Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Evoking Divine Blessing Through Pre-Passover Giving

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It’s Baruch and my wife Anat, in a different kind of post today.

The holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt is one of Judaism's most beautiful yet most expensive holidays. For poor Jewish families, it is a crisis.

At the behest of some friends from the US who were anxious to contribute their pre-Passover giving to the poor of Israel and asked which of the many good organizations they should donate to, Anat and I rolled up our sleeves to investigate.

For starters, the Torah itself singles out the poor of the Land of Israel for giving: "If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in your land which the Lord your G-d gives you..." (Deut. 15:7).

Several verses later, the G-d of Israel promises great reward to anyone who gives to the needy of Israel: "the Lord your G-d will bestow blessing upon you, in all of your deeds and in your livelihood (Deut. 15:10).”

This verse has motivated Jews and Gentiles throughout history who seek Divine blessing to send their alms to the poor of Israel.

We found one organization, Mekimi, which has a radical, innovative approach to giving money to Israel's poor. The more we investigated Mekimi, the more we fell in love with it and made it the main recipient of our charity for the needy. Here's why:
[Scroll down to donate]

For starters, just look at their office location in this “panorama” photo:
To save money, they located their offices in a parking garage!


  • The most outstanding feature of this organization is that they don’t just throw the money into the bottomless pit of debt of a needy family (which IS a worthy mitzvah). Rather, they extend a rope to the family to pull them out, and guide them to financial independence!
  • Mekimi meets with husband and wife together and opens all the family finances (bank and credit card statements, salary slips, and all other income and expenses) and devises a program of reaching self-sustainment which often includes sacrificing the car and more. Mekimi teaches the family to live according to their means, and does job placement when necessary. The family must adhere strictly to the program, and prove so via documentation in follow up meetings with Mekimi.
  • As the family learns to adhere to its new budget, Mekimi patiently engages  each creditor to negotiate down (sometimes to even 50%) on behalf of the family.
  • Mekimi turns to relatives and friends of the family, explains the family’s progress without causing embarrassment, and asks (for what is likely to be the last time) to pitch in to bail them out. Mekimi covers the rest.
  • The people behind Mekimi are true idealists; the director, Yisrael Livman, is a personal friend from Bet El of impeccable character - a quiet, modest mountain-mover.
What Anat and I also like about Mekimi is that most of the families are from Judea and Samaria, though often they help modern-Orthodox  families in other parts of the country.

This YouTube video sums up their work and introduces you to Yisrael Livman:
Both new families who are drowning in debt and families who’ve learned to account for every shekel turn to Mekimi for assistance before the holidays because of the extraordinary costs. Mekimi answers their need.

Anat and I recommend hands down without hesitation to channel your Maos Hittim money to the cause which we believe in most: Mekimi.

They don’t have 501c3 USA non-profit status so Bet El is providing receipts for dollar donations. We worked out a system for immediate (!) use of the money by Mekimi, even on Erev Chag.

Donate to Mekimi’s Maos Hittim campaign and know that your support is really making a difference. After our research, we concluded that Mekimi is the single most effective and prudently-run tzedaka organization for the poor in Israel.

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A warm chag sameach from Bet El,
Baruch and Anat Gordon
bmgisrael @

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Torah Study or Profession - Should Yeshiva Students Go to Work?

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[Note to readersIn a few days, I'll be posting my wife's and my personal recommendation for the most effective and worthy Maos Hittim (Passover needs for the poor) project in the Land of Israel. The real thing - totally legitimate - executed in the most ingenious way. You'll see and judge for yourself. Check back.]

to Bet El's newsletter for more exclusive content
unavailable anywhere else in English on the web

The 2013 Israel elections were the first in decades to focus on societal issues, instead of the Arab-Israel conflict. And the primary issue that Yair Lapid's brand new party rode to reach a stunning 19 Knesset seats was "Should Yeshiva Students Learn Full Time or Be Integrated Into the Work Force and the IDF?"

Don't be content with just your gut feelings on the matter. Read the following article by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed to be knowledgeable on the topic. Enjoy the read.

The 2013 Israel elections were the first to focus on societal issues, and not the Arab-Israel conflict. The primary issue that Yair Lapid's new party rode to reach a stunning 19 Knesset seats was "Should Yeshiva Students Learn Full Time or Be Integrated Into the Work Force and the IDF?"

Don't suffice with just your feelings on this issue. Read the following article by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Chief Rabbi of the Shomron town Har Bracha and son of Bet El's Rosh Yeshiva, to be knowledgeable on the topic. Enjoy the read (and if you opt to comment below, be nice).

