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Jun292017

FROM COUNTER-TERRORISM TO THE CHABAD YESHIVA

He was a boy from Haifa who almost got mixed up with the lowest elements of Israeli society. He eventually joined the IDF and devoted all his strength and energy to the secret Arab infiltration unit, where he went through a series of hair-raising challenges and adventures that changed the course of his life. Over the years, he acquired a considerable amount of personal wealth at various jobs on the other side of the globe, and it was only due to an inexplicable spiritual longing that he made his way to the yeshiva in Ramat Aviv. Today, he is chairman of the Smicha Study Institute. The surprise: the planned establishment of a new Chabad settlement on the Golan Heights. All this is only a part of the thrilling life story of Rabbi Zohar Yehoshua.

Translated by Michoel Leib Dobry
Photos by Eran Dror Levanon

Sunday at noontime. The Tel Aviv sun shines brightly, while in the Chabad yeshiva study hall in Ramat Aviv, another kind of warmth pervades, a flame of pure holiness. The beis midrash was teeming with students learning Torah. Avreichim and young bachurim sit alongside those who look like relative newcomers. They sit together within the yeshiva walls and toil in their Torah study with great diligence.

In one corner, we met Rabbi Zohar Yehoshua, a yeshiva graduate and young avreich, who learns the Laws of ‘Bassar V’Chalav’ with his regular chavrusa. Anyone who looks at his external appearance and the fervor of his studies would find it hard to believe that just six years earlier, he was about as far from the world of traditional Judaism, particularly the world of Torah study, as one can get. Zohar, who went through a thing or two in his life, is today in charge of the ‘L’ma’an Yilmidu’ halachic institute, while he works to establish another Chabad settlement in northern Eretz Yisroel.

IN DISGUISE WITH THE SECRET INFILTRATION UNIT

Zohar was born and raised in Haifa’s ‘Neve Sha’anan’ neighborhood; his parents had come there previously from Teveria. “My parents are descendants of an authentic sabra family; inhabitants of Eretz Yisroel for seven generations. The education in our home was not religious. Here and there were some elements of Jewish tradition that we observed without understanding the reasons why, e.g., two kitchen sinks, not eating pork, but not much more than that.

“My family is a family of fishermen for generations. We would regularly make lengthy visits, particularly during the summer months, to our uncles on Moshav ‘Beit Chananya,’ where they lived on agricultural fields alongside fruit trees, chickens, geese, and horses.”

When Zohar finished his elementary school studies, he was sent to learn in a professional training school to specialize in welding and mechanics. After successfully completing the program, his parents hoped that their son would now serve in the Israel Defense Forces – a move that was not necessarily a given. “Most of my friends did not enlist in the army at all due to their criminal records, and those who already had enlisted served for a short and insignificant period. I almost did exactly the same thing, however, when I arrived at the induction center, I met some highly ambitious young people. Influenced by their tremendous fervor, I decided to enlist in the most challenging combat unit available.”

Zohar was now faced with a serious obstacle. In his youth, he had been diagnosed with a serious blood disorder, one that made it difficult for him to develop and grow until a certain age. He also had a problem with blood coagulation and the army doctors wanted to exempt him from military service. However, Zohar remained steadfast. He managed to acquire a new diagnosis from an expert physician from Tel HaShomer Hospital specializing in ‘blood disorders’ and submitted it to the army doctors. His medical profile was subsequently raised and he was to join an elite military unit.

After a year of exhausting basic training, he successfully passed a ‘terrorism course’ and joined one of the Arab infiltration units established and operating against Islamic terrorist activities in Yehuda and Shomron during the first intifada.

“My family knew nothing about my army activities. Until the end of my military service, they thought that I was a counselor for new recruits. In fact, we were situated in one of the refugee camps in the Ramallah zone. We were familiar with every house and alleyway there as we operated freely on a virtually daily basis with the objective of silencing all terrorist activity.

“The work was so difficult that while we started with forty-one soldiers, after a short period of fitness training, most of the fighter brigade had dropped out. Only fourteen soldiers remained while the others were transferred to other units.”

