January 3, 2023
Sondra Oster Baras
I became a Zionist at the age of 13. My parents had always been Zionists in a typical American way. They loved Israel, went to every emergency meeting about Israel, and they gave generously to Israeli causes. Whatever they could do for Israel from the comfort of Cleveland, Ohio, they did.
When I was 10 years old, my parents returned from their first trip to Israel, and they were overwhelmed by their first encounter with the Jewish State. To meet Jewish soldiers, to hear Jewish children speaking our ancient language of Hebrew, to see a massive parade on the streets of Tel Aviv to celebrate Purim — these were experiences that were so new and so wondrous to them, that they did not stop talking about them for years.
Upon hearing these wonderful stories, I asked my parents if we could move to Israel. It indeed, seemed like a wonder-world of Judaism. But my parents were afraid to start over and support a family in a different country when they didn’t speak Hebrew.
By the time I was 13, I was sure that G-d wanted every Jew to move to Israel. The Bible itself seemed so clear that G-d would gather all the exiles back to Israel. And here, before our very eyes, we were witnessing just that. How could we not heed that call and go?
I soon joined Bnei Akiva, the Religious Zionist youth movement. The movement was based in Israel, but teachers and counselors were sent all over the world to set up Bnei Akiva branches wherever there were Jewish children, and to encourage them to make Aliyah. I had read a great deal by then about early Zionism but Bnei Akiva gave me the religious aspect of Zionism. Through Bnei Akiva, I learned about religious Zionist communities and schools in Israel. I was struck by the amazing synthesis between the Zionism representing the overwhelming majority of Israel’s early pioneers, secular and even anti-religious in the main, and the values and lifestyle of the religious community. Religious Zionists were not just Zionists who were religious. Religious Zionism was predicated on Biblical promises and prophecies. Religious Zionists viewed the State of Israel as the beginning of the Redemption.
But the rabbis and educators who ran our Jewish school in Cleveland were not Zionists. They were ultra-Orthodox. And while they loved the Land of Israel, they did not see the State of Israel in religious or Biblical terms. I was convinced then, as I am today, that they were totally wrong in their interpretation of current events. But while I was confident in my interpretation, I had never met a Rabbinical Scholar who could teach Bible from a Zionist perspective. Our local synagogue rabbi was a huge Zionist. But he was not a Bible teacher, and our Bible teachers were not Zionists.
During the summer of 1974, I participated in a month-long Bnei Akiva leadership seminar, which drew teenagers my age from across North America, all members of Bnei Akiva and committed to its ideals.
When we arrived at the camp, we were introduced to an Israeli rabbi, the head of an Israeli yeshiva, as the main teacher at camp. At the time, we did not fully appreciate the sacrifice that meant for a man with a family (a wife and nine children!) to leave his home for a month to come and teach American kids. But Rabbi Haim Drukman was the quintessential teacher.
For the first time, we were exposed to a Zionist approach to Bible study. We were introduced to commentaries dating back to the Middle Ages which discussed the Redemption in ways that were particularly relevant to our generation. I remember well his talks on Shabbat, as the sun was setting and we were pondering the end of a particularly spiritual day. He would talk about Redemption, quoting an ancient Talmudical scholar who referred to the Messianic Age as one that would come slowly, that would rise before us, little by little, as the sun slowly rises and brings light to the world. Slowly, slowly, he would repeat. And he would sing in his raspy voice the plaintive and beautiful tunes that had been put to verses from Psalms and the Song of Songs, declaring our love of G-d and our faith in His promises.
Last week, on the 8th day of Hanukkah, Rabbi Haim Drukman returned his soul to his maker. Tens of thousands participated in his funeral in the pouring rain and throughout the past week, so much was said to remind us of the amazing contribution he had made to Israel and to Religious Zionism. The Settlement movement was born in his living room, as he inspired and guided those who had already begun settling in Hebron but were eager to spread the work further. He was a Member of Knesset for several Knesset terms and held senior positions in Jewish education. He was a major influence on many secular Jews who returned to religious observance as a result of his inspirational teaching. He was the most widely respected and sought after of all Religious Zionist rabbis, managing to stand apart from the petty arguments that often separated some of the rabbis and politicians. But he was always firm on his commitment to Israel and particularly to settlement throughout the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Drukman accomplished many things in his long life but whenever he was asked what role defined him most, he responded: a teacher. And indeed, throughout his many political and national roles, he never gave up his role as the head of his yeshiva and the main teacher of each of its hundreds of students each year.
For me, Rabbi Drukman was the first rabbi who taught me to read the Bible with a modern Zionist lens, to understand that we were taking part in the fulfillment of prophecy and that we had a religious obligation to move to Israel and contribute to settling the land. There were thousands of young Jews, like me, all over the world, who were influenced by this message, either directly or indirectly, and who changed the face of Israel. May his memory continue to inspire us all.