Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Adar 5761 - March 21, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Roots of Eretz Yisroel: Religious Conflict in Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv- Yaffo

by D. Rachelson

Part II

The first part of this three-part essay discussed the struggles between the chareidi Jews based in Yerushalayim and the secular Jews who came from Europe to Eretz Yisroel in Yaffo and early Tel Aviv. There was an extended discussion of the controversy over Purim celebrations in 5690 (1930) over the nature of the celebrations. The secular Jews wanted a secular celebration that emphasized partying and plays. The religious Jews tried to hold them in check. Also, there was a discussion of the ways in which the maskilim tried to undermine the credibility of the rabbonim, including their assertion that the Diskin Orphanage in Yerushalayim founded by the Maharil Diskin, did not exist.

No Lo Sosur

Since it was difficult to wage a frontal battle with the Rov of Brisk, who in his greatness and nobility was backed by his entire sacred flock, those little foxes decided to weaken his kingdom by issuing ridiculous and slanderous notices about she who had loyally stood by his side his entire life, and who with much talent and wisdom led his battles outside of his four cubits. If it was impossible to disgrace the rabbinate and its head, the Rov of Brisk, the Maharil (HaRav Yehoshua Leib) Diskin, it was possible at least to harass the rebbetzin.

The Rebbetzin of Brisk was the daughter of the eminent Reb Tzvi Hirsch Tatner, and the granddaughter of the Atteres Yisroel, a descendent of the Noda B'Yehuda. The journalists of that time mocked her piety and kedusha, and aimed their guns at her great righteousness. Whoever wanted to say something about the tzaddik and kodosh, the Rov of Brisk, would say by means of analogy that the takono or ruling in question wasn't that of the Rov of Brisk himself, but rather that of the Rebbetzin, and when one disagrees with the rebbetzin he doesn't violate the command of lo sosur, and thus an objection to an amendment or psak of the rav wasn't an offense to the rav himself.

The truth was that the Rebbetzin fulfilled every one of the Rov's wishes, and that no stone or obstacle stood in the way of her resolve. She even administered the orphanage which they established in the best manner possible, to the satisfaction of all. She attended to all of the material needs of the orphans and was a warm and compassionate mother to them.

The Rebbetzin was very learned, intelligent and astute. Sometimes she used a verse or a statement of Chazal in order to silence the brash, and knew how to utilize the words of our Sages in order to jab at the brazen.

It is related that one chol hamoed someone came to her home and claimed that he had to see the Rov urgently. She, in her wisdom understood that he didn't have a very important question to ask, but only wanted to pester the Rov who was busy with his sacred pursuits. She told him: "Tell me what you want to ask, and I will convey you the Rov's reply."

Seeing that he couldn't sidestep her with silly excuses, he told her: "I received an urgent letter today from abroad, and since today is chol hamoed, I want to know if I can answer it today."

With her sharp wit she answered: "You can write a letter today on chol hamoed, if you do so with a big shinui, in other words if you write only the truth." Needless to say that he left immediately, smarting from the barb.

In time, an entire circle whose common factor was their opposition to the Rov of Brisk was formed. Among them were trustees, prominent people and the directors of public institutions whom the Rov of Brisk fearlessly rebuked. Among them were even wicked people who didn't balk at informing on him to the Russian consul in order to send him back to Russia and to have him arrested there. The Rov of Brisk, who was well schooled in pain and strife, and who knew very well what that meant from bitter experience of many years sitting in prison abroad due to the informers, nonetheless could not be intimidated by such ugly deeds.


In 5642 (1882), the so-called first aliya to Israel began. This was a wave of immigration composed largely of secular Jews and maskilim. [Some found hint to that occurrence from the fact that the Hebrew letters of the word tomor, which appears in the phrase e'eleh betomor in Shir Hashirim, has the same letters, in a different configuration, as 5642.]

During that period, the Committee for the Pioneers of Yesod Hamaaleh was founded in Yaffo, as was a vocational school called Torah Umelocho under the aegis of Kol Yisrael Chaveirim (Alliance Israelite Universelle), where for the first time in the history of Yerushalayim studies were conducted in Hebrew.

Between the years 5642-5648 (1882-1888) upheavals occurred in the foundations of the yishuv. In Jerusalem the well known Jerusalem Office (lodge) of the B'nai B'rith was founded which was a stubborn fighter against Jewish traditions.

