Ovadia Ben-Shalom: "On The Wings of Eagles"
by Gad Nahshon
"My mission here is to outreach my brothers and sisters in America. We need a strong union. It is now an era of emergency as to the well-being of Israel. Of course we would like to achieve support, cooperation, and also financial support from the Jews in America. Israel needs help. Israel and especially its cultural non-profit institutions are the first ones to suffer from this crisis. I called on our American Yemenite friends to come forward and help us. But again, my mission is to sustain brotherhood," remarked Ovadia Ben-Shalom, the founding father and president of the Israeli society which he established in 1970 in his hometown Netania in order to preserve and promote the Yemenite heritage and legacy. This organization or: 'The Association for Society and Culture' is an Israeli landmark, a unique dynamo in the field of positive ethnic culture.
Ben-Shalom has dedicated his life to this mission. Certainly, Ben-Shalom deserves 'Israel's Prize', the prestigious recognition for this achievements, an official most important recognition. Why? To the readers who are not familiar with Israel's ethnic history I would like to note that Ben-Shalom's society has been a distinguished model to copy. Ben-Shalom's concept of ethnicity is positive. He always helps others to develop their own ethnicity but as part of Israel's rainbow of ethnic groups or in their Hebrew term: 'Edot Israel.' Therefore, Ben-Shalom dedicated his last visit to America in June to the idea of unity among Jews. In order to explain the message of his society (Tel: 011-972-9-8331325), Ben-Shalom invited a young great Rabbi and a 'Dayan' (a judge in the Israeli official religious court - Av Beit Din) Rabbi Aviran Ha-Levi. Rabbi Aviran symbolizes the Yemenite heritage, beauty, uniqueness, since his grand grandpa was the legendary Jewish religious leader of the Yemenite Jewry, Rabbi Yihye Isaac Ha-Levi, who influenced the life of Jews in Yemen for 30 years. He was born in 1867 and died in 1932. He was the chief rabbi of the Yemenite Jewry and the head of their religious court.
Rabbi Aviran Isaac Ha-Levi has a mission which is an epitome of the mission of the society and its creative president, Ovadia Ben-Shalom. Why? Because the society together with Rabbi Aviran is launching a special project: to publish the first biography and the writings of this great leader of the Yemenite Jewry. For Rabbi Aviran it is a sacred 'mitsva.' Rabbi Aviran is conducting the research and the needed documentation in many countries. The grandchild links himself to the grandpa. The society's mission is to promote this religious chain. Ben-Shalom is sure that many supporters will help the society to fulfill this sacred mission.
Ben-Shalom, in New York City, established new ties with new organizations. First he met with the great Rabbi Haskel Besser of the Ron Lauder Foundation. The idea was to establish a precedent so that this foundation will support the most ancient Jewish Diaspora. In order to promote unity, Ben-Shalom established ties with the Sephardic Federation. Ben-Shalom hopes to build special relations so that this Federation will view the society in Netania as its affiliated organization. Ben-Shalom had a fruitful meeting with the Federation's executive director, Vivian Romani. The famous leader, Leon Levy, is the president of this Federation.
With the visit in June, Ben-Shalom decided to reinforce his cooperation with the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America under the leadership of Dr. Efrain Isaac. Ben Shalom decided to unite the Yemenites in America and outreach them. But he believes, and he is certainly right, that this Federation needs an ethnic soul, an ethnic resource, a fountain to drink ethnicity from. Therefore, this Federation should support the society in Israel as its mentor.
It will be an ethnic unity for the benefits of Jews and Israelis alike. Ben-Shalom believes that Israel has an urgent priority here because of its trauma and crisis. Israel is on the frontline not the Yemenite Federation. But peace between brother comes before anything. Let's hope for fruitful cooperation between the society and the Yemenite Federation.
Ben-Shalom also outreached, in Manhattan, the Yemenite community of 'Congregation Tifferet Yisrael of Manhattan.' It is a vivid Yemenite society of young people who come to pray and would like to preserve their Yemenite heritage and religious unique Yemenite style and customs. The ones that they cherished in their homes, their Yemenite tradition.
