Following Israel’s Independence Day four years ago, radio personality Gabi Gazit let loose a diatribe against the haredim (ultra-Orthodox). Claiming in his broadside that haredim are “leeches,” “parasites” and “worms,” he asserted that “they are useless, they don’t produce anything, don’t contribute anything.”
The canard “they don’t contribute anything” is belied by the number of haredim on whom Israel’s highest honor has been bestowed for their contribution to society.
The Israel Prize, some NIS 75,000 ($21,500), is given annually to a dozen citizens in a state ceremony on Independence Day, and broadcast by radio and TV to tens of thousands. There have been several haredi recipients.
Among the winners last week was Adina Bar-Shalom, founder of the Haredi College, Jerusalem, and eldest child of the late former Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef who won the prize for Rabbinics in 1970. At least five other haredim also have received the prize in past years for “Life Achievement and Contribution to Society and State.”
Who in Israel has not utilized services of Yad Sarah? One in two Israelis has borrowed medical equipment or made use of the benevolence of this non-profit organization. In the 1970s a young Jerusalem haredi high school teacher, Rabbi Uri Lupolianski, needed a vaporizer for his sick child.
Such short-term-use items were hard to obtain, so he borrowed one and hatched the idea of an organization for lending medical equipment. He ran this free-loan service from his home by buying a few vaporizers. Neighbors would drop off crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs to the organization that he named Yad Sarah, after his grandmother who perished in the Holocaust.
Eventually, Yad Sarah became the largest volunteer organization in Israel with 110 branches in cities, towns and Arab villages, and added dozens of projects that include legal aid for the elderly, meals-on-wheels, home repair services for the disabled, and golden-age clubs. Yad Sarah received the Israel Prize in 1994. When Yad Sarah was dispensing medical equipment in Jerusalem, a young hassid, Rabbi Elimelech Firer, was dispensing medical advice in Bnei Brak. Rabbi Firer accompanied a relative with a cardiac condition to physicians, asking questions like: why do you recommend this course and not another? He read up on the subject – note this was before the Internet – and made his own incisive suggestions, decisive in the patient’s recovery.
This led Rabbi Firer to found Ezra LeMarpeh in 1979. With no formal medical education, Rabbi Firer, fifth of nine children and father of 10, matched patients with the best medical expertise available. Multitudes have sought the free advice of Rabbi Firer. The Israel Prize judges honored him in 1997 noting that he “spares himself nothing, helping tens of thousands in all fields of medicine, while activating a framework of volunteers.”
They operate a fleet of ambulances, a special ICU for flying patients abroad, a homecare network, programs for cancer-stricken children and video conference systems for international medical sessions. Ezra LaMarpeh assists, without remuneration, Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular. Doctors accept Rabbi Firer’s suggestions and referrals and his office is open all hours of the day and night.
Forty years ago newly-married yeshiva student Chananya Chollak’s father-in-law was paralyzed by a stroke and Chananya got to know the hospital world. During one vigil, he decided to help a girl with cancer by organizing eight neighbors to take shifts to enable her parents to care for their other children. He also noticed dialysis patients paying exorbitant sums for ambulances to treatments. So he obtained a vehicle and outfitted it for free transport to dialysis. These involvements led him to found Ezer Mizion.
Today their Bone Marrow Donor Registry is the largest in the world; it began with a grass-roots bone marrow drive to find a donor for a leukemia patient. Ezer Mizion added on mental health services, cancer support, a hydrotherapy swimming pool, a blood bank, and Jewish genetics counseling.
Ezer Mizion’s food distribution program disperses half a million meals a year. It is a wonder it took until 2008 to receive the Israel Prize. In 1966 20-year old hassid Yitzhak Dovid Grossman wanted to do volunteer work in a secular neighborhood. His rabbis suggested the Galilee town Migdal HaEmek, bereft of good schools and rife with unemployment and crime. Off he went with his young bride. The rest is history.
He found young people in distress congregating in pool halls and discos, so there he went to help them break out of the cycle of crime and poverty. Looking every inch the hassidic rabbi with beard and peyot, he launched a one-man campaign to rehabilitate idle youth, and with TLC and a sympathetic ear, acquired the nickname “disco rabbi.”
He established one school after another; this grew into the Migdal Ohr network where tens of thousands of children and teens from disadvantaged homes acquired an education and livelihood, garnering him in 2004 the Israel Prize. Rabbi Grossman has been a migdal or (tower of light), in the town Migdal HaEmek (tower of the valley).
In his autobiography, Out of the Depths, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau recounts the murder of his parents and brother during the Holocaust. His brother Naftali mentored and protected him and brought Israel Meir at age eight to pre-state Israel.
Not one to wallow in self-pity, Lau went on to become the chief rabbi of Israel. The Israel Prize judges wrote in 2005 that Rabbi Lau “has served as a model in facilitating communication between religious and secular, between the Jews of Israel and those in the Diaspora, between Jews and non-Jews. Among the youngest children to survive Buchenwald, he symbolizes survival of the Jewish people and its regeneration in the land of Israel.”
Rabbi Lau’s activities extend far beyond those usually associated with rabbis. He is active in organizations for the prevention of traffic accidents, was a leader in the association for a more beautiful Israel, was among those who led the fight to release Prisoners of Zion from Soviet Russia, and is currently the president of Yad Vashem. On a personal level he visits and encourages the wounded and conducts Passover seders for soldiers.
Above are some of the Israel Prize winners based in the haredi sector, whose achievements have impacted people in Israel and abroad. All received accolades in the category “Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and State.” There is an absence of haredi candidates in other categories of the prize: sciences, arts, literature.
While there are a plethora of laureates in those fields from the national-religious and secular sectors, there are none from the haredi world.
Thus the significance in Adina Bar-Shalom receiving the prize. A dozen years ago she convinced her father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and secular authorities of the urgency in establishing the Haredi College-Jerusalem. There are now hundreds of haredi men and women who have received degrees in fields of social work, psychology, logistics, speech therapy, economics and health sciences, so that further down the road we shall see achievements by haredim being lauded by the Israel Prize in additional fields as well.
Bracha Mantaka is a writer living in Bnei Brak; her sister Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt is a translator living in Netanya.