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Tuesday
Apr172018

WHERE WOULD WE BE TODAY IF NOT FOR RAV WOLPO

As activists and educators kick into high gear their drive to register more and more children for a Chabad chinuch al taharas ha’kodesh for the upcoming school year, Beis Moshiach gathered a representative group of Anash who nostalgically told of Rabbi Sholom Dovber Wolpo’s house calls to their parents. During these visits, he registered them in Chabad schools in Kiryat Gat. Thanks to him, these children have since established many dozens of beautiful Lubavitcher families. * On this occasion, the participants celebrated their spiritual father’s birthday. Part 1 of 2

Photos by Shneur Maman How symbolic was the fact that on the special evening when some students of Rabbi Sholom Dovber Wolpo gathered together, they were simultaneously busy with simchas. RYosef Vanunu came for a precious half an hour before continuing on to the sheva brachos of his son, and RMoshe Lahiani brought invitations along with him to the wedding of his daughter, which took place two days later. Both of them made the effort to free up some time for this.

“The marriages of our children with Lubavitcher families are the fruits of Rav Wolpo,” they both said. “We merited to marry off children in Chassidishe weddings, and this was not a given. If not for Rav Wolpo, we would not be in this place,” they stated, looking most pleased.

A HEARTWARMING, NOSTALGIC MEETING

The men who gathered for Rabbi Wolpo’s 70th birthday were proof of the efficacy of paying home visits, even by a lone individual, and the tremendous need to register as many children as possible in Chabad schools. These were a few representatives of lovely Chassidishe families who came to be thanks to the house calls that Rabbi Wolpo made thirty and forty years ago in Kiryat Gat.

At that time, there were already Chabad schools, starting with preschool and then separate schools for boys and girls, mesivta, yeshiva k’tana and yeshiva g’dola, which blended together bachurim from Chabad families from all over the country, along with bachurim from Kiryat Gat who were niskarev to Chabad through chinuch in Chabad schools.

Kiryat Gat in those days was much smaller than it is today. Everyone knew everyone. The locals had code phrases that only they knew, such as “the twelve stores,” “the seven floors,” “the cube,” and many other nicknames that referred to various local sites. It was almost like family.

This is why the gathering of Lubavitcher men in the old Chabad shul had a family-feel to it. Present were: R’ Moshe Lahiani, R’ Shimon Abrahami, R’ Yosef Vanunu, R’ Nissim Almaliach (the rav of the airport authority), and his brother, R’ Shlomo. It was a Chassidishe farbrengen with lots of memories.

HIS FATHERLY DEMEANOR

R’ Shimon Abrahami began the farbrengen. He had attended the professional prep school, Merkaz HaNoar. His counselor, Sholom Asaraf, went to Rav Wolpo and told him that there was a refined boy who did not seem to fit the school. R’ Wolpo went to his parents and begged the father to transfer him to a yeshiva. The father refused. But R’ Wolpo continued to insist, and after several follow-up house calls he agreed.

As soon as he started yeshiva, Shimon stood out with his unusual diligence and sincere prayers. He later married and became a teacher. He has a beautiful Chassidic home.

“Till today, I can remember my first day in yeshiva in 5742. I remember the nice atmosphere and mainly Rav Wolpo, who always radiated Chassidic tranquility and had an impressive presence. When he saw new students, he would inquire as to their well-being and give them a good feeling.

“I remember seeing Rav Wolpo under his tallis, davening with avoda in the zal. Sometimes, he would farbreng with bachurim and he would talk a lot about avodas ha’t’filla. His farbrengens were spiced with Chassidishe stories which tugged at the heart. Nearly every Shabbos he would review a maamer at the time for the third meal.”

Abrahami emotionally recalls the special attention that R’ Wolpo gave him. It was a bond that is still strong even years later.

“In my first year in yeshiva, there was a raffle for a ticket to fly to the Rebbe. Every year, on Chai Elul, there was a large farbrengen, which the residents of Kiryat Gat were invited to. The raffle took place at the end of the farbrengen and the suspense was huge.

“I was 14 and learned well, and everyone, for some reason, thought I would win until I myself was convinced. But Hashem had other ideas and a different talmid won, Yitzchok Cohen. As great as the anticipation was, that’s how great the disappointment was. I took it very much to heart.

