It was just a passing comment but it had a profound effect on my life and is now the driving force of what we are trying to achieve with Mizrachi UK.
It was August, in the mid 90’s (the year, not the temperature) and at that stage of my life I was involved every summer in directing the Jerusalem Fellowships of Aish Ha Torah. The idea was very simple, to take students to Israel and to inspire them with exposure to dynamic speakers and experiences. I loved those summers and it was a natural continuation of the work I had done over the years, as a madrich in Bnei Akiva, a student at Leeds and as the Education head of UJS.
So what was the comment? It was said during Ellul Zman just before another year of University while I was learning in Yeshivat HaKotel (my alma mater). It was one evening, either during or shortly after the fellowships and I walked into the Bet Midrash and passed a shtender where Rav Bina, my Rav, was learning. As I passed him, he stopped me and said just six words to me. Those six words didn’t at the time mean that much to me, but as I said above, is what is driving Mizrachi UK. The six words he said were ‘what we need is white kiruv’.
Let me explain. The concept of kiruv, or outreach to non-religious Jews was born post 1967 and really championed in the early days by Chabad. By the early 1970’s the two giants of Aish HaTorah and Ohr Sameach were founded and grew rapidly. So by the time the 1990’s came about the outreach world was vast and growing. Rav Bina’s point back then was simply pointing out the link between Aish HaTorah, Ohr Sameach and Chabad – that they were all Charedi organisations. Why was it that the Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist world (the ‘white’ world) was not involved in the same way? I was, and still am, in awe of the efforts and the passion of the Charedi world to reach out and inspire world Jewry but Rav Bina’s words, to get the Modern Orthodox world involved in outreach, still drive me and I will explain why, with an amazing Ibn Ezra on the Parsha.
It puzzles many people that Moshe, the greatest man who ever lived, the leader of the Jewish people did not grow up in the Jewish community. He was raised in the palace of Pharaoh. The Ibn Ezra powerfully says that the reason that Moshe was brought by Divine Plan to grow up in the palace was to allow him to be the future leader of the Jewish people, as he was raised in a place of royalty and power rather than in a place of slavery and submission.
What the Ibn Ezra is saying is that Moshe’s ability to lead was precisely because he was raised in the Palace and was able to have the confidence to be a leader that he would not have had, had he been raised as a slave.
He gives the example of Moshe killing the Egyptian for an act of injustice that the latter perpetrated. As Rav Frand explains ‘A slave, who is always downtrodden and spat upon, would not have the forcefulness and the gumption to protest injustice and to personally punish the perpetrator. There is no way we could imagine someone with a slave’s mentality doing such a thing. On the other hand, someone brought up in the house of the king, believing he is a prince, automatically possesses a certain aura and confidence that allows him to intervene in situations that people with less self-esteem would certainly avoid’.
The same reason is given by the Ibn Ezra on Moshe intervention with Yitro’s daughters. He grew up in a house of authority and leadership and therefore had the courage and the assertiveness to take charge and administer justice wherever justice needs to be administered. These leadership abilities were much more easily nurtured in the palace of the king than in a house of slaves.
The strength (and weakness) of the Modern Orthodox world is that we grew up in the western world, went to universities and were a part of the wider culture – whether that was art, music, sports, films or literature. It gives us a remarkable ability to relate to the wider Jewish world.
I discovered this at University where my friends were fascinated with me and my fellow Bnei Akiva chevra. The fact that we were on the same courses as them, dressed like them, supported sports teams like them but yet went to shul three times a day, kept Shabbat and learnt Torah regularly was remarkable. For many it was an amazing introduction to Judaism, as they realised there was not a need to give up everything they were to live a more observant lifestyle. Many students grew in their Judaism, some became observant, some even became Rabbis! Whether we liked it or not, we were fully involved in ‘white Kiruv’.
Rav Bina’s words are being realised by Mizrachi UK who are looking to produce leaders of the Jewish people and we believe that they need to come from those raised in the Western world but connected to the eternal world of Torah. The potential of creating leaders from that pool of our community is very exciting and very crucial. We already have two couples studying for semicha and more will be joining them out this Ellul.
However, it is not just those who are becoming educators and teachers that we need. We need all of us who have the ability to inspire the Jewish and wider world around us by simply being a Kiddush Hashem and demonstrating that a committed Torah lifestyle combined with western living is certainly not a compromise but is exactly what we need to increase in the Jewish world to make sure today’s generation are not lost. They need that vision. As Rabbi Sacks says ‘The challenge of our time is to go out to Jews with a Judaism that relates to the world – their world – with intellectual integrity, ethical passion and spiritual power, a Judaism neither intimidated by the world nor dismissive of it, a Judaism fully expressive of the broad horizons and high ideals of our heritage. There is no contradiction, not even a conflict, between contributing to humanity and affirming our distinctive identity’.
So Rav Bina and Rabbi Sacks – Challenge accepted.
Rabbi Andrew Shaw