The Year In Israel

By Max Fruchter

Having been fortunate to stay in Yeshivat Hakotel this past Shabbos, I was truly blessed to have experienced an uplifting Shabbos in the Old City. There is something about the captivating atmosphere of Ir Ha’atika that never fails to take my breath away.

Along with hundreds, if not thousands, of others, I davened at the Kotel on Friday night. The facade of this historic wall, which at one point surrounded the courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash, saw men and women of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and religious affiliations marveling at its beauty. For only mere moments was I able to contemplate the significance of the moment as minyanim on all sides–each having started five minutes before the next–sang the Kabbalas Shabbos tefillos in their respective Israeli, Sephardic, or Ashkenazic tunes.

One unique minyan directly to my left was made up of soldiers in identical green shirts and pants, with purple berets secured on their shoulders. With tears on their smiling faces, this Golani unit prayed with a special intensity and passion surrounded by feelings of joy and sorrow; feelings I imagine could only be felt by those who had seen and gone through what this unit had.

As Ma’ariv came to an end, I began to depart the Old City with my friend in the direction of Rechavia, a friendly nearby town where we had dinner plans. I had hardly taken two steps before I heard an enthused “Max!” Spinning around, I immediately saw the faces of a high-school friend and his brother, now visiting Israel in conjunction with his break from NYU.

At the end of a friendly conversation, seeing the familiar faces of more friends and their families, I realized that I was at the center of “tourist season.” January, being the month of winter vacation for most schools, presents an opportune time for many families to come visit their sons or daughters who are spending the year in Israel. It has become increasingly common for parents to treat their son or daughter and their friends to a pleasant meal at a nice restaurant. Just this past Sunday, a very close friend of mine whose family had flown in for two weeks took me and several friends to an excellent South American grill for lunch. In addition to having delicious food, I was fortunate to get better acquainted with my friend’s brothers and parents, all unbelievably warm and affable people.

Following a truly amazing Friday-night seudah, my friend and I made our way back to the Old City to get a good night’s rest in preparation for a full day ahead.

That Shabbos morning, I awoke with a smile at a time which, in any other city of Israel, would certainly have been a frown. The glaring numbers “8:45” were no cause for concern, considering the plethora of minyanim at the Kotel. Earlier this week, as my friend and I were setting up our meals for Shabbos, we had hit a bump in the road regarding lunch. I remembered hearing from very many people about Rabbi Mordechai Machlis, an unbelievably caring and generous person who opens up his home to nearly a hundred people every week for meals on Friday night and Shabbos day. Referred to by some as the “contemporary Avraham Avinu,” Rav Machlis was someone I was anxious to experience a Shabbos meal with.

Although the minyan I attended Shabbos morning was finished by 10:45, the well-known “Rav Machlis minyan” (the very last minyan at the Kotel) concluded at 12:15. Waiting patiently, my friend and I watched as this entire minyan davened with a calm fervor, unaffected by the numerous caretakers hastily rolling away the bimot and returning the siddurim. At 12:15, Rav Machlis began to make his way around all areas of the Kotel. With hands cupped around his mouth, he bellowed in English and Hebrew, “Anyone who would like to take part in a Kiddush right now is more than welcome to; we would love for you to join us.”

After numerous repetitions of this announcement, Rav Machlis made Kiddush and a diverse group of tourists, chassidim, and Kotel caretakers snacked on some nuts and cake. Following an insightful dvar Torah, Rav Machlis again cupped his hands and informed everyone, “All are invited to join my wife and me for the Shabbos Seudah in our home in Ma’alot Dafna; we would love for you to join us!”

On that note, approximately 50 people trailed behind Rav Machlis as we embarked on a 45-minute walk to his house, beginning with a stroll through the Arab shuk. Introducing myself to Rav Machlis and thanking him for such cordial hospitality, it wasn’t difficult to notice his innate bonhomie–every soldier we passed received a handshake, a warm smile, a “todah rabah” and, of course, a “Shabbat shalom.” Rav Machlis stopped more than once to hand a homeless individual in shabby rags a bottle of cold soda (left over from the earlier Kiddush) to help cool off on such a warm day.

After an enjoyable walk, we finally reached Ma’alot Dafna and approached the home of Rav Machlis. I instantly took note of the motley group of individuals seated along the nine or ten tables in the room: men with peyos, women in pants, other women in flowing black skirts, a tight group of five men in bandanas and jewelry, etc. Taking an open seat by the back of the room, I made myself comfortable and began eyeing the thousands of sefarim along the walls.

