Jewish, Jewish, Everywhere, & not a drop to drink
Sunday, October 26, 2003
The Secular Haaretz Newspaper in Israel sounds the alarm about Ultra-Orthodox Judaism (Haredi) inroads into mainstream Israeli life...

"What did you learn in school today


Uri Zohar's missionary project has a new twist: A cassette issued by Lev l'Ahim, an association that induces secular children to attend ultra-Orthodox schools, combines interviews with famous secular figures (who are unaware of the use being made of them) with an uninhibited assault on the state education system.
By Aviv Lavie

Summer is the hot season for Uri Zohar. It's the time when hundreds of thousands of Israelis try to decide in which school to register their children for the coming school year - and someone has to help them make the right decision. This past summer, for instance, the phone rang in many homes around the country, and a familiar voice came over the receiver: "Hello, this is Uri Zohar. This is a recorded announcement. If you have children of school age and you aren't so pleased with the level of their schooling or their education, I have a unique proposal. Interested in hearing what it is? Press 2."

If you pressed 2, you got to hear a precis of Zohar's lethal opinion of the state education system, followed by a warm recommendation to send the kids to the Torah institutions of the Lev l'Ahim (a heart for brothers) association. Zohar, who in the 1960s and 1970s was a highly regarded film director, actor, entertainer and one of Israel's biggest television stars, as well as the king of the country's bohemian scene, became religious about 20 years ago, along with his family. Since then he has been a public activist, with the declared aim of making the entire nation of Israel religious.

The telemarketing ploy is only the tip of the iceberg of the effort that Zohar and his colleagues in the association are making to persuade parents to place their children in the tent of the Torah. The real drive is being conducted in the streets.

During the last week of the school year, the action in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) town of Modi'in Illit reached a peak. A letter signed by two leading Torah sages, Rabbis Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and Aharon Leib Steinman, was circulated throughout the town, calling on yeshiva students to come and help out on registration day for the association's schools.

In the early evening of June 30, buses were waiting for hundreds of yeshiva students outside their institutions of Torah learning. The students were sent to four cities: Tel Aviv, Or Yehuda, Ramle and Lod. The goal: to make contact with every secular or traditionalist home with children and apprise the parents of the wonders of Torah education. "Past experience shows that every activity generates a fruitful blessing and all talk creates an impression," the Haredi daily Hamodia wrote at the time.

Indeed, the work of the Lev l'Ahim activists appears not to be in vain. Although the organization does not publish statistics, an estimated 5,000 parents a year are believed to transfer their children from the state system to the Haredi system. The network of schools established by the association, founded in 1991, is growing at an impressive pace. In the first two years of this decade, for example, 42 schools and 27 kindergartens belonging to the Netivot Moshe and Shuvu networks were established by Lev l'A * *him. Not surprisingly, the official statistics show a large decline in the percentage of children attending schools of the state education system and a rise in the number of children in Haredi schools. In 1990, 71.1 percent of elementary school students attended schools in the state track and only 7.6 percent were in Haredi educational frameworks; whereas in 2000, only 60.4 percent of the country's Jewish children were in schools of the state education system, compared to 20.4 percent in Haredi institutions.

In its first years of existence, Lev l'Ahim, which is part of the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) stream of Judaism and is identified with the Degel Hatorah political party, was engaged mainly in a struggle against Christian missionaries and intermarriage. Toward the end of the 1990s, the spiritual fathers of the association identified the crisis in the state education system and the public's disappointment in the system. Rabbi Elyashiv, the spiritual mentor of Degel Hatorah, and Rabbi Steinman, the second most important person in the movement, urged their followers to take advantage of the propitious moment and persuade parents to transfer their children to the Haredi educational fold.

Rabbi Steinman views this as the restoration of a lost son to his father: "we are obligated to restore a loss to our father in heaven, and with every child and with every soul we restore to the Holy One, how great is the satisfaction we give the Creator." The Haredi newspaper Yeted Ne'eman explained the reason for the focus on children: "A child. How pure. Still without prejudices. Everything falls on fertile ground. The soul has not yet been filled with garbage." A more practical stance is taken by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, a member of the Council of Torah Sages of Agudat Israel in the United States: In Israel, he explained, one can acquire souls for Torah education "for pennies, in return for lunch."

To allay the fears of parents, the association describes their institutions as "Torah schools," even though the teachers are Haredi, as is the spirit of education that pervades them. The association now has 19 branches around the country. Its greatest successes are in disadvantaged neighborhoods; it is hard for parents there to refuse benefits such as free transportation and hot meals for their children.

