“It All Began with Bnei Akiva”

An Interview with Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff

One of our generation’s leading Torah scholars and educators, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at Yeshiva University’s Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Institute in Jerusalem. He is also one of our community’s most colorful and engaging personalities, inspiring and mesmerizing several generations of students in Jerusalem and around the world. Among his many books, Rabbi Rakeffet is the author of The Rav: The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, which has played a leading role in continuing the legacy of the Rav.

The full story of Rabbi Rakeffet’s extraordinary life and Aliyah can be found in his celebrated memoir, From Washington Avenue to Washington Street. In this interview, Rabbi Elie Mischel spoke with Rabbi Rakeffet about his formative years in Bnei Akiva, his Aliyah in the wake of the Six Day War and his work with the Mossad on behalf of Soviet Jewry.

Tell us about your childhood and the years you were active in Bnei Akiva. How did those years shape the future direction of your life?

Childhood begins on January 1, 1938 – the day of my pidyon haben. My grandfather, my father’s father, who had come to America as a young kid in 1900, was a frum Jew who was never mechalel shabbos. And so for my pidyon haben, he brought a very big rabbi, Rabbi Yaakov Meskin, the man who ruled that the agunot of the Titanic could remarry, and he was the Kohen who redeemed me. The power of Torah is such that generations later I was taking attendance in a class of mine in Jerusalem and I came to the name “Rachel Meskin”. I looked at her and asked: “You’re a great-granddaughter?” She said “Yes.” I started to cry, and she started to cry. Everyone looked at us and said “what are we crying about?” This is the power of Torah. 

Before he came to America, my mother’s father learned in Volozhin; he knew Gemaras by heart. But my mother is the only one of his six children that had any real Jewish feeling. When it was time for me to go to school, in 1943, I went to public school. Who ever heard of a yeshivah day school in 1943? But she also put me in a cheder a few times a week. It was mostly a waste of time, but I knew I was Jewish. 

In public school I was a wild kid, so the teacher, a Jewish woman named Ms. Delaraya (a member of the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue), sent for my mother. She said: “Look, the class is Jewish, Irish Catholic, Italian. Your son learns so quickly, he goes wild – it’s a waste of time for him. There’s a Jewish parochial school a few blocks away from here. You should send him there; the dual curriculum will occupy his mind.” So my mother sent me to Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yisrael Salanter. There was very little money at the time; my father was a postman and women didn’t work in those days. So they arranged for me to go to Salanter for $5 a month. 

At Salanter my teachers were mostly “lo yitzlachim,” people who had learned Torah in their youth in Europe, people who tried to sell insurance but didn’t succeed, so they became teachers. They were mostly mechalelei shabbos (Shabbat violators) but they knew Hebrew and they knew how to learn.

In seventh grade, a miracle happened. And this is why, though I consider myself the greatest Zionist in the world, we still have to worry about the Jews in the Diaspora. If all the survivors of the Mir Yeshiva had gone on Aliyah after World War II, I wouldn’t be sitting here today! As it was, half of the Mir moved to Israel and established the Mir Yeshiva there, and half went to America, where they began teaching at schools like Salanter to make a parnossa. In seventh grade, my rebbe was Rabbi Gershon Yankelovitch; he didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Yiddish! But I learned, and the rest is history. 

People today don’t understand my generation. I’m not a ba’al teshuva; our homes were kosher, our parents were “Jewish conscious,” but there was no concept of halachah, of the laws of Shabbat; everyone worked half the day on Shabbat. I don’t think there were ten shomer Shabbat families outside of Rabbi Moshe Bick’s small community in the East Bronx. In my building, 2115 Washington Avenue, we had a lot of Jews, but also Catholics – Italians and Irish. Around the corner, on the other side of the building, lived Mr. Gabriel Weinstein z”l. On Shabbat he would come home from work, make kiddush and sit down to learn Gemara. Since my father could barely read Hebrew, he would help me with Gemara!

