz

This broad historical account of the first chareidi school in the city of the forefathers -- Beer Sheva -- actually recounts the history of all chareidi Judaism in Eretz Hakodesh in the last fifty years: It has been and continues to be a struggle for the souls of the children. The drosho of Chazal: Ve'es amoleinu, eilu habonim, "And our toil, these are the children" -- can be understood in the most simple sense. How the gedolei Yisroel have struggled, both those of blessed memory and ylct"a the gedolim of today, how they carry on their shoulders the heavy burden of guarding the cruse of pure oil.

Alongside these great tzaddikim, a long line of enthusiastic, dedicated askonim work. They have devoted their lives to the community and the individual. This report is published on the occasion of Beer Sheva's Beis Yaakov Mercaz girls' school building dedication, which took place recently in the 50th year since the founding of the first chareidi school in the Ir Ho'Ovos in the Negev.

We will mainly discuss the great figures, gedolei Yisroel as well as chareidi activists, who sweated and toiled to set up the wonderful Torah chinuch in Eretz Yisroel, particularly regarding everything connected to the impressive educational institution in Beer Sheva.

The first settlement in Beer Sheva and throughout the South took place at the time when heretics were at the peak of their power. They hoped, and actually managed to do everything in their power, to abolish the religious practice of Holocaust survivors and new immigrants from Eastern countries and the former U.S.S.R.

On one side, important activists worked to save all those children from spiritual disaster. On the other side, the nonreligious parties were interested in taking the children into their custody. Well-known are the governmental scandals, which focused on the chinuch, the shearing of payos, basically a rampage to override religion. The main condition for getting a job in those days was: give your child to our educational system and you will get work.

These struggles began during the time of the British Mandate, when chareidi institutions were fighting to gain recognition and funding. With the establishment of the State, the conflict over recognition continued in the fourth educational stream of Agudas Yisroel that later became Chinuch Atzmai. Afterwards, the fight continued when the independent Torah education was founded. The transition period in which children were transferred from the fourth stream to Chinuch Atzmai was not simple, and it depended mainly on parental agreement, but in the end a large majority made the move.

A fascinating figure from those days of glory in the history of chareidi education is HaRav Hillel Lieberman, shlita, executive director of The Mercaz Beis Yaakov in Eretz Yisroel in Yerushalayim. Then he served as director of The Torah Education Center. One of five board members who founded the chareidi educational system, he was involved in the establishment of the largest and most important center for Torah education in Israel from the first day. HaRav Lieberman also founded and set up the organization Bnos Beis Yaakov-Batya, and the first high school Mercaz Beis Yaakov in Beer Sheva.

The Struggle with Minister of Education Sarid

In a conversation with Rav Hillel, he recalled those difficult days when he held the reins of the chareidi schools. "On every first of the month, the Lutzker Rov, HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin, zt"l, would call HaRav Aharon Kotler, zt"l, with genuine cries and tears saying, `What do they want from me? I'm old and sick.' This is what he said. Rav Aharon would raise funds abroad and send it here so we could pay the salaries."

For two years Rav Hillel pulled the wagon. The main part of his work was to transfer the schools that were previously part of the fourth stream of Agudas Yisroel, to an official, recognized position, and things were not at all easy. The government set up great difficulties, complicated bureaucracy and so forth, but Rav Hillel recounts that the vast majority (excluding only two or three) of schools that were in the fourth stream moved over to Torah education.

The first school year for Chinuch Atzmai (at the end of 5713 - 1953) began about a month after the beginning of the school year, but even after that there was no lack of problems and difficulties. The director-general of the department of education at that time was Yaakov Sarid (father of Yossi Sarid, until recently the Minister of Education). He gave instructions to close five schools and to merge them with the government religious schools, since they had not presented their paperwork on time.

Rav Lieberman would not consent. He immediately sent a telegram to the schools' principals instructing them to continue operating as usual. Sarid was very insulted by the instructions and he immediately asked the Minister of Education to put Rav Lieberman in his place and to implement the decision to close the schools. Rav Lieberman requested to meet with the Minister and said to him, "I agree that there is an insult to the Minister here, but the question is who caused this insult and who is responsible for it.

