Hollywood scriptwriters, or the most creative Zionist storytellers, could not have written a more satisfying life-story script than the actual life and times of Moshe “Moshko” Moskowitz. Moshko was one of the great builders of the Land of Israel of the past century and he lived to see many of his far-reaching dreams and plans fulfilled. He passed away at age 96, one month ago. (His shloshim (mourning month) is this weekend.)
Because Moshko was so modest – always behind the scenes – many readers may be hearing about him for the first time, which is all the more reason to salute him in these pages. Many educational and settlement projects in the Religious-Zionist world of the past 80 years benefited from his hard work and wisdom.
Born in Bratislava, Moshko grew up in Tel Aviv, attended the Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school, and served in the Etzel and Lehi underground militias. He was one of the founders of Masuot Yitzhak in Gush Etzion in 1945, a settlement that fell to the Jordanians while he was in Cyprus teaching interned Holocaust survivors who were denied entry to British mandatory Palestine.
Those experiences – meeting refugees from the Holocaust and missing the final battles for Gush Etzion in which many of his friends were killed – were the defining traumas of Moshko’s life. It led him into establishment of the Ein Tzurim and Masuot Yitzhak religious kibbutz towns in the Shafir Regional Council to replace the towns destroyed in Gush Etzion and give renewed life to widows and orphans of the original settlements. He went on to chair that regional council for 27 years, building 14 communities and many educational institutions, including Merkaz Shapira and its Or Etzion hesder yeshiva, led by his close friend Rabbi Chaim Druckman.
On the day that Jerusalem and the Gush Etzion area were liberated in June 1967, literally on that very day (the 28th of Iyyar 5727), Moshko wrote a note in his ever-present calendar book with a detailed plan for the rebuilding of Gush Etzion.
Forever a man of quiet and determined action, a builder for whom no detail was too small, he sent a letter four days later to the Jewish Agency’s settlement director with his plans for a Gush Etzion regional center, agricultural towns, hesder yeshiva, field school, youth hostel, light industry and shopping venues, tourist and cultural centers and more.
He created the Alon Shvut Association (which spawned Yeshivat Har Etzion and the Alon Shvut town around it) and the Judean Hills Development Company (which founded the City of Efrat), and chaired these institutions for more than 30 years; also becoming the founding mayor of Efrat. He helped bring Rabbi Yehuda Amital of blessed memory to head the yeshiva, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (may he live long and continue to prosper) to be the founding rabbi of Efrat. In fact, he brought about the establishment of almost all the institutions he dreamt of in 1967.
MOSHKO NEVER rested. He left home at six a.m. every morning – usually in sandals and driving his own car – en route to whatever project was next, including establishment of two youth rehabilitation centers in the Jordan Valley for religious dropouts, the Menorah nonprofit organization to reclaim and refurbish Torah scrolls from pre-Holocaust Europe (more than 1,000 of which were brought to Israel over 17 years, some repaired and others given a proper burial), the “Ot vaEid” religious educational tours to Poland (which ran for 30 years), the Shaarei Mishpat Academic Center for Law and Science, the Yeruham and Siah Yitzhak yeshivas, and many more ventures.
Shamai Keinan, who worked closely alongside Moshko for 35 years in a volunteer capacity, says that Moshko was not only a dreamer and a doer, but a patient man with the ability to overcome endless obstacles. “He never despaired. When a project would fall through, as some inevitably do, Moshko would say: ‘Nu. No big deal. So we wore out the soles of our sandals a bit,’” Keinan recalls.
That was true of Moshko’s “Am Olam” plan for a grandiose Disneyworld-style Jewish heritage theme park that would bridge the religious-secular divide. Moshko worked on that project for 15 years (first planned for Gush Etzion, then in the Elah Valley), until dialing it back to a hi-tech museum venture that will open soon in Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem.
That iconic building in downtown Jerusalem, former seat of the Chief Rabbinate, is now owned by Herzog Academic College (which of course, Moshko chaired as well). Moshko’s plan, now underway, will turn the upper floors of the building into a stunning showplace of Zionist and Jewish accomplishment, with a 40-person-glass-elevator ride to a massive rooftop terrace that overlooks the Judean Hills.
“Why should tourists only visit Meah Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox enclave in Jerusalem, or the Diaspora museum in Tel Aviv, to learn about the frozen Jewish past,” Keinan quotes Moshko as saying, “when they can be dazzled by intellectual content that celebrates our living heritage and glorious future.”
The revitalized Heichal Shlomo will be an architectural gem, like the way that Moshko built the architecturally stunning, abstract-inspired building of Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, something that is highly unusual for a yeshiva. (Moshko also chaired the board of the yeshiva, for 52 years, from the day of its founding until the day he died). Quoting the Mishna, Moshko would say: “Why should a priest be honored less than a midwife? Why is it understood that the Jerusalem Theatre should be housed in a beautiful building, and a yeshiva not so?!”
For 30 years Moshko gave a lecture at his kibbutz on the weekly Torah reading, based on the text analysis and Q & A style of the late Bible scholar, his friend Prof. Nehama Leibowitz. Moshko’s annotated Q & A Parasha Sheets recently have been published by Yad Shapira in a set of five books. (Available from Yeshivat Har Etzion, a worthwhile addition to any Torah library, in Hebrew.)
Prof. Aviad Hacohen knew Moshko for forty years, working closely with him on several projects. Hacohen says he saw Moshko cry only twice: When he repatriated a Torah scroll from Vilna, and when several damaged Torah scrolls from prewar Romania were buried on the Mount of Olives. He also broke down when the Talmudic giant Rabbi Dr. Aharon Lichtenstein, co-dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion, paid Moshko a farewell visit just before passing away in 2015.
Alas, novel coronavirus crushed Moshko. He did not get sick, but corona lockdowns and precautions confined him to his home for the past year and this sucked the life out of him. A man of inspiration, unremitting faith, everlasting optimism and ceaseless activity was felled by relative inactivity.
The best way to memorialize Moshko would be to execute his own “Deal of the Century.” He was inspired by former president Donald Trump’s use of that term. Moshko drew up centenary anniversary plans for quadrupling the number of Israelis who live between Jerusalem and Hebron by Israel’s 100th anniversary, less than 30 years from now. Now Israel needs another Moshko to drive the plan forward.
The writer is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, jiss.org.il. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.