Over the years, the methods of persuasion used by the association have become increasingly aggressive. The style derives in large measure from the personality of the individual who heads the marketing drive: Uri Zohar. A frequent co-star with Zohar is Aryeh Deri, the former chairman of the Sephardi party Shas. In the past, Deri was chastised by some in Shas for giving his services to Lithuanian educational institutions. Deri did not flinch: in the mass rallies that were held in the first phase of his incarceration (for bribe taking) outside Ramle Prison, a jingle containing the association's phone number was played repeatedly. The switchboard operators ask callers a few preliminary questions and then transfer them to an association activist in his area. In the next call, a few hours later, the caller receives "initial educational advice."


A hefty portion of the Lev l'Ahim campaign takes place on Uri Zohar's radio programs. Zohar takes calls about educational affairs in a program called "Father, Mother, Child," which is broadcast on six Haredi pirate radio stations, including Radio 10, Radio Voice of Truth, Radio 2000 and Radio Voice of the Soul. As summer approaches, the programs become a platform for vigorous propaganda on behalf of the association's educational projects. Some of the broadcasts are devoted to fund-raising, in which listeners are asked to contribute monthly payments of "hai dollars" ($18, with the number 18 standing for "life" in numerology). The response is gratifying to the association. "This is a campaign to make the people of Israel religious," Zohar declared in one of the fund-raising drives. "The children change the homes totally."

With the passage of time, Zohar has constantly radicalized his attacks on the state education system, to the point where he is very close to incitement. His method of persuasion is simple: he reads his listeners a series of news reports about negative events and incidents of violence in schools, and then adds his own brand of fire and brimstone: "Maliciously, wickedly, with an insensitivity that is beyond description, they have overturned the height of human culture, the center of civilization ... Thus they uprooted [what was most precious] maliciously, wickedly, and you, dear parents, are continuing this by sending your children, those pure souls of yours, by uprooting them from the concept of Jews, uprooting them from the Jewish people ... It's a spiritual holocaust. Thirty or forty years ago, people used to talk about denying the Holocaust; the whole media is a horrific holocaust, a dreadful holocaust that descends on the Jewish children in the Land of Israel, an insane spiritual wasteland ... They take your money, NIS 27 billion, and with your money they turn your children into dyslexics."

In another program, Zohar minced no words in explaining what he thinks about sex education in the schools: "The greatest disaster of all is not AIDS, but the teacher who tells about how not to get AIDS. Do you understand what's going on? ... Is it possible that the Creator will leave the Jewish people in the hands of so-called ministers of education and female ministers of education and psychologists and Ph.Ds like these and professors like these? Is it possible that the Creator will leave your children in the hands of such soul twisters?"

None of this has stopped the government of Israel from providing Lev l'Ahim with solid economic support to the tune of millions of shekels over the years, largely through the "supports budget" of the Education Ministry. In 2000, the association submitted a request to the ministry for support in the amount of NIS 2.5 million. The amount that was approved, NIS 848,252, was transferred under the rubric of "cultural activities for Haredim." The association did not make do with the Education Ministry. In the same year it applied to the Health Ministry for support of NIS 500,000. The ministry authorized NIS 120,000 under the clause of "psychological first aid for the Haredi sector." The association also received NIS 10,000 that year from the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and NIS 25,000 from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. All told, state support to Lev l'Ahim in 2000 totaled just over NIS 1 million.

What is the connection between the association and the budget of the Health Ministry? The ministry's spokesman says that the money was allocated "for operating `Lev Shome'a' [listening heart] centers - mental first aid for the Haredi sector by telephone." He adds that "the organization's last request for financial support was in 2000." That information is not consistent with the data that appear on the Web site of the Finance Ministry, which details the list of requests for budgetary assistance. According to the Treasury, in 2002 Lev l'Ahim asked for support in the amount of half a million shekels from the Health Ministry and received NIS 142,000.

The bulk of the aid, though, came from the Education Ministry. In 2001, under the rubric "dissemination of Torah and Jewish heritage," the Education Ministry transferred NIS 746,642 to the association, followed by NIS 571,100 in 2002.