As Zohar recalled that period of his military service, he chose his words with extreme care. Despite the many years that had passed since then, it was clear that the events of those days remained fixed in his memory and certain activities were still subject to military censorship. “In general, we would operate each night in the heart of the Arab neighborhoods, the refugee camps, and the crowded streets to deal with potential terrorist elements before they entered Jewish areas and carried out their evil plans. During the morning and afternoon hours, we would receive information from General Security Services coordinators on wanted individuals, including aerial photos and other relevant material, before going out on our nighttime missions. Sometimes, in cases of ‘ticking time bombs’, we would enter the crowded ‘casbahs’ in broad daylight completely disguised.”

Wasn’t your heart pounding frantically during these activities?

“Our biggest fear was not from the Arabs, rather from the settlers or other IDF soldiers whom we might unintentionally encounter or were not aware of our true identity.

“Let me tell you about one such case that remains emblazoned in my memory. One evening, we had to get to a wedding in an Arab village and arrest one of the guests suspected of carrying live weapons. Naturally, we arrived at the events hall properly disguised, but regrettably, we got there too early – the wedding hadn’t begun yet. Under these circumstances, the mission would normally be scrubbed quickly to prevent its discovery and rescheduled for a later date.

“The commander for this operation had come from the Golani Brigade just a few days earlier and had been assigned to our unit. This was his first operation and he decided (for whatever reason) that we would all return to one of the regional military bases. However, he forgot to update the soldiers on the base about our arrival. We drove to the base riding in a Peugeot with a spare tire hanging on the roof (a standard car model among the indigenous Arab population), looking like typical Arabs wearing keffiyehs and mustaches.

“When we arrived at the base, we were halted with our vehicle at the guard post. They had taught us to be sharp and alert, and I noticed out of the corner of my eye a guard running towards us with a rifle, cocked and ready to fire. Using quick instincts, I got out of the car and yelled at him in Hebrew to lock his weapon.

“Fortunately, this soldier had a defect in his rifle that prevented him from firing, thereby saving our lives. Of course, we didn’t go back to the wedding that night and the entire incident was thoroughly investigated. I recall this episode both because my life was saved and because this was one of the few missions that we received yet failed to carry out…”

Zohar had another story of near-disaster during which he and his friends survived only by a miracle. “One day, we were about to go out for another complicated mission to arrest wanted terrorists. We had to pass through an IDF roadblock near the settlement of Ofra. To make certain that the soldiers at the roadblock would recognize us and not ask too many questions, we arrived at their base with our disguises and vehicles and were presented to the soldiers by their commanding officers. A few hours later, we were given the green light to move, and we passed by the roadblock with our camouflaged vehicle without the slightest concern that we were being followed.

“The plan was to stand at the roadblock together with other Arab vehicles, as a means of blending in with the crowd without arousing any suspicion. However, when we got to the roadblock, the soldiers stopped us for a search. At first, we were sure that they would immediately identify us and order us to move on, but with each passing minute, we saw that the soldiers were intensifying their inspection. At one point, one of the soldiers sternly ordered us out of the vehicle. Along with two other members of our unit, we were carrying small concealed pistols. We did as we were told and got out the car, but since we were surrounded by numerous Arabs, we couldn’t identify ourselves. Our commanding officer, sitting next to the driver, could not get out because he was concealing an Uzi sub-machine gun in a potato sack he was holding. If he got out, the sack would fall and the Uzi would be discovered – along with him…

“The CO delayed getting out while we impatiently waited for the charade to end and the soldiers would order us back into the car to continue our mission as planned. However, this didn’t happen. The officer in charge at the roadblock got angry at our comrade still sitting in the car. He cocked his weapon and pointed it at our CO, while all his soldiers followed suit and took up positions around the car. At this point, we realized that they didn’t recognize us. Before someone got hurt, I raised my hands and yelled towards the soldiers at the roadblock: “We’re IDF soldiers! You’ve just ruined our counter-terror mission!’ Later, a detailed investigation was conducted, and we were informed that after presenting ourselves to the soldiers at the roadblock, they were relieved from duty and replaced by another unit. However, the first group had failed to update the second group of our impending arrival a few hours later.”

