Religious Pioneers

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by R. Gil Student

According to Sam Finkel, in his Rebels in the Holy Land, everything you thought you knew about chalutzim, farmer-settlers in the land of Israel, is wrong. The legendary chalutzim were secular East European Jews who came to Israel to create a homeland for the new Jew — proud, strong, independent… the opposite of what they considered to be the religious Jew trapped in an exile mentality. They were from the Second Aliyah, from 1904 to 1914.

Finkel tells the story of the First Aliyah, focusing on a community of farmers from Russian whose religious outlook today we would call Charedi. This gripping tale begins with the great scholar Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever and the Charedi journalist Yechiel Brill petitioning Baron Edmund de Rothschild to sponsor a small colony as an experiment of Russian immigration. With the support of the banker known to the Jews as The Benefactor, the journey begins. The farmers had to be picked; they had to make it past multiple obstacles in order to enter Ottoman-ruled Palestine; they had to overcome the unsympathetic administrators in The Benefactor’s employ; they had to find suitable land to purchase; and so on through the difficult initial years of the colony. At each step, their progress was blocked.

Based on a century of accumulated research, the author provides a page-turner account of their experience. The hardship these farmers underwent to establish their farms was remarkable. Then came the Shemitah year of 1888-1889. Reports of a Heter — permission to hire Arabs to work the land — from Rabbi Mohilever and Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spector were vague. The Jerusalem rabbinate forbade leniency. What were these simple religious farmers to do? Significantly, the rabbi of their region in Russia, Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe, had recently made aliyah and was encouraging them to refrain from all work during the Shemitah year.

They chose the path of simple faith—following their rabbis in observing the Shemitah year. This put them in direct disobedience of The Benefactor, beginning a protracted war with his administrators. I do not want to spoil the ending of this fantastically told story. Rebels in the Holy Land is a true story of faith, courage and perseverance that inspires and entertains.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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