“Rav Wolpo, although running half a city, felt my pain. He came over to me afterward and promised me a ticket on condition that nobody knew about it. That’s how Yitzchok Cohen and I came to travel together to the Rebbe for Tishrei 5743. That Tishrei is engraved within me.

“His way of relating was fatherly. One time, someone made a nice donation so the bachurim could buy new shoes. The following year, I was sure that we would get new shoes again and I asked the house mother about it. She asked Rabbi Wolpo who said it was a one-time donation, but he gave special permission to buy me new shoes. As a young boy, this had a profound impact on me.”

Abrahami’s going to a Chabad yeshiva changed not only his own life but affected his entire house. “My brothers and sisters, and we are nine children, are all religious and have beautiful families. My sisters fully cover their hair. It’s all thanks to those house calls.”

FROM MAFDAL TO CHABAD

When R’ Moshe Lahiani heard the story about the raffle for the trip to the Rebbe, he smiled. He also had a story like that. “Every year, Rav Wolpo arranged a raffle in which a representative of the community would win a trip to fly to the Rebbe. One year, I got a phone call from him, ‘Moshe, you didn’t participate in the raffle.’ This was shortly before the raffle took place. I said, ‘Put me in and I will pay you afterward.’ And then I won.

R’ Moshe’s father was one of the prominent figures in Kiryat Gat in those days. He was head of the religious council, head of Mafdal in the city and a manager in the Bank HaMizrachi (a respected position in those days). He sent his children to Mafdal schools.

“Rav Wolpo came up with a terrific idea. He had the students in the sixth grade in the Chabad school moved to the yeshiva building and called it a mesivta as a preparation for yeshiva k’tana (yeshiva for high school age boys). The students, most of who came from non-Chabad homes, lived and breathed yeshiva at that young age. After bar mitzva, nearly all of them continued automatically to full yeshiva life. Thanks to this idea, entire classes were added to the yeshiva. I can come up with a long list of Anash, with families, who came to a life of Chassidus thanks to this original idea.”

When Lahiani finished the eighth grade, his father wanted to send him to vocational school. As a young child, he did not dare to defy the will of his parents, although he wanted to continue in yeshiva with the rest of his classmates.

“I didn’t have the strength to oppose my parents,” he said. He went to Rav Wolpo who told him, “I will go to your house to speak to your parents. You just sit quietly.”

“I remember till today the evening he came to my house and sat with my parents in the living room. He said, ‘Your son is succeeding in his studies, thank G-d. He is well suited for yeshiva; don’t take him out. He will grow up with us to be a Chassid, yerei Shamayim, and a lamdan. We want him in yeshiva.’

“My father asked, ‘What about work? How will he support himself?’ Rav Wolpo, with his characteristic breitkait (broadness) said, ‘His parnasa is on me. He will work with me in yeshiva.’

“My mother was immediately convinced and said to my father, ‘Don’t throw a stone into the well from which you drank. Don’t take him out of yeshiva.’ My father was convinced. That was the power of Rav Wolpo, and since then I am Chabad.

“Rav Wolpo meant to reassure my father by promising that I would work in his yeshiva, but it actually happened. It was like he uttered a prophecy. All these years, I have been working in yeshiva and making a nice living.”

Over the years, his father thanked Rav Wolpo a number of times, because he has the most nachas from his son Moshe. This is aside from the fact that other children of the family also became connected to Chabad thanks to him.

R’ Moshe Lahiani waxes emotional when he talks about Rav Wolpo. “To me he is like a spiritual father; he supervised me carefully despite his many involvements. During vacation, he didn’t want me hanging around in our neighborhood, with nothing to do, so he offered that I come and help him at work in the office and in the house. I especially remember that I would go to him every year to clean his s’farim before Pesach. It wasn’t easy work considering that he had a big room crammed with s’farim from top to bottom. I would work from morning till night to organize the s’farim. In hindsight, I think I felt a certain sense of security during vacation, and this was in addition to the money he paid me.

“I would open one book after another, shake it and clean it. I remember that in each book I opened, new and old, I would see some note on the page, every few pages. I was a young boy but I dared to ask him, ‘Did you actually learn all these pages?’ He told me, half-smilingly, ‘What does it look like? That I open s’farim and make random marks?’ He once said to me, ‘Whenever a new book enters my house, it does not join the library until I page through it, at least that.’”

