Latest update: May 14th, 2012
During the two years that I was running the Volunteers for Israel (Sarel) project in New York, my connection with The Jewish Press continued via articles that I would write about the campaign and publicity events that The Press would sponsor. I learned a lot about the power of creative journalism from Yehuda Schwartz, the newspaper’s dynamic managing editor, who was gung-ho on the project and gave the recruitment drive a tremendous push in America. When my savings ran out, Meir Indor spoke to a Betarnik friend of his in Israel, who spoke to a Betar buddy who was the Israeli shaliach running the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency in Manhattan, and I was offered a job at the Israel Aliyah Center, working in public relations. They figured that since I was sending so many people to Israel on the volunteer program, it would look better for them if I was doing it from their Park Avenue office – with the stipulation that I work on the ongoing volunteer drive only after my regular Sachnut hours. In addition to the Israelis who Indor sent over to help with the volunteer drive (like Baruch Marzal and Zangy who is now directing the Honenu organization), working out of the Jewish Agency, I met a lot of Israeli shalichim on their visits to America. In that manner, I got to know a lot of people even before I came on aliyah – especially a group of a dozen shalichim from the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva and Gush Emunim who came to America to recruit families for the settlements, including Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, Rabbi Benny Elon, Yaacov Sternberg, Yechiel Leiter, Yigal Kutai, and Era Rappaport, the “mayor” of Shilo.
One evening I went to visit Era in the house he was staying at in Queens. I discovered his wife, Orit, crying in the living room.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“Haven’t you heard?” she sobbed.
“There’s an arrest warrant out for Era in Israel,” she said. “The Shabak thinks that he’s part of the Jewish Underground.”
To take readers back in time, before the first Intifada, the Arabs were already making life hell for the settlers of Judea and Samaria, throwing stones and molotov cocktails at settler cars and firing at them like ducks in a shooting gallery. When the government of Israel did nothing to quell the unrest, a group of concerned and passionate settlers got together to protect their lives and families. Clandestinely, they planned a series of attacks on key Arab targets, and succeeded in planting a car bomb which blew the legs off the mayor of Shechem who had vowed to dance on Jewish graves in chasing the Jews out of the Land. The Shabak (Israeli Shin Bet Security Agency) believed that Era was involved in that attack. When a plan aimed at the Temple Mount was foiled, a dozen settlers, who became known as the “Jewish Underground,” were arrested in thrown into prison. Now the police were looking for Era Rappaport, who was attending to his dying mother in New York, and helping to bring families to Israel, and who couldn’t be extradited because of his American citizenship.
Once again, to make a long story short, Era showed up that night around two in the morning. He held a small note in his hand from Rabbi Moshe Tendler, who he had just visiting in Monsey. Rabbi Tendler had written the “chevre” of the Underground a sort of vague “haskama” saying that when someone comes to kill you, Jewish law allows you to rise up and kill him first.
“It isn’t much, but it’s all we have,” Era said.
“Why don’t I write it up into a serious letter?” I offered.
“That’s a good idea,” he said. “Tomorrow morning, we can take it to the The Jewish Press and get it printed.”
So I wrote a serious piece out of the three-sentence note, and we drove into Brooklyn first thing in the morning. Era also knew Rabbi Klass and Yehuda Schwartz very well, and the two newspaper chiefs, who were always ready to help Israel, welcomed us happily into their offices.
To tell the truth, I forget whether it was Rabbi Klass or Yehuda Schwartz who said it, but both of them agreed:
“I’m putting Fishman in charge of the front page of the newspaper!” one of them declared after Era had finished telling the story. “As long as the Jewish Underground is in jail, every week I want Fishman to write our lead story. This is a total injustice! These people are heroes! Rabbi Tendler’s letter is front page news!”
When the meeting was finished, I stopped Era in the corridor.
“Listen Era,” I said. “I’d like to help out but I have a ticket to make aliyah this week.”
“No problem,” the bigger-than-life idealist said without batting an eye. “You go to Israel. That’s more important than this is. Anyway, you can send in your stories from there. I’ll call Israel today and tell them you’re on the way.”
