In those days, the newspaper was run by the Gaon, Rabbi Shalom Klass, of blessed memory. He was a fiery, passionate lover of Torah, the Jewish People, and the Land of Israel. His son-in-law, the energetic Rabbi Yehuda Schwartz, was the managing editor, and Arnie Fine put everything together and got the papers out on the street from his small kingdom downstairs in the boiler room.
Entering the fortress-like building, the security guard directed me to an upper floor where the volunteer project was headquartered. The large room was deserted and a dozen telephones were insistently ringing on all the desks. Quickly, I began answering the calls and writing down the names and numbers of the people who were calling to volunteer to help Israel in its time of war. Not knowing what to tell them, I promised that someone would call them back soon. After several hours of frantic activity manning the phones all alone, Rabbi Hazani and Meir Indor appeared in the room and asked who I was. Rabbi Yehuda, on his first trip to America, didn’t talk in English. He absorbed things quietly, like a true talmid chacham, tying to figure out the nature of this strange beast called America. He let Indor do all the talking.
After surviving an interrogation that reminded me of Mossad stories that I had read, they left me with the ringing phones while they hurried off to a side room to watch the news on TV. How Rabbi Hazani cheered when Israeli jets appeared on the screen, dropping their bombs on Beirut. And how his whole body collapsed when the anchorman reported that there had been Israeli casualties in the fighting outside of the city. “Now this was a Rabbi!” I thought to myself, weaned all my life on action movies and heroes with giant Technicolor emotions. Instinctively I sensed that he could be my spiritual mentor and guide.
As Shalom Aleichem would say, “b’kitzor,” to make a long story short, I kept answering the telephones for the first two years of the program. Having saved up some money from my novel and screenplay sales, I had free time to donate to the Israel recruitment drive. Before I knew it, Hazani and Indor made me the U.S. program director. Week after week, I sat with Rabbi Klass in his spacious office as he threw the full influence and weight of The Jewish Press behind the emergency campaign. When the time came for the first charter plane to fly off to Israel filled with volunteers, Rabbi Hazani asked me to cancel my ticket and continuing running things in New York, including arranging for added publicity, dealing with El Al, and convincing all the nervous volunteers that things were completely organized in Israel – which of course they weren’t at all. Rabbi Hazani and Indor returned to Israel to make sure somebody was at least waiting at the Ben Gurion Airport when the first contingent of Americans arrived. It turned out that Indor brought along a few of his kids as a welcoming committee and gave bouquets of flowers to some girl soldiers he found outside the terminal building, hustling them inside to greet the newcomers. He himself played “Hava Nagila” on his small plastic flute. While the first enthusiastic group was sent off to moshavim in the Golan, Indor’s ingenious plan was to send subsequent planeloads to work in army bases around the country, sensing that the quickest way to de-Americanize the Americans and make them feel like Israelis was to get them into green Tzahal uniforms and let them take pictures standing alongside real Israeli soldiers with guns.
So I spent the greater part of that first summer working 20 hours a day at The Jewish Press, often sleeping on a mattress in the office so that I could call Israel in the wee hours of the morning to receive the constant barrage of instructions that Hazani and Indor kept sending on how to create more publicity for the project. It was truly an adventure. For me, it was an accelerated course on how to be an Israeli without passing go. I could write a book about the tumult we created, trying to get the tired and rusty wheels of the Jewish Agency into action. In six months we succeeded in sending more Jews to Israel than the Sachnut had sent in the past several years. The two unpredictable Gush Emunim activists from Jerusalem got the Jewish Agency careerists so fatumult, the slow-motion bureaucrats went so far as to kick Rabbi Hazani and Indor out of the fancy Park Avenue building on their next trip to Manhattan. Not having arranged for a place to stay during their two-week visit, they crashed out in my studio apartment in Gramercy Park. Finally, after two years running the show in New York, I couldn’t stand being in America any longer.