The only place you could get a proper Jewish environment was Bnei Akiva. We were a handful of religious kids out of 700,000 Jews in New York. Bnei Akiva met at the other end of Crotona Park in the Bronx in a Modern Orthodox shul, Kehillat Israel. It was a long walk; my wife, Malkah, walked even further to get there. 

From the yeshivah, I got a tremendous love for Torah, halachah and learning. A day hasn’t gone by since the seventh grade that I haven’t learned Gemara! But Bnei Akiva gave me something else that the yeshivah did not give me: the belief in Am Yisrael B’Eretz Yisrael al pi Torat Yisrael (the people of Israel in the Land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel) as the central goal of my life.

Rabbi Rakeffet and Rav Soloveitchik at Rabbi Rakeffet’s wedding, 1960

The incredible people I met at Bnei Akiva – it’s overwhelming! What they built here, after they came on Aliyah, is unbelievable. When I joined, the rosh ken (head counselor) was Rina Buchwald, Rabbi Ephi Buchwald’s older sister, who lives today in Bayit Vegan. A truly inspiring person! And Miriam Beinhorn Levinger zt”l, my wife’s madrichah – we were madrichim together – changed many people’s lives. At the age of 17 she said “you have a choice in life – to be another social security number or to change the course of the history of our people. I want to change the course of history!” I’ve quoted her often, and many people told me that they made Aliyah because of Miriam’s influence. She came on Aliyah, went to nursing school, and married Rabbi Moshe Levinger z”l. Chevron, Kiryat Arba, Yehuda and Shomron – everything we have today goes back to the Levingers! Her granddaughter just completed her doctorate on the role of women in the settlement movement in Yehuda and Shomron. 

Another unbelievable person I knew from Bnei Akiva was Rabbi Avraham Silbert zt”l. With his wife Shoshana, they came on Aliyah and built Be’er Sheva. Today Be’er Sheva is a city filled with Torah; before they got there, there was nothing. He built a high school, a yeshivah – he transformed a city! And Rabbi Shlomo Merzel zt”l, a Chicago Bnei Akiva boy, built Horev Girls School into what it is today. And think what Zelda and Rabbi Sholom Horowitz have accomplished in Chevron. These are the kind of people I met through Bnei Akiva.

And one more thing. We had so many get-togethers at Bnei Akiva, with different sniffim on the West Side, the Lower East Side, Crown Heights and Williamsburg. So many shidduchim came out of Bnei Akiva – hundreds of shidduchim! I only know of one divorce, from all those hundreds of couples. 

You moved to Israel in 1969, during the giddy years immediately following the Six Day War. How did the Six Day War change the trajectory of your life? Was it difficult to leave America? What prompted your Aliyah at that particular time?

I started teaching in 1959 in Ahavath Torah in Englewood with Rabbi Swift, which at that time was just a little house. The next year I taught at Concourse Center of Israel which was a prominent temple in the Bronx. The main shul had separate seating without a mechitzah, but the youth minyan that I ran had one. Then I went into the rabbinate, but also stayed with teaching. I started teaching at YU in 1962, appointed by Rabbi Shmuel Belkin and Rav Soloveitchik. Thank G-d, I was successful; the Rav would build up my ego and say “I hear the boys are excited when you teach a Tosfos!” The Rav’s attitude was like the Lubavitcher Rebbe – if you can teach and handle America, remain there! We need you! I was quite happy at YU.

Then came the Six Day War, and my wife gave me an ultimatum: either you come with me to Israel, or stay behind. We stepped off the boat in Haifa on July 5, 1969. I’ve returned to the pier in Haifa many times since then, but still, it’s like a dream today. When we arrived, all I wanted was one thing – I wanted to know kol haTorah kulah, the entire Torah. I started then, in 1969, and though I haven’t achieved my goal, no one can accuse me of not trying! 

Leaving Yeshiva University in New York after teaching his final class in 1969. A few days later, they set sail to Israel.

