Torat Chesed: An Interview with Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon

On the 25th of Adar Rishon 5784, the anniversary of the founding of the Mizrachi movement, World Mizrachi announced that Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon would become its new Nasi. Rav Rimon is already world-famous for his Torah, leadership and chesed.

Rav Rimon’s appointment comes after extensive involvement with World Mizrachi in multiple capacities over recent years. His Nesiut will open a new chapter in the revitalized World Mizrachi movement, alongside Executive Chairman Rabbi Doron Perez and Acting CEO Rabbi Danny Mirvis.

Rabbi Aron White sat down with Rav Rimon, to hear more from the new Nasi about his upbringing, influences, and visions for the future.

Acting CEO Rabbi Danny Mirvis, Nasi Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, Executive Chairman Rabbi Doron Perez.

Though you live in Gush Etzion today, your upbringing was in Tel Aviv. How did your family come to be there, and how does your childhood still affect you today?

It all begins with my great-grandfather, Ephraim Eliezer Granat Rimon, who made Aliyah from Poland in 1908 to Yafo. He lived very close to Rav Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Yafo at the time, on Rechov Zerach Barnett. He was incredibly dedicated to building the community there – he transformed half of his home into a shul and beit midrash called Kehal Chassidim, leaving the other half for his family! It was a tough time, as the Ottoman authorities made life very difficult. 

A year later, his son, my grandfather Yosef Zvi Rimon who I am named for, made Aliyah to Yafo too and became very close with Rav Kook. My grandfather was a poet, who wrote beautiful poems infused with religious meaning. Rav Kook considered him to be one of the greatest Jewish poets of the past few centuries. My grandfather changed the family name from Granat to Rimon, and actually consulted with Shai Agnon to choose the name. 

My father David Rimon served in the Haganah, the precursor to the IDF that helped to found the state. He stayed in Tel Aviv too, and that’s how I came to grow up there. When I was in the army in Hesder, a secular comrade of mine asked me where I live, and I told him Tel Aviv. He asked, “Do you mean Bnei Brak?” I told him, “Tel Aviv, the corner of Gordon and Dizengoff!” You can’t get more central Tel Aviv than that! Growing up in that environment came with challenges, and many of my friends from childhood did not remain religious. There is no question it gave me a deeper connection to Am Yisrael, strengthened my dedication to my own beliefs, and had a big impact on me. 

Rav Rimon at his wedding dancing with Rav Lichtenstein.

Who were and are the Rebbeim who had the greatest impact on you?

I feel blessed to have had a connection to many gedolim. Rav Goren, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, Rav Ovadia, the Steipler, Rav Elyashiv, the Tzitz Eliezer – these are all rabbanim I have spoken with and had different types of relationship with. When I was in high school, I loved learning Rav Ovadia’s teshuvot (legal responsa) in Yabia Omer and Yechaveh Da’at, and I would often go to him to ask him about them. 

Growing up I went to yeshiva high school, and I was very close to my school principal Rav Aryeh Bina, who made a big impact on me. After that, I studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion under Rav Amital, and with the rabbi who had the greatest impact on me, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. I feel blessed that for many years, I would speak to Rav Lichtenstein almost every day. Rav Lichtenstein was a figure full of Torah and yirat shamayim, with a knowledge of the breadth and depth of Torah that was astonishing. His commitment to Hashem was absolute; Hashem was the center of his world. He also had a broad perspective, and could analyze reality in such a deep way. Often you would come to him with a question with two different possible answers in your head, but he would approach it in such a different and out of the box way and provide a way of thinking that was totally original. His character traits and the way he treated other people were exemplary; he was a remarkable figure.

What were the most powerful experiences from your army service?

I served in Chel HaShiryon (IDF Tank Corps) in Chativa 188, through the Hesder program. The first part of my service was together with other yeshiva students, but later in my service I was together with all of Am Yisrael. Army service created strong and long-lasting bonds with other soldiers. The IDF gave me a powerful feeling of shlichut, that we are a generation who have merited to fight for our people and our land. Am Yisrael has the great merit to wear the uniform of the IDF, to defend our people. It’s a special zechut

The army also teaches you many things that you then can apply to all areas of life. You learn to what extent you can function with limited sleep. When you are running late for misdar (roll call), you learn how much you can do in 20 seconds. When you are on a masa (hike), and someone has to be the one to carry the stretcher, you learn what it means to really help a friend, even when you have no strength left – and to find reserves of strength you didn’t know you had. These experiences teach you life lessons that apply in civilian life too. 

