SHAAREI GEULA THE SHUL WHERE EVERY JEW FEELS AT HOME
February 25, 2015
Nosson Avrohom in #963, Profile

He was raised in a childrens home on a Shomer HaTzair kibbutz and was given a communist education.  He was not opposed to Judaism, simply because he did not know what it wasWhen he grew up, he went to check out a Native Indian cult in Canada and from there he came back to Judaism until he ended up in the Chabad yeshiva in Tzfas. * Today he leads the Shaarei Geula shul in Kiryat Gat which is attended by hundreds of religious residents. * This is the fascinating story of RMeir Meiri.

Kiryat Gat was in the headlines this summer when two Grad missiles were shot at the city and made a direct hit.  One landed on the porch of a house and the other on a parked car.  Fires broke out in the neighborhood but miraculously, only one person was hurt, a foreign worker who went out to photograph the missile in flight

“One of the missiles landed a few meters away from the homes of the religious development.  Windows shattered,” described one of the shluchim in the city and rav of the Shaarei Geula shul, R’ Meir Meiri.

From the first day of the war, when missiles began flying toward all the cities in the south, including Kiryat Gat, R’ Meiri was busy strengthening the residents of the city.

“We advertised to the religious sector, inviting them to come and learn in our kollel and to join the gatherings and shiurim that we have daily.  We also greatly increased our work with the children and held several children’s rallies and T’hillim groups.”

***

The Shaarei Geula community in Kiryat Gat, which opened its doors seventeen years ago in a small apartment with barely a minyan, has grown into a spacious shul that attracts not only Lubavitchers.  Litvishe, Sephardim, and knitted yarmulkes can also be found in this sanctuary of Torah and t’filla.

Shaarei Geula is more than just another shul.  Many programs and activities take place there every day, throughout the year, on weekdays and holidays.  In addition to the daily t’fillos, there is a kollel, farbrengens, gatherings and shiurim, activities for children and women, and mivtzaim.  And it’s all done in the authentic Chabad spirit of hiskashrus and chayus for inyanei Moshiach and Geula.

“With the growing numbers of Anash who are moving here, it became necessary to open another shul that would be not only a place of t’filla but would serve as a Chabad center.  The idea was that when a Chassidic date on the calendar came up, every Chassid in town would know there is a place to farbreng.”

The shul has undergone many positive transformations since it was founded.  It began with a small minyan on Shabbos and Yom Tov in the Meiri house, and eventually moved to a permanent building which underwent a number of expansions as the number of people increased. 

“The young people here came up with a plan for another expansion in order to make the place look like 770.  We have received the permits already and we are about to sign a contract with a contractor.”

HE KNEW NOTHING
ABOUT JUDAISM

The Shaarei Geula community was founded by three men, with the most prominent one, who is also the only one to remain in Kiryat Gat, the one who leads the k’hilla today, R’ Meir Meiri.  When you hear him tell about the dream that became reality, it is hard not to dwell on his life story, from an atheistic, leftist kibbutznik to a Chabad Chassid.

R’ Meiri was born to an Ashkenazic, bourgeois family on kibbutz Chatzor in the Shfela region, a second generation to the founders of the kibbutz.

“I spent my childhood like the rest of my friends in the kibbutz children’s home and we were given a Shomer HaTzair communist education.  My knowledge of Judaism amounted to zero.  The age of thirteen, for example, did not mean a thing to me and my friends.  My parents did not buy me t’fillin and of course I was not sent for any bar mitzva preparation.  There was more ignorance than hatred.  The kibbutz did not have a shul and we grew up in an atheistic bubble.”

The ignorance was so great that until Meiri went to the army he did not even know about fasting on Yom Kippur and that Rosh HaShana is the Yom HaDin.  These were just regular days in the calendar and the members of the kibbutz worked the land as usual.

“In later years, on the night of Yom Kippur there were discussion groups on the topic of love of man by virtue of his humanity and the tables were set with refreshments.  On Pesach we celebrated in the dining room with pita and rolls as the adults read contemporary poetry that was compiled and printed in the kibbutz ‘hagada.’”

