Photo Credit: Tzvi Fishman
Baruch Gordon and Ketzalah

Baruch Gordon is the founder of Arutz 7’s English website and the director of development of Bet El Institutions and the IDF Preparatory Academy in Beit El. I began interviewing him recently in a small park near my home in Jerusalem, but after just a few minutes, he had to leave on a fundraising trip to America along with Ya’akov “Ketzaleh” Katz, head of the National Union party from 2008-2012 and one of the founders of the settlement of Beit El and Arutz 7.

Our conversation continued after they landed with Baruch telling me, “I love The Jewish Press. It’s a great newspaper. Forty years ago it helped me get involved with Judaism. Especially the columns of Rabbi Kahane, Hy”d.”

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The Jewish Press: Can you share more? Where did you grow up?

Gordon: I grew up in Memphis, the hometown of Elvis. My parents instilled in me a love for Israel and a pride in being Jewish. I dreamed of visiting Eretz Yisrael, and when I came to Israel with Camp Ramah in 11th grade, it was clear to me that I would return.

In college, I heard Rabbi Meir Kahane speak. Inspired by his blend of fierce passion for Judaism and his intellectual sharpness, I read a few of his books and found myself enraptured by his love of Torah and Israel. When I came to Israel for a year at Hebrew University, I hooked up with his movement.

After a month, Rabbi Kahane advised me to switch to a yeshiva, so I moved over to Machon Meir and had my first encounter with the incredible teachings of Rav Kook. As the evacuation of Yamit approached [in 1982], I joined a group of friends who decided to head down south and join followers of Rabbi Kahane in his famous “bunker.”

I lived there for about a month. The leaders of our group let it be known that we would all commit suicide rather than let ourselves be ousted from a Jewish community in the Jewish homeland. We had cemented the doors shut, so the army had to use a huge bulldozer, equipped with something that looked like a giant jack-hammer, to smash down the walls.

When the hour came, there was a big struggle and balagan. A soldier tackled me, joined his hands together like a massive fist, and crashed his two hands down on my face. I was carried out by a bunch of soldiers. At that moment, I realized that Yamit was lost and that I was going to return to a more peaceful life back in yeshiva.

What led you to Beit El?

After two years in Machon Meir, I married, and Beit El seemed like a new and dynamic place to live. At the time, there were only about 50 families there – now there are 1,300 – and Rabbi Zalman Melamed’s Beit El yeshiva was the center of the very scholarly community. My wife and I felt like we were literally rebuilding the Beit El of Biblical times.

I learned there for 10 years and taught English-speaking students from South Africa and the United States in a foreign-students program that was eventually shut down because most of the guys wanted to stay in Israel and their parents complained.

In 1990, two years after Yaakov “Ketzaleh” Katz started the right-wing radio ship, “Eretz HaTzvi,” in offshore waters in the Mediterranean Sea – the only way a non-government-licensed radio station [Arutz 7] could operate in Israel – he asked me to begin broadcasting in English for three hours a week. I had a music show with songs from Elvis to Avraham Fried.

I’m surprised you didn’t get fired.

Fortunately, outside of Ketzaleh who was busy all the time, the Arutz 7 management didn’t know English. They never listened to our shows.

How was Arutz 7’s website born?

In 1995, Ketzaleh returned from a fundraising trip to America and said there’s a new thing called the Internet. He asked me to learn about the medium, meet with some Internet experts, and launch a Beit El based news website into cyberspace. Believe me, it was a revolution!

We began as the Hebrew Arutz 7 and expanded to IsraelNationalNews.com, the English site I ran for about 14 years. Today we receive approximately 1.5 million unique visitors per month.

You’re the director of development of the IDF Preparatory Academy in Beit El. What distinguishes this academy from other pre-army mechinot programs?

First of all, the guys who learn with us go through a mind-blowing transformation – from mostly Sephardic and Yemenite ‘I-don’t-care-about-anything’ kids from poor and underprivileged communities and fractured homes to top soldiers and commanders in elite IDF units.

They come to us with zero motivation to be in the army, and they end up giving much more than most. The change is mamash fantastic. In fact, the IDF sent a team of top people in their education division to discover our secret.

What is it?

Ahavah. Lots and lots of love. And after that, more ahavah. We tell the kids: What’s past is past. You are great people. You’re talented, each in his own way, with a lot to contribute, every person in his own unique fashion, to friends, to the country, and to the army. We inject them with a shot of self-confidence.

We don’t try to change anyone, but rather help them shed the heavy baggage they have been carrying all their lives and make a fresh start by providing a trusting atmosphere in which they can develop on their own, discovering their hidden strengths and positive qualities.

Meeting our faculty and staff is their first encounter with adults who care about them and believe in their inherent goodness and potential. From sleeping in the parks near their neighborhoods, they turn into youth leaders in their communities.

Presently, we are building a new, $16 million campus.

What has fundraising been like during the pandemic?

I am happy to report that we’ve been raking it in! Thank the good L-rd – and the generosity of the Jewish people.

Because of the virus, shlichim from Israel simply haven’t been coming, so when Ketzaleh and I show up, donors are excited to see chevra from the Holy Land. They want to talk to us for hours. Many want to speak about aliyah. Some have already packed up their bags and finally taken the big plunge.

Of course, it helps to have Ketzaleh with me when I make a pitch. He’s larger than life. People are awed by his magnetic personality. In the Yom Kippur War, one of his legs was almost blown off. When he places his cane on someone’s desk or coffee table and says, “I gave one of my legs for Israel – what are you prepared to give?” not many people can turn him down. He says it with a big loving grin that wins everyone over.

* * * * *

In the middle of our conversation, Baruch announces that Ketzaleh has arrived and asks me if I want to speak with him. How could I say no?

The Jewish Press: What’s the current situation in Yesha? Is there any building going on?

Ketzaleh: Building is continuing, baruch Hashem, although not as much as in previous years. It’s continuing, not because of Bibi, but in spite of him.

Almost every other Israeli government has put more facts on the ground than Netanyahu has, which shows that Yesha is really not a top priority for him. To his way of thinking, if Israel has to make a peace agreement by chopping up Judea and Samaria and evacuating settlements, he doesn’t want a million people living there.

So he freezes further building and only approves a project when election time nears and he needs our votes. In comparison, when I was Senior Advisor to Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, we constructed 60,000 units in Yesha within two years.

Last year, only two percent of the country’s housing starts were in Judea and Samaria even though the demand is 50 times that amount! Nonetheless, in the past decade, the Yesha population has increased from 300,000 to 500,000. There are another 350,000 holy Jews in the liberated areas of Jerusalem.

You led the National Union Party for four years before resuming your activities on behalf of Beit El. Any chance of your returning to the Knesset?

Not at this point. Everyone and his brother thinks he’s already the prime minister and that everyone else is completely incompetent. Right now, to safeguard the settlement enterprise and keep the wholeness and integrity of the Land of Israel intact for our children, we have to concentrate on more and more building, through constant lobbying and pressure and by individual initiative.

And that’s what we’re doing in Beit El – another dormitory, another educational campus, another neighborhood. We are busy holding down the fort, sometimes at great sacrifice and expense, but we are happy to have the privilege and unsurpassable blessing of continuing the work of our forefathers.

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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. His recent movie "Stories of Rebbe Nachman" The DVD of the movie is available online.