And history may one day point to the quiet revolution of Acheinu as an instrumental factor in the ultimate fulfillment of the pasuk in Malachi (3:24), “Ve’heishiv leiv avos al banim ve’leiv banim al avosam “” And he will turn back [to Hashem] the hearts of the fathers with [their] sons and the hearts of sons with their fathers.”
In this, the second in a series of articles that explore the multi-faceted programs of Dirshu, we will learn about the magical work of Acheinu: The Kiruv Movement to Develop Bnei Torah. Acheinu is another brainchild of Rav Dovid Hofstedter, who sensed that outreach programs often reveal a glimpse of the beauty of Yiddishkeit, but don’t “seal the deal,” thus wasting a golden opportunity of changing a child and family’s life forever.
Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 27:10), “Tov shachein karov mei’ach rachok “” A close neighbor is better than a distant brother.” The pasuk can be understood homiletically, as well: “Tov shachein karov “” it is good to have a close neighbor.” However, “mei’ach, rachok “” it is far from a brother.”
Of course, there is nothing like a brother.
And there is nothing like Acheinu.
Instead of merely touching the peripheral souls of our ignorant brethren, Acheinu embraces each and every one and further connects them to their roots. Whether it is through its revolutionary mentoring programs or its sensational Batei Chizuk “” after-school Torah programming centers “” Acheinu stands at the cutting edge of Torahdik outreach. Through its staff of dedicated professionals and volunteers, Acheinu has developed a three-step program that includes mentoring, enrollment, and follow-up.
Acheinu begins its work when a child is in eighth grade. Although the child may have attended an elementary day school, in which he has learned Torah, now he has reached a crossroads; he is searching and exploring his options for high school, where his spiritual future will be determined. Will he attend a yeshivah, where he can continue to grow and develop spiritually, or will he attend a secular school, where he can become lost forever to the Jewish people?
In the first stage, Acheinu mentors develop a close, brotherly relationship with their charges, as well as their families. The mentors understand that it is not enough to develop a connection with the teenage boy or girl, but that it is imperative to understand the entire family picture. Therefore, they forge relationships with the parents and extended families, who are often unsure where to send their children. By developing a rapport with the family members, Acheinu increases the probability of each child receiving a continued Torah education. Acheinu understands that it is preferable to prevent internal family strife, and to avoid the fighting and bickering that can arise when a child tries to go against his parents’ will.
Now that the initial relationship has developed, it is time for the second component: the targeted enrollment. This crucial step will not only change the life of a child, but will almost certainly impact the entire family in a very profound way. Acheinu does not focus on mass enrollment drives; rather, the focus is on the individual, who attempts to make the jump from a secular lifestyle, to one where he will reap eternal rewards for connecting and attaching himself to the ways of Torah. The “big brothers” guide their “little brothers” toward a life of everlasting beauty “” a lifestyle of adherence to Torah and shemiras hamitzvos. Acheinu’s goal is to help every neshamah reach its potential.
The third and perhaps most important level of Acheinu’s work is the hemschech stage “” follow-up. At this critical stage, although the child is already attending a yeshivah high school, it is of utmost importance that his mentor keeps up the connection “” to encourage him and his family in this new undertaking, and smooth any rough spots.
By empathizing with their brothers “” and through caring professionalism and sheer hard work “” the members of Acheinu have accomplished their goals again and again. Indeed, they have a 93% success rate.
Hagaon Harav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz, zt”l, the late nasi of Acheinu, heaped effusive praise on those involved in this sacred work. As one touching story indicates, Rav Michel Yehudah felt privileged to include himself among the Acheinu mentors.
Yoni, a young boy from a somewhat traditional family, was a very fine young man with exemplary character traits. Unfortunately, he was very weak academically; learning was a struggle. In an effort to encourage him, his mentor took him to visit the great tzaddik, Rav Michel Yehudah.
The mentor shared the challenges the boy faced in his learning. The timid boy looked at the illustrious rabbi and burst out crying, as he said, “I try, but I simply can’t understand the material.”
Rav Michel Yehudah asked about the boy’s father’s occupation and he responded that his father was a carpenter.
He then asked if his father was observant; was he a shomer Torah u’mitzvos? Yoni shook his head in the negative.
He asked Yoni if any of his siblings went to observant schools, and once more Yoni lowered his head and confirmed that they did not.
The tzaddik then looked at Yoni and said to him, “Do you have any idea what type of responsibility rests on your shoulders? You are the only one who can do it. You are the one who must carry the load.”
But once again, Yoni cried out, “But I can’t! I can’t learn. It is so hard for me to learn.”
At this point, Rav Michel Yehudah became very emotional and burst into tears. Witnessing the tears coursing down the rav’s cheeks, Yoni began to cry again. After a few moments, Rav Michel Yehudah composed himself and looked lovingly at the vulnerable young child.
“I must tell you something. I have been the Rosh Yeshivah of the Ponovezh Yeshivah Ketana for many decades. In all my years of experience, I have seen that it is not necessarily the brilliant boys who succeed; it is the ones who keep at it, the masmidim. And that is my advice to you.
“Be consistent. Don’t learn until very late at night, and don’t get up too early in the morning. Don’t skip meals. Sleep when you are supposed to sleep, eat when you are supposed to eat, and learn when you are supposed to learn. If you keep at it, over time you will see that you will begin to understand more and more. You will notice that the gates of learning will open before you, and you will see such a great light that you will forget the darkness that currently clouds your existence.”
With each spoken word, one could sense Yoni’s confidence growing and see his eyes lighting up. And then, Rav Michel Yehudah looked the young man in the eyes, and he told him one more thing that he would never forget.
