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Orthodox Jews Turn to God to Lift Israel out of the Depths

March 15, 2002
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David Ofman, a real estate lawyer, slipped out of his lower Manhattan office for a long lunch break.

But instead of heading to a restaurant, Ofman — who was fasting for the day — headed for special afternoon prayer services on behalf of Israel on Wednesday at the headquarters of Agudath Israel of America.

Ofman was one of about 200 Jews who crowded into the fervently Orthodox organization’ conference room for a 1 p.m. service. Another 70 streamed in for a service an hour later.

“We’re en masse fasting and pleading to God to put an end to the tragic situation,” Ofman said.

Responding to simultaneous calls from Israel’s chief rabbis, the fervently Orthodox Councils of Torah Sages in Israel and the United States and the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, Orthodox Jews all over the world participated in Yom Kippur Katan, or little Yom Kippur, a rarely observed service that is traditionally held the day before the new Hebrew month.

The service shares much of the liturgy of Nilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur.

Frustrated by the deteriorating situation in Israel, many observant Jews found solace — and hope — in the extra prayers.

“I have family in Israel and the situation has gotten really horrible,” said Valerie Schwartz, a 23-year-old computer programmer who attended the 2 p.m. Yom Kippur Katan service at Agudath Israel. “The least I can do is come and daven a little bit.”

Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, said that as American Jews, “it’s up to us of course to be Israel’s advocates in the United States, but it’s also up to us to do what we Jews do best and that’s to hold firm to our belief in God and to pray to him that he rescue us from the situation in which we find ourselves.” As the situation in Israel has worsened, Orthodox Jews in America — from fervently Orthodox to modern — have distinguished themselves from other American Jews, both in their willingness to continue traveling to Israel in large numbers and in their advocacy of prayer as an important way of addressing the country’s problems.

Many Orthodox students go to Israel between high school and college, and enrollment in those post-high school yeshivas in Israel remains stable, according to research by Am Echad, a fervently Orthodox group, as well as anecdotal reports by travel agents who work with Israeli yeshivas.

Judy Tenenbaum, the owner of Plane Talk Travel in Brooklyn, a company that specializes in arrangements for yeshiva students, said her business has remained solid and that yeshivas and seminaries in Israel with American students remain full, some with wait lists.

However, more students than usual are returning to the United States for Passover break, rather than using the time to travel in Israel, she said.

And while Orthodox Jews continue to visit family in Israel, fewer are touring or staying in hotels.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman, editor of the Brooklyn-based Artscroll, one of the largest publishing houses for Jewish religious books, said the fact that no political or military approach seems to point to a resolution of Israel’s problems is spurring Orthodox Jews toward greater prayer and introspection.

“Nobody has an answer right now,” Scherman said. “So religious people feel in a situation like this that this forces us to turn to God.”

“If you believe in God and truly believe that God runs the world, then if you need a miracle to get out of the situation, you have to be worthy of miracles,” Scherman added.

Scherman said he is noticing more prayer and more efforts at self-improvement in the Orthodox world.

“A lot of people have changed in the past few months,” he said. “They’re becoming more observant, but not just in religious ways. They’re more concerned about others, more generous, more kind.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who teaches Jewish law at Loyola Law School-Los Angeles, said Orthodox Jews are focusing on the news and many are stepping up their political advocacy for Israel.

At the same time, he said, “we’re pulled to do a Torah reality check that the ultimate solution in the long term and short term is in the hands of God.”

“We have to remind ourselves that the efficacy of any of our activity depends on the way God looks at us,” he said. “Divine help depends on the quality of our lives as Jews, so we have to re-examine our lives in the general sense of what our values are and where we’re heading and in the details of life.”

Like Scherman, Adlerstein reports an increased focus on self-improvement in the Orthodox community.

He said there have been a growing number of lectures on how people should change their lives, and attributes a recent campaign calling for people to “diminish the lavishness of weddings” to this trend.

“The events of the last few months have been so sobering and everyone wants to do something,” Adlerstein said.

Chesky Wertman, one of those who attended the Agudath Israel service on Wednesday, said prayer is “one of the most important things we can do right now.”

“We’re not soldiers, we’re not government officials. So we can just pray to Hashem that those who are will have the wisdom to do the proper thing,” he said, using the term for God.

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