I was offered many positions with big titles like ‘president’, ‘chancellor’, ‘rosh yeshivah’, and ‘dean’. I remember being offered a $50,000 salary in the lobby of the Kings Hotel, which back then, during the tough times after the Yom Kippur War, was a fortune! Rabbi Chaim Drukman, whom I idolized, called me; he wanted me to run for the Knesset. But I couldn’t leave the beit midrash, and I couldn’t leave my students. My time in Bnei Akiva gave me the ability to always say no, the ability to not allow money to determine my life decisions. I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Bnei Akiva. I’m very proud to be a Mizrachi Jew!

Was Rav Soloveitchik supportive of your Aliyah? 

The Rav was very proud of Bnei Akiva and its accomplishments, but on the other hand he was very hesitant to lose all his students to Israel. 

In 1968, we came to Israel for the first time on an RCA trip; we left our youngest daughter with my wife’s parents and the two older girls came with us. On that trip, we vowed we would settle in Israel within the year. We came back on Aliyah ten months later.

I went to the Rav to get a birkat preidah, a goodbye blessing, and his first words to me were “How will you make a living?” He was bound to earth! I said “I don’t know, we’ll figure it out…” I also went to Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz to get a birkat preidah, and he says: ?אַתָּה לֹא מְפַחֵד, “are you not afraid?” I responded, “I’m relying on Hashem – and the IDF!”

I never thought I’d go back to America; by 1977 I had done basic training and time in the army, and I really felt like an Israeli. But then the Jewish Agency decided to send me on a trip to the US to speak at the RCA convention and other events. I wrote to the Rav to let him know that I was coming, and when we saw each other at the RCA convention he embraced me and said “I hear wonderful things about you, what you’re doing in Israel!” I was so thankful he didn’t ask me about how I was making a living, because believe me – I was far from making a living, if you know what was going on here in 1977 with the crazy taxes and the terrible economy! But baruch Hashem, I didn’t disappoint my Rebbe, and he gave me a lot of positive feedback about what I was doing in Israel.

Rabbi Rakeffet in basic training, 1976

How did you become involved with Nativ, the clandestine Israeli governmental organization that secretly worked with Soviet Jewry to strengthen Jewish identity and encourage Aliyah? Can you tell us about your missions to the Soviet Union in the 1980s?

I can tell you everything I know about my work with Nativ because the security clause that I signed at the time was knocked out in 2002. But the truth is, I don’t know how Mossad decided to approach me; they would never tell me. 

In May of 1980 I got a call. The lady on the phone says in Hebrew: “Rabbi Rakeffet, are you prepared to have a conversation but not to reveal the details of the conversation?” I assumed it was a call from a student, as I’ve gotten calls like this from students over the years who have committed some sort of serious sin, and they confess to me like I’m like a priest, hoping I’ll tell them to say a few ‘Hail Marys’ and absolve the sin. I figured that’s what it was! But then the woman put the call through to a man who said: “Rabbi Rakeffet, this is Aryeh. I understand that you know how to teach Gemara. Are you prepared to teach Gemara in Moscow?” 

Now I understood; a few of my students from America had gone to Russia on one of these operations, and before they left they visited me and left me their last will and testament. My wife had teased me then: “You would never have the guts to go!” So when I got this call, I said “yes!” But then he asked me: “Who will you take with you?” I said “My wife.” He responded: “What will you do with your daughters?” and proceeded to list all their names and ages. I started to shake and realized that this was no joke; this was real. 

