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Pioneering Rabbi to Israeli Immigrants Passes Away at 83

Pioneering Rabbi to Israeli Immigrants Passes Away at 83

Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz

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Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz, founder of the Yad L’achim organization, addresses Russian immigrants to Israel.
Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz, founder of the Yad L’achim organization, addresses Russian immigrants to Israel.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz, whose dedication to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of new Israelis nurtured entire communities of freshly-arrived refugees from locations around the world, passed away last month at the age of 83. The Chabad-Lubavitch activist’s approach to social welfare encompassed his entire being, expressing itself in the motto: “We will not give up on the wellbeing of any Jew.”

Lifshitz’s organization, known today as Yad L’achim – or “Hand to Brothers” – was established in 1949 as a response to the flood of new immigrants from Yemen, who fled Arab persecution to find lives of hardship in several refugee camps across Israel. The newcomers were not offered the option of enrolling their children in traditionally religious schools, and when Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, dean of the Ponovezh Talmudic School, asked his students if anyone would assist the immigrant families in obtaining religious education for their children, Lifshitz enthusiastically volunteered.

Known as the resident chabadnik in the Lithuanian-style Ponovezh school – a nickname given in deference to his full grown beard and energetic demeanor – Lifshitz organized a cadre of fellow students to establish an educational system for the refugees without the permission of Israeli government ministries. In time, they would obtain government approval for their efforts.

Lifshitz’s willingness to work with Jewish leaders of all stripes, and his ability to win the support of various religious factions, fueled an entire Jewish outreach movement in the religious community.

“He was the great pioneer in saving souls in [Israel],” said Rabbi Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, chief rabbi for the Eda Charedit rabbinical court in Israel.

“He was the one who established activism in the religious community,” Rabbi Menachem Cohen of the outreach organization Lev L’achim echoed in a 2009 interview. It “was all due to Rabbi Shalom Ber’s first undertakings.”

By the time of his passing last month, Lifshitz’s Yad L’achim had established a network of its own schools, a publishing house, and community centers geared towards newly-arrived immigrants. Over the past two decades, the organization’s efforts shifted to the huge influx of Russian-speaking citizens, empowering immigrants to combat the rising tide of missionaries in Israel.

Lifshitz had as his model the self-sacrifice of his parents, Rabbi Yisroel and Zlata Lifshitz, who were activists in the clandestine Chabad-Lubavitch school system that operated dozens of underground institutions throughout the Soviet Union. Although the family moved to Israel when the young Lifshitz was eight years old, he drew inspiration from the stories of his parents’ activities behind the Iron Curtain.

He later enrolled in the Lubavitch yeshiva in Israel, studying under the famed scholar and mentor Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook. Lifshitz would say that among the key lessons he learned from Brook was to seek the ultimate truth in every situation and to stay focused on life’s ultimate goal.

When asked how he faced the challenge of building an educational and social welfare organization from the ground up, he responded that his approach was ingrained from his youth.

“I grew up this way,” he explained, learning from “my parents when I was still in the cradle.”

When he heard of the plight of the Yemini Jews, Lifshitz said it was like experiencing “déjà vu.”

“The poignant images [of Communism] that my father described crossed my mind,” he recalled.

While he was still a yeshiva student, Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz took up the issue of providing religious education to Israel’s large community of Yemeni immigrants.
While he was still a yeshiva student, Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz took up the issue of providing religious education to Israel’s large community of Yemeni immigrants.

Initial Resistance

When Lifshitz tackled the issue of immigrant education, the initial reaction among rabbinical leaders was one of unease. His work required many volunteers, the support of parents, and a steady stream of funds to provide for children’s needs. At one point, several of those who joined Lifshitz were instructed by their own mentors to return to their studies and leave the activism to others.

“The religious community at that time was involved in their own internal issues,” explained Cohen. “They didn’t understand the need to work for the entire Jewish people.”

For the first time, Lifshitz struggled with his own doubts.

Around that time, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, passed away and his son-in-law ascended to the leadership of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Lifshitz wrote to the new Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and asked him what to do about his predicament in Israel.

“Your doubts come from the evil inclination, which comes and asks, ‘Why go into other fields when you could be sitting and studying,’ ” the Rebbe wrote Lifshitz in 1951. But the Talmud instructs that when no one else is available to perform a holy task, it was incumbent upon a scholar to leave his study hall and commit himself to the work at hand.