Those days in the children’s home, when he rarely saw his parents, were very hard for him.  When I asked him for childhood memories, he said he remembered the time when the counselors sent home the entire youth group including him, to their families, because of renovations being done in the dormitory.  Another strong childhood memory is of a hike that the members of his youth group made to Nahal Amud near Tzfas.

“When we finished the hike we headed toward Tzfas exhausted.  Every time it seemed we were about to arrive we discovered we were on a section of a hill that was only a plateau for more climbing.  We despaired.  Today I learn a lesson from this in avodas Hashem, namely, that in Torah study and the performance of mitzvos there is never a break, never a peak.  Whenever we arrive at a summit, it’s a signal to us about the work we need to do to reach the next summit; there is never an end.”

When he turned thirteen he began to have doubts about his education and upbringing.

“After the Six Day War there was a crisis on the kibbutzim.  The second generation began to question the ways of the kibbutz leaders.  Volunteers began coming to the kibbutzim from all over the world, especially from Europe, and questions about a Creator or about the truth of the communist ideology began to be asked.”

His first opposition toward the kibbutz chinuch occurred when he and some other youngsters took a yoga class.  There they heard for the first time about the soul-body connection.  To the generation of kibbutz founders, this was irrational talk.

“We were very receptive to this.  We did not see the purpose of life as our parents did and we felt that there had to be another world beyond the physical world, one of depth, feeling and meaning.  Just like a boat cannot manage on the sea on its own, the world could not exist independently.”

When he turned eighteen he was drafted into the Artillery Corps.  While there he used his vacation time and every spare moment avidly reading books about mysticism and cults.

“Among the many books I read, I also came across our heritage, that of the Jewish people.  In my unit there was a group of religious guys who belonged to Mizrachi.  They were very principled people and with one of them I observed the first Pesach Seder of my life.  I loved it.  I felt that I was connecting to the messages even though I still did not understand the depth of it all, but the ceremony itself excited me.  I spent a few Shabbasos with him which I kept according to Halacha.  I even went to shul with my friends.”

When he finished his military training, he read a book translated from English about the lives of Canadian Native Indians.  Many things in the book appealed to him, such as their simple lifestyles, their belief in spirits and demons, and all the various ceremonies the tribe performed.  He wanted to go and see them and experience it for himself.  He asked the secretariat of the kibbutz for time off to travel and ordered a ticket to the area where those Indians live.  A few days before his flight he agreed to the suggestion of a friend on the kibbutz, Gil Deporto, to join him on an unplanned trip into the Judean desert.

“It was at the beginning of Chol HaMoed Pesach and although neither of us was religious, we knew a thing or two about Pesach from the army and we decided we would not take chametz along with us, just matza meal and fruits and vegetables. 

“After hours of hiking in the hot sun we realized we had not brought along enough water.  Gil, who had served in an elite scouts unit suggested we climb to a higher spot.  In my heart I prayed that we would not remain in the desert and die of thirst.  Gil’s idea turned out to be a good one.  When we were higher up, a jeep from the nature preserve stopped near us and the driver gave us water and a ride to the nearest bus stop.”

Their plan was to board the first bus that arrived.  The first bus that arrived took them straight to the Mea Sh’arim neighborhood in Yerushalayim.

“Today, when I think about it, I wonder what they thought of us, two young kibbutz guys with ragged clothes and long hair and no head covering.  A man with a beard saw us and he invited us to be his guests.  He taught us how to wash our hands and say brachos and we had supper with him.  The encounter with him was very special and we left with positive feelings about Judaism.”

WITH THE INDIAN TRIBE

R’ Meiri had to go through all sorts of adventures before discovering a life of Torah and mitzvos.  A day before his flight to Canada, he was sitting in his room on the kibbutz and he asked G-d to reveal to him the path of truth.

“I wasn’t interested in working in Canada nor in seeing the world.  All I wanted to do was check out the Indian tribe I had read about.  I rented an apartment near where they live in the forest and I would go and visit them and join in their worship and ceremonies.

 

“Their leaders spoke a lot about purifying the body and soul and this spoke to me.  Also, when they spoke about a magical world that lies beyond what our physical eyes can see, I felt that there was a lot of truth to what they said.  The atheistic education on the kibbutz seemed empty and foolish to me.  I stayed quite a while with the Indians until I felt I wanted to join them.

