Friday, May 14, 2010

Natural-Born Builder

David Suissa

What does a builder do when he's told he can no longer build? I asked that question of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, co-founder and chief rabbi of the settlement of Efrat,
who was in town last week as a guest of Beth Jacob Congregation. Riskin's settlement is currently under the 10-month construction freeze announced a few months ago by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Efrat, a number of planned developments have been frozen, including 400 residential units for young couples, most of who were born and raised in Efrat and have their parents nearby; a facility for senior citizens; a shopping center; and a school for kids at risk.

This kind of development has been par for the course since Passover 1983, when Rabbi Riskin made aliyah with his family. Before then, he had built a modern Orthodox community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Lincoln Square Synagogue, that to this day has near-legendary status. With the encouragement of his mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Riskin took a small Conservative shul and, from 1963 to 1983, turned it into a powerhouse of Orthodox outreach with a national reputation.

But at the pinnacle of his accomplishment, he left with his family to "live his dream" in Israel and build something new.

It's hard to overstate the mystical pull that building on biblical land has on some religious Jews. I remember being on a balcony in Efrat a few years ago, admiring the view, when the owner reminded me that "that's where King David fought his wars." As he said that, I couldn't help thinking that my house at the time had a nice view of the Beverly Center.

Since that Passover in 1983, Efrat has become "the city of eight hilltops," home to about 8,500 residents from America, South Africa, England and France, among others. Most of the residents are Modern Orthodox - the ones I've met and spoken to over the years remind me a lot of my neighbors in Pico-Robertson.

And just like their leader, they are very worried about the construction freeze.

"If it continues, it will mean big trouble," Riskin said, referring to the possibility that the freeze might be extended past its expiration date of September.

When Riskin says "big trouble," he has several things in mind. The first is the obvious problem of not being able to service the basic needs of Efrat residents - what is known as "natural growth." The second is that several of his benefactors have made donations for projects that have been frozen, and he would like to deliver on his promises.

Most significant, however, is the idea of precedent. In all the peace proposals discussed over the years, it was always assumed that the main settlement bloc, which includes towns like Efrat, would remain part of Israel. So now, for people like Riskin, who have devoted their lives to building communities, the notion of an extended construction freeze in these areas is highly unsettling.

But Riskin is a force of nature, and he won't be denied. If he can't build with bulldozers, he'll build in other ways.

He has plenty of experience building without bulldozers. In fact, his real mission is to build future Jewish leaders. His organization, Ohr Torah Stone, has trained hundreds of rabbis and educators over the years who have gone back to the Diaspora to spread a philosophy that blends modernity with tradition, with a special emphasis on social justice and Jewish unity.

Riskin has been at the forefront of fighting for women's rights in the Orthodox world. After winning a major case in Israel's High Court to allow women to serve as advocates in the religious courts, he established the first program to train women for such advocacy, which has helped the cause of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce) in religious courts.

His latest brainchild, Yachad, requires no bulldozers - it uses other people's buildings. Yachad sends out "cultural facilitators" to local community centers all over Israel to give secular Israelis a taste of their Jewish heritage. On Yom Kippur, for example, Jews who'd never walk into a synagogue can now go into a recreation center and experience a shortened version of the Kol Nidre and Neilah services.

Despite all this activity, when I hosted Riskin at my house last Friday, I could tell that the construction freeze was weighing heavily on him.

His eyes did light up, however, when he told me about his involvement with a construction project that is perfectly OK under the freeze: an eye clinic for an Arab village next to Efrat. For decades, the mayor of that village and Riskin have been close friends. Apparently, the high rate of intermarriage among Arab cousins in the village has caused eye problems, so Riskin decided to help build the eye clinic.

There is irony in a Jewish builder who is not allowed to build for Jews, but who builds for his Arab neighbors. But there was no irony - or bitterness - in Riskin's voice as he spoke of his Arab neighbors.

"They're like my second congregation," he said. "The freeze is hurting their income. They want peace as much as we do.

"Their leaders, unfortunately, are another story."

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine, and a weekly columnist for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. You can read his daily blog at and e-mail him at

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