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Chief Rabbi of Har Bracha

Torah Study or Profession?
by Rabbi Eliezer Melamed

“A Spade With Which To Dig”
The Mishnah (Avot 4:6) begins by teaching us the desired intention when studying Torah:
“If one learns [Torah] in order to teach, he is given the means to learn and to teach; if one learns in order to do, he is given the means to learn, to teach, to observe, and to do.” 

The Mishnah continues:
“Rabbi Tzaddok says, 'Do not make the teachings of the Torah into a crown with which to adorn (i.e., be proud of) yourself, nor like a spade with which to dig (i.e., earn a living).' Hillel would say, 'One who makes use of his crown passes away.' From here we see that whoever derives benefits from his Torah knowledge removes himself from the world.”

The Practice of the Talmudic Sages
Working to make a living alongside Torah study was indeed the practice of the great Torah scholars from the Talmudic era. No less an authority than Hillel the Elder, before being appointed to the position of president of the Great Sanhedrin, would earn a meager salary as a woodcutter. When he took his position as president, however, the community bestowed great wealth upon him. This was the rule. Whoever was appointed to a position of authority, such as president of the Sanhedrin or deputy to the president, would be made wealthy by the community. The practice of enriching community leaders was carried out because having rich and distinguished leaders brought honor to the community, for wealth caused their leaders' words to carry more weight. It is told of R' Abba of Acco that he was poor, and R' Abahu went out of his way to have him appointed to an important position so that he should be granted wealth (Sotah 40a).

However, other Torah scholars who did not hold positions of authority did not live at the expense of the community - even very great Torah scholars. R' Shimon HaPakuli used to make cotton; R' Yochanan the Cobbler used to earn his living though shoe repair; R' Meir supported himself by performing scribal work; R' Pappa used to plant trees; etc.
In those days, people used to assist the rabbis in their work and business. Rabbis were thus able to earn what they needed in a short period of time, while dedicating most of their time to Torah study.

Rambam's Position
In his commentary to the Mishna, Rambam comes out strongly against those who study Torah and demand that the community support them. He brings numerous examples of leading Torah authorities from the period of the Mishnah who would earn their own living and never even considered having the community support them.

Accordingly, Rambam rules, “One who decides that instead of working he will occupy himself with Torah study and live from charity, profanes God's name, disgraces the Torah, extinguishes the light of the law, brings harm upon himself, and removes himself from the World to Come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the Torah in this world. Hence, the sages teach: 'Whoever derives benefit from his Torah knowledge removes himself from the world'; they have also commanded us, saying: 'Do not make them (the teachings of the Torah) into a crown with which to adorn yourself, nor like an spade with which to dig'; they have also commanded us, saying: 'Love labor and despise status'; and, “Any Torah that is not accompanied by labor is destined to be nullified and to lead to transgression, and such a person will end up robbing other people.'”

The Tribes of Zevulun and Yissachar
On the other hand, it is well known that the tribe of Zevulun occupied itself with commerce and  supported the Torah scholars from the tribe of Yissachar, and in this regard the sages taught,
“When Moses came to bless the tribes of Israel, he blessed Zevulun before Yissachar, in accordance with the verse: 'It is a Tree of Life for those who cling to it, and those who support it are content'” (Bereshit Rabba 72:5, 99:9).

The Shagal Windows of Yissachar (right) & Zevulun (left)

Rambam Approves of Such an Approach
Rambam, of course, approves of the practice of Zevulun and Yissachar. And while he holds that earning a living through the sweat of one's brow is praiseworthy and pious behavior (According to Rambam [Hilkhot Tamud Torah 3:11],
“One who earns a living through his own labors possesses a great virtue, and such was the custom of the early pietists, and one who behaves in this manner merits all honor and goodness in this world and attains the World to Come, as the verse states, 'When you eat the labor of your hands, you shall be happy and it shall be well with you.'”),
a person is not obligated to adopt such a pious practice. In fact, sometimes, in order to disseminate Torah amongst the Jewish people, it is preferable to forgo such piety. Indeed, for years Rambam himself studied Torah diligently while being supported by his brother David who dealt in commerce. Only after his brother drowned at sea was Rambam forced to go into medicine in order to support his family and the family of his brother.