“Then, with some is’arusa d’l’eila (heavenly inspiration) I remembered the religious soldiers in my unit who had learned in yeshiva.   I recalled their joy in doing mitzvos and decided to escape the place I was in.”

His decision to leave was completely irrational.  R’ Meiri feels that it was Hashem who decided to take his neshama out of the depths of impurity.

“I had a friend who lived in Boston where he went to study music and he suggested I join him there.  I went and saw that he had gotten involved at the Chabad house and he went to shul with other young Israelis.  I did not know what Chabad is.  Back then I thought that all religious people were the same.”

His encounter with Chabad in Boston softened his opposition to put on t’fillin or to open a siddur and pray but he was still far from wearing a yarmulke.  According to him, all the changes were external, not internal.

He left Boston after a few months and went on a short trip to Mexico and from there he went to visit a friend in Cincinnati.

“I liked R’ Sholom Ber Alperowitz and with him I began to change inwardly too.  If you know R’ Alperowitz you know how special he is.  He was a role model who had a great influence on me.  Every move he made I felt came from a wellspring of truth and I related to this.”

Meiri arrived in Cincinnati on Shavuos.  After a month, R’ Alperowitz told him that he was opening a yeshiva for baalei t’shuva in the summer and he invited him to join.  When Meiri showed up on the first day of yeshiva, he discovered that he and another baal t’shuva from Morristown who had come to visit his parents were the only students and the one who filled all the positions in the yeshiva was R’ Alperowitz. 

Two months of intensive learning exposed him to a little of the depth of Chassidus and he received answers to all the questions that bothered him.

“I had a strong feeling of being like a son who meets his father whom he had never seen before.”

LEARNING IN YESHIVA AND ATTENDING PEACE NOW DEMONSTRATIONS

When Operation Peace for Galilee began, Meiri flew back to Eretz Yisroel and reported to the Absorption and Screening Base.  R’ Alperowitz, who realized that Meiri would not attend the yeshiva for baalei t’shuva in Morristown had told him about the yeshiva in Tzfas.  He gave him the yeshiva’s address and a letter of recommendation. 

“One day, I made my way to the office of the rosh yeshiva, R’ Wilschansky, and he welcomed me warmly.”

At first, Meiri still sat on the fence.

“There were mornings that I learned Chassidus in yeshiva and in the afternoons I went to Tel Aviv to demonstrate against the war in Lebanon with the Peace Now movement.  At the kibbutz there was a strong leftist atmosphere and I was not yet aware of the Rebbe’s view, so I would argue in favor of peace and against war which killed innocent people.  Obviously, all this crumbled quickly after being in yeshiva for a few weeks and connecting to the Rebbe’s way.”

Some bachurim from the yeshiva went to 770 for Tishrei 5742 and they returned all enthused.  They got the rest of the talmidim caught up in their excitement.  Half a year later, on Taanis Esther, R’ Meiri traveled to 770.  He describes his first time seeing the Rebbe as the most exciting, special time in his life. 

“The visit was for half a year and I became an inseparable part of the group of talmidim who came to spend a year with the Rebbe.  With every passing day I felt myself changing.

“In this half a year I merited many special displays of affection from the Rebbe.  I joined the learning by heart campaign initiated by the mashgiach R’ Kuti Rapp and one day I was walking down the street reviewing Mishnayos.  I was so involved in what I was doing that I did not notice that the Rebbe had left his car on his way to the mikva on Union Street.  When I looked up I found myself facing the Rebbe.  I will never forget the broad smile of the Rebbe and his gaze upon me.”

Before returning home as a Chassid who had changed inside and out, he stood with a friend in Gan Eden HaTachton and they waited. 

“The Rebbe left his room and passed us and then came back and blessed us with a good trip and good news.  That is a moment I will never forget and it is with me all the time.”

A K’HILLA IS BORN

After they married, the Meiri couple settled in Nachalat Har Chabad.  A few years later, R’ Meiri was offered the position of rosh kollel in the yeshiva in Kiryat Gat.  After the Rebbe’s consent for the move to Kiryat Gat, the couple moved.

About a year later, many more religious people began settling there in the new neighborhoods, as did Chassidic courts.