This community, located on 120 West 76th St., has a president, Jay Domb, and a Rabbi, Yair Yaish. Recently, it organized a special 'shabaton' and, of course, Ben-Shalom was the guest of honor. He came in order to achieve unity and reinforce the Yemenite aspects of the members of this great community. It was a great 'shabaton' of praying, learning, and enjoying the work of the great photographer of the Yemenite Jewry Zion Ozeri.
Certainly as Ronnie Domb, a founding member, explained, this 'Yemenite Shabaton' which honored Ben-Shalom, the guardian angel of the Yemenite tradition, expressed the spiritual contribution of 'Tifferet Yisrael,' a traditional Yemenite synagogue, to the Jewish life of New York City: "I was very happy. It was a great event for me. I would like to express my thanks from the bottom of my heart to every committee," said Ben-Shalom when I met him on the eve of his departure back to Israel.
It is a hard time for Ben-Shalom. He lives with his daily tension. His town, Netania, was victimized 12 times in 18 months by Palestinian terrorists. Ben-Shalom himself was almost killed by a terrorist in Hadera. He saw the murderers shooting at children and their mothers. It is a hard time for his organization. He badly needs any support from American Jews. Culture lost is priority, but the show must go on: the society whose goals are the following, will never stop its activities and Ben-Shalom is looking for unity in Israel also. First, let's present the society's idea: The Yemenite Jewish community is known as a unique community among almost 70 other Jewish communities in Israel. Its culture and tradition is believed to date back to the time of the First Temple.
It is believed that 2,500 years ago, several Jewish families left Israel with the Queen of Sheba traveling through Southern Arabia to Yemen. More Jews joined them after the destruction of the Second Temple and in later years. Throughout the years these Jews remained isolated. They strictly guarded their Jewish character and basic cultural values, based on their religion.
As the worldwide Jewish movement began its immigration to Zion - Eretz-Israel - "The Promised Land" - more than 100 years ago, waves of Yemenite Jews immigrated to Israel. The most significant and largest immigration was after the establishment of the State of Israel, in the years 1949-1950. Most of the Jews in Yemen immigrated to Israel, (around 50,000 people) in the operation known as: "On Eagles' Wings" (another name: "The Magic Carpet"). In the new millennium, about 500 Jews still remain in North Yemen.
These immigrants settled all over Israel in new settlements and suburbs. Almost 50 settlements of Yemenite Jewish immigrants were established.
The Yemenite Jewish community quickly and were soon absorbed into Israeli society and culture. The culture and tradition of the Yemenite Jewish community is a unique and attractive one. People from the Jewish and non-Jewish communities all over the world are highly interested in this culture and tradition.
about the associa�tion: The Association was established in 1970 my Mr. Ovadia Ben-Shalom and his close friends. Mr. Ben-Shalom is the President of the Association. The Association in non-political. It is registered as a non-profit organization in Israel (Registration No. 58-001-352-1).
The Association has several branches in Israel and also outside Israel, in Europe (U.K., Germany, Norway, Holland) and in the USA.
The Association's center is located in Netanya and includes a unique Yemenite Jewish museum (costumes, jewelry, crafts, typical Yemenite Jewish living room and kitchen, art and ancient religious books), a library and a research center.