One of the first sefarim that I wrote was Hilchot Tzava, a practical guide to halacha for soldiers in the army. Since the war began on Simchat Torah, I have visited many army bases to speak to and meet with soldiers. I have a suit now that I don’t ever want to take off except for dry cleaning – I have hugged thousands of soldiers wearing it, it is very holy!

Rav Rimon during his IDF service.

Did you always wanted to be a rabbi and a teacher of Torah?

I always wanted to be a doctor, and my father also thought I was going to do that. My brother took that route and is today a leading geriatric doctor. Since high school, I always loved learning, especially halacha, but professionally I wanted to be a doctor. When I was in my fifth year of yeshiva, Rav Lichtenstein called me to his office, and he spoke to me for a quarter of an hour about how important it is to be a doctor – he described in great detail how valuable and meaningful a profession it is. “But,” he said, “in your case I think your shlichut is to teach Torah.” Gradually, I changed direction, and stayed another year and then another learning in yeshiva. Three years later I became a Ra”m and then remained in that world of teaching Torah.

How did you meet your wife?

When I was in my sixth year of yeshiva, a Ra”m from the yeshiva, Rav Eliyahu Blumenzweig, opened a new Hesder yeshiva in Yerucham. He wanted me to come and teach there, but I didn’t think it would be so easy for me to find a wife in Yerucham, a small town far from the center of the country! We agreed that I would come two days a week to teach there. But then I met Rav Blumenzweig’s daughter, Sharon, and at the end of the year we got married. She is a masterful teacher of Tanach, with tremendous knowledge of it all, and has written two books so far about it. We are blessed with eight daughters, and three grandchildren. The last few months have been difficult with a number of sons-in-law in the army, and we pray for their continued success and safety.

At what point did you begin to connect with and teach Jews from outside of Israel?

I grew up learning English at home, as my mother was originally from England. All of the shiurim I give in English are ultimately in her merit and an aliyah for her neshama. I started teaching in English about 30 years ago through Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who asked me to write educational programs in halacha for Yeshivat Ramaz in Manhattan. He said that in order to do a proper job, he would bring me to Ramaz for a week, so that I could understand the students; sitting in Gush Etzion writing a curriculum for students from New York wouldn’t work if I didn’t really know them. I was there for a week in the lower school and upper school and gave some shiurim. That was my first entrance to that world, and it grew from there. I wrote my first sefarim in Hebrew, but about 22 years ago, the Koschitzky family sponsored a translation of my sefer on Shemitta into English. I was very happy. My mother’s Hebrew was not fluent, she couldn’t read a whole book in Hebrew, and she read the Jerusalem Post for her news. I was happy she could read my whole sefer! Gradually, more of my books were translated into English. Six of my twenty five books have been translated, with hopefully more to come!

After the disengagement from Gush Katif in 2005, you set up an organization to help the thousands of Israelis who were kicked out of their homes. How did you get involved with that?

At that time, I was fully engrossed in my studies and teaching within the beit midrash. But when I received a call from rabbis in Gush Katif on the day of the uprooting, I realized there was a pressing need to help the people from Gush Katif. So, I rallied thousands of volunteers to assist with immediate needs like laundry and food. It became clear, however, that the greatest need was for employment. 85% of the people were without work, and many felt lost without a sense of purpose.

Initially, employment assistance wasn’t my expertise at all! Despite trying to engage governmental resources, it was apparent they were insufficient. Thus, JobKatif emerged as a grassroots effort, evolving from a volunteer initiative into a professional organization.

Helping the people was incredibly challenging. Many were farmers needing to switch careers, people who were over 40 or 50, feeling disheartened about their future. We had to think outside the box. We recognized that just finding jobs wasn’t enough; they needed comprehensive support. So, we developed a strategy that focused on employment assistance, skill development and mentoring to navigate the transition successfully.

Through JobKatif, we assisted 3,500 individuals in securing employment, established 280 new businesses, and even received an award from President Shimon Peres for our efforts. Moreover, it connected me with Jews worldwide whose support was instrumental in our success. This experience laid the groundwork for La’Ofek, which continues our mission of empowering marginalized groups.

