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Jan102019

EDUCATOR, WITH ALL HIS HEART

He moved to Eretz Yisroel at a young age, from Morocco. * The Rebbe directed him toward chinuch where he quickly rose to star status as an educator. * A brief biography of Rabbi Shimon Amitai upon his sudden passing at the age of 73, on his way home from a farbrengen in shul.

By Mendy Dickstein     

Kfar Chabad lost one of its special residents, a great talmid chacham of pleasant demeanor, good to heaven and good to people, who devoted himself to teaching Torah to others as well as his own learning.

JEWISH LIFE IN THE LITTLE MOROCCAN VILLAGE

R’ Shimon Amitai was born on 18 Shevat 5705/1945 to R’ Yaakov Amitai and his wife, in Oulad Znaguia, a small village near Marrakesh. A Jewish community, all of whom were religious, lived in this village. There was a small school where the boys learned. However, conditions in the school were difficult.

In 5712, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, one of the Rebbe’s shluchim to Morocco, went to this village. He saw the tremendous hardships of the Jews who were moser nefesh to send their children to learn Torah. At that time, the Alliance educational network operated in Morocco, which took upon itself to “secularize” the Jewish students and to give them a western education including heresy. To prevent the Alliance network from getting involved, R’ Matusof helped sustain their school and sent it funds on a regular basis. This is how the Chabad movement became known to this family.

With the forming of the State of Israel, a great hatred was incited in Morocco against the Jews. Persecution and harassment against Jews increased. In small villages, the situation was more serious since there was no police force to protect them, at least to some extent, as in the big cities. This is why the Jews of villages and small settlements suffered more from the hostile actions of their neighbors, which included looting and violence and sometimes even led to murder.

In 5715, his parents decided that the situation in their village was intolerable, with the threat of death hovering over their heads. They moved to Casablanca, which was much larger and somewhat more protected. However, even in Casablanca, the feelings of the general populace against the Jews were poisoned.

One day, Mossad agents contacted the family which had just arrived and encouraged them to move to Eretz Yisroel. After much difficult deliberation, they decided to realize the dream of generations and make the move.

After a year of waiting, replete with tension, and with the help of those devoted agents, the Amitai family left Morocco. They arrived in France via the Mediterranean Sea and were placed in a huge transit camp for refugees who came from North Africa.

UNEXPECTED GUESTS

They arrived in Eretz Yisroel on Erev Pesach 5716. Immediately upon their arrival, they lived in an immigrant camp near Kibbutz Megiddo. The camp was neglected and was hardly fit for human living. Such were the difficult absorption pangs of new immigrants at this time. Still, the family rejoiced to be in Eretz Yisroel in the company of other Jews without the fear of anti-Semitism.

Still, there was concern for chinuch al taharas ha’kodesh for the children. There was no schooling in the camp and this worried the father, R’ Yaakov Amitai, who was afraid that his children, who had kept to their traditional Torah learning schedule in the diaspora would, ironically, would lose it in Eretz Yisroel.

A few months later, his worries dissipated when two Lubavitcher Chassidim showed up at the distant, northern camp. They were Rabbi Yisroel Leibov z”l, director of Tzeirei Agudas Chabad, and Rabbi Yechezkel Springer. They were sent by the Rebbe who instructed Tzach, “Please, please look out for our Sefardic brethren.”

The young rabbis initiated a meeting with the heads of families living in the camp and suggested that they send their boys to learn in Kfar Chabad. R’ Yaakov Amitai, who remembered the Chabad movement from his Moroccan village, agreed to explore this possibility and asked for a personal meeting with the guest rabbis.

During the meeting, the rabbis did not hide the truth from him. R’ Leibov said, “I have no job to offer you, I cannot provide you with a house, but I have chinuch!”

R’ Yaakov was convinced by their honesty and decided to send his two older sons, 14-year-old Eliyahu and 12-year-old Shimon, with the two rabbis. The two boys joined the yeshiva in Kfar Chabad.

Since it was a long way from Kfar Chabad to the camp, especially with the limited transportation of those times, the boys lived in a dormitory (today, that dormitory building is the office of the Os B’Sefer Torah project in the center of Kfar Chabad).

Their devoted father visited Kfar Chabad every two weeks. The trip there and back took an entire day. After a few visits, he decided that he liked the place, which reminded him of the good days in his village in Morocco. He wanted to move there and was very disappointed when his application was rejected. In those days, the Kfar was tiny and tenants lived crowded together in Arab houses that remained from the Safraya village that preceded the founding of the Kfar.

In 5717, the first seventy houses were built in Kfar Chabad and they were given to the families of the founders of the Kfar. Thus, many of the old Arab houses were vacated. R’ Yaakov took advantage of this opportunity and on one of his visits, he sent his sons to R’ Leibov, who knew him well, and asked him to act as a broker between him and the owners of the vacated apartments.

With the help of R’ Leibov, the family bought a few houses for the extended family, including R’ Yaakov’s sisters who moved with him to Eretz Yisroel. Thus, the family reunited with the boys who learned in Kfar Chabad. Thanks to the mesirus nefesh to learn Torah, the entire family became close to the teachings of Chabad.

THE REBBE DIRECTED HIM TO CHINUCH

Shimon Amitai’s bar mitzva was celebrated in Kfar Chabad.

After he finished elementary school, he continued learning in Tomchei T’mimim in Lud that was located at that time in an orchard area. At the end of three years in the yeshiva k’tana (corresponding to high school), he continued his learning in the Kfar.