During his military service, Zohar and his friends participated in hundreds of dangerous missions behind enemy lines for the purpose of disrupting terrorist activities in Israeli territory. Many Jewish lives were saved as a result of their daring courage. However, not everything that Zohar told us can be put in writing. “The most dangerous part of any mission was reaching the target area. When the soldiers have already taken up their positions and close in on the target, this is the easy part,” said Zohar as he gave us a brief look at the infiltration tactics. “There’s virtually no chance for the terrorist to escape or inflict harm.”

After considerable urging on our part, Zohar agreed to tell us about one mission among many in which he was an active participant.

“One day, we received information that an Arab youth riding on a bicycle had seized a weapon from a security guard at the Israel Electric Company near the Atarot industrial zone. Unlike the current situation of weapons spread throughout Yehuda and Shomron, then the understanding was that any gun found in enemy hands was liable to be used to inflict injury upon Jews. That same night, security forces brought precise information on the location of the missing weapon. It was a house inhabited by eight very aggressive brothers, one of whom was sitting in prison for terrorist activities. No simple task.

“The plan was to get an Arab cooperating with the authorities to go to the door of this house and tell the youth possessing the stolen weapon that he has a message from his brother in prison. When we would know that this boy was at home, we would arrest him. The plan was one thing, carrying it out was something else. We reached the target area and took our positions around the house. However, the Arab collaborator who went up to the door got cold feet at the last minute, and then reacted in a suspicious and distrustful manner. One member of our unit, a Druze soldier from the Galilee region, already on alert, burst into the house as we followed him. The original plan was scratched, as the brother tried to use the ensuing chaos as a means of escape. His efforts failed. In the end, the young man was arrested and his weapon was confiscated.”

As I hear these stories, I ask again: Wasn’t it frightening?

“The army knows what it’s doing,” Zohar replied with a smile. “When they conscript a young man, eighteen years of age, and train him well, he has no fear in his heart. The adrenaline is flowing within him, and he expects to fulfill those duties he was trained to do. To the best of my knowledge, there are no army reservists in the Arab infiltration unit, and this is the very reason. When someone has a family, a job, and responsibility, the feeling of fear begins to emerge. I still remember the icy silence of walking by foot to the designated target, the barking of the dogs, and the palpable suspense that you could literally feel with your hands.”

MY HOMES IN NEW ZEALAND AND AUSTRALIA

At the conclusion of his military service, Zohar felt perplexed and confused as he didn’t know where to turn or what to do. His family pressured him to take a job as a driver with the Egged Bus Company. Despite his lack of interest in the offer, he did as his father suggested and began working as a bus driver. However, after six years on the job, he received paid leave for one year and went on a vacation to Thailand. “My army buddies would send me postcards from trips they had taken all over the globe, and I felt trapped in Eretz Yisroel. At the first opportunity I had, I took my backpack and set out to see the world.”

His first stop was Thailand, followed by Nepal. He spent several months touring local villages and mountain regions, enjoying the captivating views. In contrast to other young travelers who saved every cent for their trip, Zohar got a nice monthly salary. As a result, he was able to stay at fine hotels and dine at chef restaurants.

When he felt that he had experienced everything he possibly could in Thailand, he boarded a flight to New Zealand, where he spent much time traveling throughout the country simply by hitchhiking. After completing his journey in the Land of the Long White Cloud, he moved on to neighboring Australia.

“At first, I wasn’t able to connect to Australia and I planned to leave for one of my previous stops. Then, I met an old friend who suggested that I stay at his home in Bondi Beach and help him rent houses to Israeli tourists. I accepted the offer and a most successful business relationship began between us. When my friend saw that things were going well, he made me a full partner. At the end of that year, I returned to Eretz Yisroel, resigned from Egged, and went back to Australia.”

For a lengthy period of time, Zohar saw much success in his Australian business dealings. Then, he had to fly back to New Zealand to obtain a visitor’s permit, but the procedure took far longer than usual. He decided not to wait around idle in his home on Waiheke Island, and in the meantime, he went to work in the construction business. He initially worked as a salaried employee in a building materials store and later registered with the local university as a student in building and construction. At a certain point, Zohar built a house for himself on the side of a mountain facing a breathtaking view.

