June 15th, 2023

This week, I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Rabbi Chaim Gantz. To say he is extraordinary would be an understatement. This was our first encounter, and it allowed me to witness first-hand the qualities that make him the ideal spiritual guide that anyone would cherish.

His erudition is inspiring yet devoid of any air of superiority. His energy is infectious without being overpowering. His spirituality does not preclude practicality. As a pioneer, his mission aligns harmoniously with the contemporary Jewish journey, making him the epitome of what we seek in present-day Jewish leadership.

However, despite his commendable persona, Rabbi Gantz has recently found himself navigating a tumultuous storm that has shaken Israel to its core, causing deep distress among his devoted friends and ardent supporters.

Rabbi Gantz’s narrative originates in a deeply traumatic event: the tragic assassination of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in 1995. This devastating incident resonated deeply across Israel and the Jewish world, casting the religious Zionist community, of which Rabbi Gantz is a significant member, under intense scrutiny. This group was widely accused of fostering a hostile atmosphere towards Rabin and the Oslo Accords – an environment of enmity that tragically culminated in Rabin’s murder by an extremist from within its ranks.

Rabbi Gantz, a resident of Kiryat Arba, which adjoins Hebron, was at the heart of this community. Kiryat Arba holds historical significance as one of the first Israeli settlement towns founded across the ‘green line’ after the 1967 war, which resulted in Judea and Samaria shifting from Jordanian to Israeli jurisdiction.

In the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, Rabbi Gantz felt an urgent need to bridge the divide between religious and secular Israelis. He identified Tel Aviv, the emblem of Israeli secularism, as the perfect backdrop for this mission. In 1996, he embarked on a momentous journey, transitioning from the comfort of his Kiryat Arba home to the vibrant heart of Israel’s iconic city, Tel Aviv.

Together with his wife, nine children, and 25 students, Rabbi Gantz planted the seeds of the Maaleh Eliyahu Yeshiva in northern Tel Aviv. His utopian dream was rooted in the conviction that religious and secular Israelis share more commonalities than divisions, and that it was possible for them to cohabit in peace and harmony. Despite the myriad obstacles encountered on this journey, these challenges steeled Rabbi Gantz’s resolve, spurring him on toward his noble objective.

In 2001, the city allocated premises to the yeshiva, and together with his students, Rabbi Gantz embarked on proactive community interaction – offering Bar Mitzvah lessons, hosting resident learning programs, supporting grieving families, visiting the sick at the nearby hospital, and numerous other initiatives.

Fast forward almost 30 years, and Rabbi Gantz’s vision has become a vibrant reality. The humble yeshiva that began with a modest 25 students now flourishes with 200 young scholars, 70 military-serving yeshiva boys, and 50 married students residing nearby with their families. Local residents have grown to adore “their” yeshiva and “their” rabbi, epitomizing harmonious community living.

Until, abruptly, that façade of harmony was disrupted over the past few months. Some years back, the city informed the yeshiva of their intent to utilize their premises for a local elementary school, assuring them of alternative quarters nearby. The proposed replacement was a vacant seven-story synagogue building just ten-minutes walk from their current location.

Renovation plans were drawn up and given the green light. Then, out of the blue, a storm of protest erupted, led by a faction of local residents and others from further afield, casting a shadow of animosity towards Rabbi Gantz and his yeshiva community that diametrically opposed the harmonious ethos he had painstakingly nurtured over the past 27 years.

At a recent protest event, as reported by Haaretz, a local community leader spoke disparagingly about Rabbi Gantz and his yeshiva: “These people believe that we are the Messiah’s donkey… we represent materialism and they represent spirituality, and that now that we’ve completed the job of building this country, they can come take a ride on us.”

And then, with the crowd applauding enthusiastically, he added: “But it’s not going to happen. We’re done with being the Messiah’s donkey.”

Leading the charge against the yeshiva is Itai Rogatka, who lives in a rented apartment near the yeshiva’s proposed new location. He claims that he has researched Rabbi Gantz and the other rabbis associated with the yeshiva, only to ‘discover’ that they are “extremists bent on changing the democratic and liberal character of this place – and now we’ve woken up.”

At a demonstration in May, protestors referred to “knitted kippot” as Israel’s “number one problem.” One demonstrator remonstrated with a supporter of the yeshiva: “You are our national tragedy! A gang of criminals, and we’ll stop you!” “You’re not our brothers,” another protestor bellowed, “you never were, and you never will be.”

Rabbi Gantz finds himself in a state of utter bewilderment. This abrupt onslaught of animosity stands in stark contrast to nearly three decades of friendship, cooperation, and unwavering efforts to harmoniously bridge the religious/secular divide in a non-coercive manner.

The raw hostility truly lacks any rational explanation. Rabbi Gantz and his yeshiva do not pose a threat to local residents; on the contrary, they represent a beacon of hope in a country fraught with division and conflict.

This perplexing situation compels me to consider what appears to be the only plausible explanation: evil often marshals its most potent resistance when it teeters on the precipice of defeat. Rational people begin to act irrationally. Good people find themselves saying terrible things and committing regrettable acts. Stable people become disruptive and destructive. As a result, the forward march of goodness can be held back, and sometimes halted for years.

Two back-to-back stories from the Book of Bamidbar aptly illustrate this phenomenon: the episode of the spies, and the rebellion of Korach.

The spies, the elite of their tribes, were sent by Moses to scout out Canaan—a mere formality to reinforce the divine promise of a land flowing with milk and honey. However, just as the nation found itself on the edge of its greatest triumph, the spies returned with a fearful report that stirred up widespread panic, causing a forty-year delay before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land.

The rebellion led by Korach bore striking parallels. Midrashic sources depict Korach as a paragon of wisdom, success, talent, and wealth. Yet, instead of fostering unity among the Jewish people, he sowed discord and incited a destructive rebellion against Moses and Aaron, causing untold grief that festered over time.

The brewing conflict in Tel Aviv is fated for the same outcome. We know that, in the end, good always triumphs over evil. Which means that those who stand in opposition to the harmonious coexistence of religious and secular Jews are swimming against the tide. Nevertheless, the trail of discord they sow could potentially impede progress for years to come.

It is my earnest hope that sanity swiftly reclaims its place, and everyone recognizes that this antagonism risks causing lasting harm to Israel, hindering the realization of a united Jewish nation in its cherished homeland.

And to Rabbi Gantz, I extend this message: Persist in the exemplary work you have undertaken. For just as Moses led his people from obscurity to glory, you will continue to illuminate the dark, bringing joy where there is sadness, and hope where there is despair.

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