These generous grants incensed the Israel Religious Action Center of the Movement for Progressive Judaism (the Reform movement), which has been monitoring the association's activity with much concern. On July 9, 2002, the center's officials urgently contacted the legal adviser of the Education Ministry and showed her selected passages from the abusive remarks of Uri Zohar. They asked the legal adviser to examine the comments for possible incitement and demanded to know whether it was proper for the Education Ministry to support a group whose goal is to empty the state education system of its students. In reply, the legal adviser stated: "A harsh picture of incitement does in fact arise from a reading of the material, and this would appear to contradict the goals of the support from which the [association] benefits. A thorough review concerning the Education Ministry's support of the said association will be carried out in the coming days."

However, the review lasted well beyond the "coming days." The first excuse for the foot-dragging was that the intern who had been assigned to the case left and the file was transferred to someone else. Next, the Religious Action Center was dumbfounded to hear that the tape with the relevant quotations it had sent to the Education Ministry the previous summer had been lost.

A spokesman for the Education Ministry said this week that the director-general, Ronit Tirosh, had recently decided to stop all support for Lev l'Ahim. After listening to cassettes put out by the association, Tirosh sent a sharply worded letter to the director-general, Eliezer Sorotzkin, demanding that he "cease to stand behind content of this kind and stop making use of or disseminating the cassettes" as a condition to continue receiving support from the ministry. In the absence of a positive response, she decided to cut off the funding for the association.

The Religious Action Center has welcomed the decision, but says the Education Ministry should consider demanding that the money it transferred to the association in the past be returned, since the use that was made of it is not consistent with the goals for which it was given. An attorney for the center, Gilad Kariv, is convinced that the ministry's handling of the matter was influenced by the fact that Minister Limor Livnat is thinking about the next government, in which Haredim may again be key figures - in contrast to the present government - and is therefore in no hurry to clash with them.

If it turns out that the texts of Lev l'Ahim are within the law, I asked attorney Kariv, why shouldn't the Ministry of Education support a body that is sharply critical of the system - isn't that the essence of pluralism? "There is a big difference between criticizing and inciting," he replied. "Beyond this, can you imagine the opposite situation, in which the Education Ministry gives large-scale support to an association whose members go from door to door in Haredi neighborhoods and try to persuade children to stop being religious? And besides, on the assumption that the Education Ministry believes in the system it administers, what tools has it given school principals to cope with the phenomenon of children dropping out of the state system and attending Haredi institutions? While the ministry is financing those who are trying to tempt parents to remove their children from the education system, it is not making available budgets to its own officials to lure the children back. It is simply abandoning them."

The latest innovation in the marketing tactics of Lev l'Ahim is the use of celebrities from the secular world. Last year, Uri Zohar recorded conversations with actors Yehuda Barkan and Aki Avni and with the singer Ariel Zilber. This is what Avni, who was the anchor of this summer's hit television show, "Take Me, Sharon" - a "reality program" in which a woman chose a partner from a group of men - had to say about the role of the media in corrupting the souls of the country's children: "I think the media today is playing an important part in the fact that culture is so poor and meager and contemptible. ...I think that above all the media has to take responsibility as a body that shapes the national mood and the national resilience and the national culture. It's out of the question to legitimize the sensational and the gossipy, and it's out of the question to legitimize [these things] in order to sell another paper and make another million shekels and another million dollars."

The latest version of the tapes, which have been distributed in the past few months, feature a few new celebrities: entertainer and mimic Tuvia Tsafir, actor Haim Topol, radio personality Jojo Aboutbul and singer Shlomo Bar. In the light of the fact that Tsafir was one of the signatories to a newspaper ad in support of the Meretz list (headed by former MK Yael Dayan) for the Tel Aviv City Council, and that Aboutbul was the anchor for the Shabbat radio program "Shirim ve'Sha'arim," which covered the day's soccer games, it's legitimate to ask what in the world they are doing on the Lev l'Ahim tapes.

Tuvia Tsafir was astounded to hear, this week, that he is the star of a cassette that tries to persuade secular parents to transfer their children to the Haredi educational system. "This is the first time I've heard about it," he said.

Does it bother you?

"Yes. I have been close to Uri [Zohar] for years. He asked me to talk with him on the program. As far as I remember, I told him that the majority of the religious audience is better educated and therefore responds to things more intelligently. I stand behind what I said, but under no circumstances did I intend to take part in any missionary campaign of getting people to become religious or anything like that. I don't want any part of that."

Have you ever heard of the Lev l'Ahim association?

"Lev l'Ahim? No, I've never heard of it, and certainly no one told me I was being recorded for a tape of theirs. I have to digest what you told me."