“During the final year of my studies, since I had to do an actual construction project to receive my diploma, I decided to build my own house. The engineer who saw the house was very impressed, and he hired me for his company at a very lucrative salary.

“The home constructions were made in dense topographic areas and forest regions. We had to work starting at the tree cutting stage and proceed until the completion of the building process. After building seven permanent homes under this engineer, the hand of Divine Providence led me to an Israeli businessman in the construction field, married to a local Jewish woman. He suggested that I leave and move to Wellington, where he lived, and run several of his building projects there. His offer was very tempting, so I sold my house, established a new residence, and got to work.”

Zohar recalled that until then, his Judaism meant nothing to him. He never thought about the essence of life and his entire desire was continued financial successes and earning substantial sums of money. “I had cast away every scrap of the Jewish tradition by which I had been raised.

“One morning, it suddenly hit me like a bolt of lightning. There’s no reasonable explanation. I had acquired considerable material wealth, a beautiful home with a seaside view and green foliage visible from the windows. I was living the dream of many people. It would seem that I should have been the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Not so. Every time I achieved something, it no longer carried any excitement for me. I felt the need for something more meaningful.

“One day, I simply broke down. I leaned against the windowsill, looking over the horizon, and I simply began to talk with the Creator. ‘When will I finally come to a sense of tranquility and accomplishment?’ I asked Him. ‘What do You want from me? I have everything, yet why do I still have this inner feeling of dissatisfaction?’

“After several hours of contemplation, I made the totally irrational decision to leave everything and return to Eretz Yisroel. In fact, this didn’t happen, as I ran off instead to Australia. There were many young Israelis there and I thought that being together with them would do me some good, but it didn’t. The feeling of emptiness merely grew and intensified. It was something that you could never explain to someone who had never experienced it himself. Today, I know that this was an inspiration from Above.

“When I shared my feelings with my friends, they were certain that I had lost my mind. However, no urging on their part did any good. One day, I finally wrapped up my life in Australia, parted from my friends, and returned to Eretz Yisroel. My brother-in-law had a business in flooring installation at the time, and I began working for him. At the same time, I began renewing contact with my old friends.”

SEARCH AND DISCOVERY

Thoughts about the essence and value of life occupied more and more of Zohar’s time. As part of the process of renewing contact with his old friends, he joined the production staff for mystical festivals. He started with ‘small’ tasks, however, with the passage of time, he was placed in charge of the workshops. “In the beginning, I connected with the atmosphere and the subject matter, but I quickly understood that it was all just a lie – ‘cheap spirituality.’ The people there spoke in most noble terms about love and values, however, when it reached a practical level, they acted out of pure self-interest.”

Life continued as the need to search for his true purpose grew stronger. One day, as Zohar was thinking about his life, he realized that he still had not found the truth he was looking for. The good material existence had failed to satisfy his inner hunger, nor had the mystical workshops or the classes in kabbalah. While they spoke about very lofty ideals, these ideals remained in the realm of speech and spirit – with no tangible expression in his daily life.

Then, the transformation came – and from a totally unexpected source.

“One day, I received a phone call from a Jew named Chanan Babayof. He was a young Israeli with whom I had become acquainted in Australia and we had spoken together on a number of occasions. It had been twelve years since we had last met. I told him about my activities in Eretz Yisroel and my studies in kabbalah. I heard him express his reservations, although I failed to understand why. At the end of our conversation, Chanan invited me to his home for Shabbos, and I gave a non-committal reply.

“Three months later, he called again. This time, instead of asking how I was, he immediately extended a heartfelt invitation that I should be his guest for Shabbos. I accepted and made my way to Ramat Aviv. When I met him, I was stunned. I found myself standing before an ultra-Orthodox man with a beard. However, as the ice started to break in the Babayof house during that Shabbos, I saw that it was good. For the first time in my life, I experienced a real Shabbos table – calm, tranquil, with mutual respect between husband and wife. I saw some fine people who seemed quite happy with their lives, and the whole scene simply enraptured me.

