Putting The Key Of Yiddishkeit In The Lock Of Eretz Yisroel
By Shai Gefen

Rabbi Shmuel Venkrat, the shaliach of the Yishuvim of the Yericho Strip, has revised his shlichus approach in light of the war taking place in the Yericho area.* Rabbi Venkrat arrived in Mitzpeh Yericho five and a half years ago and has created a small revolution in Yiddishkeit in the settlements and kibbutzim in the area. * A story of a shaliach operating under fire.

"Yericho is the lock of Eretz Yisroel," say our Sages. It is a magnificent region with a pastoral view and date palms, and it treats tourists to stunning vistas. An otherworldly charm graces the area. Scattered over the region are many settlements and kibbutzim, which, until this most recent wave of terror, were considered quiet and secure.

Since the outbreak of disturbances on Erev Rosh HaShana, even these peaceful settlements of Chevel Yericho have been affected by the threat of their Arab neighbors. The bullets that fly in the fighting between I.D.F. forces and the terrorists can be seen from the homes in Mitzpeh Yericho, which is just above Palestinian Yericho.

Shaliach Rabbi Shmuel Venkrat, who arrived in Mitzpeh Yericho over five years ago in order to develop Jewish programming among the settlements, is surprised that he too has to deal with the new change of events. The beauty, the peace, the sight of gazelles and camels crossing the roads are in stark contrast to the shooting incidents which close off those roads every so often.

Rabbi Venkrat works among twenty or so settlements, which include the Yishuvei Chevel Yericho and the Jordan Valley. The settlements are widely scattered and sometimes it can take an hour or more to get from place to place.

"The situation is very tense," says Rabbi Venkrat. "At night we hear volleys of bullets. Some of the settlements have terrorists shooting at their homes. When night falls, the families lock themselves in. This is made even harder for us because the quiet that prevailed in this area was something we had always enjoyed, even during the most tense moments in Yesha."

No doubt your activities have changed.

"Absolutely. The new situation has changed our focus, for now we bring simcha to settlements where many of the residents live in terror. We encourage them and bring emuna and bitachon. We have been receiving many requests for us to arrange new programs. Even settlements that never contacted us before are asking us to organize activities for the children.

"We also do a great deal of work with the soldiers. The army’s Camp Elisha is not far from us, and there are fierce battles around it with the Palestinians. On Sukkos we circulated throughout that area with a mobile sukka. Virtually all the work we did on Sukkos was carried out under fire."

Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities, hundreds of wild Arabs attacked the old Shalom Al Yisroel Shul in Yericho. The shul was burned down to its foundation, which aroused anger among Jews around the country and around the world. Chabad work near the shul had taken place up to two days before the outbreak of disturbances.

"My brother-in-law, Meir Cohen, went on Thursday, two days before Rosh HaShana, to do Mivtza T’fillin with the soldiers on joint patrol near the shul in Yericho. Today that sort of setup is history."

Rabbi Venkrat’s work extends to the border with Jordan at the Allenby Bridge. It sometimes happens that even Jordanian officials benefit from his work when he visits Israeli officers on the border.

The yishuv of Mitzpeh Yericho, where the Venkrat family lives, is considered a Torah community. The people living there cooperate and take part in the work of the Chabad house, but even so, there’s a lot to be done. The entire yishuv participates in the Lag B’Omer parade, for nobody would miss a Chabad House event.

200 children participated in the most recent day camp that was organized in the yishuv. After three weeks packed with spiritual experiences, the children returned home sated by the warm Chassidic environment provided by the camp. The parents were excited and said that nobody can compete with the spirituality provided by Chabad.

Rabbi Venkrat sees dealing with the escalating crisis as part of life as a shaliach. "We are the Rebbe’s shluchim, and now more than ever we must help Jews," he says.

The nearby yishuv, Vered Yericho, is in the eye of the storm. Bullets hit the homes on the edge of the yishuv. Rabbi Venkrat has stepped up his activities in Vered Yericho, which is not just inhabited by the Orthodox. His work there began shortly after he arrived in the area. "My brother-in-law and I went to meet with the young people of the yishuv. We spoke about emuna, hashgacha pratis, and all the subjects that disturb young people concerning emuna. Following that conversation we established a Tzivos Hashem club for the children of the yishuv. One of the participants began attending symposiums we set up, and today she is studying in a religious school in Yerushalayim."

