There are places in Israel where you can’t take three steps back without bumping into a yeshiva – Bnei Brak, for example. And then there are places like Tel Aviv, where yeshivas are few and far between. But like with many things, it isn’t the quantity but the quality that matters.
Yeshivat Lev Tel Aviv is, as its name suggests, in the heart of Tel Aviv. A hesder yeshiva, and just a two-minute walk from either Rabin Square or Dizengoff Street, it was created thirteen years ago as an extension of Aish HaTorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Nine years ago, after Rav Noach Weinberg ztz”l, the founder of Aish HaTorah, was niftar, it was transplanted to Tel Aviv as Yeshivat Lev Tel Aviv. Once a week, Rabbi Yehuda Weinberg, Rabbi Weinberg’s son, gives a class.
Rav Noach saw the kippah sruga community as ideal kiruv representatives as they serve in the army, participate in the work force and are in natural contact with the secular community.
The yeshiva’s full name is Shir Neriya, in memory of Neriya HaCohen Yehonatan Hy”d, one of the eight students murdered by a terrorist at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva on Rosh Chodesh Adar 2008. It’s located on a small, quiet street and uses some of the space in the Tiferet Tzvi synagogue.
Its rosh yeshiva is Rav Nir Yaakov Mass, 45, who used to be the right-hand man of the rosh yeshiva at Machon Meir. He has been at Lev Tel Aviv for eight years. The yeshiva only has a few students (about 40) but they, like the yeshiva, are all heart. One of the students, Yishai David Tordjman, says, “It’s amazing what such a small yeshiva in such a big city can do (besides the zechut of learning Torah).”
He has lots of stories.
He once went to the maternity ward at Ichilov Hospital on Rosh Hashanah to blow shofar for the new mothers and their new babies. One of the mothers got so emotional, she cried. She had been afraid she would miss hearing the shofar. She asked his name and when he told her it was Yishai David, she said she would name her new baby boy after him.
The students also go out to the Tayelet, the boardwalk by the beach, on Rosh Hashanah. There, they once bumped into a Jewish man who had made aliyah from the Ukraine. They asked him if he wanted to hear shofar. He told them that he had never had the opportunity to hear the shofar blown in the Ukraine. So there on the beach in Tel Aviv, he heard shofar for the first time in his life.
Rav Noach Weinberg felt that he would not be successful until the number of Jews returning to Judaism was greater than the number of Jews leaving it. The yeshiva wants to be a presence in the city and if its secular residents won’t come to it, the students will bring Yiddishkeit to them. The yeshiva rents apartments for the boys in the city so that they are also live among the secular citizens. For many Tel Aviv residents, the yeshiva’s talmidim are their first encounter with Yiddishkeit. Like the 62-year-old woman who made the bracha on a lulav and etrog for the first time when the students brought one to her.
The yeshiva’s influence is far-reaching. Since most tourists who come to Israel eventually end up in Tel Aviv, Yeshivat Lev Tel Aviv reaches Jews from all over the world.
Yossef Aranoff, another student at the yeshiva, whose grandfather had been a chaplain in Korea and then a rabbi of a small town in Texas, is continuing his grandfather’s kiruv efforts. He relates that they once had a visitor from Guam (Guam has about 150 Jews of whom a 1/3 are religious). He came to learn for a few weeks at the yeshiva and was so taken with what he learned he asked one of the boys to come back with him to Guam to strengthen the small community of Jews there. And he did.
“The motto of the yeshiva,” says Rav Mass, “is that we’re not here to influence as much as to create a process together. Every Jewish soul was present at Har Sinai; every Jewish soul is holy and can bring his contribution to our religious dialogue. We roll out the red carpet for every Jew.” This philosophy is in keeping with that of Rav Weinberg and Aish Hatorah, which sees every Jew as holy and precious.
Once, on Sukkot, an older woman stopped and for two hours kept watching the sukkah and all the people making brachot on the lulav and etrog. One of the volunteers approached her. He wished her a chag sameach and asked if she wanted to sit in the sukkah and make a bracha on the arba minim. The older woman was very emotional and said, “I have to tell you something. I was once religious but after what happened in the Holocaust, I said to myself, ‘Either there is no God or there is a God and He is cruel and I don’t want to serve such a cruel God.’
“Today, I am 96 years old. Twenty years ago, when I was 76, my son told me he was becoming religious. I told him that I don’t agree and if he does become religious, I’m going to cut off all communication with him and won’t ever speak to him again. ‘But Ima,’ he said, ‘This is what I believe… let me live the way I believe.’ For twenty years I haven’t spoken to him. Watching you all today, and seeing how much joy you have has been a shock. It has helped me see a side of Hashem I’d forgotten about. The side where He’s not a cruel ruler with evil decrees but the Hashem whom Jews are happy to connect to in joy! Right now I am going to bless the arba minim, the first mitzvah I’ve done since I left Auschwitz, and then I am going to call up my son, whom I haven’t spoken to in 20 years and renew contact.”
It’s amazing what a little bit of heart (and soul) can accomplish in a big city and how far the ripples travel.
Rav Mass feels there’s so much spiritual strength in Tel Aviv. “If we learn together and from each other,” he says, “that is the key to bringing Geulah.”
To donate to Yeshivat Lev Tel Aviv: Either mail a check to Machon Yair, 9 Herman Cohen Street, Tel Aviv or visit https://yeshivatlevtelaviv.wixsite.com/mainweb or https://secure.aish.com/secure/donate_to_aish_hatorah.php (please note that the money be earmarked for Aish Hesder).