THE ENTIRE FAMILY MOVED TO CHABAD

The get-together of the talmidim was moving for me personally. As a former talmid of Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Kiryat Gat, I experienced good times with my friends with whom I learned, shared a room in the dorm, and ate.

R’ Yosef Vanunu is a story onto himself. He is originally from Ashkelon but he married into the Vaknin family of Kiryat Gat; they have five daughters. All of them have beautiful Chassidic families thanks to Rav Wolpo.

“All these families became involved with Chabad thanks to the home visit he made in which he took the oldest daughter, Fanny, and brought her to learn in the Chabad school.”

Fanny (wife of R’ Shimon Vaknin of Lud), was an excellent student in a religious-public school in Kiryat Gat. Her parents wanted her to continue attending a religious-public school, “and then Rav Wolpo came to my father-in-law, R’ Boruch’s house, and convinced him to send his daughter to Beis Rivka (at the time, there was a middle school with a dormitory under the auspices of Beis Rivka in Kfar Chabad). It was a wild request, considering what she had to sacrifice. It required her to make an enormous change in her lifestyle, way of dress, and to leave her warm home for a dormitory. Nevertheless, her parents agreed. She switched to Beis Rivka in Kfar Chabad and was followed by her sister. Over the years, all five daughters (including the wives of Guy Malka and Avi Toledano) established Lubavitcher homes. The son Motti Vaknin learned in Tomchei T’mimim all the years.

“This week, I married off my oldest son,” said R’ Yosef Vanunu with Chassidishe nachas. “This is definitely thanks to Rav Wolpo.”

To complete the picture, I asked for Mrs. Vaknin senior’s story, how she saw the events of those days when Rav Wolpo, “our spiritual father,” would go from house to house and register boys and girls for Chabad schools.

“At first, we registered our daughters for high schools at Moshav Chazon Yechezkel. The transport van came to take them to the high school, but R’ Wolpo appeared suddenly and stopped the girls. ‘You are not going to that high school!’ he said and took them off the van. ‘There is a high school of the Rebbe in Kiryat Malachi, and that is where you are going to learn,’ he ruled emphatically.”

Mrs. Vaknin remembers quite well the day that they arrived from Morocco in Eretz Yisroel and settled in Kiryat Gat. At first, they were housed in a miserable metal hut, but then they moved to an apartment that was about 160 square feet, with one room and a living area, in which they were forced to fit a family of eight!

And then R’ Wolpo arrived for a visit in order to register the children for the local Chabad schools. “He looked around and asked in shock, ‘This is how you are living? In such a small apartment?’ He wrote a sharp letter to Amidar (the state run housing company), and it did not take very long, and the company moved us to a larger apartment,” she recalls.

“When Fanny was registered at age twelve in Beis Rivka in Kfar Chabad, relatives and neighbors expressed their amazement: How can you send a child to live in a dormitory at such a young age?! However, I answered them, ‘The education of my daughter is the most important thing!’”

ABLE TO SPEAK TO EVERYONE IN HIS LANGUAGE

The fifth son-in-law of the Vaknin family, R’ Yosef Vanunu, also grew up in a family that wasn’t Lubavitch. He was planning to continue learning in yeshiva in B’nei Brak. “My father and uncle attended a Tanya class that Rav Wolpo gave in the home of Rabbi Pizem in Sderot every Thursday night. That’s how they became connected to the Rebbe. Then, thanks to the shliach in Ashkelon, R’ Menachem Mendel Lieberman, my parents agreed to send me to the Chabad yeshiva in Kiryat Gat.

“I remember that we went to check out the yeshiva. My mother loved the yeshiva at first sight. She saw a yeshiva just as she had dreamed of, a well-lit place with flowers in the dormitory rooms, nice bed linens, and people who smiled. I spent eight years learning in the Chabad schools in Kiryat Gat and I’m a Lubavitcher ever since.”

R’ Yosef Vanunu had a strong relationship with Rav Wolpo’s son, R’ Zelig. He would often visit the Wolpo home. “When you entered the house, you were overcome with awe,” he recalls. “I don’t know whether it was because of the thousands of s’farim that covered the walls of the house or because of Rav Wolpo’s personality. There were Shabbasos that we went to his house toward the end of Shabbos to sing niggunim. It was a special atmosphere that, until today, is absorbed within me.”