Rabbi Venkrat travels from kibbutz to kibbutz and from yishuv to yishuv: Kfar Adumim, Kalia, Elmod, Mitzpeh Shalem, Beis HaArava, etc. These yishuvim host ongoing Torah classes for men and women in Chassidus and Judaism, thanks to the Chabad House.

A large portion of his time is devoted to activities with children. Before Chanuka, the children learn how oil is made and what pure olive oil is, while learning about the holiday itself. Before Pesach, Rabbi Venkrat goes around with a mobile matza bakery from one school to the next. "These workshops are warmly welcomed by the kibbutzim in the area."

"My wife organizes mesibos Shabbos for the children of Mitzpeh Yericho, in addition to her work as a teacher in the local school."

Rabbi Venkrat’s charisma has gained him entry to the local kibbutz schools too, something that is rare in other parts of the country. Many of the kibbutz members are very pleased with his work.

At one of the kibbutzim a surprise awaited him. "One of the times I went to discuss the holidays at one of the kibbutz kindergartens, the teacher showed me a picture of the Rebbe MH"M holding the four minim that hangs on the wall. She explained that she had hung up the picture a few days before in order to teach her class about the holiday and the four minim."

During the height of the battles which took place during Sukkos, Rabbi Venkrat went from base to base and from one military post to another in order to boost the morale of the soldiers, who were operating under difficult circumstances. The Chabad sukka was definitely part of the war effort in the Valley and in Yericho.

"The soldiers had high morale. Each of them said the blessing on the minim, and received a Tehillim and the booklet which Rabbi Ritterman published [see article in last week’s issue] about the protection the mitzva of t’fillin provides.

"I went to a base of the Nachal Chareidi unit of religious soldiers in the Valley. The day before I came, two of their soldiers had been wounded during shooting that had lasted twenty minutes. The two of them were miraculously saved. One of the soldiers told me that during the shooting he turned to his friend and called out wholeheartedly, "Yechi Adoneinu Moreinu V’Rabbeinu Melech HaMoshiach L’olam Va’ed!"

Miracles take place every day. "One of the residents of Vered Yericho said that he was driving with his wife when shooting suddenly broke out. He and his wife fled from the car and lay on the ground. Bullets pierced the car, entering one way and exiting the other side. This went on for ten minutes and the couple miraculously survived uninjured."

These stories have become a matter of course, similar to those that took place during the Gulf War. "We constantly work on checking mezuzos, explaining that mezuzos protect the Jewish people. We have also been promoting keeping a Chitas in the car for further protection."

The media constantly talks about calm. What is actually going on?

"Recently there has been what can be called a sort of calm, but that’s not good enough. One of the children whom I helped prepare for his bar mitzva, had to postpone the festivities because the relatives in the center of the country were afraid to come."

It isn’t easy to keep on top of all the yishuvim scattered over dozens of kilometers, especially now when the situation is quite tense and travel is fraught with danger. Nevertheless, Rabbi Venkrat is planning on extending himself further, and will answer all the calls that come in from yishuvim which he had not visited in the past. He sees this work, in places which lacked a shaliach for so many years, as a strengthening of his shlichus.

A fund was established to help the Chabad Houses in Yesha deal with the new situation, where some of the outreach is done on the front lines. "The new situation has certainly rearranged our priorities and demands intensified work with both residents and soldiers," says Rabbi Venkrat. He calls upon Anash to support the Chabad Houses of Yesha.

"Anash must understand that under the circumstances we all have to get involved and help the Chabad Houses of Yesha, since this is war. The shluchim have to deal with new problems, aside from the usual problems a shaliach has to contend with."

In conclusion ...

Baruch Hashem, Chabad has been warmly accepted here. Even those kibbutzim that have tried to remove themselves from religion look favorably upon our work and cooperate. I hope that with the power of the meshaleiach, the Rebbe MH"M, we will intensify our programming and merit to prepare the residents of Chevel Yericho to greet Moshiach."


Rabbi Shmuel Venkrat


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