The Association has two periodicals:
1. Tema - the scientific magazine published once a year. Up to 1999, six issues have been published. In Tema, scientific articles on the Yemenite Jewish history, culture and tradition are published;
2. Tehuda - the Association's annual magazine. It includes articles, stories, poetry and other various topics related to the Yemenite Jewish history, culture and tradition. Tehuda is delivered free to all members of the Association. Up to 1999, 19 issues of Tehuda have been published.
the main aims of the association:
1. Cultivating social and cultural Jewish values;
2. cultivating cultural and social Jewish Yemenite values, rooted in Yemen for thousands of years, among the older Jewish generation in the community;
3. Encouraging the young generation to learn, adapt and to come closer to the Yemenite Jewish culture, tradition and folklore;
4. Expressing the unique folklore of the Yemenite Jewish community: songs, dances and customs, jewelry, etc.;
5. Encouraging authors and researchers to carry out research and to publish information and research findings about the Yemenite Jewish community and other Jewish communities;
6. Publishing research, articles, books and an encyclopedia about the Yemenite Jewish culture and tradition.
Ben-Shalom outlined his new agenda:
1. To help Rabbi Aviran to fulfill the mission: "We must go back to our past sources. No future to our heritage without the learning of the past." Rabbi Aviran explained his mission: "I would like to find the teaching of the great Rabbi Isaac Ha-Levi and later to integrate the ideas into our educational system as well. This is my special mission and I am searching his past activities and publications like a detective," said Rabbi Aviran. It will be a new crown for the society, for the Yemenites, all over the world;
2. The society launches a new project of computing the Jews of Yemen (the chairman is Zohar Madar). The cost of this project: $200,000;
3. To build a new center for Yemenite Jewry in Jerusalem (together with the city of Jerusalem);
4. A project of creating conscience to Yemenite heritage and contribution to Israel's well-being in each municipality in Israel. For example, the network of 'menora' will integrate Yemenite activities into its adult education system. For example, 'menora' belongs to the Likud's youth movement, Beitar. Its young members should learn on the massive role of Yemenite Jews in the Irgun, before 1948, under the command of Menachem Begin, the legendary leader. Or, the Center of Culture and Education, of the heritage of the Jews from Spain launched, recently, a conference on the culture of the Yemenite Jews sponsored by the Ben-Shalom's society.
Recently, Ben-Shalom espoused a new idea: cooperation with the Jewish Yemenite Heritage House located in the city of Rosh Hain. Ben-Shalom and the mayor of this city are discussing the idea of building a World Center of the Yemenite Jewry in Rosh Hain. Therefore, the society and this House (carries the name of the famous poet Rabbi Shalom Shabazi) will be united to one institution, a center and a museum, as well. This new center will be the center of all the Yemenite Jewish communities all over the world. The leaders of these two centers, the mayor Igal Yoseph, the chairman, Gen. (Ret.) Avigdor Kahalani Ben-Shalom and his deputy Rabbi Dr. Aharon Ben-David, tend to espouse this idea of Yemenite reunion, in the near future.
But this is now only an idea. Ben-Shalom concluded as to his visit in the U.S.: "I am an optimist. I see some revival. I see light at the end of the tunnel. People will help the society, its projects and its scholars like Rabbi Aviran. They understand that we must illuminate the greatness of Rabbi Isaac Ha-Levi, the chief rabbi of the Jews in Yemen. People will help us to carry on the torch of the Yemenite heritage. It is a holy kind of commitment to our past and future as well."
At the last moment before we depart, Ben-Shalom told me: "I would like to rest and retire, but I cannot. I must follow my destiny of dedication to public life, to my life mission." Ben-Shalom was very excited to learn about Rabbi Aviran's mission. We should explain why Rabbi Yihye Isaac Ha'Levi's legacy must be illuminated today. What was his role in the life of the Jews in Yemen? What was his contribution to the religious life of the Jews who were a persecuted minority in Yemen. According to Encyclopedia Judaica, Rabbi Ha-Levi (1867-1932) was selected as last chief rabbi of Yemenite Jewry, pupil and grandson of R. Shalom Manzurah. Yihye was known for his Torah learning as well as for his understanding of worldly affairs. Appointed av bet din of Sana in 1901, he became chief rabbi of Yemen in 1905, holding this position until his death. His rabbinical appointment corresponded with one of Yemenite Jewry's most difficult periods - following upon the war and the severe famine which struck the country in 1903-04. After this the community numbered only a third of its previous size. He reorganized the survivors and restored its religious and communal institutions, both internally and externally with regard to its relations with the central government.