This was Aryeh Kroll zt”l, who later received the Israel Prize for his work. He came from a Litvishe family, his uncle was a rosh yeshivah in Slobodka, his father was a shochet and he was a real crazy Bnei Akiva-nik! He was a founder of Kibbutz Sa’ad. After 25 years, in 1965, he was entitled to go on a trip overseas, and he chose to go to Russia; he had two sisters there who survived the Holocaust whom he hadn’t seen since 1937. The trip changed Aryeh’s life. People ran after him: “Give us a memento! Give us your tallit, your tefillin!” He gave his tallit to a Jew there who said “now I can die, I have a tallit to be buried in.” Aryeh came back to Israel; he didn’t know what to do, but had to do something. He went to speak to Ben-Gurion, whose kibbutz was nearby in the Negev, and said “we have to do something!” Aryeh didn’t know there was a branch of the Mossad since the 1950s that was focused on Soviet Jewry; it wasn’t publicized. Ben-Gurion blew him off – “Aryeh, I thought you were a smart guy. Do you think we’re so crazy to start up with the Communists?” – and sent him away. Two weeks later, Aryeh gets a call at 11:00pm from Shaul Avigur, a legendary figure in the early Mossad who led the Mossad Le’Aliyah Bet operations to smuggle Jews into Israel during the British Mandate. “Aryeh, it seems you have a good friend in Sde Boker [Ben-Gurion’s kibbutz]. I want to see you.” From that point on, Aryeh worked for the Mossad.

Aryeh told us to meet him at a government building that was very hard to find; later I understood that he did this purposely to see if we could find an address. In Communist Russia you couldn’t get a map in English; there were no tourist maps in English. And wherever you went, there were numbers on the houses, but never names; there was never a name on the mailbox.

Then we had six months of preparation. I have to give all the credit to the State of Israel – they invested millions of dollars in this operation. Aryeh realized that we had dual citizenship and that I could present myself as an American. I didn’t want to tell the Soviets that I was a Rebbe, so I said that I was a banker. I even had stationery printed! Why did I choose banking as my fake profession? I did my research; people who had spent time in Russia told me that the KGB knew nothing about banking because the Communist system was so different from the US system. If they challenged me, I could double-talk and deflect the questions without too much trouble.

I was prepared well. The Mossad told me that I should start by meeting with a group of no more than five people in the apartment of Rabbi Aryeh Katzin’s apartment [a Jewish activist in Moscow during the years 1977–1981], to see if the KGB would tolerate it. We worked under the premise that we were not opposed to Communism; we just wanted ‘repatriation’. The Soviets allowed Germans to be repatriated to Germany after the war, and so Jews should also have the right to be repatriated to their family members in their homeland, in Israel. This is what we always stressed.

Finishing the bottle of vodka in proper Russian fashion at the conclusion of the session with the scientists, 1985

There was a whole underground in Russia; because of the Six Day War, Jews were waking up. Do you know what it meant to smuggle in a book called Exodus, the impact it made on the Jews in Russia? Now, it’s one thing to smuggle in a book, but how do you get that book all over the country? Xerox machines were government controlled, but the government couldn’t control photography. If you could smuggle in a good camera and get it to the right person, they could photograph an entire book and make hundreds of copies.

How did Israel finance all of this? On our third trip to the Soviet Union, we went to Vilna. We were given a picture of a baby, and told that when we got to Vilna we should show this picture to a certain man in a hospital there who will take us into a side room and give us 50,000 Rubles. Then it was our job to visit a list of people who could be trusted. We were told to give these people the money and tell them that in six months time, someone will follow up with them to see how the money was utilized.

What was going on here? It turns out this doctor in the hospital had children who had come on Aliyah, and these children wanted to buy an apartment in Israel. Everyone knows how challenging it is to buy a place in Israel! The Mossad’s division that dealt with Soviet Jewry, later known as Nativ HaDemama (“The Silent Path”), gave these children the money they needed to buy an apartment in Israel, with the understanding that their father in Russia would give the equivalent amount to Jewish activists there. The children told their father “when someone shows you a picture of a baby with a bottle, give the money to him!” Sure enough, we showed him the picture, got the money, and passed it onto the people who needed it.

When I came back in January of 1981 I helped organize Shvut Ami, an organization that taught Russian Jews who came to Israel about yiddishkeit. I used to walk in there once a week, and it gave me life! It was a beit midrash in Yerushalayim where everyone was learning Gemara in Russian, their native language. Out of Shvut Ami came many rabbanim, mashpi’im and mechanchim; it functions until today, teaching Torah to Jews in Russia and Israel.