"For five months I have paid teachers 100 percent of their salaries and not 40 percent as it was supposed to be. The government did not pay a penny for the teachers' salaries. Maybe it is necessary to merge the schools, but how could anyone think to circumvent me and go over my head, over the one who actually supports the school? The one who insulted the Minister is this Mr. Sarid sitting right here and not me!"

The Minister smiled, and eventually everything worked out.

The elderly Rav Lieberman has many stories from those first years of chareidi education in Israel, when Rav Na'im Ben- Eliyahu served as educational principal in the school in Beer Sheva during the period of the streams. At his side was Dr. Goldstein, administrative-financial principal. Rav Lieberman even sent some of his talmidim in Jerusalem to teach the girls of Beer Sheva. The school administration at that time and the parents expressed their doubts about the Chinuch Atzmai actually getting up and standing on its feet. Therefore they decided, together with the parents, to transfer the school to the auspices of the mamlachti dati. "I did not believe for a minute that this would come about," concludes Rav Lieberman.

Finding a School Principal was Kriyas Yam Suf

We also spoke with Rav Alexander Miller, a close confidante of maranan verabonon gedolei Yisroel, zt"l and ylct"a, who stood at the head of Torah educational system at the time the State was established and in the years following. We will mainly note his close relationship with the Brisker Rov, zt"l.

He requested that we keep our interview brief, since many decades have passed since then. "My visits to Beer Sheva began to be involved in opening a school. I vaguely remember that Harpnas transferred over as a government religious school."

Rav Miller, who began working in Chinuch Atzmai as soon as it officially opened, recalled that a school in Beer Sheva had been opened several years earlier by Agudas Yisroel, then moved to the fourth stream of Agudas Yisroel. When the Chinuch Atzmai was established, however, it moved over to mamlachti dati, the State religious network.

History from those days is replete with struggles that focused mainly on the subject of chinuch. For many years after the founding of the State, there were storms of criticism against the educational method in the various educational streams, and the Knesset passed a law of mandatory governmental education, forming two central educational streams: mamlachti (secular governmental) and mamlachti dati (religious governmental).

"It was a period of complete vacuum, and we had absolutely no school in Beer Sheva. Then there was an arousal, mainly brought about by Rav Gavriel Salamon, zt"l. With him was another Yid whose name I don't recall. Together they worked with all their might to open a Chinuch Atzmai school in the city.

"No one can describe that difficult, stormy period. I was the only supervisor in the country. It was terribly difficult until they found Rav Simcha Shulman, z"l, and they set up an educational committee worthy of the name. They sat down and got working on every single subject.

"Finding a man to run the school in Beer Sheva was literally kriyas Yam Suf. Even kriyas Yam Suf is not the right word! Whoever came into my room requesting a teaching position, whether he could teach or not, whether he knew the subject or not, first of all I said, just come. Come in.

"The first time I came to Beer Sheva was in response to a request from some of the local residents who wanted to reopen the chareidi school. There was no one in charge of opening new schools. I traveled there and met with these people. My base was in the home of Rav Gavriel Salamon, zt"l, where so many legends were woven.

"We began discussing the matter at hand and I said, in the name of the administration, that before opening a school we have to first know if there are children. They began looking into it and they came up with a huge list of hundreds of children. This actually emptied out a number of schools in the area because all the children and parents wanted davka this school.

"I brought the matter to the hanhala. What can I say about that hanhala, where all gedolei Yisroel sat? HaRav Zalman Sorotzkin, zt"l, HaRav Yechezkel Abramsky, zt"l, HaRav Yechezkel Sarna, zt"l, were the hanhala. We spoke about a location and building for the school. Where would they learn?

"On Rechov Ho'Ovos was a building that had previously been used as a warehouse and for shops. It suited us very well, and if I'm not mistaken, this was the first building we owned in the history of chareidi education -- just a few steps away from the home of Rav Gavriel Salamon."

There are Children to be Saved, but We Don't Have Money

Rav Miller recounts how the suggestion to acquire a building for a school in Beer Sheva came about in those days, when they were not even able to pay salaries. "I came to a board meeting with the suggestion. It was like a bombshell to go and buy a building. Confusion broke out about this matter. HaRav Sorotzkin said, `Mir hoben nisht kain gelt. Mir ken dos nisht machen.' (`We do not have money. We cannot do it.')

"Then HaRav Sarna got up and said, 'Se'iz doh kinder vos min darf zei rateven, velen mir zoggen az se'iz nisht doh kein gelt?' (`There are children who need to be saved; will we just say there is no money?')