It turns out that the conversations with the celebrities were not recorded especially for the tapes but took place on Zohar's radio program. In some cases, those involved had no idea what the topic of the conversation would be, but simply accepted Zohar's invitation to be interviewed. Some of them also had no idea that the conversation would afterward be presented to secular parents as a recommendation to place their children in Lev l'Ahim institutions. This gap in intentions is apparent in some of the tapes. Zohar tries to talk about education, while the celebrities generally make do with Yiddishkeit. Due to space considerations, the transcripts that follow are abridged.


Zohar: the last time we met, do you remember where it was?

Topol: Where?

Zohar: In very unpleasant circumstances, at the funeral of `Gandhi' [assassinated tourism minister Rehavam Ze'evi], of blessed memory. Haim, I'm sure that if `Gandhi' were alive I would have him here to talk about the subject that I also want to talk to you about, so first ...

Topol: And that subject is?

Zohar: The education of children. The nation of Israel - Reb Haim, how would you define the nation of Israel today in spiritual terms?

Topol: Far be it from me to define the nation of Israel, I can barely define myself, that's too big a subject for me.

Zohar: I'll tell you what I'm driving at. We live in this country, and I'm talking now about 35-40 years ago, when you had the Palmach [pre-state commandos] ideals for the Land of Israel, settling the land, the young people were filled with ideals, if we saw a kid wearing gabardines we shouted, `golden boys, go down to the Negev,' we were all imbued [with spirit], but today the situation is very bad from this point of view."

Topol: I also think we are making progress.

Zohar: Progress, Haim? Excuse me, but do you know what's happening in the schools, do you know what's happening with the country's youth, do you know what's going on in terms of violence? What are you talking about? Excuse me, you studied Torah, you learned the values of the Jewish people."

Topol: I studied Torah, I studied Talmud, I studied mishnayot.

Zohar: And I know you are still learning today, I know that you take Torah lessons. And I know that you have a very close and sympathetic and warm approach to the Torah and to the Jewish tradition. When I became religious, you were the only one of all my friends who congratulated me. I want to tell you this: no one in my life congratulated me with such joy and such warmth, and I haven't forgotten that to this day.

Topol: That's right. I also want to remind you what I told you. I told you - you remember, Uri - that until now you were in [the left-wing movement] Hashomer Hatza'ir, involved in communism, which is a passing doctrine that has vanished from the world, you were in citizens for Hershko, citizens for Rabin, and I told you that these were all passing doctrines. I want you to remember, Uri, that the tzizit [fringes or tassels on a ritual garment worn under one's clothes by male Jews] you wear and the tefillin [phylacteries] that you put on in the morning and the small tallit [the ritual garment to which the fringes are attached] that you wear - this is something that has been going on for 3,000 years already, and it has serious plans to exist for at least another 3,000 years.

Zohar: And it's succeeding, and this is exactly what I want to talk to you about. Maybe I'll read you a couple of headlines from today's papers: "Kids getting high by sniffing gas of air onditioners."

Topol: Yes, I read about that.

Zohar: More - Marijuana growers attending fourth grade in Upper Nazareth. A group of kids aged 9 to 11 with marijuana! Fifty percent of the children complain about beatings they received, vicious beatings in the schools, a party with Jesus - I'm reading you things - the police are examining a complaint that a music bar in the center of the city is trying to get minors to convert and setting dates for baptism ... I will tell you a basic assumption that I have ...

Topol: Yes.

Zohar: I'm not talking about Haredim now, I'm not talking about kippas of one color or another, I am talking about a certain foundation. The Jewish people, as you say, has survived for 3,000 years around the Torah culture, yet this is today something that is not seen and not heard in the state school system in Israel. This is what is causing the deterioration. We have to return to the values of Judaism. I want to talk about this point. Am I saying something real or not real, what do you say?

Topol: Look, I of course knew that we had to, I think it's important to study what you call the values of Judaism, it's important to study our basic books, [which show] why we are here, but I think that in addition we have to learn not to neglect the other things, I think it's important to study mathematics and I think it's important to study geography.

Zohar: Obviously. I am talking here, on this program, not about Torah studies or about Haredim, what I am saying is that today, thank God, there is a network of Torah culture, the whole regular education system plus the values of Judaism, that's what I'm asking you.

Topol: Terrific.

