The passing of Rabbi Menachem Porush in Jerusalem on Sunday night brought to mind many memories of my childhood. He was a close friend and working colleague of my father, Simcha Unsdorfer, z”l, who served as secretary general of British Agudah.
Always impeccably dressed in kapota and cufflinks, Rabbi Porush had an almost regal bearing and was a frequent visitor to our London home.
I particularly remember him being with us in the week before the start of the Six-Day War in 1967. I recall him sitting with my father watching the somber news bulletins on our black and white TV. A map with three thick black arrows was on the screen, each arrow representing a massive Arab army pointed toward the tiny sliver of Eretz Yisrael.
I watched as my father, an Auschwitz survivor, became ever more stressed with each bulletin. In contrast, Rabbi Porush’s measured tones and kindly features exuded a reassuring calm that was rooted in a belief system greater and stronger than is the case for most people.
The sad news of his petirah also reminded me of a piece I had written for The Jewish Press some years ago. Titled “Joseph – The Second Betrayal,” it was about the preservation of Jewish rights of access to our patriarchal burial sites. The following extract is particularly apt to reprint as a tribute to the life and work of Reb Menachem of blessed memory:
It was during the summer of 1995 that a fateful encounter took place in the Knesset, outside the office of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Rabin’s government was putting the final touches on the second Oslo agreement that was to hand over a further tranche of West Bank towns to the new Palestinian Authority. This included Bethlehem, site of Rachel’s Tomb, at which Jews have prayed for thousands of years. National Religious Party member Hanan Porat realized that the tomb was slated to fall into “Area A,” that is, under full Arab civil and military control. He decided he must speak with Rabin and try to change his mind.
Another MK, Jewish Press columnist Rabbi Menachem Porush, happened to walk by and saw his friend standing outside the prime minister’s office carrying a large aerial photograph of the tomb compound and the Bethlehem-Gilo border.
“What are you doing here?” asked Porush.
“I have come to lobby for Rachel’s Tomb,” Porat responded.
Porush asked if he could join him at the meeting and Porat agreed.
For the greater part of the meeting, Porush sat in silence. He listened to Porat, who drew lines on the aerial photograph and illustrated how short was the distance and shooting range between Gilo and Bethlehem. Porat also asked Rabin if he would be willing to give the Palestinians the grave of Ben Gurion or that of his Palmach commander, Yigal Allon.
Rabin was preparing to respond when Porush stood up and embraced him. Addressing him as “Reb Yitzchak,” Porush tearfully beseeched him not to give up Rachel’s Tomb.
“It was beyond words,” Porat recalled in a later interview. “Reb Menachem sobbed, crying real tears onto the prime minister’s shirt. Rabin begged him, ‘Reb Menachem, please calm down.’ Reb Menachem retorted: ‘How can I calm down? You are planning to give away Mama Ruchi’s grave. The Jewish people will never forgive you if you abandon Mama’s tomb.’ ”
Rabin relented and promised the two Knesset members that he would re-examine the issue. Just a few days later, the 463 meters separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem were restored to their “Area C” status under complete Israel security and civil control. The Palestinians agreed to be compensated with other territories.
On the last morning of Reb Menachem’s life, the usual Sunday cabinet meeting took place in Jerusalem. On the agenda: a discussion and vote on a proposal to provide government funding to specially designated sites of Jewish heritage. Reb Menachem would have been delighted and touched to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu add Kever Rachel to the list.
Some would call it a happy coincidence; others an irony. But sooner or later most Jews come to realize there are no coincidences in the Land of Israel. This was a parting gift to a remarkable human being – a rabbi who devoted his life to the defense of Torah and the upholding of a plethora of educational institutions and charitable causes.