Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Cheshvan 5763 - October 23, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rav Shlomo Zalman Klein, z'l:
The Man Who Went to the Ends of the Earth to Release Agunos

by Binyomin Y. Rabinowitz

The sheloshim of R'Shlomo Zalman Klein, who served for years as the head secretary at the Rabbinate beis din in Be'er Sheva was at the end of Elul. His sudden and untimely passing was a painful blow to his friends, family and acquaintances -- and particularly to the women who were freed from the bonds of aginus due to his selfless efforts, which in many cases involved true mesirus nefesh.

Rav Klein, undoubtedly the foremost activist in the field of releasing agunos, earned his reputation by devoting tremendous amounts of energy to his life's calling. Complex, problematic cases came streaming into his office from around the country, cases that required dedicated, personal attention. Jews around the country and around the world knew to turn to Rav Klein, for he often succeeded after all else had failed.

On many occasions he packed his bags and set off for various parts of Europe, or even destinations like Pakistan, India and Thailand. Upon arrival he would work night and day until he had accomplished his mission. For more difficult cases Rav Klein had to summon all of his powers of persuasion -- including a collection of ruses and artifices, a gentle approach and sometimes harsh language -- until the husband agreed to sign a document designating Klein a shaliach to arrange and deliver the get. In many of these escapades his life was clearly at risk, but even with a pistol pointed at him he remained calm. "First give me the get, then shoot me," he said, and eventually even this stubborn husband conceded.

An Education in Sensitivity

Shlomo Zalman Klein was born 55 years ago, the firstborn of Rav Elozor Klein, who came with his family from Romania, settling in Kfar Gid'on where he became the rov. In 5717 (1957) the family move to Be'er Sheva, the City of our Forefathers, which had almost no chareidi presence at the time. For many years he served as rov of the union of chareidi kehillos (Hisachdus Kehillos Hayerei'im). Through hard work and toil Rav Klein set up the infrastructures to start a chareidi kehilloh, most notably the first uncompromising cheder and Yeshivas Beis Hillel. Meanwhile he also published several seforim: Mishnas Elozor on the Shas, Kiryas Arbo'o, Zichron Shlomo al HaTorah and others.

Rav Elazar Klein imbued his son Shlomo Zalman with sensitivity to the suffering of others and developed within him the mesirus nefesh to come to the aid of anyone in need. In all likelihood young Shlomo Zalman often heard these principles espoused at the beis knesses where his father served as rov, for they were known to occupy a prominent place in his droshos.

Later in life Shlomo Zalman and his wife ylct'a gained a reputation among Be'er Sheva's leading machnisei orchim. Their home became a wellspring of tzedokoh and chesed. Located near Soroka Hospital it was known as an "open house" for chareidi families from around the Negev -- whether Gur Chassidim from Arad or Ashkenazim and Sephardim from Ofakim, Netivot or Tifrach -- in need of a place to stay for Shabbos while visiting hospitalized relatives.

At the age of 17, Shlomo Zalman had already received semichoh from gedolei hador and when his father passed away 25 years ago, Shlomo Zalman was appointed to occupy his post. He married and in 5752 was appointed Safra Dedayno in the Rabbinate beis din of Be'er Sheva, and soon thereafter was made Chief Secretary.

One day he was asked by the director of the Rabbinate's botei din to locate a man who had left his wife an agunoh for 30 years. Rav Klein traveled abroad and after a three-week effort managed to find the husband in Brazil. He came back to Israel with a big smile on his face and a glad heart. Afterwards, for many years to come, he would vanish from the beis din for days or weeks, leaving internal affairs aside until he had delivered a get to a waiting agunoh.

Riveting stories of his adventures while trying to procure gittin could fill a thick volume. The tales below, gleaned during a long conversation with him a few years ago, are just a handful of his many harrowing experiences.