The Jerusalem Office assembled all of the maskilim, who called themselves members of the B'nai B'rith, and who had rebelled against the old yishuv. Under the aegis of that office, enterprises, libraries, printing houses, and all sorts of projects which brazenly kicked at the traditional way of Jewish life -- derech Yisroel Saba -- began to blossom like malignant diseases. In that office, the members of the new kernel of the olim and the maskilim centered.

According to Mr. Yeshayah Press, at that time, in 1856- 5616, there were 5700 Jews in Jerusalem, 4000 of whom were Sephardim and 1700 Ashkenazim. In Tzfas there were 2100, and in Tiveria 1514, and there were smaller communities in Yaffo, Peki'in and other small communities and sects.

Before the so-called first aliya, the Jewish community of Yaffo numbered no more than 1,000 souls. This wave of immigration brought in 5,000 more Jews to the community, effectively overwhelming the existing residents.

Groups of maskilim from the immigrants and the old settlement were active among the periphery, and tried to influence the weaker ones. They opened schools and public institutions which were independent of the traditional chaluka, and thus were not under the control of the old kollelim in Eretz Yisroel. With their financial independence, which they attained due to substantial donations which they received from abroad, they began to openly divest themselves of every link to Torah and yirah.

A lot of money came in to these institutions and the incentives that they could offer to people were very tempting in those days of poverty. They did not immediately violate Shabbos and the other mitzvos, but the circle of people influenced by them widened and deepened. At first people began by learning less Torah and acquiring professions and trades. Afterwards, when the power of Torah was weakened, the vacuum was filled with alien values that became more and more evident in practice.

The protocol of the first meeting of the Jerusalem Office of the B'nai B'rith association, from the 16th of Sivan 5648 (1888), cites the remarks of the founders about the importance of the office and its decisions: a) The office will be called Jerusalem; b) Dues per month are in the sum of one franc; c) The first twenty brothers will not give any advance payments; d) We must try to increase the membership to twenty.

With its activity and acceptance among the members of the yishuv, it gained confidence and began to open branches in other cities. At first they founded the Shaar Tzion office in Yaffo in 1890 (5650), and on the 24th of Shevat official letters were sent certifying it.

At the dedication of the Shaar Tzion office in Yaffo, speeches were delivered by the heads of the office from Jerusalem (Ben Yehudah and his colleagues) and all of them accepted the charter of B'nai B'rith. Then the guests convened for a festive dinner over a glass of wine, and mentioned the charter principles of the organization founded in New York and its president and secretary, Dr. Hertzberg, who toiled to found the office, its institution and its branches.

This is among the first instances in which we find America as a source of financial support for Eretz Yisroel in addition to Europe. The New York office of B'nai B'rith exerted considerable control of how its funds were spent, and it made all the important decisions.

The Agreement

Following are a number of details from the agreement between the Jerusalem office and the Shaar Tzion office, in which Jerusalem tried to preserve its superiority in every aspect to the other lodges throughout the country. Every induction of new members in Yaffo required the consent of the office of Jerusalem. A tenth of all of the money of Yaffo would be sent to the office in Jerusalem, where it would be possible to use the money as they saw fit without reporting to Yaffo.

A third of the money of Jerusalem and Jaffa would be combined in a joint fund. This money would be used according to mutual consent. Another office, whose chairman would be from Jerusalem, would be founded, and it would decide by majority vote in every case of dissent. The regulations of the office from Jerusalem apply to the office of Yaffo too. In matters of petitions and appeals, the members of the Jaffa office must present their appeal to the office in Jerusalem, before filing any appeals with the executive committee in New York.

The rabbonim of Yerushalayim were not happy with this essentially secret organization. Many of their activities were not publicized at all.

There were years in which the Jerusalem lodge included religious maskilim who fought against the Christian missionaries who were hard at work throughout the country. However largely the brothers of the lodge worked mostly to help their fellows who were generally from the economically privileged, scholars and members of the free professions and public servants. The members of B'nai B'rith, like other secret brotherhood organizations of the time, followed the principle of all for one and one for all, and helped one another in many ways including medical arrangements, clubs, cultural and amusement centers and the like. Most of their activities included cultural and recreation activities that were found among the non-Jewish people and certainly promoted a lifestyle devoid of Torah and mitzvos.

