It’s a long way from Rabbi Shalom Hammer’s home in Beit Shemesh to Bergen County, where he will be speaking at schools and synagogues next week.
But it’s arguably not as large as the spiritual distance the Monsey-born, Yeshiva University-trained educator bridges in his daily life – as a lecturer for the Israeli army, speaking at several army bases each weak.
He lectures on ideology, under the auspices of the army rabbinate.
“I give them something to aspire to. I remind them of the great service they’re offering” the Jewish people, he said. “The soldiers need to be inspired, reminded of why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
|Rabbi Shalom Hammer|
|Who: Rabbi Shalom Hammer
What: Will give two public lectures
What: Tu b’Shvat seder with the Jewish Learning Experience
When: Tuesday, January 14, at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck
How much: $10; includes dinner
For information: 201-966-4498 or email@example.com
What: “Current Challenges in Israel: Soldier Identity, Morale, and the Future of the Jewish State”
When: Wednesday, January 15, at 8 p.m.
Where: Congregation Arzei Darom, 725 Queen Anne Rd., Teaneck
Co-sponsor: Zionist Organization of America
How much: Free
For information: firstname.lastname@example.org
The response he gets from the predominately non-religious soldiers to whom he speaks is positive, he added.
“I know how to build a rapport with them. They appreciate my open-mindedness, that I’m kind of grounded and approachable. I don’t speak to them. I don’t preach to them. My idea is to show what we have in common and commend them for their tremendous effort,” he said.
Rabbi Hammer said he feels there’s a tremendous interest in Judaism from a lot of secular Jews. “Not in religion” – by which he means religious practice – “but in Judaism,” meaning the texts and teachings of the Jewish tradition.
Most Israeli Orthodox rabbis, however, “aren’t in tune with what’s going on with society here,” he said. “There’s a tremendous disconnect between the secular Jews here in Israel and between the rabbis. Even a lot of religious Jews feel a disconnect from the rabbis.”
Rabbi Hammer treasures the individual connections he has made with the soldiers he teaches. Last Shabbat, he hosted a soldier who was interested in experiencing a Shabbat and seeing what it is about; over Sukkot he hosted soldiers, “for some of whom it was their first time in a sukkah.”
Recently, Rabbi Hammer decided to start teaching at non-religious kibbutzim and villages.
“I decided to take my own initiative, to show that we have a lot more in common than we think. We can use Judaism as a common agenda and can agree to disagree.”
He has been calling up kibbutzim and speaking to the person in charge of programming cultural events.
The cold-calling works.
“Most of them are very welcoming, though they’re a little suspicious at first,” he said. “They appreciate that I explain that I have no religious agenda, no issue of kiruv” – proselytization – “that I want to demonstrate the unity of Am Yisrael” – the Jewish people – “by showing Jewish ideas.
“I usually have a source sheet they read along. I have lectures on the definition of Jewish strength, on leadership in our generation, on agriculture in the Jewish perspective. I try to find topics that will attract them.
“I approach the topics from sources in the Torah. I demonstrate that there’s a huge amount of intelligence and brilliance and lessons you can learn from Torah. There are things to learn from this special book of ours. Whether you decide to be religious or not – that’s your own business,” he said.
Rabbi Hammer’s entry to Israeli life came years ago.
He had been studying there toward his ordination from Yeshiva University when he received an offer to teach at an Israeli yeshiva high school.
“Like anyone from a modern Orthodox background,” he said, he and his wife “dreamed about living in Israel. You don’t know it’s a reality until it happens. The opportunity presented itself.”
He threw himself into the Israeli educational world, which was not all that different from the one with which he was familiar.
“If you’re good at teaching, if it’s natural for you, you can do it anywhere,” he said. “The challenges the kids are going through here are the challenges kids go through anywhere.”
He encourages Americans who plan to make aliyah and teach in Israel to consider teaching Israelis as opposed to going only to institutions that serve visiting Americans.
“The Israeli school system can use more Americans, with their professionalism,” he said.