Delivering Newspapers

For two hours Rav Klein stood on a snowy sidewalk in Lille, a small town in northern France. It was early in the morning and the streets were totally deserted. He knocked on a door, calling out to P. in a loud voice, but the former Ashkelon resident pretended not to hear him. Rav Klein had spent a long time trying to track down the man who had left his wife in Israel over 20 years earlier, and was not prepared to surrender so easily. After a long stakeout he noticed the paperboy would knock on the door at a set time and when it opened a crack he would thrust the newspaper inside.

The next day he dressed up as a paperboy and before P. realized what was happening, Rav Klein was standing inside his home. "For over 20 years you haven't given your wife a get. You have already caused her enough pain and suffering. I have come here as a shaliach beis din, and I'm not leaving until I get a get for your wife."

P. stood frozen in his tracks. After leaving his wife and two children in Israel during the Six-Day War, to avoid the draft, he had been sure no one would ever find him in his remote, secluded home.

Once he had recovered from the shock, P. tried to throw Rav Klein out of the house, but discovered his visitor to be a powerful, resolute man who had come determined to fulfill his mission.

At first Rav Klein tried to hold out a carrot, but soon realized he would have to use the stick. "I made it clear to him nothing would help and he would have to give his wife a get. I told him if he continued to refuse I would work to discontinue all the consular services he received, meaning they would not renew his passport, the beis din would impose high mezonos payments and if he ever came to Israel he would be arrested immediately -- and it is certainly not pleasant to get arrested at the airport."

Eventually his words began to penetrate the man's deaf ears and closed heart, which had sealed shut over the course of twenty years. "He made certain conditions but eventually I had the kisvu utenu in hand."

Rav Klein quickly phoned to notify the woman of the good news and caught the first plane back to Israel.

At Gunpoint

Over the years Rav Klein has journeyed to dozens of countries around the world. One week he might find himself in Thailand or India and a month later he would embark on a trip to Paris, Australia or the U.S., perhaps traveling through thick jungles and venturing into rotting jails in search of long- lost husbands.

Many years ago B. came to Israel, married and had a daughter. Then one day he simply picked up and seemed to have disappeared as if swallowed up by the earth. "I checked the Border Police and to my amazement I was told the man had not left the country. Eventually I decided to try to locate the man in Australia. I roamed in areas of Jewish concentration, showing everyone I met an old picture of B., but no one knew him. Only later did I learn that in Australia, B. was registered and known by a different name.

"During my search I met a local rov involved in kiruv. He didn't recall the man's name, but when he saw the picture he said it could be a Jew who had spoken with him a year earlier just before Pesach, asking him to arrange a place for the Seder night. We tried to find the man and after extensive efforts I reached this Jew's neighbor and, through them found the grocery store where he worked. When I got to the market I recognized him right away, and I asked the local rov to call him in for a talk."

B. did come to the rov's home and, upon hearing why he had been summoned, he grew furious. "I'll never give my wife a get. I went to the other side of the earth just to avoid giving my wife a get," he said and ran away.

The rov chased after him and brought the man back into the house. Together the two spent hours trying to break through to him, to no avail.

Towards daybreak Rav Klein returned to his hotel room and moments later heard a knock at the door. "I opened the door and there was B. standing in front of me. As soon as I started to talk he pulled out a pistol and said, `If you don't leave me alone, you won't get out of here alive.' I told him to do whatever he wants, that I am in the hands of HaKodosh Boruch Hu, not in the hands of flesh and blood."

Staring down the barrel of a gun, Rav Klein continued trying to persuade B. to produce a get. "I tried to convince him to consider his actions and eventually he left me alone. The next morning I went back to the grocery store and this time he was a bit more obliging and agreed to negotiate based on conditions he stipulated for granting the get. For an entire week--days and nights filled with threats, outbreaks of anger and arguments--we sat down together with the local rov until just before Shabbos began we finalized the negotiations and reached an agreement and he signed the kisvu utenu."

