The most senior religious Zionist leader, Rabbi Haim Drukman, passed away on Sunday evening after suffering from multiple medical issues – including, recently, COVID-19.
Nearly a month ago he celebrated his 90th birthday on a stage in front of thousands of his students – men, women and children, in Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. Already ill, he greeted the crowd from a wheelchair.
Just this last Passover, he was taken to Hadassah-University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem area from his home in the Mercaz Shapira. He was suffering from acute pneumonia. He was discharged a few days later.
“The elder of the religious Zionist rabbis passed away,” the yeshivot and ulpanot Bnei Akiva stated. It shared that Drukman was “a model man, a family man, a great leader in Torah, a man of spiritual education and action.”
Drukman was born in then-Poland, what is today Ukraine, and survived the Holocaust by hiding with his parents. He made aliyah in 1944, and later became a leader in almost any major religious Zionist institution.
He served as president of the Hesder Yeshiva Union, chairman of Yeshivot and Ulpanot Bnei Akiva, an emissary for World Bnei Akiva in North America and many other positions. He was also the head of the official Israeli conversion system in the Prime Minister’s Office for eight years straight and received the prestigious Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
“Rabbi Drukman was the pillar of fire before our camp,” Elchanan Glatt, CEO of Bnei Akiva said. “With his personality, he influenced the Israeli public and outlined an educational path of Torah and avodah (work) of the love of the people and the land of Jews and Israelis, in the generation of the redemption. His character, deep insights and broad vision will be missed by the entire nation.”
Drukman was as focused as one can be at the age of 90, and until his last days was involved in dozens of fronts, including the new government and with halachic issues in the many organizations in which he played a central role.
“I remember a reality where a boy who finished the eighth grade would throw away his beret,” Drukman said at the birthday event that was produced by the weekly Makor Rishon newspaper about what it was like to be a religious Zionist in Israel years ago.
“They [religious Zionist teens] didn’t wear kippot. Who dreamed of wearing a kippah? This was the reality,” Drukman told the audience that “nowadays, you see knitted kippot everywhere and they are the best [young religious Zionists]. Everyone recognizes that. Everyone knows that they are the best.
“Our expectation, hope and belief is that the entire people of Israel should be like this,” he said.
He concluded by stating, “I’m not alive in order to celebrate my birthday. I’m alive because I have to do good for the people of Israel.”
AS A YOUNG boy, Drukman studied in the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva in Kfar Haroeh and later on went to the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He served in almost any possible role possible within the Bnei Akiva movement, such as a part that served together with the IDF, the national secretary, and even as an emissary of the movement in New York.
He established the Ohr Etzion Yeshiva in 1977 in Mercaz Shapira and remained the head of the yeshiva until his death. He also founded schools on the same campus for olim from Ethiopia and a religious IDF academy for boys.
Drukman got involved in politics as a member of Knesset for the National Religious Party (NRP) in 1977. He then broke away from it in 1983 after the Camp David Accords and became a single MK without a party. He created a new party called Morasha in the 1984 elections; it won two seats. He later returned to the NRP.
He was considered the highest spiritual authority of the national religious community and his home became a pilgrimage center for religious Zionist politicians who often asked for his advice and for his approval of dramatic decisions.
To Drukman, religious Zionism led the way
He said of the religious Zionist leadership: “for many years we have seen that the religious Zionism stream has been a leader in all fields: We’ve been leading in settlement of the land, we’ve been leading in the field of immigration to Israel and we’ve of course been leading in education. We see many Israelis who wear kippot in the offices of ministers and surrounding the prime ministers. We are not second class.”
Over the years, he supported the HaBayit HaYehudi Party and later the Religious Zionist Party (RZP), stating: “Bezalel Smotrich and the Religious Zionist list are the continuation of the NRP.” In the recent elections for the 25th Knesset, he was even placed in the last and symbolic place on the RZP list.
Drukman created controversy when he supported Rabbi Motti Elon, who was convicted by a Jerusalem Court on two counts of forcible sexual assault against a male minor. Drukman initiated a weekly class taught by Elon in his yeshiva even after he was convicted of indecent acts by force.
Only in 2019 did Drukman retract his position, saying that Elon “will not be able to teach classes or hold other public activities for the general public.”
Drukman was married to Dr. Sarah, a physician. He and his wife had nine children, one of them was adopted, and close to two hundred grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Even though many saw him as conservative, Drukman actually was a very moderate voice in the religious Zionist community. The rabbis that see themselves as his students are, for the most part, much more conservative than Drukman ever was.