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From out of Zion

World Mizrachi brings Israeli scholars to Jersey shuls

Clockwise from top left, Yael Ziegler, Doron Perez, Gil Hoffman, Yosef Carmel, Rachel Fraenkel, and Miriam Peretz
Clockwise from top left, Yael Ziegler, Doron Perez, Gil Hoffman, Yosef Carmel, Rachel Fraenkel, and Miriam Peretz

World Mizrachi, the Orthodox Zionist movement, marked a major anniversary with remarkably little fanfare back in March.

Maybe because the traditional Jewish birthday greeting of “until 120” falls a bit flat on your 120th birthday, the Moses-level of longevity Mizrachi achieved two months ago.

Mizrachi was founded in Vilna back on March 5, 1902. This was five years after Theodor Herzl launched the Zionist movement with his Zionist Congress in 1897. Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Reines had attended Herzl’s Third Zionist Congress in 1899, and wanted to form a group to support Zionism against its religious opponents, while supporting the role of Judaism in the Zionist movement. The name Mizrachi was selected as a mash-up of the Hebrew words for “spiritual center,” “mercaz ruchani.”

Which brings up the question: Given that the Zionist dream of a Jewish state was fulfilled some 74 years ago, and the specifically Mizrachi dream of that state becoming a spiritual center has been fulfilled too, who exactly needs the organization?

Rabbi Doron Perez, chief executive of the Mizrachi World Movement, acknowledges the validity of the question.

“I don’t think one needs ideological organizations for the sake of the organization,” he said. “It has to have relevance.”

He quotes a line he heard back in 2017 from Naftali Bennett — now Israel’s prime minister, then its minister of education, whose political party at the time subsumed the remains of the original political parties that represented Mizrachi in the Knesset.

“For the first 70 years of the State of Israel, the State of Israel was built by the Jewish people,” Rabbi Perez quoted Mr. Bennett as saying. “It’s now time for the State of Israel to take responsibility for the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Perez continued: “There would not be a state of Israel if Jews around the world did not make aliyah and give money to it. Now, there needs to be a sense of camaraderie from Israel, a sense of giving Jews around the world what they need.”

And one thing they need, he said, are teachers of Torah with Zionist values — that is to say, people see the State of Israel and the land of Israel and the wellbeing of the Jewish people as central to the Jewish religious project, not a distraction from it.

Most immediately, this mandate for Mizrachi to help Diaspora Jewry can be seen in a roster of visiting Israeli scholars the organization has and will bring to local Orthodox synagogues, mostly on the Shabbat before Yom Ha’Atzmaut — that was the weekend beginning Friday, April 29 — and then next weekend, beginning Friday, May 27, the Shabbat before Yom Yerushalyim, which marks the unification of Jerusalem in 1967.

(Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield will be hosting its Israeli guest, Rabbi Yosef Carmel, this Shabbat.)

Why those dates?

Rabbi Perez explained: “One of the most profound differences between living in Israel and outside it is Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalyim,” days central to the Israeli calendar and marginal on the Diaspora Jewish one.

“We wanted to bring that spirit” — of the Israeli holidays — “to the rest of the world.”

Some of the speakers coming under the auspices of what Mizrachi is calling Israel 360 are best known as teachers of Torah. Dr. Yael Ziegler, for example, who was scholar in residence at the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston in April, and who will be at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood next week, is a lecturer in Tanakh at two of Israel’s leading modern Orthodox institutions and author of “Ruth: From Alienation to Monarchy,” published by Maggid Press.

Rabbi Carmel is the head of an institute training judges for Israel’s religious court system — what Rabbi Perez calls “the Harvard of dayanut training” — and the author of commentary on the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the section of the Shulchan Aruch dealing with laws of financial damages.

Miriam Peretz, who will speak at Congregation Etz Chaim of Livingston, is not a Torah scholar, but rather, in Rabbi Perez’s words, “a symbol of Israel and of resilience.” Ms. Peretz entered the public sphere following the death of her two eldest sons in IDF service — the first in 1998, in an ambush in Lebanon, the second at the Gaza border in 2010. That led her to become an inspirational speaker on faith, Zionism, and resilience. In 2018 she received the Israel Prize and in 2021, after being nominated by 10 Knesset members, she ran for the post of president of Israel, losing to Isaac Herzog.

And Gil Hoffman, who will be at Fair Lawn’s Darchei Noam and is the Jerusalem Post’s political correspondent, promises insight into the political challenges and realities of Israel — informative, if not necessarily spiritual or inspiring.

Israel 360 is an expansion of a program that sent 70 speakers to mark Israel’s 70th birthday in 2018. It’s not quite at 360 yet, but it’s getting there: “We have close to 180 speakers going to over 300 communities,” Rabbi Perez said.

Rabbi Perez took the helm of World Mizrachi in 2014; his career reflects the dual inward and outward directions of Israel as a spiritual center.

He was born in Johannesburg, went to Israel to study in a yeshiva, and at 18 he, made aliyah, thinking that after his Torah studies he would become a doctor. Instead, he continued his yeshiva studies through rabbinic ordination, earning a degree in education along the way.

And then friends in South Africa called him back. “We need young rabbis in our community,” they told him. They had gone through Mizrachi’s Bnei Akiva youth group — and they wanted religious leadership aligned with Mizrachi’s Zionist ethos.

Rabbi Perez went back to South Africa for what he thought would be two or three years and stayed for 15. Among the posts he held there were as a senior congregational rabbi and head of Johannesburg’s Yeshiva College of South Africa, the country’s largest day school, serving students from pre-K through high school.

He said the need for modern Orthodox rabbis and Jewish educators isn’t confined to South Africa. “People are looking for teachers, heads of schools, rabbis,” he said. “There are 27 schools in the modern Orthodox world looking for heads of schools. A friend of mine says one of the greatest needs he sees in shuls is for competent youth leaders to drive youth services.”

With seven million Jews, “Israel is such a human resource pool. The modern Orthodox religious Zionist world in Israel is brimming with such talent.”

So Mizrachi has launched an “army of leadership training programs” to feed the demand, and has streamlined the process for Israelis looking to work oversees in Jewish education.

According to Rabbi Perez, World Mizrachi raises “a third to half of its budget from fundraising from individual donors and foundations. I spend a lot of time finding mission-aligned people.”

The organization gets funds from the World Zionist Organization, in proportion to its showing in the group’s elections, which are conducted among Diaspora Jews. In the 2020 WZO elections, the Mizrachi slate came in second, earning 27 seats compared, to the 39 the Reform movement won.

And there is also funding from the State of Israel.

On that front, “It has not been an easy three years, since the governments don’t last that long,” Rabbi Perez said, noting this week’s reports of shakiness in Mr. Bennett’s coalition.

But then, from the perspective of 120 years, few things indeed last all that long.

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