Do not make yourself dependent upon the community
We find, then, that the difference between the prohibition of supporting oneself through the Torah on the one hand, and the practice of Yissachar on the other, is in two areas: (a) the pure intention of the student, and (b) that it be done respectfully, not disgracefully. Members of the tribe of Yissachar did not study Torah in order to earn a living. They no doubt had fields and were accustomed to working them. Rather, members of the tribe of Zevulun, possessing as they did great wealth, approached the tribe of Yissachar and encouraged them to spend more time studying Torah. To this end the tribe of Zevulun would be willing to support them financially. It never occurred, though, to the tribe of Yissachar to approach the tribe of Zevulun in order to ask for such support.

The Dissenters from Rambam's Opinion
Many early Torah authorities disagree with Rambam on this issue. They argue that if Torah scholars were to refrain from receiving money from the community, the light of Torah would be extinguished from the midst of Israel, and there would be no one to teach the people Torah.

Even those who disagree with Rambam admit that to eschew the financial support of the community is a pious attribute and that, in the days of the Talmud, Torah scholars indeed worked to support themselves while at the same time establishing many students. However, say these authorities, over the course of time there was a decline in Torah greatness, and it is no longer possible to occupy oneself with earning a living while studying and teaching Torah.

In the age of the Mishnah and the Talmud most emphasis was placed on depth of understanding, for the quantity of Mishnayot and Baraithot was not so great, and study was, for the most part, aimed at deepening the Torah foundations. It would appear that their labor did not prevent them from continuing to deepen their Torah contemplation as they worked. However, with the passing of time, the number of opinions and interpretations multiplied and the learning material grew immensely, and students of Torah were forced to spend many more hours studying in depth and memorizing the Talmud, the Geonim, and the works of the early authorities.

Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach, in his work Hatashbetz (vol. 1, pp. 142-148), agrees with the above opinion and cites many supporting sources. The great later authorities, the more important of which being R' Yosef Karo (Kesef Mishneh, Beit Yosef 246) and R' Moshe Isserles (Yoreh Heah 246:21), ruled likewise.

Dispensation for Yeshivah Students Who Plan To Teach
In addition to everything we have said so far, because of the gradual decline in Torah scholarship and the great increase in books, it goes without saying that it is impossible to produce even moderate Torah scholars unless they study Torah on a full time basis. And if the community does not finance the study of these Yeshiva students, there will not arise any Torah scholars who will be able to teach and guide the next generation.
Hence, though according to the letter of the law it would be best if those who learn Torah would earn their income through the labor of their own hands, over the course of time it has become necessary to change the original custom and to support Torah students in order that the Torah continue to thrive in Israel's midst.
This, moreover, is the desire of the community. The community wants to foster Torah scholarship in order to assure that Torah scholars will arise who will be able to teach Torah and render rulings on questions of Jewish law. And since the only way to realize such a goal is by allowing students to dedicate themselves to Torah study on a full time basis, the community donates funds in order to support Talmudic academies in which Torah students and educators learn. This position is taken by Maharashal and Shakh (Yoreh Deah 246:20), as well as R' Chaim ben Attar (Rishon LeTziyon 246:21).

An Additional Dispensation for Our Generation
An additional problem has arisen in our own generation, namely, that many youths are slow to reach a level of knowledge that allows them to live in accordance with the Torah. Therefore, because there is a commandment to educate children so that they know the Torah and are able to live according to its laws, parents must continue to finance their children's studies for another few years in the Yeshiva in order that they succeed in acquiring a firm Torah substructure. And because there are parents who are not able to pay for their children's education (and there are even some parents who do not want to pay), the community as a whole must take this responsibility. Therefore, it is necessary to gather donations in order to support Yeshivas.

Students Who Are Not Suited To Teach
However, after a student has studied for a number of years in a Yeshiva and has received a firm Torah foundation, it is best to direct him according to his talent and ambition – whether in the field of Torah, viz., education or Rabbinate, or towards some practical occupation which suits his character, such as, for example, business management.

As far as our present inquiry is concerned, if a person finds that he is not suited to be a teacher or to serve in the Rabbinate, he is no longer permitted to study Torah on a full time basis and to be supported by the community or from charity.

This is the path which we follow at the Har Bracha Yeshiva [Baruch's note: and a similar approach with slight variations is generally adopted by the entire religious-Zionist movement in Israel]. Upon completion of the standard course of study, which lasts five years (and includes military service), each student chooses the path in life that he feels truly suits him – whether in religious or secular vocations. The Yeshiva, for its part, encourages each student to be true to his unique character. In this manner, many of our students go on to learn a profession, and they do this on the most prestigious level that they possibly can according to their ability. 