Zohar: That's what I want to talk to parents about. I say to them that if you don't give your children these values, which have been thrown into the wastebasket, there is no chance of raising these children in any sort of moral level, and you can see this in practice. Here's another headline: kids burning cats, principals don't survive, hatred of mathematics, no one learns anything because the schools have become a place of - I don't want to tell you - drugs, violence, boys and girls together, their head is somewhere else, in short it's a jungle. I tell you that if we don't inject into that system the values of Judaism that I am talking to you about, we don't have a chance. Do you agree on this point? Do you agree that we have to restore these values to the nation of Israel?

Topol: I told you from the outset that I think that these values don't have to be restored, we have to be sure that they exist, the illnesses are there and we all know it. Unfortunately, we all read about it in the paper."

Zohar: Haim, I agree with you. I'm not talking about illnesses here, I'm talking about whether there is a solution. What interests me is a solution, and we are here offering a practical solution, we have a system that combines regular education - the whole regular school - with the values of Judaism for the entire public.

Topol: I can only congratulate you for this, and I hope that other systems, too, will find the way to integrate values and moral messages for their students, because in the end it really is to our benefit.

Zohar: All the best, Haim, thanks from the bottom of my heart, shalom aleichem, so we have agreed, there's a consensus between Haim Topol and me, at least, that we have to return to the values of Judaism. Ladies and gentlemen, without this we don't have a chance - call 1-800-550-300.

Haim Topol wasn't entirely surprised this week to hear from this writer that he is the star of a cassette of the Lev l'Ahim association. He said that "someone already asked me about that not long ago."

Did you see the cassette?


Do you know anything about the activity of the Lev l'Ahim association?

"I have no idea what it is."

It's an association that encourages parents to transfer their children from the state education system to Haredi institutions. What do you say?

"I don't know. What I know is that half a year ago Uri Zohar, who is a good friend of mine, asked me to talk with him on a program that he presents, and I agreed. I usually say what I think, and that's what I did then, too, and as far as I remember there were some things I said that he wasn't necessarily happy to hear."

What do you think about the fact that this conversation is today part of a cassette that preaches to parents to make their children religious?

"The point is whether I said the things the way they appear on the cassette and whether what I said is being used as it was said. If so, I can't complain. I will not interfere with my friend Uri Zohar using what I said."


Uri Zohar concluded his talk with Jojo Aboutbul by stating: "Want to find freedom? Call 1-800-550-300." Like others, Aboutbul knew nothing about the use that would be made of the light conversation he held with Zohar about education matters and love of Israel. Aboutbul, this week: "I am popular in the Haredi and religious world, so occasionally I am invited to appear [there]. I was on with Aryeh Deri, Uri Zohar. They want to hear my angle - period, without any connection to anything, and I agree and come to the conversation out of respect."

Did you know that the conversation was being recorded and would be used on a cassette?

"No way. That's news to me. Now that you're talking with me, I connect it with a listener on one of my Israel Radio programs who started to ask me whether I'm not ashamed, why I am preaching to people to get religion, when I smoke and drive on Shabbat. I thought he was some weirdo, but now I understand what happened."

And what do you think about it?

"Look, I respect every person as a person, but what they're doing here is unfair. The appropriate term is false pretenses. I have no problem with them getting people to become religious, and if he had said he wanted to make use of the conversation with me, I might have agreed, but to use it without first talking to me is unfair. It doesn't jive with the Torah that they represent. You can try to persuade me tomorrow to become a Muslim or a Buddhist, terrific, but don't cheat me. And what they did here is a fraud."


Haim Fuchs, the spokesman of Lev l'Ahim, says that the association has no connection with the cassettes in question: "We don't produce or deal with these cassettes. There are all kinds of private bodies that deal with things like that. It's the initiative of other people."

What do you say to the fact that the association's phone number is embossed on the cassettes, that the director-general of the association participates in them and that a broadcaster states over and over that the material is being presented in the name of Lev l'Ahim?

"I'll tell you the truth, I haven't even heard the cassettes you're talking about. Since when is it ours? I suggest that you talk to whoever produced it."

Who is that?

"I don't have a clue."

Do you have a clue about how to get a hold of Rabbi Uri Zohar? He's not replying to messages.

"I don't know. He's a private individual. Maybe he's busy. Maybe he's abroad."

Is he connected with Lev l'Ahim?

"He is one of our volunteers and he definitely has a special importance. It's certainly true that we did broadcasts on the radio with his participation. We have to reach the public - after all, Haaretz won't publish ads about our educational institutions. We are determined to save the people of Israel. Our mission is to fight against what is going on in the [state] education system and to bring the people of Israel back to Jewish and Torah education."

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