Grapevine: The heart of the matter

The latest from the Holy Land.

MICHAEL FREUND serves as the ‘sandak’ or godfather at the circumcision ceremony for Ovadiah Daniel Lunghel. (photo credit: Courtesy)
MICHAEL FREUND serves as the ‘sandak’ or godfather at the circumcision ceremony for Ovadiah Daniel Lunghel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the beauties of Jewish tradition is the way in which one can play with the alphabet to make the seemingly insignificant convey a relevant message. Some of the guests who attended a gala dinner at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem this week in honor of what they thought was the 70th birthday of Rabbi Avigdor Burstein were surprised to see logos all over the place with the Hebrew words lev shanim. Lev is the gematria or numerical equivalent for 32, consisting of lamed (30) and bet (2), so the logo stood for 32 years. Generally speaking, 32 is hardly a milestone number, but in gematria it spells the secret of the success of the Bet Shemesh Educational Center which Burstein founded together with David Portowicz and Raziel Wiesel 32 years ago. Lev is the Hebrew word for heart, and the three, especially Burstein, have been putting their hearts into the enterprise for 32 years, turning young boys from low socioeconomic backgrounds and what appeared to be a hopeless future into well-educated, self-confident and productive citizens.
When the friends of BSEC wanted to pay tribute to Burstein in celebration of his 70th birthday, he urged that it be a BSEC celebration rather than one in his honor. The compromise was to do both. The interesting thing is that, despite the phenomenal success that Burstein has had with the project, his name does not appear in any of its publicity. Not only that, but according to dinner chairman David Zwebner, a former chairman of the Hazvi Israel congregation, from which Burstein is stepping down after 40 years as spiritual leader, very few of the congregants were aware of Burstein in his BSEC capacity. Zwebner also served with Burstein in an artillery unit in the army, and they did reserve duty together in Lebanon.
Zwebner and Stuart Dove, another ardent support of BSEC, have been very busy in recent weeks updating congregants about their departing rabbi. The upshot was that among the dinner guests were five former chairmen and more than 100 members of the congregation, who together with other guests contributed $75,000 to BSEC, enabling an intake of 15 additional youngsters.
Various speakers hailed Burstein’s scholarship, his oratory, and the number of educational institutions with which he is associated, but most of all the amazing rapport that he has with adolescents and his ability to persuade them to believe in themselves and to motivate them to study. BSEC is a home to its students from grade seven through 12 inclusive, where they learn all the subjects required for matriculation as well as a yeshiva education. Boys from no-hope backgrounds have become doctors, lawyers, scientists, community rabbis, army officers and more. According to Burstein, graduates are well integrated into all of the most positive aspects of Israeli society.
There are always a lot of speeches at events of this kind, but organizers made sure that there would also be great entertainment. It’s not often that Yishai Lapidot and Dudu Fisher are on the same bill. Lapidot worked really hard as both master of ceremonies and singer – singing in Hebrew and talking in English. Fisher talked in English, but sang in Hebrew, English and Yiddish and also dedicated a song to Burstein’s wife, Dina.
Fisher’s repertoire includes “Bring Him Home,” one of the  most moving solos he sang in his role as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and which he always dedicates to missing  or captive Israeli soldiers, as he did on this occasion. He told the story that Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Les Miserables, came to Tel Aviv to see Fisher perform in the local production of the role, and promptly offered him a chance to star in the Broadway production. Fisher was thrilled, but explained that as an observant Jew he could not perform on Friday nights, Saturday matinees or on any Jewish holy day. Mackintosh said he’d have to think about it, and he’d let him know. Several weeks went by with no word from Mackintosh.
