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Yisrael Motzen

How an OU Mission Changed my Shul Forever

Eliyahu Michael Harush Hy'd

I was disappointed. We were supposed to go to Be’eri but we were told that the military was not allowing any civilian visits. Instead, our group of rabbis and lay leaders from all over the US visited Sderot on October 31st. What I initially perceived as an annoyance would permanently change the trajectory of my shul.

Let me start at the beginning. On October 9th, the Orthodox Union organized a Zoom event with Racheli Fraenkel, the mother of Naftali Fraenkel, Hy’d. She contrasted her own terrible situation when her son was kidnapped and murdered with the events of October 7th. Whereas everyone knew her and her son’s name, due to the magnitude of loss in the current situation, she was concerned that the Jewish People would lose sight of the individual lives that had been stolen away, and other than their immediate family and friends no one would remember them. This sentiment inspired the OU to send one of the first missions to Israel at the end of October with the intent of ensuring that each represented community would adopt a single bereaved family in Israel. The genius of this approach was that not only would it ensure that the individual who died al kiddush Hashem would be remembered properly, but it would also enable a shul to rally around a particular meaningful project.

This past Rosh Hashana, I encouraged my congregation to learn for a few minutes every day. Based on a poll we had taken, more than 70% of the members of our shul were not learning on a daily basis. I started teaching a daily five-minute shiur on the weekly parsha figuring this would be the maximum amount of time people would be willing to sacrifice.

A local philanthropist, Fishel Gross, got wind of this push and suggested that I encourage my kehillah to take on learning Bava Kama with the Daf Yomi cycle. I laughed. I thought I was being bold by encouraging them to learn five minutes a day, and he was trying to get people to learn something they have never learned before for at least 45 minutes a day. Not a chance. He offered a generous incentive to participants, and to humor him, I set out to find ten people who would be interested in doing the Daf. I left to Israel without getting even ten people to sign up.

***

We pulled up to what we were told was the place where the police station once stood. It was a pile of rubble. There were shattered windows all around, remnants of a prolonged gunfight that stole the lives of so many precious souls. We stood there in silence for a couple of minutes, and then one of the participants had the idea to say a memorial prayer for all the soldiers and police officers who were killed in that location. As the Keil Malei was being said, a policewoman walked by. We assumed she was doing a patrol of Sderot, but she did not walk by. Instead, she joined our group and stood with us with her eyes closed as the prayer was being said. After we all said Amen, one of the participants turned to her and asked her who she was.

She pointed to the pile of rubble. “My name is Hodaya Harush, and my husband was the first police officer killed here on October 7th.” The group quickly turned their attention to this young woman. “My husband, Eliyahu Michael, was on duty on October 6th, and just as his shift was over, the terrorists attacked. He saw the terrorists and could have escaped to safety, but instead, he drew their attention away from some other police officers they were shooting at, and in doing so saved their lives.”

We begged her to tell us more about her husband. She described a gentle man; a “ba’al chesed” who was always surprising her with guests after long shifts at the station. A man who loved Torah and cherished his three little children. She spoke with such pride and strength. There was not a dry eye in our group.

Rabbi Shmuel Silber, Rabbi of Suburban Orthodox Toras Chaim of Baltimore, immediately decided this would be the family that his shul would adopt. Throughout the trip, I could not stop thinking about this paragon of faith and strength, and so on the last day of the trip, I asked Rabbi Silber if we could “share” Hodaya Harush. He graciously agreed. We decided to both dedicate the learning of Bava Kama to her husband’s memory.

I returned to my shul in Baltimore jet-lagged and overflowing with inspiration. I shared the story of Eliyahu Michael Hy’d and his brave wife and invited the congregation to learn Bava Kamma in his memory. Many have noted how in the wake of October 7th, there has been an increased desire for a spiritual connection. I was nonetheless shocked to see that around 70 people signed up to learn the Daf. At this point, Fishel Gross, who was very moved by the response, offered that in addition to the personal financial incentive to each participant, he would give a $100,000 donation to our shul if 100 members concluded Bava Kama.

***

On February 29th, 137 members of our shul made a siyum on Bava Kama.  I created an outline as to what happens at a siyum because for many this was the first siyum they ever attended. (A siyum is a celebration one makes after concluding a tractate of the Talmud.) In the audience was Hodaya Harush. We flew her, her mother, and her three children, ages 5, 3, and 2, to Baltimore to be there so she could appreciate the heights her husband’s soul is climbing, thanks to the many people learning in his memory.

It is hard to describe the emotions in the room; the euphoric feeling of such a great accomplishment, the sadness observing this young 25-year-old widow, and the incredible unity among our own congregation for coming together over a shared project and a sense of connection with all those in Israel who will never fully heal from October 7th. The videographer, a young man who was called upon last minute to fill in for someone else, was so moved by the siyum that he committed right there and then to begin learning Bava Metzia with the Daf Yomi cycle.

At the end of the siyum, we asked everyone who was planning on continuing on with any ‘yomi’ to rise. To go from never learning Gemara before to doing the Daf was not a simple undertaking and so I encouraged people to take on any other form of daily learning in memory of Eliyahu Michael Harush Hy’d. There would be no financial incentives, only a community that has transformed their sense of self from over 70% not learning daily to becoming true lomdei Torah, Torah learners. Approximately 100 people stood up.

Throughout Hodaya’s stay in Baltimore, she spoke at several shuls and schools, ensuring that we would all learn the story of her husband and that he would have a yad v’sheim. She concluded her final talk by telling us that we had it all wrong. We are not learning for an Aliyah for his Neshama. Being that he died al kiddush Hashem (for the sanctification of G-d’s Name) and protecting the lives of others, his soul is in the highest place possible. It is we, who are down here on earth, who are growing from being connected to such a kaddosh. She was right. Through a “chance” meeting on an OU mission, we learned the story of Eliyahu Michael Hy’d and it changed our shul forever.

About the Author
Yisrael Motzen, a native of Montreal, Canada, serves as rabbi of Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Synagogue in Baltimore, MD. He is a graduate of Ner Israel Rabbinical College and holds an M.A. in Clinical Community Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.