At the same time, they continue to set fixed times for Torah study each day, internalizing values of self-sacrifice and love for the Torah and its study and for the scrupulous performance of the commandments. They also strive to practice much charity and kindness, to aid in the development of the Land of Israel, and to sanctify God's sacred name.

[article courtesy of: ]
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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Why No Coffee Shops in Bnai Brak?

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[Note to readersIn a few days, I'll be posting my wife's and my personal recommendation for the most effective and worthy Maos Hittim (Passover needs for the poor) project in the Land of Israel. The real thing - totally legitimate - executed in the most ingenious way. You'll see and judge for yourself. Check back.]

to Bet El's newsletter for more exclusive content
unavailable anywhere else in English on the web

I rolled out of bed at 3:30 Friday morning to take my 16-year-old son to the 5:45am grand launch of the 2013 Tel Aviv Marathon.

After he disappeared into the distance with tens of thousands of dedicated runners, I drove to Rabbi Akiva Street in Bnai Brak, the main hareidi-religious (black hat) hub in the Tel Aviv area, where you are sure to find a quorum for the morning prayers.

Rabbi Akiva St. - the main drag of Bnai Brak
Everybody knows that Rabbi Akiva street represents the cutting edge of the hareidi community with the latest men's and women's fashions, shopping and commerce. After igniting my soul with the morning prayer and pleading that my son finish the 21-kilometer run in good health, I sought out a coffee shop to ignite my body's engine room and sit with my computer.

After entering several bakeries and establishments that advertised coffee, I realized the trend: on Rabbi Akiva street, you can buy coffee to go, but no sit-down coffee shops.

Baruch holding his tefillin: "No coffee shops in Bnai Brak?"

I stopped several hareidi gentlemen on the street telling them that if they want to become rich, they should open the first coffee shop in Bnai Brak. This ingenious, innovative idea is bound to be a hit.

One guy told me that there was a coffee shop, but it closed. When I asked another guy why no coffee shops, his immediate and natural response was: "Why sit in a coffee shop when you can take the coffee to the beis midrash (house of study)?"

His come-back blew me away. The only thing that he associates coffee with is sitting in the beis midrash and studying. The culture of lounging in a coffee shop to chatter is not a money-maker in these parts. Ladies and gents, that dude is a serious, diligent Torah scholar.

I really admire hareidi men like him. True, I can't stand those who promenade in full black garb, but are fakes inside. But this guy was the real thing. I sensed it through our brief encounter.

So I thought to myself, if only all the students of the Torah were like this guy - grinding away multiple hours a day immersed in vigorous study of our ancient holy texts without much else on their minds.

If all the hareidim were the real thing, what a force that would be. I bet Yair Lapid himself would try on a black suit and hat. Watch and see for yourself.

Breaking News Photo 2014: Yair Lapid goes hareidi (Lapid wouldn't let me photograph his face, but there he is)
By the way, my son Amitai ran the whole 21 kilometers (13 miles). Good for you, Amitai!

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Playboy Makes Aliyah to Israel

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[Note to readersIn a few days, I'll be posting my wife's and my personal recommendation for the most effective and worthy Maos Hittim (Passover needs for the poor) project in the Land of Israel. The real thing - totally legitimate - executed in the most ingenious way. You'll see and judge for yourself. Check back.]

to Bet El's newsletter for more exclusive content
unavailable anywhere else in English on the web

I thought that I would never in my life wish upon any fellow Jew that he stay away from Israel. That's how I feel today regarding Daniel Pomerantz who made aliyah (immigrated) from Chicago with a low-tech business initiative: Playboy magazine in Hebrew. You can't get much lower.

Jewish genius from overseas alongside savvy investors bring so many bright ideas and funding to the great Jewish brain hub known as the State of Israel. Israeli and overseas Jewish entrepreneurs join together to upgrade planet earth and make money in the process.

Your idea, Daniel, is nurtured from the gutter.

Daniel, you should have left this idea where it belongs.

At your Tuesday, March 5, 2013 launch, you said: "Our target is men who want a taste of the good life."

Huh? This reminds me of my high school fraternity pledge master's mother who tried to convince my Mom of the virtues of renting a tuxedo for the end-of-the-year prom: "When I see my son walking down the red carpet wearing a tuxedo, it is the proudest moment in my life," she said. My mother felt pity for this woman whose nachas (pride in her children) wasn't to be found in her son's character, but rather in his clothing.

And so with you Daniel: gazing at naked women is "a taste of the good life?"

The good life is only to be found when a man focuses all of his sexual drive towards one single goal: his wife. He brings to her all of his robustness and fortitude, and she feels the force and totality of her husband's passion for her. The lust for the opposite sex serves to cement the marriage relationship; it becomes a platform for increased love and mutual respect. It creates a haven of warmth in the home.