Determining the Religious Content

From 1888 to 1890, with the establishment of Neve Tzedek and Neve Shalom, Jewish suburbs of Yaffo (today near Derech Jaffa Street), the battles over the religious character of the city of Yaffo began. They raged over the control of the communal institutions, primarily the Vaad Hakehilla. As mentioned in the previous article, the struggles were between the new immigrants, namely the maskilim and the secular on one side, and the members of the old yishuv.

The first Jewish suburb in Yaffo was called Neve Tzedek, from a posuk in Yirmiyohu 31. The first ten houses built were occupied by names that would later become famous in Tel Aviv's establishment -- Shimon Rokach (mayor of Tel Aviv years later), David Zino, Moshe Vilner, Reuven Rabinowitz and others. The street was later named Rokach Street by the Tel Aviv government, which absorbed the suburbs.

The neighborhood was spacious and modern for that period. Every house had two rooms, two porches, a kitchen and bathroom, and there was space for a small garden around each house. During the first stage, they built two wells on the site. The initiator Reb Aharon Shlush continued building in the new suburb, and the first money he received for sale of the land and construction of another forty-eight houses, he donated towards building a beis knesses. Yet the roads were little more than lanes and the houses were built very close together.

Reb Aharon Shlush almost paid for his enterprise with his life. He moved to the neighborhood with his family and brought along the sifrei Torah that belonged to the first shul in Yaffo, which his father had established in the middle of the city. Every morning he used to ride to Yaffo on a donkey, and he returned on the same path in the evening. For work purposes, he carried sacks on his donkeys, and those who knew of his wealth inflated the sacks' importance and value in their imagination.

One night at midnight, thieves burst into Reb Aharon's courtyard -- they had apparently followed him. They quietly overcame the guard and went to open the door of the house. The dogs started to bark and the workers who lived in the courtyard fled for their lives. The railroad laborers of the line to Yerushalayim, which was being laid nearby, heard the ruckus and came to help. They chased away the robbers and remained to guard the place until daylight. It was a frightful incident in those days.

The second Jewish neighborhood built was Neve Shalom. It was built on a lot of about 1,000 square meters (10,000 square yards) and was founded by Zerach Barnett. In fact, they were unable to sell any of the houses in the new area until the rov, HaRav Naftoli Hertz Halevi, bought the first one and drew others in his wake.

At that period, as mentioned, the war over religion intensified between the new immigrants and members of the old yishuv of Yaffo, who joined forces with the men of Yerushalayim. The focal point: control of the city and its institutions.

The Old Against the New

The institutions of the ancient kehilla were beset with financial difficulties. The Ezras Yisroel organization of the old yishuv was harnessed to contribute to the building that abounded in the city, until its coffers were so depleted that they could not assist the new immigrants. This and a few other reasons were grounds for beginning an organization to dispossess the authority of Ezras Yisroel and establish a new vaad.

In Av 5630 (1870), those who appointed themselves to the "New Vaad" published a declaration to the people of Yaffo, which announced their plans. The committee members were Chaim Shmerling, Meir Hamburger, Shimon Rokach, Betzalel Lapin, Y. M. Pines, Hertzenstein and Danukau. (Some were religious and some what is called "traditional" nowadays.)

The declaration (which appears in the book Yaffo-Neve Tzedek: The Beginnings of Tel Aviv, by Mordechai Elyakim) described the difficult financial situation of the kehilla and the committee members' decision to chose seven people "who will stand at the side of Rav the av beis din, and be involved in the communal matters to establish proper order and permanent improvement here." The organization's goals were "to establish the congregation from the foundations to the roof, since it is lacking all institutions and all charitable bodies that give a congregation its form, and the greatest deficiency is the lack of a permanent doctor, a hospital and a hospitality home."

Good and honest decisions, apparently. Provocation in reality. Indeed, someone who is genuinely interested in helping does not rebel and destroy what exists, but rather helps the existing establishment to improve and build. And so, this declaration was the first of a series of declarations aimed to provoke the members of the old yishuv.

In the declaration, they crowned themselves as a "congregation" (eida) in Yisroel. The members of the old committee, who controlled the rabbinate, shechita, mikvaos and cemeteries, reacted with an announcement that they do not recognize the new vaad.

After critics and defenders entered the argument, which threatened to divide all the Jews of Yaffo and its suburbs, they decided to establish a joint committee of all congregations, which would have its own financial backing (and not rely on the "chaluka" it seems). Significant changes would be made from the life style of the Yerushalayim communities and the old yishuv.