After everyone settled down, Rav Machlis took a seat directly across from my friend and me and began speaking about his absolute pleasure in hosting everyone this Shabbos. He noted that Judaism is the only religion that does not identify the days of the week with names, but rather with numbers. He further explained that this was no coincidence and that each day was one day closer to the seventh day of the week–Shabbos Kodesh.

Having washed and made Hamotzi, everyone enjoyed delicious challah followed by different salads and dips along each table. As deli meats and chicken were being brought out by two young volunteers, Rav Machlis announced that at this point he took pleasure in opening up the floor to “anyone who would like to share some Torah.”

The first speaker, an Israeli speech therapist, related how her experiences working with children who encounter obstacles in speaking properly has given her a greater sense of understanding and compassion towards Moshe’s predicament. As this woman sat down to applause and shouts of “Shkoyach! Amen!” an elderly disheveled woman jumped up and immediately took advantage of the open floor. In a heavy Swedish accent, she began rambling in a tone which made her words hard to decipher. Everyone was able to decrypt a few lines between each of her sobs and screams. I can still hear the distinct words “. . . and when I died the third time I asked them in Heaven, ‘how?’ They answered me ‘By bombs!’ Yes, that’s right, bombs!”

As she continued to cry over her repeated death and resurrection, I listened incredulously, unsure of who this woman was or whether she was aware of the frenzy her speech had stirred. Hushing the crowd, Rav Machlis informed her that such claims are controversial and that it’s best to stick to the basics–Hashem is the one and only true G‑d. Once consoled, the Swedish woman took a seat, still mumbling, and was followed by a bright man from Brazil who had been studying in Israel for two years.

After many intriguing and entertaining remarks, cholent was served and everyone began conversing with those seated near them. I asked Rav Machlis how exactly he organized such an incredibly hospitable meal every Shabbos. He responded with a humility I was growing increasingly used to hearing: “If you knew me well, you’d know how incapable I am of organizing events. I do nothing, but there are so many people who come together and make these meals possible.” I soon learned that Rav Machlis opens up his home for meals every Shabbos, taking a break only for Pesach–and then, only due to the concern that people may accidentally bring chametz into his home.

At 4:15, as we all bentched to finish the meal, I shook the hand of the rav who truly personified the altruism and generosity displayed by Avraham Avinu and thanked him profusely for such a special seudah. Once I finally convinced him that I had to leave, he bade me farewell and made me promise that next time I would stay for seudah shelishis.

– – –

Had it not been for the annual DRS seudah shelishis held at the Inbal hotel, I certainly would have joined Rav Machlis. All week long, my friend and I had been looking forward to this well-known and highly regarded seudah shelishis held by our very own Rabbi Cohen, who flies in with his wife each year.

As we entered the Inbal, my friend and I davened Minchah and then made our way to a dining room filled with beautifully set tables. As alumni from all different graduating years poured into the room, I ran over to friend after friend, unable to contain my excitement. With similar enthusiasm, I greeted my 11th-grade English teacher, Mr. Deutsch, who was also my debate coach in 12th grade.

Catching up with friends–many of whom I had just seen at the DRS Shabbaton in Reishit–brought back old memories while simultaneously creating new ones. We laughed and shared stories over the delicious food available at the buffet table. After plenty of time to eat, everyone gathered around the center table at which Rabbi Cohen was seated to join him in singing zemiros and hearing divrei Torah. Rabbi Cohen stressed how important it is that we all express the deep love each Jew should feel toward Shabbos.

The meal came to an end at 7:30, or one-and-a-half hours past the end of Shabbos. To Rabbi Cohen, there is, and should never be, a rush to end Shabbos. “Sanctifying” and “guarding” the holiest day of the week is a privilege we must all appreciate and take advantage of.

At about 8:15, a little over two hours after the end of Shabbos (or two hours closer to next Shabbos, as I’m sure Rabbi Cohen would say), I took a bus with my friend out of the Old City. Watching the ancient buildings pass by, I felt a sudden sadness fall over me as I left the Ir Ha’atika, en route to the more modern setting of Bayit Vegan. Thinking of the kedushah of the Kotel, the benevolence of Rav Machlis, and the exemplary passion exhibited by Rabbi Cohen, I realized that I have a special opportunity, one which I must follow through on. I began pondering how to best share these ideal qualities and bring what I had experienced in the Old City to all of Bayit Vegan and beyond. v

Max Fruchter, a recent graduate of DRS Yeshiva High School in the Five Towns, is now attending yeshiva in Jerusalem.


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