Grapevine: Great Synagogue hosts lone soldiers

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

Jerusalem Great Synagogue (photo credit: MARTIN VINES MONTREAL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Jerusalem Great Synagogue

In some homes on Friday nights, there can be anywhere from a dozen to 40 guests. These guest lists are often augmented by organizations that care for the needs of foreign students, lone soldiers, and tourists responding to advertisements for Shabbat of a Lifetime.

Last Friday night, however, the extensive women’s gallery of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue was close to three-quarters full, largely dominated by very young women and children.

One reason was the Shabbat Mevorchim dinner for lone soldiers, and another was that the service was permeated by Carlebach melodies and a lot of dancing.

For some years now, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue has hosted dinners for lone soldiers on Shabbat Mevorchim, which is the Shabbat prior to the start of any Hebrew month.

In recent years, Rebbetzin (she insists on “rebbetzin” and not “rabbanit”) Devora Korff has made these dinners for lone soldiers her personal project

The Great Synagogue (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The Great Synagogue (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Incorrigible, outspoken, charismatic, and a fashionista who looks like she walked out of the pages of Vogue, Korff insists on being called “Rebbetzin,” but when pressed for her full name, she says “Adele” instead of “Devora.”

When attending the induction ceremony of one of her sons who came to Israel as a lone soldier, she was struck by the sacrifice that young Jews from around the world were making, so she decided to get involved with the Jerusalem branch of the Michael Levin Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin, a lone soldier from America, who fell in the line of duty. The center, which cares for the needs of lone soldiers, arranges Shabbat and holiday dinner invitations for these soldiers to people’s homes.

Korff’s son told her he didn’t want to go these Shabbat dinners because he was tired after being in the army all week and had no desire to be put in the position of having to respond to numerous questions about what prompted him to enlist, whether he would stay in Israel, and what he intended to do career-wise. So she decided to become involved with the Great Synagogue Shabbat Mevorchim dinners, where lone soldiers can be with their friends and simply enjoy each other’s company without any obligation to the hosts. Sometimes these dinners are sponsored by donors who are members of the synagogue, and sometimes the rebbetzin uses her husband’s credit card to take on the responsibility of hosting the whole affair, which is also attended by some of the synagogue’s members, some of the executive board, and some of the members of the choir.

The rebbetzin does not see the IDF as simply the Israel Defense Forces but as the army of the Jewish people, and she advocates for all Jews, including haredim (ultra-Orthodox), to serve.

Her extremely pro-Zionist stance strongly contradicts the background in which she was raised. “I was always a strange bird,” she explains.

Devora Korff née Roth, who grew up in Mea She’arim, is the daughter of Shomer Emunim Rebbe Avraham Chayyim Roth. Shomer Emunim is a very strict, anti-Zionist hassidic sect, some of whose members, including Korff herself, are descended from the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism. The 325th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated this month.

The rebbetzin is married to Yitzhak Aaron Korff, the grand rebbe of Zvhil-Mezhbizh, who is a direct descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. Since 1975, he has been the chaplain of the City of Boston, serving Jewish interests in the mayor’s office, the police department, the fire department, and other municipal enterprises. He is also the spiritual leader of Zvhil-Mezhbizh study centers in Boston, Newton, Miami, and Jerusalem, and is one of the spiritual leaders of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. He also sits as a judge in the High Rabbinical Court of Boston and the Council of Rabbis.

It might interest Israeli haredim to know that in addition to his rabbinical credentials, he has a well-rounded secular education that includes a PhD, two law degrees, and master’s degrees from Columbia University, Harvard University, Boston University, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and other institutions.

He has simultaneously combined careers as a community rabbi, chaplain, lawyer, diplomat, businessman, and entrepreneur with that of a hassidic grand rabbi, who on Shabbat and Jewish holidays wears the traditional black kapota tied at the waist, and a fur shtreimel on his head, despite the summer heat.

The rebbetzin frequently commutes to Jerusalem, and when she is in the holy city, her husband comes every two weeks to visit her.

While the rabbi ate sparingly at the dinner, the rebbetzin ate practically nothing. She was too busy moving from table to table to make sure everyone was well fed and happy. She also encouraged the singing of Shabbat songs, waving her arms like an exuberant choir mistress.

Rabbi Korff praised the lone soldiers and told them they were symbolic of the optimism of the Jewish people and a sign of hope for the future

Cantor Tzvi Weiss, who is the emissary of the public during services, said that anyone who serves the public is an emissary – including rabbis, soldiers, philanthropists, et al.

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