R’ Yosef’s two brothers, Shimon and Dan, also became involved with Chabad. They followed him and attended the Chabad schools in Kiryat Gat. “Both of them have a strong connection with the shluchim where they live.”

The most profound lasting impact on Vanunu is not from his learning in yeshiva but from Rav Wolpo’s personality. “On the one hand, he was a legendary figure to us with his ability to learn; on the other hand, he was always busy with communal activities, whether it was the preschools or the schools for other children. He had a special chayus for anything having to do with children. He knew how to get down to their level and speak their language.”

Those participating in the farbrengen all nodded their assent. “Rav Wolpo knew how to speak to each group in its language,” said R’ Shimon Abrahami. “He adjusted himself to Sephardim, Chassidim, Litvaks, scholars, maskilim; he had the right language for each demographic.”

Mrs. Vaknin: “Throughout the years, he did not forget a single one of my daughters and he attended all of their simchos. I’ll never forget how he danced with all his might at the wedding of our oldest daughter. He had come to the wedding straight from serving in the reserves, still wearing his uniform.”

The photographer, Shneur Mamo, who came to photograph our meeting, also sat down (between photos). He knew Rav Wolpo through his father-in-law R’ Yitzchok Isaac Yankowitz z”l, who was close with Rav Wolpo. “When Rav Wolpo left Kiryat Gat, there was a painful void in the city.” He remembers it well. “The entire city spoke about it and not only the Chabad Chassidim. There was a big goodbye party in the yard of the shul since the shul itself was too small to contain everyone. I remember that when he would walk in the street, people of all backgrounds would stop and talk to him.”

HIS PERSONAL EXAMPLE WAS MORE INFLUENTIAL THAN ANYTHING

The Kriaf family is one of the veteran families of Kiryat Gat. Their son, R’ Eliyahu, is a mashpia for Anash and the bachurim in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Krayot. Many years ago, when his mother, Leah, worked in the kitchen, Rav Wolpo would say to her, “You have diamonds in your home!”

R’ Eli remembers how the connection began, also from a visit paid by Rav Wolpo to his parents. His parents, although not quite religious, agreed to switch their children to Chabad. At first, the sisters (today: Ilanit Chiyun, shlucha to the Gold Mall in Rishon L’Tziyon, and Sigal Keidar, shlucha in Krayot) and then Eliyahu.

The connection with the family did not end with the home visits, but continued with invitations to farbrengens and shiurim. At the same time, the children brought the spirit of a Chabad school back home and the Chassidic spirit began to affect the household.

“We were very influenced by his personal example, by the warmth and personal attention that Rav Wolpo gave the family,” recalls R’ Eliyahu. “There was tremendous respect for him with a simultaneous feeling of great affection. Whenever my parents had something to discuss, they spoke to him openly. At home, we always spoke about the rav in special terms.”

Along with the relationship forged between the Wolpo girls and the Kriaf girls, R’ Eliyahu became stronger in his connection through the rallies and farbrengens that took place on special days, as well as from the direct talks that he heard from R’ Wolpo.

Till today, he has clear memories of the big campaign at school, when the first prize was a ticket to the Rebbe. They were so excited. “Most of the students were not Lubavitch, and still, it got them intensely involved in the atmosphere of traveling to the Rebbe and preparing for it. All the students excitedly escorted the boy who won the raffle, who traveled with Rav Wolpo. When the boy returned, he gathered all the students and told them all about his trip, about what happened at 770, and about standing for seven hours at the Rebbe’s farbrengen. It made a tremendous impression on the students and strengthened their feeling of hiskashrus to the Rebbe,” says R’ Eli.

“Throughout the years, back to the time that I learned in mesivta, and afterward in yeshiva, I learned a lot from the great mesirus nefesh of Rav Wolpo to raise money for the yeshiva. In shul too, we saw him as a role model at the davening, niggunim, with his commitment to review a maamer by heart every Shabbos. I personally was very impressed by how he sat to prepare the maamer every week before Shabbos despite his tremendous responsibilities. His personal example is what affected me more than anything else.”

To be continued, iy”H

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