by Jonathan Rosenblum
It is far too early to write of Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, zt”l, as a public figure or of his historical impact. Just after the levaya is not the time to concern oneself with such things.
I last saw Rabbi Ravitz just a week ago. Not in person, but in a documentary film by a secular Israeli filmmaker, in which the two major, contrasting figures are Rabbi Ravitz and Rabbi Shmuel Papenheim, the former editor of the weekly newspaper of the Eidah Hachareidis. While watching the film, I wondered why Rabbi Ravitz agreed to participate in the documentary. (At least he did not lose his job because of the film, as did Papenheim, who was fired as editor of HaEidah for being too open to the world.)
The answer, I concluded, is that Rabbi Ravitz was always eager to reach out and make contact with as many Jews as possible and to provide them with a glimpse into his life and world view. The film was but one more means of doing so. As director of Am Echad, whenever I had to provide a foreign journalist with a prominent chareidi figure with whom to speak, I knew I could count on Rabbi Ravitz to answer the call with enthusiasm.
One of the filmmaker’s goals was to humanize chareidim for secular Jews who have never been inside a chareidi home. And that agenda suited Rabbi Ravitz as well. The filmmaker took us inside the kitchen of the Ravitz’s apartment. It is a kitchen I know well. Just before Pesach last year, Rebbetzin Ravitz told me, while standing in the same kitchen, how her twelve children had always loved the weeks of Pesach cleaning, especially the breaks when everybody sat around talking to one another. Even today, she said, her children not only send the grandchildren to help with the Pesach cleaning, but each one of them puts in his or her own time as well, hoping to relive their happy childhood memories.
In the film, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Ravitz reminisce about their first meeting – he a young Israeli in America on behalf of Peylim, of which he was one of the founders, and she an American-born girl, who dreamed of living in Eretz Yisrael. Rebbetzin Ravitz smiled as she recalled the silly young girl who answered the door for the first time and thought to herself, “I’m going to marry him.” But that smile stayed with her over the years, especially when she was helping Rabbi Ravitz with his work in some way.
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Ravitz not only opened up their own home but those of some of their children to the fimmaker because it was important for them that secular Israelis should see chareidim as normal people. The same impulse, I think, lay behind the wide publicity eight years ago when Rabbi Ravitz needed a kidney transplant, and each of his sons wanted the honor of donating his kidney. Ultimately, his oldest son, Moshe, was chosen. That too provided a broader public with an insight into a Torah family and the mitzvah of kibbud av.
Rabbi Ravitz played many roles in his life: teenage fighter in the pre-State Lechi underground, soldier in the IDF during the War of Independence, building contractor, member of Knesset for 21 years, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Deputy Minister of Education, Deputy Housing Minister.
Yet I think the role that most defined him was that of mekarev. It was a task that was very much part of his life from his days as a bochur in Hebron Yeshiva. The early Peylim, in which Rabbi Ravitz was so active, devoted themselves to saving the youth from Arab lands in the early days of the State. His close friend and roommate from Hebron Yeshiva, Rabbi Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rosh Yeshivas Ateres Yisroel, would go on to pioneer the use of summer camps in as a means of reaching out to those far removed from the world of Torah in Israel and the FSU.
I once walked from Har Nof to Beit Vegan on a summer Shabbos afternoon to watch Rabbi Ravitz with a group of thirty secular Israeli students from Haifa University, who had come to speak with him and for shalosh seudos. Then he was really in his element. It would not have been hard to guess that for many years he was one of the heads of Ohr Somayach’s Israeli program and taught regularly at Neve Yerushalayim, two of the world’s flagship institutions for ba’alei teshuva.
Of all the chareidi Knesset members, Rabbi Ravitz was perhaps the most concerned with the message he conveyed to the broader Israeli public. That is not to say that others have not spoken out often on non-parochial issues – e.g., Rabbi Moshe Gafni on the environment, Rabbi Meir Porush on housing in Judea and Samaria – or made themselves accessible to the secular public – Rabbi Yaakov Litzman has regular office hours in areas where there are few chareidim.
But Rabbi Ravitz spent the most time thinking about the message being conveyed to the broader public. I heard him wax wroth on numerous occasions – he was a passionate man who spoke with passion – about chareidi individuals or media outlets who spoke or wrote as if they were talking in the mikveh, without regard for the impact of their words on the larger Jewish public, or the impression of Yiddishkeit that they were conveying.
One radio political commentator described Rabbi Ravitz as the only chareidi MK to speak Tel Avivian, not Yerushalmi. He explained that Rabbi Ravitz spoke the language of Torah in an idiom that every Israeli Jew could appreciate. He remained very much one of the people. In the documentary, he is seen in one scene at an Independence Day gathering of his former colleagues in the pre-state underground, and even introduces his former commander.
Though I met with Rabbi Ravitz many times, it was rarely in his Knesset office, and the appointments were not made via his office staff. I would just call up his home and ask him or his Rebbetzin whether I could stop by. He made it seem so natural that only now does it strike me how unusual it was that he made himself so accessible to someone who only wanted to pick his brain.
He was always eager to help people. I found out about his passing not from the papers or even the loudspeakers going around announcing the levaya, but from an early morning Email. I did not recognize the name on the subject line or remember in any detail the story of which the writer reminded me. Last March, he had written me about his daughter who was seeking a religious exemption from the army. Because she had originally thought that she could reconcile army service with her religious beliefs and had been accepted into an elite intelligence unit, the IDF was now refusing to grant her the exemption. All her family’s efforts had proved futile.
I did nothing more than put her father in touch with Rabbi Ravitz, and promptly forgot about the case. But now the father wished to bring me up to date. Rabbi Ravitz had immediately agreed to meet with him and his daughter the next day, and had involved himself fully in the case. For the first time, the father wrote me, “we felt that there was someone who cared.” The young woman is today still studying in a religious seminary in Tzefas, and her father is convinced that it is only because of Rabbi Ravitz’s intervention. The father just wanted me to know how much Rabbi Ravitz would be missed in a world “where so few are willing to help others just for the sake of helping.”
Even a brief, personal remembrance of Rabbi Ravitz would be incomplete without mentioning one other aspect of the man. Someone who knew him well and worked with him over many years told me yesterday, “He was absolutely fearless. What he felt had to be done, he did; what had to be said, he said. Without regard to consequences.”