While Makor Chaim became well known outside of Israel in 2014 when two of its students – Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel – were kidnapped and murdered, here in Israel it has been known as an educational powerhouse since 1984.
Founded by Rabbi Adin (Steinsaltz) Even-Israel and Rabbi Dov Singer, Makor Chaim has been at the forefront of a new movement sometimes referred to as Neo-Chassidut, but locally more aptly called “Chassidut Eretz Yisrael.”
For more than a decade, Makor Chaim’s Jewish Renewal Center has been holding an annual mass “Great Tefillah Conference” just before the High Holidays. This year, due to corona limitations, the entire conference will take place over the Internet.
To learn more about Makor Chaim, The Jewish Press recently spoke with Yossi Baumol, Makor Chaim’s director of development.
The Jewish Press: Some people say Makor Chaim has added a dimension of chassidut to Religious Zionism. What are your thoughts?
Baumol: In a way, that’s correct. We found that many yeshiva students in the world of Religious Zionism were looking for something more personal. Rav Kook has a deep, inner chassidic side, but that part of his teachings wasn’t always studied.
In addition, Rav Kook is more oriented to national development and historical progress while today’s students are also interested in looking inward towards their own spiritual development, for a pathway to the heart, to greater individual expression and joy.
What’s the purpose of this week’s prayer conference?
To get people to stop for a moment and prepare their heart. Just like a rock star tunes his guitar before he goes on stage, so too we all need to tune our hearts before Rosh Hashanah.
Sunday marked the shloshim of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. What did the yeshiva do in honor of the day?
The prayer conference this year is dedicated in his memory. In addition, in a symbolic attempt to mirror Rav Adin’s monumental work, hundreds of us joined together to study the entire Tanach, Mishnah, Talmud, Rambam, Zohar, and Tanya in time for the shloshim.
Every day here is a tribute to his memory! For example, every year a number of our high school students finish the entire Talmud. Just last week, we were honored by the presence of Rabbi Reuven Taragin and Rebbitzen Shani Taragin who came to participate in the siyum haShas of their son Shmuel, who is starting his senior year.
Our students who finish Shas are not square academics. Shmuel, for example provided musical accompaniment on Rav Dov Singer’s U.S. book tour earlier this year for his popular Prepare My Prayer.
Not every rabbi undertakes a book tour. What was it like?
I set out to America with Rav Dov in mid-February on his spiritual odyssey aimed at lifting prayer out of its formal framework and transforming it into an intimate personal revelation. Our first stop was Boca Raton where Rav Dov held a nighttime hitbodedut [Jewish meditation] session.
Then, at the opening session of the Yeshiva University Yarchei Kallah Conference, Rav Singer told 100 rabbis from all over America: “We tend to treat Hashem like an elderly parent we send to a nursing home. In essence, we tell Him, ‘Don’t come into our home. It’s crowded, noisy. The children may bother you. We have the perfect place for you: a grand, beautiful synagogue. We’ll even come visit you every day – three times a day. Just don’t come into our home.’”
Little did we know that within a matter of weeks, our houses of worship would all close down because of corona, causing us all to look at prayer in a new light.
You’ve had a long, successful career working with some of the key figures of Religious Zionism. You didn’t grow up Religious Zionist, though, correct?
I grew up in Brooklyn with Holocaust survivor parents, attended more yeshivish schools, including a brief stint in Lakewood. But I was always sensitive to the parts of the Torah they weren’t teaching us – mainly about our communal responsibilities. These include the need for social action; “all of Israel is responsible for each other”; being a light unto the nations; and especially the wholeness of Torat Eretz Yisrael.
As a teenager, I was active with the Soviet Jewry movement and pro-Israel activities, but they felt out of sync with my traditional “charedi-ish” religious education.
The apparent contradictions between these values disappeared when I studied Rav Kook and found my place in Israel’s Religious Zionist community. I found that Eretz Yisrael heals us and makes us whole – both individually and nationally.
Since we’re in Elul, can you give us a glimpse of a “Makor Chaim” perspective on preparing for the Days of Awe?
“Teshuvah” means return, and the predicted return to Eretz Yisrael is part and parcel of the concept of repentance. Read verses 1-10 of chapter 30 of this week’s parshah carefully. It’s all there: waves of aliyah to Israel, an unprecedented spread of Torah study, settlement of the Land, agricultural blessings, military success, and economic prosperity. All the stages we are living through are detailed there as part of teshuvah!
Concurrently, there is another theme that pops up again and again in this week’s parshah: the “return to the heart.” The Abarbanel [Yeshuot Meshicho, p. 40] lists 10 parameters of redemption based mainly on these verses. Number six is the return of prophecy.
How do we draw down prophecy? Maimonides [Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 7] states that groups of people would rejoice together, meditating, playing instruments, singing in a good-hearted fashion, and engaging in hitbodedut in the hope of expanding their inspiration to the level of prophecy.
We are not there just yet, but I see the Neo-Chassidic revolution we are leading as a harbinger of the next stage of redemption. It is time to work on our own personal, emotional connection to Hashem – in our schools, in our synagogues, in our families, and in our own souls.