Yihye's activities spread throughout Yemen, and by means of emissaries and rabbis he was vigilant in torah and religious matters throughout the exile; in the fields of education, the rabbinate, matrimony and takkanot affecting society. Together with the heads of the Sana community he strove to found a modern school in the capital. For this purpose they entered into lengthy negotiations with the Alliance Isra�lite, but for various reasons, the plan did not materialize.
As av bet din his responsa were sent to all parts of Yemen. His numerous activities include the rescue of orphans from conversion and the smuggling of them into Palestine, and his purchase of the land of the Jewish district in Sana from the hands of the Muslim waqf. Yihye also maintained contact with the Zionist organization in Palestine and assisted the immigration of Yemenite Jews. As official representative of the Jews, he was treated with honor and respect in the court of the imam and in government circles. He succeeded in using his influence for the benefit of his community.
His son, R. Shalom Isaac Ha-Levi (1891- ), was av bet din and chief rabbi of the Yemenite Jews in Israel (1925-1961) and took part in the educational activities of his community. He was also helpful in editing the responsa of R. Yihye Salih (parts 1-2, 1946; part 3, 1965) to which he wrote the introduction. In 1955 he edited the Mishnah Berakhot, with the commentary of R. Obadiah of Bertinoro, in Yemenite vocalization.
Rabbi Aviran Isaac Ha-Levi, the grand grandchild of this Yemenite legendary religious leader, Rabbi Ha-Levi, pointed out: "This Gaon, the Yemenite chief rabbi for almost thirty years until he died in 1932, was a great leader of his time. It was not easy to lead then. He preached for peace. He was very flexible and modern in his approach to life. He dedicated himself to the well-being of his Jewish community. He fought for its integrity. At that period, Muslim used to convert Jewish orphans to Islam. Rabbi Isaac Ha-Levi saved them for Judaism. In order to reinforce Judaism all over Yemen from his headquarters in the capital, Sana, he established a central network of his emissaries, rabbis, judges, as well as experts for kosher food and kosher slaughter houses.
All the Jews in this period, 1902-1932, recognized the leadership and religious authority of Rabbi Isaac Ha-Levi. The great rabbi also built an effective educational system. The sense of redemption or the love for Zion was always strong inside the heart of the Yemenite community. Redemption, or gevla in Hebrew, was an integral element of their daily life.
Rabbi Ha-Levi was a Zionist and supported the Zionist revival in Palestine. He collaborated with the famous emissary who came then to Yemen in order to promote aliyah, Shmuel Yavnialy. Rabbi Ha-Levi was a sophisticated leader with openness to modernity. He did everything in order to preserve the integrity to the Yemenite Jewry. He also took care of the relations between Jews, a minority, and the Muslim regime which liberated itself from the Otoman empire. He had to fight for the rights of the Jews and against their persecution as a non-Muslim minority (Dahimi).
As I mention this, Rabbi Aviran Isaac Ha-Levi and Ben-Shalom are going to publish a few volumes of the biography of this great religious leader. His legacy will enrich the Yemenite heritage. It is a sacred mission.
In many ways, the legacy of rabbi Yihye Isaac Ha-Levi is the epitome of the life and future of the Yemenite Jewry. In 1949-1950, around 50,000 Jews made aliyah to Israel. Its nickname was 'Magic Carpet' or "On the Wings of Eagles." It was a fulfillment of their ancient dream, a messianic one.
Others left Yemen in 1962. The new story is the great contribution of this Jewry to the well-being of Israel. The society of Ben-Shalom also documented this story for many years. Symbolically, the new Yemenite Jewry Forest located in the Judean foothills, to the west of Jerusalem, close to the pioneer settlements in Jerusalem corridor, the ones who were established by pioneers from the Magic Carpet, fresh olim from Yemen, do express the legacy of the Yemenite inside Israel, trailblazers of the modern Zionist enterprise.
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