“Along with the general religious public, many Lubavitcher families began moving here too.  From a k’hilla of a few dozen families we expanded to about two hundred families.  It became necessary to open a shul in the new area.”

Along with two other Lubavitchers, R’ Mordechai Abutbul and R’ Ilan Chiyun, they decided to start another Chabad shul.  At first, there were minyanim only on Shabbos which took place in one of the apartments.

“The first farbrengen of the minyan was on Yud Kislev.  The shul was full of Anash who were looking for a place to farbreng.  The main speaker at that farbrengen was R’ Sholom Ber Wolpo who had asked the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh whether he should farbreng for us.  The answer he opened to was a letter written to someone named Mordechai who wrote to the Rebbe that he had founded a shul and wanted a bracha…

“The Rebbe wrote to him that he was hopeful that in addition to the t’fillos in the shul, it would also be a place with shiurim and farbrengens like the shuls that had been in the big cities in Russia which were open all day and people were able to walk in and say some chapters of T’hillim at any time.  We decided that our shul needs to operate this way too.  Since then, we keep the place open all day and have shiurim and farbrengens.”

The first years weren’t easy, to say the least, and some wanted to give up the idea of a minyan, but R’ Meiri and others stood strong.

“In hindsight, I don’t know where we had the strength from.  Every Shabbos we had to look for a minyan.  After a minyan on Shabbos became a given, we started having t’fillos on weekdays and then too we had to look for a sixth or a ninth for the minyan.  A few years went by and now the shul is packed and we have several minyanim a day.”

When the apartment became too small to accommodate everyone, they began looking for a place for a shul. “I remember that when we saw the first suitable lot, we wrote to the Rebbe.  The answer was not to pursue it.  The Rebbe was writing to someone in Raanana who wanted to open a branch of a vocational school and the Rebbe’s response was that he did not approve.  So we continued looking for a place.  We kept finding places but each time we opened to negative answers from the Rebbe.  Without a clear go-ahead from the Rebbe, we wouldn’t make a move.  Finally, when we found our current location, we opened to a bracha to the congregants of a shul and we made the purchase.”

R’ Meiri stresses that throughout the building and expansion they felt that the Rebbe was with them.

“Under the previous mayor, a group of religious factions sat down together and they divided the land in the religious sector among themselves without consulting with anyone.  One morning, we went to the shul and saw that it was fenced in. We had been planning on expanding the shul and we wondered who had constructed the fence.  We discovered it was a representative of one of the Chassidic courts who, with the greatest of chutzpah, told us that it was a shame to expand since the land was given to them and we would soon receive a notice to vacate.

“We were surprised but not frightened since we were going with the Rebbe’s kochos.  Months went by and nothing happened.  Then we were told that the legal comptroller of the council canceled the entire land grab plan and since then we have expanded another two times.”

WHAT A CHASSIDIC L’CHAIM CAN ACCOMPLISH

As part of the community focus that the shul has and in light of the answer from the Rebbe at the first farbrengen, the Shaarei Geula k’hilla started a kollel for young men.  During the day you can also find those who are not Lubavitchers who come to enjoy learning Torah and Chassidus.  The one who runs this division is R’ Yisroel Noach Blinitzky and the rosh kollel is R’ Shmuel Roch.  The mashpia is R’ Aharon Gold who is responsible for all the halachic aspects. “Whoever visits the shul during the day is astounded by the atmosphere of learning here.”

Over the years, non-Lubavitchers have also joined the kollel.

“There is a young man by the name of Dovid Yifrach who had worked for Shas.  Among his jobs he was the deputy director of the Histadrut and one of the people close to Aryeh Deri when he first served as Interior Minister.  He admires Chabad and every day he learns with R’ Gold.  They learn the daily Chitas and Likkutei Sichos.  At the Kinusei Torah we arrange, he is responsible for bringing rabbinic figures and distinguished Torah personalities.

“He became mekushar to the Rebbe and to learning Chassidus.  He lives in a moshav near Kiryat Gat, a religious moshav with a strong Litvishe agenda, but when he is asked to say divrei Torah there, he repeats sichos from the Rebbe that he learned that week in our kollel.  He has told me how impressed the congregants, who identify with the Litvishe Torah world, are by the content.