Power of Persuasion

Rav Klein recounted another adventure, this time set in India about ten years ago. A woman from Lod wanted to marry, but the rabbonim learned that at a young age she had accepted kiddushin in the presence of witnesses. Rav Klein set out for Calcutta to locate the man involved and managed to find him via a Jewish pita seller, who said the man was sick in a retirement home. Rav Klein hurried to meet him, but at first the man did not remember what he was referring to.

"After he recalled the incident I had to spend an entire day trying to convince him to give a get. I brought the head of the Jewish community and asked him to threaten not to give the man a Jewish burial, and only in response to this threat did the man sign the kisvu utenu."

In India the custom among the goyim is to cremate the dead, and community heads had invested prodigious efforts before they were granted permission to set up a Jewish cemetery.

"The next day I was notified the man had passed away. If I had come one day later it would have been impossible to locate the man, and the young woman from Lod would have remained an agunoh for the rest of her life."

Yet following this happy ending Rav Klein did not head for home, for he still had another mission to carry out elsewhere in the country.

A Triple Adventure in India

Departing Calcutta he headed for the jungle in an attempt to locate V. of Ramle, who had left his wife and children following a dispute over an inheritance. V.'s father owned a coconut plantation on the outskirts of the jungle and, upon his death, he asked for half of the estate. When his brother refused, V. set out for India to recover his share.

Through the Indian underworld V. was able to drive his brother off and take over the plantation, but he never returned to his family in Israel. Before setting out to locate the deserter, Rav Klein was warned to steer clear of V., who was known as a dangerous man. But he was undaunted by the warnings.

At the edge of the jungle Rav Klein hired a rickshaw and went in search of V. inside the thick jungle. Local inhabitants guided him along the way, but when he finally reached V., Rav Klein understood why he had been told to beware.

Before even hearing the purpose of the visit, V. told him unequivocally he would not leave Rav Klein alive, but would tear his body into shreds and send the scraps to the Ramle Shouk. Rav Klein realized he was in a real bind. He knew that in the Indian jungle there was no law and order and no one to come to his rescue, but he had faith in the Borei Olom that he would somehow emerge unscathed--shluchei mitzvo einon nizokim -- and proceeded to demand that V. give his wife a get.

V. began to step up his threats. "He told me if I didn't leave him alone right away he would throw me to the snakes in the jungle and nobody would know I had ever come to him. I told him to do what he will with me, but to give his wife a get first. He threw me out of the house, but as soon as I was outside I turned to the locals milling nearby and explained to them why I had come. I asked them to try to placate him. They went in and later I again had the nerve to go into the house. For hours the arguments went on until finally he broke and told me he was willing to give his wife a get."

Even after his second harrowing adventure in India was behind him, R' Klein still had more business to take care of before leaving the country, namely, to search for B., a convict from Petach Tikva who had left a wife and three children in Israel.

B. managed to break out of an Israeli jail without a trace. For 19 years attempts had been made to locate him. When the case reached Rav Klein he began a detailed investigation and concluded the missing criminal was most likely hiding in India.

Although he lacked detailed information on the man's whereabouts Rav Klein had a hunch he, too, might be living in the jungle. Once again Rav Klein hired a rickshaw and headed toward the dense trees and vines. When the road ended he continued his journey on foot, trudging through the underbrush with the sounds of wild animals moving all around him. Suddenly he froze in his tracks and his heart skipped a beat as he stared at the gaping jaws of a large alligator, but he recovered his senses and leaped out of reach just in the nick of time.

"During that instant of fear I was still aware that I was there in order to save a woman from her aginus, that I was a shaliach mitzvoh, and this is what gave me the strength and the courage to continue despite everything I had already undergone," recounts Rav Klein. Night fell and Rav Klein went from hut to hut showing people a picture of B. The rumor about the religious Jew roaming among the huts grew wings and reached the ears of B. himself.

Assuming Rav Klein intended to drag him back to jail, he fled the scene. Rav Klein tried to extract information from the local inhabitants, who finally received an explanation for the reason for the concerted effort to locate B. They reacted by chasing B. down, catching him and beating him ruthlessly until he signed the get.

