Talia Weitzen (right) addresses the Bergen County delegation. Her husband Amichai was killed in that spot defending the kibbutz.

Unity Saves Lives

Under the visionary leadership of Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon, Sulamot has worked tirelessly to support nine communities from the Gaza Envelope region. In an inspiring display of unity, communities from around the world have come together to partner with Sulamot and adopt these communities through Project Atufim. 

One such inspiring example is the Bergen County initiative, led by Rabbi Fridman of the Jewish Center of Teaneck. In this exclusive interview, we sit down with Rabbi Fridman to learn more about his involvement with Sulamot, the impact of the Bergen County initiative, and the power of unity in saving lives.

 

Rabbi Fridman, can you tell us how you first connected with Sulamot, and what inspired you to get involved with Project Atufim?

I’d like to try to frame this within something of a halachic context. Rambam makes it clear that the war in which we are engaged is a milchemet mitzvah, that is, a war that obligates every member of the Jewish people to make a direct contribution to the war effort. The war against Hamas clearly meets the criterion of “ezrat Yisrael miyad tzareihim, saving the Jewish people from an enemy that has come upon them.” As such, there was no question that we had to be very intensely involved.

I wanted to work with Rav Rimon’s organization for two reasons. First, as a student at Yeshivat Har Etzion two decades ago, I was very taken with Rav Rimon’s stature as a talmid chacham. Second, I knew that Rav Rimon had done superior work with the evacuees from Gush Katif, and that his organization would be very well positioned to make an immediate difference for those who were displaced.

What made you and your community choose to adopt Kerem Shalom specifically?

Kerem Shalom reflects, in my opinion, the Jewish people’s greatest need right now: achdut. The fact that those who identify as religious and those who do not live together, not just with mutual toleration but with genuine respect, is not only an example for all of Am Yisrael, but it is the single greatest contribution to our national security. United, we will merit help from G-d and we will never be defeated. Divided, G-d forbid, we will continue the path of baseless hatred from the period of Second Temple, and we will not be successful. 

From your perspective, how has Sulamot’s approach to working with Kerem Shalom been unique or impactful? What have you observed about the way they support the community and the evacuated families?

In this case, please do not take my word for it. Listen to the people in Kerem Shalom, who even under rocket attack to this day, tell me how great a source of strength Sulamot has been for them. The idea that such an outstanding organization is deeply invested in the process not only of rebuilding Kerem Shalom, but of enabling it to reach even greater levels of development, reminds them that their willingness to literally live al ha-gader, on the border, is a shlichut on behalf of all of Am Yisrael. This goes well beyond the financial and material support which Sulamot is providing. Sulamot is literally reinforcing the sense of mission that each member of Kerem Shalom has in achieving their mission of yishuv Eretz Yisrael

Avital Schindler outside her home with the Bergen County delegation. Her home was invaded on October 7th and her husband Amichai was severely injured.

Can you tell us about the Bergen County delegation’s visit to Kerem Shalom and the impact it had?

I have to single out Rav Eli Taragin, Sulamot’s CEO, for hakarat hatov, for all of his hard work making this aspect of our mission so outstanding. To go to Kerem Shalom and to witness and hear directly from those who saved an entire Jewish community from destruction on October 7th, to meet with the families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, Amichai Weitzen and Yedidya Raziel, and the Schindler family, whose home was invaded, may have been, after my wedding and the birth of our children, the most meaningful day of my life. It was an overwhelming experience for all of us. We felt that the bond we have as members of Am Yisrael is so profound that it makes the six thousand miles of geographic distance between our communities literally meaningless. We were, as the midrash describes in the context of Matan Torah, as one person, with one heart.

You mentioned that 17 other rabbis and communities from Bergen County have joined this initiative. Can you share more about how this collaborative effort came together and the significance of having such a diverse group of communities united in this cause?

The mission itself included the spiritual leadership of six of our shuls: Bais Medrash of Bergenfield, Beth Aaron, Ohr Saadya, Rinat Yisrael, Young Israel of Teaneck, and the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Once we came back, it was obvious to us that this had to be brought to the entire Bergen County community. In this effort, I want to really express deepest gratitude to three of my colleagues, Rabbi Binyamin Krohn, who is the President of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, Rabbi Elliot Schrier, Rabbi of Bnai Yeshurun, and Rabbi Eli Shestack, Rabbi of Ahavat Achim in Fair Lawn, who really were instrumental in making all of this possible.