“R’ Yifrach loves to tell that when he was an assistant to the Interior Minister, he came with an entire retinue to the yeshiva in Kfar Chabad and one of the mashpiim in the yeshiva gave him l’chaim.  After drinking it the mashpia said to him, ‘One who says l’chaim in Tomchei T’mimim is guaranteed that at some point in his life he will become a Chassid.’  And he was right.”

THE REBBE RESPONDS

The shul is busy throughout the day.  People of all types feel comfortable walking in to learn whenever they feel like it.  If they have a problem, they know they can visit and someone will help them write to the Rebbe through the Igros Kodesh.

“Just recently, someone of Russian background came to us and one of the Russian speaking people in our shul went over to help him.  The man wanted a bracha from the Rebbe.  He wrote and the answer was in Yiddish which they translated for him.  The answer was to someone who was experiencing insomnia and the Rebbe suggested that he distract himself and strengthen his bitachon in Hashem. When we read the answer to him, he nearly fainted.  Apparently, this was a direct answer to his question.

“Recently, a Gerrer Chassid came in who said he heard that we were about to expand and he wanted to make a donation.  He said that his family had great love for Chabad and the Rebbe to whom they wrote regularly.  His father is a mashgiach of kashrus who travels a lot to Singapore where he became friendly with the shliach, R’ Abergel.  A few years ago, he had to be there for Pesach and he offered to bring products from Eretz Yisroel to the Chabad house.  R’ Abergel was happy with the offer and gave him a long list of items to bring.  The mashgiach was certain that the airline would not allow him to take so much so he wrote to the Rebbe about it.  The Rebbe’s answer in the Igros Kodesh was that he was happy that he was helping his mosdos.  Accompanied with this bracha, he went to the airport and was flabbergasted when nobody asked him any questions or stopped him and all his baggage arrived in its entirety in Singapore.”

THE WAY
TO REACH HEARTS

The last part of the interview took place as R’ Meiri was with the children of Tzivos Hashem in the amusement park in Yagur.

“Our programs with children are famous.  Under the umbrella of Tzivos Hashem, children of all backgrounds come for activities one day a week.  This is run by R’ MM Yisraeli and R’ MM Ezagui.

“The programs for children are experiential and educational.  Children learn things by heart and win valuable prizes.”

When looking at photos of life in the k’hilla you see rabbanim and local public figures on the dais and people from various Chassidic courts who see the beis midrash as an accessible and welcoming place to learn and daven.

“At first I was nervous about how people from the outside would look at us Chassidim who believe in Yechi, but the reality is that Yechi doesn’t bother anyone; on the contrary, it gives hope and faith in the midst of the difficulties of our times.

“We are particular about following Shulchan Aruch so there is absolutely no talking during davening and the davening is at a moderate pace.  There is a seriousness about learning and people come in and see this and this is what speaks to them.  Religious Jews respect those who learn Torah and who follow Shulchan Aruch.  You can say lofty things but if you aren’t particular about simple halachos, you will not reach those who were taught that Halacha reigns supreme.  I meet many people who remark about the pleasant atmosphere we have.  People are happy to go to a place that is embracing and peaceful.”

I asked R’ Meiri how he manages to preserve unity within the k’hilla.  He said:

“I take the approach that whoever wants to get involved I will help him to the best of my ability.  There are many areas which can be developed and we want to give everyone a place.”

In conclusion, I asked R’ Meiri about the publicizing about Moshiach, how he does it and how he explains it to people on the outside.  He said:

“When we founded the shul and the k’hilla we decided that we were going to be open about Moshiach just as the Rebbe didn’t hide it.  I can tell you categorically – Moshiach does not distance anyone from Lubavitch.  Whoever thinks so is not out in the field.  What can distance someone from Lubavitch is seeing a Lubavitcher who does not comport himself according to Shulchan Aruch or a Lubavitcher girl or woman who is not dressed modestly.

“It’s the opposite, Moshiach attracts people.  When people see Chassidim who are particular about Halacha crying out for Moshiach, they realize that this is something serious and not just a slogan.  We have Kinusei Torah and shiurim on a high level and which are attended by distinguished rabbanim.  People understand that the belief of Chassidim is based on clear halachic sources and not emotions.”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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