“Yet, despite my excitement and enthusiasm, the yetzer ha’ra worked on me for several hours. As a result, I wasn’t so quick to alter my identity. However, Chanan was determined and he invited me for one Shabbos after another. I couldn’t refuse him. One Motzaei Shabbos, I sat in my house and thought to myself: ‘This is what you’ve been looking for all your life. You’ve gone through everything already. What’s stopping you from taking the plunge and checking into your Judaism? Will the response of those in your immediate surroundings keep you from attaining a sense of true happiness and satisfaction?’ These thoughts filled my mind and they eventually led me to take effective action.

“I decided that while I had no idea how things would develop, I went to go and check what Judaism was really all about. I bought an appropriate set of clothes and with the help of my friend, Chanan Babayof, I went to learn in the Ramat Aviv yeshiva. I did everything they asked me to do: mikveh, t’fillin, Torah study – even if I didn’t understand the reason why.”

Then, a jumble of thoughts began to run through his mind about what he would do with his work and making a living. At the time, Yehoshua ran a flooring installation company. “The yetzer ha’ra wanted me to take a step backward. Even my business partner was pressuring me to come back. After much consideration, I decided that I would not submit. I gave up my share of the business and set out on a new path. I put my entire time and energy into the yeshiva schedule. It was rather difficult at first; I didn’t understand everything and the world of yeshiva concepts was still foreign to me. For his part, Chanan supplied me with Chassidic texts such as ‘HaIsh She’lo Nichna’ and ‘The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Memoirs.’ Through these s’farim, I got my feet wet, as the yeshiva’s rabbanim gave me the tools I needed to implement this new Chassidic knowledge.”

THE NEW CHABAD SETTLEMENT ON THE GOLAN HEIGHTS

Recently, Yehoshua established his own Chassidic home with his new wife, a baalas t’shuva from the Ramat Aviv midrasha. Together, they are also the proud parents of two children.

Zohar’s love for Torah study has grown, and he is presently working as the development director of the ‘L’ma’an Yilmidu’ halachic institute together with his friend, the institute’s founder, Rabbi Yisroel Ma’al from Netanya. “This is an excellent program for practical rabbinical studies. Rabbi Ma’al has done a wonderful job here, nothing less than a revolution in this field. Accompanied by clear and illustrative visual aids, every bachur can study and understand the learning material for rabbinical ordination, even enjoy it. While we don’t profess any desire to change the old approach to Torah study, the visual presentations constitute a dramatic addition to assist the rabbinical student. The program has received the support of Chabad rabbanim and we already have three classes of students learning the program’s curriculum. I have been privileged to head this important organization, and there will soon be a ceremony opening a new classroom and the institute’s administrative offices, attended by numerous prominent public officials.”

However, Zohar is not resting on his laurels. As someone who has gone through a thing or two in his life, he has no fear of challenges. Together with his work at the institute, he has decided that the time has come to establish another Chabad settlement in Eretz Yisroel. “Kfar Chabad has a full capacity of residents and the cost of renting an apartment there is quite high. We thought that we should copy the success achieved in Kfar Chabad through the founding of another yishuv.

“By Divine Providence, the Israel Ministry of Housing publicized a program for distributing privately owned land and re-zoning agricultural land for Jewish construction in the Galilee and the Golan Heights. The state of Israel has a vested interest in designating these areas, and it appears that we are bursting through an open door.

“We have been involved for two years already in negotiations, yet to be concluded successfully, for the establishment of a Chabad settlement on the Golan Heights. We want to receive the fullest measure of what every citizen can get in order that we will also be able to create job opportunities for avreichim. G-d willing, this yishuv will be a beacon for the entire surrounding area from an agricultural, tourism, spiritual, and Chassidic standpoint – in addition to the Jewish settlement of Eretz Yisroel. We also want to set aside a place for young people seeking to realize their full potential through a combined program of Torah study and professional technical training. In this way, it will provide them with a greater sense of recognition and self-fulfillment within the framework of the new community.

“The first program was publicized in the ‘Beis Moshiach’ Magazine and aroused a considerable amount of interest. Numerous families were registered. The delay in finalizing approval of this program is linked to our steadfast determination to acquire large areas of land for construction, which will eventually be sold to us at reasonable, even reduced, prices. They offered us locations in the Negev and Arava regions, but we refused. It was our desire that Chassidim could live on land with running streams and work in agriculture.”