You have spent the great majority of your life teaching thousands of students in Jerusalem, at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel, Midreshet Moriah and many other institutions. From your vantage point, what are some of the changes you’ve seen in the Anglo Jewish community over the years, both in Israel and the Diaspora?

Our greatest mistake is to call ourselves Orthodox Jews. That implies that observing Torah and mitzvot is a choice. So I refuse to call myself an Orthodox Jew; I call myself a Jew. There is only one way to be a Jew, and that is to live a life of Torah and mitzvot. Every survey in the world shows us that there where there is no Torah and mitzvot in the big Western world, there is assimilation and intermarriage. Any family that has been in America for a long time, you see what happens to them without Torah and mitzvot – they cannot survive as Jews, period.

We love every Jew – we must welcome them with kindness and warmth. But on the other hand we have to be clear; this is Torat Hashem Temimah, this is how we have survived and how we will survive. We cannot compromise our message for the sake of political correctness.

We’re always going to have a problem with American Jewry. People think Jews in Israel can get along with and understand Jews in America. Yes, we can understand a religious Jew living in Borough Park, to a certain degree. But for the assimilating American Jew – we are a bone in his throat! We remind him that he’s Jewish, we remind him that there is a G-d, we remind him of Jewish history, we remind him that we have a national homeland! Daniel Gordis wrote a wonderful book, We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel. People think we can placate American Jewry and bow to them, but it’s absolutely wrong. The more we talk about pluralism, the more we try to placate them, the more we will fail. Pluralism is a synonym for intermarriage and assimilation and I challenge anyone to prove me wrong. 

Rabbi Rakeffet teaching during his trip to Moscow in 2017

On the other hand, we have to realize the great miracle that has happened here, something newcomers can’t begin to understand. The Rav used to say, “People view yiddishkeit today like an old lady. We have to put modern clothes on her and make the message contemporary.” It took a long time in America to go from the Eastern European yiddishkeit of the Etz Chaim Yeshivah in 1886 to what we have today. 

In Israel, it’s a miracle. There was absolutely nothing here except for the old yishuv, which was oriented around a different mentality. We have to give so much credit to Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria, Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook and others. Today, we have an entire educational system that combines Torah, Israel and modernity. The choices that are available today are astounding! A young girl or boy can choose any type of high school they want! They have so many programs that combine Torah and the army, led by the finest people in the world. And on the collegiate level, a young woman who loves to dance can get a degree in dance, 100% according to Torah. The same is true for music, acting and movie making. When you come to Israel today, it’s hard to fully appreciate the growth, how far we’ve come. We’ve achieved miracles here! 

Please share a few final thoughts with us.

I believe that I’m a combination of all the good I saw in my rebbeim: My rebbe Rav Soloveitchik, the Mirrer Yeshiva crowd, the Shanghai crowd, Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel (who used to regale me with stories about how when Rabbi Shmuel Belkin came to America he taught him English, and Rabbi Belkin taught him Gemara). 

I don’t like to be negative; the greatest compliment I received about my memoir, From Washington Avenue to Washington Street, was when one student said to me: “Rebbe, you wrote over five hundred pages without one negative comment!” There were, of course, people who were not nice to me at different points over the years. My scholarship was once stolen. But what’s the difference? I forgive everyone! We have to thank G-d for what we achieve, and be positive!

There’s no question that I owe a big debt of thanks to Bnei Akiva. In my time we had a big debate: should it be called Bnei Akiva or Bnei Rebbe Akiva? I think both names are correct. Not everyone has the ability and zest to become a gaon, a chassid or a tzaddik. But everyone has the ability to be a good Jew and to live an inspired life, each person on their own level. Some will be Bnei Rebbe Akiva, others will be Bnei Akiva – but they are both holy! Together we’ve achieved so much of the dream, here in Israel and around the world. Just think about what we could have done, how many we could have saved, if we had our State just a little bit earlier. 

I call on everyone reading this interview: join us here, עַל אַדְמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ, here in Eretz Yisrael. Live the dream, and shape the dream, with Hashem’s help!

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