One on One with Rabbi Yitzchak Neria
Rabbi Yitzchak Neria is the son of Rabbi Nachum Neria and the grandson of Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria zt”l, the “father of the kippah serugah (knitted kippah) generation.” Rabbi Neria is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Torah B’Tzion in Efrat, the founder of Keren Echad L’Echad and chairman of Torah MiTzion, which sends Religious Zionist shlichim all over the world. He previously served as the Rosh Kollel of the Torah MiTzion Kollel in Montreal.
On the 19th of Kislev, your family and so many others will mark the 26th yahrzeit of your holy grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Neria zt”l, one of the most influential Religious Zionist rabbis of his time. Can you share some memories of your grandfather with us?
I was very attached to my grandfather. When I was a teenager he pushed me to enter the field of Jewish education, even though I was interested in other pursuits at the time. He encouraged me and persuaded me that my calling in life is in the rabbinate and Jewish education.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of my grandfather was his constant concern for the broader Jewish community, a concern which guided his own actions and which he sought to transmit to his children and grandchildren. This was a direct result of the teachings of Rav Kook, who my grandfather learned with and was deeply attached to. A Jew is obligated to act on behalf of Am Yisrael and the entire world.
My grandfather was also deeply concerned with the great challenge of bringing the younger generation closer to Torah. He wanted to build a Religious Zionist community committed to Torah, a community that is alive and constantly growing and moving forward.
He understood that sometimes a deep dedication to Zionism can lead, G-d forbid, to a weakening of our dedication to Torah. He believed that the only way to avoid this is by giving our children a deep Torah education which brings the light of Torah to every aspect of life and community.
When my grandfather felt that there was a need for another yeshiva, he wasn’t worried about the impact the new yeshiva would have on his own. In fact, he would send his students to open more yeshivot because he understood that we must strengthen the foundation of Klal Yisrael through Torah study.
How has the Religious Zionist community in Israel changed in the decades since your grandfather passed away?
We could talk about this question for hours! Thank G-d, there have been good changes, foremost among them the growth of the Torah community. But there are also many new challenges among Religious Zionist youth, including those who study in religious institutions. It’s not certain that many of these young people will succeed in preserving their faith when confronted by the powerful currents of a secular society disconnected from holiness. Thank G-d, our country is strong, both economically and militarily. But on a spiritual level, the high percentage of young people removing their kippot is very concerning. Regarding olim specifically, sometimes children feel that the most important mitzvah is to become “Israeli,” which may come at the expense of being “Jewish.”
Today, as the State of Israel flourishes with newfound prosperity, we must continue to light a holy fire for Judaism so that people not only continue to observe Torah and mitzvot but do so with passion and excitement. My grandfather was very connected to the Rebbe of Piaseczna, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira hy”d, who wrote that there is no extraordinary wisdom in seeing how good things are in the yeshivot. Instead, we must pay attention to what is happening in the streets, where much work is to be done.
You spent three years on shlichut in Montreal as the beloved Rosh Kollel of the Torah MiTzion Kollel. How did the experience impact your family and career, and how has it informed your work in Israel?
To this day, we are still very connected to the community in Montreal, and many of our friends from there have made Aliyah. I am also the Chairman of Torah MiTzion, and I periodically visit Jewish communities around the world.
Our shlichut in Montreal made a tremendous impact on us. The way Jewish community life works in the Diaspora is a model that we should copy here in Israel, not as a social model but as a spiritual model. The rabbi and lay leadership create a vibrant center filled with life, learning and holy joy. In Israel, a successful example of this model is the Shirat David shul in Efrat, led by Rabbi Shlomo Katz. There is a holy fire; not a fire that burns, G-d forbid, but a fire that warms the community.
You currently serve as Chairman of the Board of Torah MiTzion, which sends Religious Zionist shlichim to Jewish communities worldwide. What are some of the challenges and opportunities you encounter in the Torah MiTzion Kollels?
The great difficulty is that we are Zionists. The Diaspora communities love this; they are excited to celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut with us, and they pray with emotion for the IDF and State of Israel. But at the same time, they want their Israeli Rosh Kollel to remain in their Diaspora community for twenty years! The joke we often make is that during the first year, the shaliach is in shock. In the second year, everything works well. And in the third year, the shaliach makes plans to return home to Israel!
We are always thinking about different models, such as partnerships with community rabbis and institutions like Yeshiva University. But the fundamental tension remains, as we genuinely want Am Yisrael to return to its Land, which is a vital part of our message as a Zionist Kollel.
You have worked in many different roles – as a Torah educator, community rabbi and nonprofit leader – in both Israel and the Diaspora, giving you a unique perspective on Jewish communities all over the world. In your opinion, how do Religious Zionist communities in Israel differ from those in the Diaspora? What can they learn from one another?
I believe with all my heart that we must always be learning from each other to ensure that we move forwards and not backwards. When my grandfather established his yeshiva, he said he wanted “Lithuanian lomdus (in-depth Torah study) together with a Chassidic service of G-d and the enthusiasm of young Israelis.” We can and must learn from everyone!
Today, through our foundation Echad L’Echad, we are cultivating the next generation of Religious Zionist gedolei Torah (great Torah scholars) who will be the foundation of our community for the next fifty years. We find the top students studying in yeshivot throughout Israel and give them a monthly stipend to continue learning Torah. Every society, including our own, must cultivate a spiritual elite without apology, for these leaders will be the ones to confront the spiritual challenges of the next generation. We have learned this from the Chareidi world and must incorporate it into our community as well.
Israel has much to learn from Diaspora Jewry about community, respect for others, and the great importance of every Jew. In our prayers we say: וְכֻלָּם מְקַבְּלִים עֲלֵיהֶם עֹל מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם זֶה מִזֶּה, “and they all accept the yoke of Heaven from one another.” When we look at each other with eyes of kindness and direct our hearts towards Hashem, there is much that we can learn from one another.