"This also started an argument among the rabbis about whether it is possible to rely on me. I was a very young avreich then! Then HaRav Sarna said that if we are speaking about such a thing, we all need to travel there and see what we're talking about. In the end, he got up and went to Beer Sheva himself."

Rav Itche Meir Levine, who directed board meetings in those days, said that we have to view this matter also from the perspective of Agudas Yisroel, and they decided to travel together. "I went with them and we saw the building. They decided that it is worthwhile to buy it. We bought the building and when we were ready to open the school, they wanted to enter the building with the students in a procession that would go through the city streets and rededicate it.

"I don't know whose idea it was, but it caused an uproar," recalled Rav Miller. School administrators saw that they were left without students. They immediately summoned the Minister of Education in those days, Zalman Aren, who sent a demand for immediate closure of the new school, along with an ultimatum that if we do not close the school immediately, all ties with Chinuch Atzmai throughout the country would be completely severed.

"Everyone agreed, because they feared that they were endangering the whole chareidi educational network. So they decided to disperse the students. I remember that we did this with tears and crying, but there was no choice. Later on, we decided to open the school in a more quiet and limited way."

The school was reopened after Chanukah 5717 (1957) with very strict instructions regarding the number of students. They set up very rigid conditions that were very difficult to meet. The natural process of registration and growth began. A few years later the school received the structure on whose site a beautiful building stands today.

"This was a school building that stood empty and useless. They called it `Fio Trailers' which the municipality erected when France would not give Israel Mirage airplanes unless Israel also took two "Fio" houses for every Mirage airplane. Because of this they bought a lot of such trailers, some of which they made into chareidi schools (like in Rosh HaAyin, Tiveria Ilit, Beer Sheva, etc.). The municipality did not actually arrange those buildings for us, but when it became clear that they were unusable for anything else, they agreed to give them to us. Later the boys' wing was built especially for the school by the municipality in conjunction with the Katzen Fund and Mifal Hapais."

Rav Miller emphasizes that the school in Beer Sheva was the southernmost educational center at the time. "In that period we did not have schools in Yeruchom or in Dimona, nor in Tifrach or Ofakim. This was actually the only school in the whole region. All the schools in those settlements were founded years after this. Everyone agrees this is an amazing story."

The first principal of the school was Rav Natan Roth, who faced terrible difficulties, particularly the dispersal of most of the school's pupils. With the reopening, Rav Miller brought Rav Yechiel Oish, who served as principal for many years, from Jerusalem. Following this Rav Rafael Brenner ran the school, and then Rav Tzvi Zaltzer who heads the school to this very day.

Let's go back to the beginning. Rav Miller tells us that there was a demand for the school in Beer Sheva throughout the years, and therefore a school was established in Shechuna Daled. "A situation developed when immigrants arrived in Shechuna Daled. The makeup of the population compelled us to set up an additional, slightly different school. The distance of the neighborhood from the school in the Old City, brought us to start another school in the neighborhood."

He then recalled that one of the first times he managed to acquire large amounts of money for renovating and improving a school was in Beer Sheva. "This was also the first place they renovated the trailers, and from here all the others learned." Concluding the conversation, Rav Miller requested that we mention his name as little as possible, but his actions are surely engraved on a golden tablet in the annals of chareidi Jewish history in Eretz Hakodesh.

The First Steps

Before we get into a detailed account of Rav Natan Roth, we will cite a fascinating anecdote from one of the first students of the school. In the opening of her words she points out that to reconstruct the first days of the school, we must emphasize that its success and prosperity, and its beautiful building were carved out from the founders' mesiras nefesh. Only their closeness and their unwavering dedication brought it to fruition.

Beer Sheva 5710

Chareidi families, mainly from Hungary, took their first steps into Beer Sheva. Absorption and financial difficulties pushed the matters of chinuch into the corner -- years of rations, financial difficulties, language and social absorption difficulties, and most of all, a hostility and estrangement from any spark of Judaism.

In the absence of any educational structure in the spirit of Bais Yaakov, the children were sent to Mizrachi schools, the government religious institutions that were scattered throughout the city, to the dismay of the parents. But they could not do anything to change the situation.