La’Ofek builds on the success of JobKatif, extending our model to empower marginalized groups like Ethiopian-Israeli women, impoverished IDF soldiers, and at-risk youth. For example, our Achotenu-Nachshonim program helps hundreds of Ethiopian women gain acceptance into Hebrew University’s nursing and occupational therapy programs. We also assist thousands of impoverished IDF soldiers with employment opportunities through our Ta’asuchayil program, and hundreds of at-risk youth through our Notim Yachad vocational training program. 

You also founded Sulamot, a Jewish education organization. How did this happen? 

Sulamot was founded to inspire and innovate in the field of Jewish education. The content revolution, which originally began with the publication of sefarim on halacha, has since expanded into various fields within Jewish education, profoundly impacting how Jews of all ages experience Judaism. 

During Operation Tzuk Eitan (Protective Edge in 2014), we launched Ratzim LaMishnah, an action video series that brings Mishnah study to life for children, incorporating captivating narratives, text comprehension, and analytical tools. Initially dedicated to the memory of the 38 soldiers lost during Tzuk Eitan, the project quickly gained traction, with over 170,000 children worldwide eagerly embracing Mishnah study. 

When the war broke out, in addition to our regular programming, our focus shifted towards supporting soldiers and providing emergency relief. We also launched Project Atufim for eight communities displaced from their homes. While there are parallels to Gush Katif, a notable distinction is that these communities have the prospect of returning home. Hence, our efforts are geared towards aiding them during displacement. We focus on employment through La’Ofek and the revitalization of community life, along with the reconstruction of their kibbutzim, moshavim, and yishuvim through Sulamot.

I encourage my staff to dream big, and I’m immensely proud of their accomplishments over the past 19 years.

Rav Rimon in Or Akiva: Kids are excited to study Mishnah with Sulamot’s Ratzim LaMishnah series.

You are also the Chief Rabbi of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. What does that role include?

There are 22 towns in the region, and each town has its own rav. The job of the rabbi of the whole council is to care for the entire region, both in terms of halachic psak as well as the spiritual level of the communities as a whole. Certain questions that come up relate to the area as a whole, such as questions regarding agriculture and mitzvot haTeluyot ba’aretz, mitzvot relating to the Land of Israel, that affect the whole region. When Arabs burned thousands of dunams of trees during a Shemitta year, we faced an interesting question. Can you replant the trees, because even though it is a Shemitta year, it is needed for security? I also give shiurim across the different yishuvim, to strengthen Torah across the area. We initiated learning programs for teenagers on Saturday nights, with thousands of teenagers participating. It’s my job to see the big picture, to think about both the questions that arise and the spiritual atmosphere in the region.

I am also the Head of the Batei Midrash at Machon Lev in Yerushalayim, an institution dedicated to Torah and madda, and I am the halachic guide for that institution.

You are now becoming the Nasi of World Mizrachi. How did your connection with World Mizrachi develop, and what is your vision for the movement as Nasi?

My connection began when Rabbi Doron Perez was in South Africa. I visited him there and we became close. When he made Aliyah to lead Mizrachi, Mizrachi had halachic questions, and I loved talking with him about them. Rav Doron is a remarkable individual, and I pray every day that his son Daniel should return home soon with the other hostages. Rabbi Danny Mirvis, the Acting CEO of World Mizrachi, was a student of mine in yeshiva, and we were close when he was in Melbourne as a Mizrachi rabbi. 

I believe deeply in the leadership of Mizrachi as well as the mission. When you see them giving strength to Mizrachi around the world, strengthening communities and inspiring adults and teenagers to love Medinat Yisrael, Torah, and Am Yisrael – I feel very connected to this vision. I then became involved with Mizrachi Musmachim, the Mizrachi semicha program, where I teach and sign the certificates for semicha. I also have visited many communities around the world through Mizrachi’s Yom HaAtzmaut program, Israel360.

The Mizrachi movement has a unique shlichut, as it has had throughout the generations. Today the mission of Mizrachi is to bring unity in the Jewish people, to spread the light of Torah among the Jewish people, to bring the light of Eretz Yisrael to the whole world. We have many challenges as a people, but we are living in a time that our grandparents could never have imagined. Despite all we have gone through since Simchat Torah, I believe we as a people will arrive at a higher place than we were before, in terms of achdut, and the continuing building of our Land and our Torah. We are blessed to have unique opportunities after 2,000 years, and b’ezrat Hashem we will be successful!

The graduation ceremony for the Mizrachi Musmachim, June 2023.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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