I wrote up the story about the Underground with Rabbi Tendler’s accompanying letter and left it with Arnie Fine. A few days later, I flew off to Israel. When I arrived in Yerushalayim, I dropped off my bags with a friend in the Hapalmach neighborhood and headed for the Kotel to thank G-d for the unsurpassable kindness He had done for me in bringing me home to Israel. On the way, I passed the house of Yitzhak Shamir who was Prime Minister at the time. Across the street there was a small demonstration. Walking over, I inquired what was going on. One of the protestors was holding a copy of that week’s Jewish Press with the front page article that I had written. He said his name was Ephraim Levinger and that his father, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, had been arrested under suspicion of involvement with the Jewish Underground. When I told him that I had written the front page newspaper story, his eyes lit up.
“Fantastic!” he said. “Hurry to the Russian Compound prison now! There’s a big demonstration there going on now demanding the release of my father and all the Underground prisoners.”
So I hurried downtown and made my way up the small incline to the old, barb-wire enclosed building that housed the Jerusalem police headquarters and the local prison, where Rabbi Levinger was being held. Suddenly, Meir Indor ran up to me holding a copy of The Jewish Press in his hand.
“It’s great that you’re here!” he exclaimed, handing me the newspaper. “We’ll squeeze you in between Yosef Mendelevitch and Rebbetzin Levinger. Get up on the roof of my Volkswagon and read the letter as the special shaliach of Rabbi Tendler to the demonstration on behalf of the ‘Machteret.”
“Machteret” meant an illegal underground group. It was one of the few Hebrew words that I knew. Ever since the volunteer program had taken me out of my Hebrew ulpan, I had stopped learning the language, picking up expressions here and there from all the Israelis I had been working with in New York.
I looked toward the place where Indor was pointing. Yosef Mendelevitch, a famous Prisoner of Zion who had spent 11 years in a Soviet prison for trying to hijack an airplane to Israel, was speaking into a bullhorn while standing on the roof of Indor’s dilapidated VW beetle. Behind the large crowd were photographers and TV cameramen from around the world. Up on the roof of the prison, police photographers stood snapping pictures.
“Gevalt!’ I thought to myself. “My very first day in Israel, and my mother would turn on the TV in America and see her son making a protest speech against the Israeli government on behalf of the Jewish Underground!”
Before I could bolt, Indor introduced me to the crowd as the special shaliach of Rabbi Tendler who had just this minute arrived in Israel with the Rabbi’s letter giving halachic sanction to the activities of the arrested prisoners. Hands lifted me up to the roof of the car. Holding the bullhorn, I read out the letter in a loud angry voice, just like Yosf Mendelevitch (now my good friend and weekly hevruta) had spoken before me. The letter (which I myself had liberally expanded upon) was in English, and I don’t know how much of it the crowd understood, but everyone applauded again and again.
“Uh oh,” I thought. “My mother’s going to plutz!”
That was my first day in the Holy Land. For the next few months, I kept sending front-page stories into The Jewish Press as the trial progressed. I still have them in a box in a closet. Rabbi Levinger was released, but the other fellows were charged with serious crimes and given long jail sentences. Little did I know that I’d soon be working once again with Rabbi Yehuda Hazani on a nationwide campaign which he initiated to free them from jail.
Rather than remaining free in America where the Israelis couldn’t touch him, Era Rappaport flew back to Israel to be with his friends. The police were waiting for him at the Ben Gurion Airport when he got off the plane.
“Why’d you come back to Israel?” a reporter asked him.
(I think a reporter asked him – or maybe I just made it up for the story I wrote for The Jewish Press.)
“As a Jew, I’d rather sit in a prison in Israel than be a free man in America!” was what he answered.
Anyway, that’s what I wrote that he said.
Because I believe that it’s true.
About the Author: Tzvi Fishman was awarded the Israel Ministry of Education Prize for Creativity and Jewish Culture for his novel "Tevye in the Promised Land." A wide selection of his books are available at Amazon. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Jewish Press
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