The famed Kibbutz Degania Alef on the shores of the Kinneret in northern Israel has received a noteworthy new gift. The kibbutz, Israel’s very first, established in 1909 under Ottoman rule, now has a kosher Torah scroll for use for services, holidays, religious ceremonies and more.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (“Fitche”) Blau, director of Chabad at Kibbutz Kinneret who has also been serving Degania, has had to travel an hour each week to pick up a borrowed Torah scroll to lead services and give classes to a small but growing contingent on the kibbutz.

If this development seems unusual, it is.

Kibbutz Degania is considered the stronghold of the kibbutz movement, historically a major center for the political left in Israel and certainly not known for embracing Jewish religious life.

Nonetheless, gradual but significant changes have taken place, including Bar Mitzvahs, Shabbat services and events, communal holiday programming, Torah study, and workshops in the kindergartens and schools that run a number of times throughout the year.

“Our primary work is via the connections we make with individuals,” says Blau, such as “visiting families in their homes, having personal meaningful conversations, one-on-one Torah classes and Shabbat hospitality in our home.”

The Torah, which was donated by the Sragowicz family of Florida, will be permanently gifted to Degania to allow Blau to “expand his holy work.”

Donated by the Sragowicz family of Florida, the new sefer Torah is dedicated to the memory of four young Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed in battle.
Donated by the Sragowicz family of Florida, the new sefer Torah is dedicated to the memory of four young Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed in battle.

Thanking the family for their generous contribution, Blau noted that “the greatest gift for every Jewish person is the holy Torah.”

The Torah itself comes through the Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach, a project of Merkos Suite 302 in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and administered by Bentzion Chanowitz, a pharmacist by trade who lives in nearby Flatbush. The gemach (free-loan fund) works to get Torahs lent to Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and other organizations in the United States, in Israel and around the world. It also repairs older Torah scrolls and gets them back into circulation, and helps commission new sefer Torahs to be lent out on long- and short-term loans.

About 30 different places in Israel have requested a Torah, according to Chanowitz.

Family members of the fallen soldiers walk in a procession with the completed Torah.
Family members of the fallen soldiers walk in a procession with the completed Torah.

‘Spiritual Aspect in Protection’

This particular Torah had a rather roundabout way of arriving at its destination.

It was flown to Israel from the United States for a ceremony last month at a military training center in Gush Etzion on the second day of Chanukah, where it was dedicated to the memory of four young Israeli Defense Forces soldiers killed in battle.

The base, named “Caliber 3”, serves as a counter-terror and security academy led by Col. Sharon Gat, who “felt there should be a spiritual aspect to protection, in addition to the hands-on physical training,” said Chanowitz.

And so, more than 200 people—men, women and children—gathered to recall the lives of Pinchas Cohen, 23; Yuval Hyman, 21; Shaul Lahav, 20; and Hagai Lev, 24.

First, the sofer (Torah scribe) finished writing the final letters in the scroll, after which came a demonstration on the work of those at “Caliber 3”: how security personnel react at a moment’s notice to neutralize terrorists. Afternoon prayers were recited, and the third night’s Chanukah candles were lit.

The Torah was flown to Israel from the United States for a ceremony at a military training center in Gush Etzion on the second day of Chanukah. The next morning, it was taken north to Degania.
The Torah was flown to Israel from the United States for a ceremony at a military training center in Gush Etzion on the second day of Chanukah. The next morning, it was taken north to Degania.

As usual with Jewish celebrations, joyous dancing with the Torah followed, as did refreshments and holiday-related activities for the kids.

“The emotions ran high among the parents and grandparents whose loved ones’ names were inscribed on the mantel of the Torah,” said Chaya Chanowitz, who traveled to Israel with her husband for the ceremony.

The next morning, the Torah was taken up north to Kibbutz Degania. It is the 95th Torah the Gemach has lent in its five years of operation, including short- and long-term loans all over the world.

“The emotion and joy I feel inside cannot be put into words—to know that this Torah will be read in Kibbutz Degania on a regular basis,” said Noa Lev, the mother of fallen soldier Hagai Lev. “The connection is unbelievable; we are very touched.”

At Kibbutz Degania, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (“Fitchi”) Blau, left, director of Chabad at Kibbutz Kinneret who also serves Degania, stands with Bentzion Chanowitz, administrator of the Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach in Brooklyn, N.Y., a project of Merkos Suite 302.
At Kibbutz Degania, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (“Fitchi”) Blau, left, director of Chabad at Kibbutz Kinneret who also serves Degania, stands with Bentzion Chanowitz, administrator of the Beis Yisroel Torah Gemach in Brooklyn, N.Y., a project of Merkos Suite 302.