Our community is diverse with differing styles – which we all appreciate – but this project is a reflection of the extent to which Bergen County is in fact deeply unified. Our values are clear and straightforward across our synagogues. We cherish chesed, we prize Torah study and mitzvah observance, and we love Eretz Yisrael and our brothers and sisters who live there. And so, for us, this was a natural choice. 

You have powerfully stated “unity saves lives” in the context of Kerem Shalom. Can you elaborate on what this statement means to you and how it relates to the situation in Kerem Shalom and the broader Jewish community?

The story of Kerem Shalom reflects this simple truth. When the established members of Kerem Shalom made the courageous decision to welcome a gar’in, a group of young religious families, to join their community, they had in mind the vitality of the kibbutz. It was a brave and courageous decision. What they could not have known, of course, was that this would play a great role in saving the kibbutz on October 7th, as the heroic actions and incredible mesirut nefesh of the kitat konnenut, the first response team, many of whose members are religious, saved an entire Jewish community in the Land of Israel.   

In my opinion, this is a microcosm of all of Klal Yisrael. If we can make room to live together, we will merit much greater Divine assistance in our national struggle for survival. While we must be humble when we speak of what it is that Hashem thinks, we all know as parents the profound nachat we have when our children treat one another with compassion and respect, and, G-d forbid, the ogmat nefesh we experience when our children perhaps do not behave that way. It is a matter of personal faith for me that this is true of Hashem as well, as He is Avinu sheBaShamayim, our Father in Heaven. Perhaps this is the meaning of the statement in Pirkei Avot, “He who is pleasing in the eyes of Hashem’s creatures, is pleasing to Hashem. He who is not pleasing to Hashem’s creatures, is not pleasing to Hashem.”

Rabbi Rothwachs and Rabbi Fridman plant a tree in Kerem Shalom in memory of Amichai Weitzen and Yedidya Raziel, who fell saving the kibbutz from dozens of terrorists. The tree is located equidistant from the spot where they fell Al Kiddush Hashem.

What message do you have for others who may want to get involved and support the families of Kerem Shalom?

Working together with Sulamot on this project has been one of the great privileges of my life. Much of this is a credit to Sulamot under the leadership of Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon, whose professionals, Rav Eli Taragin and his entire team, are some of the most talented people working on behalf of Am Yisrael right now. They are the very models of those who are “oskim b’tzorchei tzibbur be’emunah,” and it permeates everything that they do.

At the most basic level, the message I would like to share is that this is a historic opportunity, particularly for those of us who live in the Diaspora. There is only one reason why Hamas attacked Be’eri, Nachal Oz, Zikim, Cholit, and Kerem Shalom on Simchat Torah, and not Teaneck, Chicago, London, or Miami: it was closer. Hamas seeks the destruction of the Jewish people. In that sense, the attack on Kerem Shalom was an attack on the entire Jewish people. As such, we have a great responsibility to ensure that Hamas is granted no victories whatsoever in this war, and that Kerem Shalom is rebuilt and expanded, along with all of the communities of the Otef, the Gaza Envelope.

In doing so, it seems to me that we will fulfill an aspect of the great mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael, as explained by Ramban. While it is well known that Ramban understood that there was a personal obligation for each and every member of the Jewish people to live in the Land of Israel, he further adds that there is an obligation not to leave the Land of Israel undeveloped, שֶׁלֹּא נַעַזְבֶנָּה לִשְׁמָמָה. For those of us who have not yet merited fulfilling the first part of Ramban’s presentation of the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisrael, this partnership with Sulamot provides us a historic opportunity to help our beloved brothers and sisters in Kerem Shalom, and thereby ensure that the Land of Israel is not, G-d forbid, left desolate.  

May we all merit seeing Kerem Shalom, and all of the communities of the Otef, filled with the sounds of song and joy, עוֹד יִשְׁמַע בְּיִשּׁוּבִי הָעוֹטֵף קוֹל שָׂשׂוֹן וְקוֹל שִׂמְחָה.

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