As a youth he had picked up Hebrew over time, but he had difficulty learning Yiddish. He had studied with the best teachers and mashpiim of that era but was very disappointed when he was unable to understand the Rebbe’s sichos in the original. His chavrusa spent many hours with him, teaching him the new language. He slowly made progress and when he reached the level necessary for understanding the Rebbe’s sichos as they were being said, he was thrilled.

By now, he was a Tamim and mekushar to the Rebbe. He asked the Rebbe what he should do next. The Rebbe told him to enter the field of chinuch. He suggested that R’ Shimon speak to Rabbi Avrohom Dunin who was the principal, at the time, of the Chabad school in the Taanach yishuvim. R’ Amitai spoke to R’ Dunin who immediately hired him, even though he had no teaching background. He studied education while working in the field.

It was at this point that his impressive and captivating personality as an educator came to the fore. The young bachur, who had just finished yeshiva and entered a classroom, soon became known as a star teacher. His students loved him and he was utterly devoted to them. His reputation as an educator spread and when the directors of the Reshet were asked to open a Chabad school at Moshav Brosh in the south, they asked R’ Dunin permission to take this excellent teacher in order to start the new school.

After three years of intensive and hard work with the children of moshavim in the Jezreel Valley, he went to work at the Chabad school at Yishuv Brosh in the western Negev. He was both a teacher and assistant principal.

After he made the move to Moshav Brosh, a young, talented girl from the famous Bibi family in Teveria came to teach in his former school. The way she taught and her warmth toward the students reminded R’ Dunin of the teacher who recently taught for him and he thought they would make a good match.

After receiving the Rebbe’s blessing, they married and moved south to where R’ Shimon worked in Brosh. They both worked at the new Chabad school.

One of R’ Shimon’s famous students from that time was the mekubal, Rabbi Yoram Abergel z”l. R’ Yoram, to whom thousands owe their kiruv to Judaism, had occasion to meet R’ Shimon several times in his final years. Once, at a family simcha, R’ Yoram proclaimed emotionally that all his merits in drawing Jews close to Hashem belonged to his esteemed teacher from his youth.

“Only thanks to R’ Shimon did I remain religiously observant and thanks to him I am working on all my major projects in teaching Torah and being mekarev Jews.”

When R’ Yoram introduced R’ Shimon to his family and mekuravim, he called him, “Mori v’Rabi.

R’ Shimon’s great investment in the students of Moshav Brosh produced fruits which are still being harvested today by his oldest daughter and her husband R’ Yifrach, who are shluchim in Netivot. They were greatly assisted by Rav Yoram Abergel.

GIFTED EDUCATOR

The young couple, Shimon and Nitza Amitai, continued working in Brosh until 5732. Then they moved to Kfar Chabad.

Immediately upon his return to Kfar Chabad, his reputation and experience in chinuch landed him two jobs, at the elementary school in the morning and at the vocational school in the afternoon.

The job with the students at the vocational school, some of whom came from difficult homes and lived in the dormitory, suited his out-sized educational talents. They found him to be a good listener and a shoulder to lean and cry on. R’ Shimon was particularly devoted to them since he was reminded of how he had started out learning in Eretz Yisroel in a dormitory in Kfar Chabad.

On Shabbos, he would host students who got to experience a real Shabbos, which they had not had at home. In the informal atmosphere of the Shabbos table they opened up, and thereafter became better students in their behavior and their studies.

Over the years, he taught hundreds of students for whom the flavor of his lessons and his conduct remained etched in them for decades to come. They invited him to their simchas and they attended his simchas and reminded him of events that took place decades earlier.

At a later point, the then director of the Reshet, R’ Itzke Gansbourg, asked R’ Shimon to help him open a Chabad school in Ohr Yehuda. R’ Shimon agreed and after taking a hiatus from his work in Kfar Chabad, he founded and ran the school in Ohr Yehuda together with Rabbi Moshe Schneersohn a”h. When the school was on a sure footing, he returned to his jobs in Kfar Chabad.

Even the children of Kfar Chabad who did not learn in his classroom, knew him well. Every Friday night, between Mincha and Kabbalas Shabbos, he gathered them in the “second room” of the Nachum Yitzchok shul and made a Kinus Tzivos Hashem with them and told a Chassidic story. The way he presented the story was so captivating that candies and prizes were not needed. The story itself was the prize that got them all to gather around him and behave nicely. This was in line with his unique approach of mashma’at with mashma’ut (Hebrew play on words, i.e., obedience with meaning) and not just discipline that is enforced by orders and fear of punishment.

SUDDENLY …

After he retired, he went back to his Gemara that he loved so much in his youth. He joined a local kollel, and his acquaintances and family say that they always saw him immersed in learning, either on his own or with grandsons with whom he reviewed their learning.

His relationship with his grandchildren was one of unconditional love, so that when one grandson was suspended from yeshiva for misbehavior, he found refuge with his grandparents. They welcomed him lovingly.

His devotion to the family was infinite. Every son, daughter and grandchild who came to talk or be his guest felt like they were his entire world.

The last Shabbos of his life, he had a granddaughter as a guest, from the Yifrach family in Netivot. On his way home from shul, R’ Shimon’s soul ascended on high. His sudden passing left his family in shock.

R’ Shimon is survived by his wife Nitza, children and grandchildren.

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