After obtaining these three gittin, Rav Klein continued his tour of the Far East, traveling on to Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Pakistan before returning to Israel with his great catch: a grand total of 23 gittin!

In Thailand he went to a jail where two Israelis convicted of drug smuggling were serving time. "It's hard to describe the conditions I found them in. They sat with murderers in a cell full of mold, and mice traipsed in and out freely. It was a horrendous sight. Two young men sat there broken and depressed. I offered them encouragement and promised them that I would work to have them pardoned as soon as I returned to Israel."

On another occasion Rav Klein also visited a German jail. Y. D. of Eilat was known to police in his hometown. For years the dayonim at the Rabbinate beis din had tried to convince him to give his wife a get. Finally he showed a willingness to comply, but on the day scheduled to arrange the get, he vanished. As in similar cases the beis din issued a warrant for his arrest, but even a private investigation firm was unable to find him. Meanwhile five years went by and the woman remained an agunoh.

One day Rav Klein got a phone call from an investigator at National Police Headquarters. He said the police had received information about a man arrested in Munich following a bungled burglary. Although he carried a forged ID, the police investigation indicated the inmate was none other than Y. D. of Eilat. Local rabbonim tried to convince him to give the get, but he kept insisting they had the wrong man.

At this point it was decided to send Rav Klein to Munich. He went into the jail cell accompanied by the assistant warden. After several hours of conversation Rav Klein managed to wear the man down and eventually he agreed to give the get.

In addition to his excursions abroad, sometimes he went in search of husbands hiding out in Israel, from remote caves in the Galilee to Arab villages in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. In some cases he was commissioned to find husbands from abroad lying low in Israel. In one such case a Jew from Peru left his wife and came to Israel, where he spent seven years disguised as an Arab.

In an Arab Village

"It was at the height of the Intifada of the 1980s and entering the Territories was a real and present danger. Today I don't know how to explain what powers took me over, but I began to roam through villages with a picture of the man until I managed to locate him in an Arab village south of Har Chevron. I began talking to him in Hebrew but he pretended not to understand. Finally I asked him for his ID. He took the ID card out and showed me it said he was Arab and single.

"He tried to use his ID to shut me up, as they say, so that I would leave him alone. `You can see here that this is not the man you're looking for,' he said. 'How could an unmarried Arab leave a woman and children in Peru?' But I noticed the place of birth listed was Peru, and he did not know I had the kesubo with me and I also knew his parents' names. I asked the policeman who was accompanying me to arrest him. Then he broke out crying and revealed he was Jewish, and admitted he had left a wife and children in Peru. We brought him to the beis din and a few hours later the woman in Peru was free from her aginus.

Tropical Disease

Rav Klein covered hundreds of thousands of miles during his numerous voyages, bringing joy to many families in Israel, allowing the Rabbinate botei din to take pride in the small number of agunos left on file. Over the last few years aginus problems have been solved for hundreds of women.

Several years ago, after returning from his tour of the Far East, Rav Klein was hospitalized for blood contamination he contracted there. He spent six months hooked up to IV bottles 24 hour a day while doctors tried to combat the microbe. They told Rebbetzin Klein her husband had only a few years left to live, but through chasdei Shomayim they succeeded in killing the dangerous microbe. Afterwards Rav Klein returned to his holy work beyeser seis uveyeser oz.

During the last two years of his life Rav Klein devoted himself to the task of completing the beginning of his important work, Lev Shlomo. He left behind numerous other writings, some of them ready for publication, on the Shulchan Oruch and its commentaries.

As someone who had spent years working in the beis din system he was driven by the difficult experiences he saw agunos undergo, and this knowledge gave him no rest. Over and over again Rav Klein stressed that without the siyata d'shmaya he sensed clearly every step of the way, he would have never been able to bring all these success stories to their happy endings.


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