Jewish Education is Key: Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s Historic Visit to Los Angeles

By

Yehudis Litvak

The Los Angeles Jewish community was honored this week by a historic visit by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, and Chairman of Yad Vashem. Rabbi Lau was the guest speaker at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Lau is a descendant of a thousand-year long dynasty of rabbis. The youngest survivor of Buchenwald, he lost his parents in the Holocaust, but continued in his father’s footsteps upon his arrival in Israel. He progressed in his studies and acquired a reputation as a powerful speaker and a unifying force, respected by Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds. Noble in appearance yet humble, Rabbi Lau attracted a diverse, eager audience.

Rabbi Lau’s Shabbos morning drasha at Beth Jacob was attended by over 750 people. “Chief Rabbi Lau delivered a captivating and powerful drasha,” says Niva Taylor, Communications Director at Beth Jacob. She explains that Rabbi Lau spoke about the continuity of tradition from one generation to the next. “The sacrifice and dedication of the shul’s forebears, many of them Holocaust survivors, can be felt in the very walls of Beth Jacob, [Rabbi Lau] said. They have bequeathed a precious inheritance – morasha kehilat Yaakov – to the younger generation that we are so proud to receive.”

On Saturday night, Rabbi Lau held a town meeting at Beth Jacob, attended not only by Pico residents, but also Jews from the La Brea neighborhood and the Valley. Introducing the Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Kalman Topp, the rabbi of Beth Jacob, said, “[We had] an amazing experience over Shabbat. Rabbi and Rabbanit Lau’s presence energized our city.”

At the town meeting, Rabbi Lau spoke about bringing spirituality to our world. He told stories within stories describing the generation gap taking place in Israel. He spoke about a unique soccer game in the former Soviet Union, where the Israeli team played against the Russian team in Moscow. The game drew many Jewish spectators from all the fifteen republics of the former Soviet Union who wanted to see and touch a real Israeli.

But, as one Israeli soccer player later told Rabbi Lau, “We disappointed our brothers in the Soviet Union.” The day before the game, which was Shabbos, the Israeli team visited the main Moscow synagogue, packed with Soviet Jews who came to see them. During the Torah reading, one of the players was given an aliyah, but when he came up to the Torah he did not know what to do. Ten years after his bar mitzvah, he no longer remembered the blessings.

After these events, Zalman Aran, the Israeli Minister of Education and Culture at the time, instituted a new program which became mandatory in all Israeli public schools – toda’ah yehudit, basics of Judaism. He also asked Mordechai Bar-On, Chief Officer of Education in the IDF at the time, to implement a similar program in the IDF, for the young men and women who had already graduated from school and would not benefit from the new program.

Years later, at a public discussion, Mordechai Bar-On, by then a Knesset member, told Rabbi Lau of a conversation that took place between him and Zalman Aran about the importance of teaching the basics of Judaism to young Israelis. Mr. Aran grew up in Eastern Europe and learned in yeshiva as a child. Later, he became a communist and abandoned Judaism. As a young man, Mr. Aran fought in World War I. When he found himself in a seemingly hopeless situation and thought that his end was near, he thought to himself that he should pray, but, not wanting to be a hypocrite, he decided not to.

In turn, Mr. Bar-On shared his own war experience, which took place decades later in the IDF. During the Suez Canal War, Mr. Bar-On also found himself in a seemingly hopeless situation and wanted to pray, but he didn’t know any prayers. That was the difference between the two generations, explained Rabbi Lau. Mr. Aran’s generation knew how to pray, but chose not to. Mr. Bar-On’s generation wanted to pray, but didn’t know how. Both Mr. Aran and Mr. Bar-On invested much effort into making sure that the youth of their day would at least know how to pray, should they want to.
Rabbi Lau shared other stories, emphasizing the importance of Jewish education. He said that there is only one key to resolving the conflicts among different kinds of Jews – Jewish learning, especially experiential learning that involves both knowledge and experiences that touch the heart.

After the lecture, many listeners approached Rabbi Lau asking for brachos, and a small crowd accompanied him to the car.

Rabbi Lau in LA

On Sunday night, Rabbi Lau spoke at Beth Jacob’s Tiferet Award Banquet, honoring the shul’s Holocaust survivors. He delivered a moving message of hope, noting that we are all survivors of the Nazis’ Final Solution. Ms. Taylor recaps, “Those who actually lived through and endured the unspeakable, he said, are not just survivors, they are heroes. Not only did they live – they learned to cry, to laugh, and to feel again, and moved forward to build remarkable families and communities, transmitting their cherished Jewish heritage to the next generation.”