Moriah Zeira with a student.
Shining the Light of Torah
The Zeira Family and Rosh Yehudi
For many years, Yisrael and Moriah Zeira lived with their eight children in a religious yishuv near Chevron. What made them decide to leave their familiar tight-knit community and move their family to the heart of Tel Aviv? And how did they launch Rosh Yehudi, one of the most impactful Kiruv organizations in Tel Aviv?
Rabbi Aron White spoke with Yisrael and Moriah to learn more about this remarkable family’s journey.
When did your connection to the city of Tel Aviv begin?
Yisrael: I was born and grew up in Tel Aviv, so I always had a connection to the city. After high school, I studied at Yeshivat Shavei Chevron in Chevron, and later became the director of the yeshiva. During the early ’90s and the years of the Oslo Accords, we ran numerous public campaigns to ensure that Chevron would remain under Israeli sovereignty. As I was organizing protests and rallies in the center of Tel Aviv, a thought struck me: Why are we only doing a campaign like this in Tel Aviv when there is some kind of political threat? Why don’t we engage with Jews in Tel Aviv all the time?
Political protests are probably the least wholesome way to teach our Religious Zionist worldview to the broader population. Rather than shouting one-line slogans, wouldn’t it be much better if we could build meaningful relationships? And rather than talking about security concerns, wouldn’t it be better to share our deep worldview of Am Yisrael, Torat Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael?!
I realized that Tel Aviv is the cultural, academic and economic center of Israel, and the atmosphere there has an impact on the whole of Israel. Within our Religious Zionist communities we would say that the people of Tel Aviv were out of touch, but the truth is, we were out of touch with them!
How did Rosh Yehudi develop?
Yisrael: About 25 years ago, we began Rosh Yehudi, an outreach organization that would run a few shiurim for ba’alei teshuva and those interested in learning more about Judaism. We wanted to reach out to people by offering them something deep, by learning genuine and meaningful Torah with them.
After a few years of following this model, one couple who was involved with the organization decided to move to Tel Aviv to begin running tefillot and hosting people for Shabbat meals. We were skeptical, but more people came to the tefillot than had come to the shiurim, and they were inundated with guests for Shabbat meals. Today, we have nine families living in different neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. Five years ago, we also made the move to Tel Aviv, and hosting people on Shabbat is a core part of what we do.
Moriah: Each week we host between 20 and 40 people in our home for one of the Shabbat meals, and the other meal is reserved as family time. On chagim, we can even host 50 people at a meal, which is a lot of work, with all the shopping, cooking, hosting and cleaning! We are inspired by the model of Avraham and Sarah, who had an open tent. But there is a lot of work involved and a constant balancing act; we have to know when to carve out time for our children and when to open our home to even more guests.
The people we host are all in different places on their religious journeys; some come from totally non-religious backgrounds, while others left religious observance and are now looking to re-engage. These Shabbat experiences can be truly transformative. We sing, share a dvar Torah, and ask a question that everyone answers. People’s hearts open as the words, and sometimes tears, flow. They stay long into the night; in order to end the evening and get people to go home, we had to set the timer so the lights would go out for a half-hour. But people learned the trick and stayed through the dark until they switched on again!
After people connect through the Shabbat meal, the next stage of their journey is starting to learn Torah one-on-one and by joining shiurim.
It is hard to convey the depth and emotions each person experiences on their path to teshuva. One woman worked as an air hostess for ElAl, and she gradually began becoming religious. I helped her at so many different stages – how to handle her family that was not supportive of her decision, how to kasher her apartment, and how to date in a religious world that was so foreign to her. There were frustrations, laughter, tears and joy.
How has living in Tel Aviv impacted your family?
Moriah: There has been a lot of mesirut nefesh, as we have to sacrifice a lot of time with our family to open our home to others. The flip-side of this is that the women who I work with feel like my extended family! When I dance at a wedding of a woman who has been at our home for years, after we have gone through so much together, it really feels like we have formed an extended family bond!
Yisrael: There is definitely a culture shock when you move from Kiryat Arba to Tel Aviv! Some of our older children were already out of the house when we moved, while the younger ones had to leave their friends at school and Bnei Akiva behind. The street looks very different in Tel Aviv compared to Kiryat Arba, but I don’t think any of them were weakened spiritually. Many of our kids even became spiritually stronger! The children are part of the community work we are doing, some more and some less. And we are constantly working out the right balance between giving to the wider community and to our own family.
Do you encourage people to move to Tel Aviv?
Yisrael: Yes, though not everyone. You need to be strong in your Torah values and beliefs, as there is a very different atmosphere here. But we need many more young couples to join us and to make an impact on this city!