For example, Hebrew was recognized as an integral part of the educational institutions in Yaffo and the suburbs. At that time, everyone willingly accepted HaRav Naftali Hertz HaLevi as the Chief Rabbi of all the Jews of Yaffo.

Everything seemed fine and nice. In reality, this was the opening for all problems that would some day come upon Yaffo and Tel Aviv and all places that acted similarly. The compromise, the silence, the weak response, the agreement to unify everyone and assimilate everyone together, diminished the chareidim's power and the influence of the old chareidi yishuv.

The chareidim became mere hostages in the hands of the maskilim and Chovevei Zion, whose path was strewn with deceit and hypocrisy. While putting up a front of love of Jewish tradition, they did their utmost to destroy everything good. At the same time, many chareidim innocently, naively hoped that if they were quiet and cooperated pleasantly with everyone, they could have a bigger influence. But that is not what happened.

Blessed Unity?

When the new committee was established, its members published a new proclamation, happily announcing the unification. "We have joined together, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities; two communities that have been separated for hundreds of years now joined together in our city and became one nation. And there is no difference in the communal affairs between a Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and they will not be called Sephardi and Ashkenazi anymore, but rather Yisroel. Those who know the state of affairs in the Holy Land, who know the mountains and valleys that have been separating these two communities until today, are capable of appreciating this unification in its proper perspective."

In their excitement, they were swept away with lofty words and quoted a few other topics that they deemed important. "The spoken language in the committee's house is our holy language, and no longer will anyone ask who shechted the meat. They will eat together, each the meat of the other and each the shechita of the other. And they will pray in one house to the G-d of their fathers, and they will be one nation in the land and will no longer be split into two nations."

The peace and unification , however, was completely external and only temporary. The deep differences of opinion remained as always. Committee meetings were characterized by many crises and very often the members threatened to resign. Sometimes, the differences of opinion burst out onto the streets in strong, loud, stormy voices.

One of the committee's members described what went on in the "unified" committee's meetings. "Whatever the committee decides and proposes to do, there are those who oppose. This one nullifies the opinion of that, that one stands firm in his opinion and so do his friends. However they have not disbanded the committee, lest it be a laughing stock in the eyes of the world."

Despite the fierce differences of opinion and despite the obstacles and hidden intentions of the committee's founders, they did accomplish a number of positive things. For example, the war against typhus which had claimed the lives of over four hundred people, succeeded under the committee's tutelage, as well as other social and communal matters.

But definitely not spiritual matters. One of the main topics that stood at the focal point of the committee's endless struggles was education. The modern schools that the secular tried to open were a thorn in everyone's side. But when the immigrants and the secular settlers joined with the committee's secular members and the maskilim, they succeeded in opening their own school as well as establishing orchestras and a theater. And when there was one committee where everything was decided according to the majority vote, the war for religion did not go well.

Tremendous tension prevailed between HaRav Naftali Hertz and the head of the Chovevei Tzion in Eretz Yisroel, Vladimir Tiomkin. All of the rov's appeals to him were for naught. "It is not in my authority to mix into the actions of the young, and cholila that I should dictate their behavior and life style," Tiomkin used to answer as his typical reaction to those who rebel against Torah and mitzvos in response to the appeals of the rov to do something.

It was with compromise, with implicit support they received through silence in the face of all kinds of negative phenomena, and at most various halfhearted protests that the secular conquered one stronghold after another and felled the walls of religion until the city appears as it does today.

It should be noted that in those days the general consensus was that Jews are religiously observant. That is why the rov felt that he could protest to a man like Tiomkin, who was himself already born in to an assimilated family and later returned to Russia. Even such as he, with no personal commitment to religion, would only answer evasively and not directly defy the protests of the rov.

First a Hebrew-speaking school was established in conjunction with the infamous Alliance, as well as a school for girls of Chovevei Tzion in Yaffo, who were not particularly enthusiastic about religion. Thus the path was opened to oust the members of the old yishuv from all key positions in the city.

However, one can not ignore the simple fact that the many quarrels and the divisiveness among members of the old yishuv was a great disadvantage to them in facing the unification that prevailed among the destroyers of religion!

Thus the walls of religion fell, its posts conquered one after the other by rebels against Torah and mitzvos and destroyers of the vineyard of Hashem.

End of Part II


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