At the same time, the Rebbe continued, Jewish law does not absolve a person of their responsibility to study. Instead, “our Sages assure that for one who assists others with their studies, their own studying becomes much easier.”

Characteristic of the Rebbe’s emphasis that study and action were not mutually exclusive, and were instead complementary, the Rebbe even asked for Lifshitz to submit schedules of his studies before and after establishing Yad L’achim. He reiterated the request in a letter in 1952, stressing that while Lifshitz would find his personal Torah studies to be easier to maintain, he needed to actually establish a daily schedule of learning.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz attends an event for immigrants in the 1980s.
Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz attends an event for immigrants in the 1980s.

Those who worked for Lifshitz noted that he never strayed from scholarly pursuits.

“He had a huge library,” said Yad L’achim general director Rabbi Yossi Ganz. “I remember a discussion several rabbis were having in his home, and he kept on asking me to bring this and this scholarly volume. The walls of his simple home were covered with scholarly Jewish books, and he knew where every one of them was.”

Each night after Lifshitz returned from work, he sat and studied for many hours.

“From 12:00 to 2:00 in the morning, he learned Talmud with his son,” said Ganz.

Lifshitz later became the rabbi of several synagogues in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan and the rabbi of the city’s Chabad community.

Yad L’achim grew from its humble beginnings with the assistance of Rabbi Yaakov Landau, a well-known scholar and Jewish legal authority who served as chief rabbi of B’nei B’rak. Landau, a fellow Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, helped Lifshitz with fundraising and joined him at events. He also enlisted the support of parents and spoke to Israeli authorities on behalf of the organization.

“There were thousands of volunteers and we were all assisting Rabbi Lifshitz,” Cohen recalled of the early years. “He was the general, the initiator, the organizer. The philosophy and the self-sacrifice were all his. It was all his responsibility.”

When in 1957, Lifshitz informed the Rebbe that teachers in the Ponevezh school were beginning to recognize the importance of the organization, he responded with a blessing in Hebrew that “this should bring a relationship to propel future activities.”

“This opportune time should be utilized,” the Rebbe wrote, “to stress that everyone from all segments of the Jewish community should be involved on behalf of Jewish education.”

Throughout the years, Lifshitz maintained strong contacts with rabbis from all segments of the Jewish community, such as Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, spiritual mentor at the Ponevezh school; Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the leader of the Satmar Chasidic dynasty; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former chief rabbi of Israel; Rabbi Baruch Shimon Schneersohn, dean of the Kochav Miyaakov seminary in Jerusalem; and the famed “Maggid of Jerusalem,” Rabbi Shalom Shvadron.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz
Rabbi Shalom Ber Lifshitz

Never Give Up

Lifshitz directed his organization with a personal touch.

“He would call us daily and ask us how the project was coming along,” said Shlomo Rizel, one of Yad L’achim’s hundreds of activists. “This continued even after he fell very ill.”

“He would not rest until he knew that he did everything possible to ensure success,” added Ganz.

And in times of adversity, Lifshitz tried harder.

“I was witness to the extent of his effort and pain that his mission should be suceessful,” said Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Stern, chief rabbi of B’nei B’rak’s western section. “He gave up all of his time and effort to assist even one Jew.”

After 60 years of leading Yad L’achim, Lifshitz never took a penny for his efforts. He instead earned a livelihood from his rabbinical duties in Ramat Gan.

“Our job is to do and to do more,” Lifshitz would say. “We learned that if you do [something], with G‑d’s help, you are successful.”

According to Ganz, one of Lifshitz’s last tasks was establishing a religious community for Jewish immigrants from the Caucuses. Six months ago, he became aware of their situation, and found an old prayer book at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that was unique to that region of Russia. Lifshitz had the prayer book reformatted and published it for the new immigrants and then set out to establish educational institutions that would be sensitive to their own religious traditions.

In his last conversation with Lifshitz, 10 days before his passing, Ganz was asked several times: “What is with the Caucuses Jews?!”

“I am not looking to [just] do activities,” Lifshitz often said. “I am looking to do activities that no one else does. No one else is doing this project, so we need to do it.”

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