"Babe, I missed you today!"

When a loyal, pornography-free husband greets his wife at the end of the day, she is gorgeous in his eyes. He is crazy about her and can't wait to smother her with hugs, kisses and whispers of how much he loves her. The wife's inner antennas detect the husband's overflowing passion and respect for her. It empowers her. The home becomes a heaven on earth for the whole family.

But when a husband wastes his sexual energies in other directions like pornography, he presents his wife in the evening with the leftovers. After a sizzling-hot encounter with the gorgeous women in your magazine, the husband comes through the front door with only a lukewarm reception for his own wife. The lesser dosage of passion breeds disappointment, unhappiness and tension in the home which eats away at the marriage relationship and ultimately wrecks the children's upbringing.

"He loves me? He loves me not."

Is that the "good life" that you were referring to? Your magazine is a momentary rush of lust, which leaves depression and havoc in its wake.

The only good life is a pornography-free husband-wife relationship. It is so, so sweet.

Your rival magazine Penthouse tried a Hebrew edition back in 1989. It quickly flopped. Your initiative will too. Just get it over quickly so we can return the vomit bags to the seat backs in front of us.

Daniel, you had the wherewithal and talent to put the Hebrew Playboy initiative together. In a million lost dollars from now, stick around Israel and find a constructive outlet to contribute your energies and money.

I close Daniel by referring you to the best site for porn addiction: . Start with the Questions and Answers section and then progress to the longer essays and books posted there.

Good luck in closing your business quickly.

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Friday, March 1, 2013

Herby's Bake Shop Secret Challah Recipe Cracked!

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Anyone who has spent a Shabbat in the Jerusalem area has very possibly experienced the bliss of sinking his teeth into a Challah (bread baked for the Sabbath) from Herby's Bake Shop, located in my home town Bet El.

The recipe is obviously a trademark secret, but read on.

Herby carefully guards the challahs from the camera's eye lest the secret be revealed

I am currently visiting in my former home town Memphis and coming out of the Anshei Sephard synagogue this morning, I sparked up conversation with longtime Memphians Phillip Evans and Rick Baer. When Phillip heard that I am from Bet El, he started telling tales about Herby, the master Challah Baker also from Memphis. I share with you these brief anecdotes because they reveal the struggle of a young Jew determined to guard Jewish tradition in a hic town in the 1960's, and they also reveal a lead towards the much-sought-after culinary code of the challahs.

Phillip and Herby studied together at University of Tennessee in Knoxville, a town that has about as many Jews as a small bowling alley has bowling balls. Back in those days, it was against university protocol to have any type of stove in the dorms, but Herby, being the only Kashrut stringent student, struggled to get special privileges to have a closet where he could keep a hot plate and some kosher food.

It was difficult, but he was willing to do whatever it takes to learn at university and keep kosher.

When Shabbat came around, Herby wanted to get to synagogue, but the house of prayer was a hefty 3.5 miles away! And so, Herby would often walk the walk, in order to attend services.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we take a leap closer to the secret. There was only one family that was really shomer Shabbat (observant of the laws of Shabbat) in town, and the two students would occasionally be invited to their home for a meal. The family, the Goodsteins, served a mean challah, home-baked by the Mrs.

In this little hic hub, in the only religious home, history was made: Herby asked for the recipe from Mrs. Goodstein and began baking his own challahs.

Upon his return to Memphis, friends and neighbors at his Mom's home expressed interest in the delicious challahs, and Herby's Mom's kitchen became a makeshift bakery to supply the demand.

When Herby finished college and the challah orders were increasing, he soon placed his law degree on a back burner and became a Baker at Law, opening a shop on Bethel street in Memphis.

In the late 1980's after Herby had made aliyah, I went to his son's bris in the absorption center in Mevasseret Zion, just outside of Jerusalem, where Herby's family had been absorbed. They were looking for where to take up permanent residence, and I invited them to check out Bet El, enthusiastically telling about the fine town folk there.

The Herby Dan family indeed moved the Bet El, and the Goodstein challahs found a new venue for dissemination until this day.

I have never met or even heard about Mrs. Goodstein until this morning, but anyone who takes the trouble to track her down and copy the challah recipe, will own a document that could be auctioned on eBay for millions. In the meantime, check out Herby's site:

Now when Herby reads this article, I will post his confirmation or denial of the above tales right below, so:
Y'all come back now!

Good luck and Shabbat Shalom!

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