“I know you can do it. But if you ever find it’s too hard to continue, if you ever feel discouraged, then please come back to me and we will talk. I will be here waiting for you “” available and ready to speak to you whenever you need me. You will never be alone…”
Yoni left the sage’s house with newfound hope and resolve. The road would not be easy, but he knew that he would not be traveling it alone.
This is the remarkable work of Acheinu, and the work of its most prestigious “brother,” Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz zt”l.
David and Nurit, who lived in the city of Ramle, enrolled their child, Eliran, in the local Chinuch Atzmai school, because they were told by one of the local activists that the school had a good secular studies department and was free of violence.
When Eliran was in eighth grade, Acheinu sent a charismatic young man by the name of Michoel Berlin to give a weekly talk to the eighth grade. Immediately, the boys took a liking to the mentor and wanted to become acquainted with him. Eliran, in particular, enjoyed being in his company. Within no time at all, the two became close friends. In keeping with the philosophy of Acheinu, Michoel got to know Eliran’s parents, as well.
Later on in the school year, when the topic of Eliran’s future came up, Michoel spent hours talking to his parents about how attending a yeshivah high school would change and improve his life. Although the young man was truly excited about this thrilling new venture, Eliran’s father was vehemently opposed to the idea.
Attempting to avoid internal family strife at all costs, Michoel was determined to do everything within his power to try to convince Eliran’s father “” instead of having Eliran go against his father’s will. Thus, he spent hours addressing the boy’s father’s concerns. Among his many worries, Eliran’s father was concerned that if his son went to a yeshivah instead of a high school with a good secular education, it would be difficult for him to earn a respectable living.
Months passed. Finally, just at the time that Eliran graduated eighth grade, Michoel succeeded in convincing Eliran’s father to enroll Eliran in yeshivah for a trial period.
Michoel now faced the daunting task of convincing a yeshivah that this young man, who possessed a minimum knowledge of Torah, was ready and prepared to attend yeshivah and endure the rigors of its daily program. When the yeshivah administrators gave him a bechinah, they were less than impressed with the young man’s ability to learn. They were also hesitant about the fact that he came from a completely irreligious home. Who knew what type of baggage he would bring along with him? The hanhalah members expressed hesitation about accepting Eliran into the yeshivah. It was only due to Michoel’s exceptional track record that they were willing to admit him. Eliran was very excited about the prospect of attending a yeshivah.
However, he spent the two-month summer vacation in Ramle, which proved detrimental to his spiritual health. He attached himself to a group of friends who did not share his positive feelings about yeshivah. They ridiculed his decision and mocked the direction he had chosen. They urged him to attend a secular high school, one which would be devastating to his spirituality and his growth as a benTorah.
Regrettably, Eliran’s friends wielded a tremendous amount of influence over him. Finally, after much persuasion, Eliran changed his mind. Instead of attending the yeshivah, he planned to go to the secular high school his friends attended.
Eliran expected his mentor to be angry, frustrated, and disappointed “” after all the time and energy he had invested to convince Eliran’s father. Yet, when Eliran apologized to Michoel as he informed him of his decision, his mentor’s reaction shocked his younger friend. Instead of appearing outraged, he reacted in a cool, calm and collected manner. He told Eliran that although he did not agree with his decision, he respected him for whatever decision he had made.
The next day, Michoel invited him out for pizza, and he continued to get together with Eliran. Although it was not easy for Michoel to travel from his hometown of Bnei Brak to Ramle, what won’t one do for a brother? The two would spend time talking, and Michoel was never judgmental. Eliran saw how much Michoel cared for him, and he made the most of the deep friendship that had blossomed between the two of them.
Less than a week before the secular school was scheduled to begin, Michoel met one more time with his younger friend, and he made one last-ditch attempt. “Eliran, you know that yeshivah begins four days before your high school opens its doors. Why not try out the yeshivah for four days and see how it goes? What do you have to lose? If you decide after four days that you don’t like it, you can begin your high school without having lost a day of the school year.”
After all the time the two had spent together, Eliran knew that he could trust his older friend, and he did not want to disappoint him even more. He agreed to try it, on one condition. If he was even a bit unhappy after four days, Michoel would agree to let him go to his high school and to never say a word about the issue again.
Realizing that Eliron’s spiritual life was at stake, Michoel agreed.
Yet things did not go as smoothly as they had hoped. Entering yeshivah was a major adjustment for Eliran, one that brought much heartache and tears. But regardless of the problem, Michoel was always there for his little brother. Therefore, even when the four days passed, Eliran decided to stay on, despite the challenges he faced. And even when he continued to encounter frustration in his new settings, Michoel continued to hold his hand, and help him along.
It would be easy to say that everyone lived “happily ever after.” But Acheinu knows that in real life, problems arise. Yet regardless of what the problem may be, Michoel and the Acheinu family will be there to hear the call of, “Hashomer achi anochi “” Am I my brother’s keeper?”
And they will answer with a resounding “Yes!”
We say at the end of davening, “Acheinu kol beis Yisrael hanesunim be’tzarah u’ve’shivyah”¦HaMakom yeracheim aleihem ve’yotzi’eim mitzarah lirvachah”¦ “” Our brothers, the entire family of Yisrael, who are delivered into distress and captivity”¦May the Omni-present One have mercy on them and remove them from distress to relief”¦”
What greater tzarah could there be than a Yiddishe neshamah that is trapped in captivity, unable to fulfill its potential and to live a life of meaning and ruchniyus?
With Hashem’s help, Acheinu is bringing them out of their distress, and: “me’afeilah le’orah “” from darkness to light.”
Let’s join our brothers!