That was how things went for a number of years. But then Rav Gavriel Salamon's children started along the same path as the other children, but a man like Gavriel Salamon, a housewares and electronics wholesaler, would not accept the situation.

Rav Gavriel took a stand. In the beis medrash before and after davening, at home, on the street, in the bank, in his shop, and at every other opportunity, he spoke out for the sake of chinuch. Satisfaction with life and the substantial difficulties caused those who heard him to raise their hands and to shake their heads in despair. Everyone mocked Rav Gavriel for his "fantasies" and "dreams," but he did not falter.

At every opportunity he continued to bring up the topic as a matter of utmost importance. And this was literally, really mesiras nefesh. People stopped coming into his store, because they could not stand up to his rebukes. Continuously and ceaselessly, Rav Gavriel kept going until he managed to gather a significant number of parents, who were willing to remove their children from the government religious schools and to put them into a chareidi educational framework.

Rav Gavriel formed ties with chareidi chinuch leaders. In the first stage, a building was purchased at 3 Rechov Ho'Ovos. Parents sent their children to this new school, despite its inadequate supplies and a building itself that was not exactly fit to be a school. Teachers from Bnei Brak and Yerushalayim taught in the school.

The difficult conditions did not disturb the wonderful Yiddishe ambience that pervaded the school. Close relationships were woven between the teachers and the parents, and together with the students a Bais Yaakov family was formed which influenced other parents to transfer their children to the new school.

The joy did not last long. The Ohel Sara school was not so willing to give up the stream that was getting stronger every day and was weakening the school's classes. An order came from the education department demanding closure of the new Bais Yaakov and that the parents return their children to the government religious school. Seeing no other choice, the children went shamefacedly back to Ohel Sara, where the other children mocked them for the aborted experience that did not turn out as they wished.

Rav Gavriel did not remain quiet, and he turned to anyone who could help, in the municipality in general and specifically to the education department, and he eventually won over the chareidi educational leaders and supporters. With Hashem's help the efforts bore fruit, and after a short while another Jewish echo was heard in the city of Beer Sheva. When the students grew, a new mission stood before him: to start a local Bais Yaakov high school.

Sleep in the School

After concerted efforts, a dilapidated building was found on Rechov HaChalutz. Daily physical hardships did not disturb the steady learning program, to the satisfaction and joy of the parents who did not notice the conditions that were very difficult especially in comparison to other schools that were much nicer. And then, one fine day, a demand for close down arrived at the school from an unforeseen source.

The municipality's engineering department sent notification that the building was hazardous and must be razed. Everyone felt hopeless. Getting a different place was not realistic, since the present structure had been acquired only with great difficulty and vast efforts. It was clear that impression of the schemers against chinuch tahor was a reality, and again it came to the expression of mesiras nefesh of Rav Gavriel.

Rav Gavriel was generally an istanis regarding sleep, and in his old age when he was hospitalized in frequent intervals, he would always take a pillow from his house on which to rest his head, because otherwise he could not sleep. But when he was involved in mesiras nefesh, his feelings for educational matters outweighed his feelings for personal matters.

A simple calculation revealed that the razing would not take place during school hours, but who would guard the building when the learning hours were finished? Rav Gavriel rose to the occasion and went to sleep in the shaky school building. Day in and day out for a significant period of time, Rav Gavriel lodged in the school. At the end of this self- sacrifice, the school left the site, but not before a replacement was found.

Registration days for the school were a story unto itself. Rav Gavriel's private home turned into a hectic public place, with an office, telephone, paperwork and clerk. His whole home was dedicated to the success of the school's registration. The activists slept there and ate there.

But besides physical care, Rav Gavriel breathed into the air an optimistic spirit that was so essential in those registration days, when problems and disappointments were not lacking. His home was also a housewares shop, in which people bought at all hours of the day, and Rav Gavriel utilized the contact with customers, to persuade them to send their children to chareidi chinuch.

All chinuch and harbotzas haTorah were in his blood, and he was ready for any mission, and not only increasing Torah and Judaism in Beer Sheva. When he saw a boy wandering in the street during school hours, he did not remain quiet, but he did everything he could to place him in a suitable educational framework. On Erev Pesach he would distribute kimcha dePischa to needy talmidim, and the house on 21 Trumpeldor turned into a warehouse for Pesach merchandise, and the aroma of wine and matzo filled the whole room.


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