Fisher was becoming a nervous wreck, and his mother suggested that he go visit the Lubavitcher rebbe to ask what to do. Fisher went to Lubavitch HQ at Brooklyn’s 770 Eastern Parkway and was told that the rebbe was not giving private audiences unless one sponsored a circumcision ceremony for a Russian Jew. Of course he agreed, and while he was waiting for the baby carriage to be wheeled into the room, a big, brawny man walked in. Fisher asked about the baby that was to be circumcised. “I’m the baby,” said the man. Fisher held his hand during the circumcision ceremony, but the man took the ordeal quite well.
After that Fisher had a meeting with the rebbe, who spoke to him in Yiddish and told him that if he held fast to his Judaism, everything would work out fine – and it did. Two weeks later, he received the call notifying him that he would appear on Broadway. He still wasn’t sure about whether pressure would be applied in an effort to persuade him to perform on Shabbat until he reached his dressing room.
Someone had put a sign on his dressing room door that read: “Dudu Fisher: Jean Valjean. Friday night and Saturday matinee: Shabbos Goy.
■ MOST PEOPLE have many sides to their personalities. For example, American-born Michael Freund, who writes a regular column in The Jerusalem Post, is a former deputy director of communications in the Prime Minister’s Office who worked under David Bar-Illan, a brilliant pianist who was also a great writer and a talented strategist, and who was an editor in chief of the Post. Prior to that Freund was a speech writer and aide for the Israel mission at the United Nations and also did a stint in banking, but didn’t like it. In Israel he also worked in public relations after Benjamin Netanyahu lost in the elections against Ehud Barak. Other than his column, what Freund is best known for these days is his work as founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, which brings lost Jews back to the fold. This includes Jews of the former Soviet Union who became assimilated, secret Jews, people who consider themselves to be descendants of the lost tribes and those who are descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal more than 500 years ago. Where doubt exists as to their halachic Jewish identities, Freund provides for them to have an Orthodox conversion after a study period combined with a period of religious observance. Following the conversion, he arranges communal Jewish wedding ceremonies for all the married couples so that they can be married according to the Law of Moses and of Israel.
To get to these people, Freund has to establish diplomatic contacts in their respective countries. Thus it was no surprise this week to find him in the Knesset at a meeting called by MK Oded Forer, chairman of the Knesset’s Israel-Serbian Parliamentary Friendship Group, to confer certificates of recognition to several Israelis and Serbs on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Serbia.  Among the honorees singled out for heir important contributions towards strengthening bilateral ties were Serbian Ambassador Milutin Stanojevic, whose wife, Svetlana, is fluent in Hebrew; Aleksandar Nikolic, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s honorary consul in Israel; and Ben-Gurion University Prof. Eliezer Papo and Freund, who founded the Israel Serbia Friendship Association, which has more than 30,000 followers on Facebook.
In a brief speech Freund pointed out that one of the founders of modern religious Zionism was the late Rabbi Yehuda Alkalay, who served as the rabbi of Zemun, a Belgrade suburb, where he preached about the return of the Jewish people to its ancient homeland. Serbian-born Holocaust survivor Josef Zamboki, who was also honored at the ceremony, spoke movingly about his own personal story. Both Forer and Ambassador Dan Oryan, the head of the Balkans Department at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, highlighted the deepening bonds between the two countries, while also expressing disappointment that at the United Nations last week Serbia chose to vote against US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
■ THE ANNIVERSARY was not the only celebration for Freund this week. He was also godfather at the circumcision ceremony in Kfar Hassidim of Ovadiah Daniel Lunghel, who was born to a Bnei Menashe couple, Hadassah and Samson Lunghel, 25 and 26, whose group of 162 members just came on aliya last month. They hail from the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, on the border with Myanmar, which is home to the largest concentration of Bnei Menashe in India. The new immigrants all plan to settle in Tiberias after they leave the Kfar Hassidim absorption center, where they formally converted to Judaism. Freud noted that, although Ovadiah Daniel was conceived in India, he is the first-Israeli born infant in the group. He has two older siblings. The some 3,000 Bnei Menashe descendants of the tribe of Manasseh have come to Israel via Shavei Israel over the past 15 years.