Did you receive the Rebbe’s brachos during this process?

“Without clear answers from the Rebbe, we would not have set out on this adventure – a project covering a wide horizon. On the day that I decided to advance this project, I wrote a letter to the Rebbe on the matter. The answer I received was in Igros Kodesh, Vol. 18, pg. 374:

I confirm receipt of his letter from the 9th of Iyar and those preceding it. May it be G-d’s Will that befitting his letter, the activities throughout the Kfar will succeed and thereby [achieve] success in the private affairs of each and every resident of the Kfar, ‘for their G-d commanded the blessing’, and in particular, as we are now in a year regarding which it is said, ‘a Shabbos to G-d’. For just as there is rest on Shabbos from all things that confuse, and as is written, ‘And you shall call Shabbos a delight’, similarly and in this manner, throughout the entire year in an arousal from Above, in the order of the verses, ‘When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Shabbos to G-d’ (even before ‘You may sow your field for six years, etc.’). And as the matters are explained in Likkutei Torah, Parshas Behar (‘And the land shall rest’), in the Rebbe Maharash’s maamarim in 5627, the 5666 Hemshech, etc., it is also derived simply that the actions of ‘You may sow your field for six years, etc.’, each one according to its status and situation, adds more in the ‘Shabbos to G-d’ that it should come to the level of ‘complete rest’, consider the Torah portion there in [this matter].

“The answer speaks for itself; I couldn’t have asked for a clearer reply. The plan was to establish a Chabad agricultural settlement, and the Rebbe responded explicitly as he added blessings on the founding of Kfar Chabad. Later, I was privileged to receive another letter, which for me was the ‘decisive blow’ for continuing this plan until its ultimate fulfillment. The letter appears in Vol. 3, pg. 312:

Two letters reached me from R’ Michoel Lipskier in Meknes. He reports that there are great possibilities for concrete activity [to be established] there immediately. His assumption was that you were already in Brooklyn. Therefore, he did not write to you in Paris about all these matters, relying on the fact that you would see the letters he sent us. I sent you a telegram today, quoting what is stated in the enclosures.

Therefore, I again emphasize my request that you try to be present at the laying of the cornerstone for our activities in [North] Africa for which there are hopes that, with G‑d’s help, they will be very successful. With regard to all these matters, it is very, very important that the first step be aligned with the [ultimate] purpose. In the interim, please send [R. Michoel] some financial resources.

In the second letter, on page 313, the Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach referred explicitly to those philanthropists who stand on the sidelines and offer no assistance. In fact, on that day, one of the wealthy people in Ramat Aviv tried to talk me out of the whole project:

Today, your letters from the 1st and the 5th of Sivan were received. Seven was received from the Joint Distribution Committee. [The allotment] for Iyar was given to your wife.

With regard to the [pressing] matters: You have certainly received my letters of the 3rd and the 5th of Sivan. You can appreciate from them my reasoning for your visiting Morocco now. (For it is just the beginning. R’ Michoel Lipskier appears to be confused about how to establish the activity and it is difficult to give advice from a distance. Yitzchak Sholom should visit there now. But the first point should be given priority.)

Also with regard to [future] discussions here concerning what particular activities [to organize], [the level of discussions] will be incomparably [higher] if you have previously clarified on site the possibilities that exist and the type of assistance that will be forthcoming from the local populace (both in regard to teachers and means. For there are also very wealthy people there, but when it comes to these matters, they stand on the sidelines.)

In conclusion, at what stage are your plans holding at the present time?

We have appointed seven administrative board members, headed by chairman R’ Avraham Bechler, and we are presently surveying the region for an appropriate location. The plans have long been ready on paper, and we are now busy meeting with the relevant authorities. We have received much assistance and encouragement from the Rebbe’s shliach in Ramat Aviv, Rabbi Yossi Ginsburg, and he has also participated in several of the meetings. He has even suggested that Rabbi Mendele Friedman serve as the site’s future rav. While the project has yet to take shape due to our stubborn determination to obtain the very best terms available, we are certain that the day will soon come when Chabad will have another settlement of which it can take great pride.”

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