Meet Reb Menachem Eliezer Mozes, UTJ’s Newest MK


mozes-imrei-chaim-smallWe caught up with Reb Menachem Eliezer Mozes shortly after he was sworn into the 18th Knesset. He may be a new face on the Agudah list, but in his years of askanus he’s clocked many hours in the Knesset, establishing friendships and making contacts that he’s used to accomplish important things for the community at large.

“I daven constantly to be able to succeed as an MK,” he said, fully aware of the battles awaiting him.

Reb Menachem Eliezer was born into a staunch Agudah home. His father, Harav Shlomo Zalman, zt”l, was the secretary of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah as well as of the Agudas Yisrael Vaad Hapo’el. Rav Shlomo Zalman was the confidant of Gedolei Yisrael, acting as their messenger with complete self-effacement.

Rav Shlomo Zalman was uncompromising when it came to the chinuch of his son. Rav Menachem Eliezer relates: “I was an only child, born after many years, following the brachah of the Imrei Emes of Gur, zy”a. One day – I was nine and a half – on my way home from cheder, I noticed a lot of people hurrying to Menorah Square. Then-leader of Herut, Menachem Begin, was about to deliver one of his famous speeches. I saw a short, bespectacled man standing in the center of the square and shouting with his characteristic charisma, ‘When I come to power, rice will be cheap, couscous will be cheap, and bulgur too.’ The crowd went wild, shouting at the top of their lungs, ‘Begin to power! Begin to power!’

“When I came home I reenacted the scene, hoping to elicit my parents’ admiration, but they were shocked. A few days later, on Erev Shavuos, I went with my father to Bnei Brak to spend Yom Tov with the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim, zy”a. I had no idea what my father’s plans were. After Yom Tov, when everyone was getting ready to return to Yerushalayim, my father told me abruptly, ‘You’re staying here.’ I was frightened and upset. I wasn’t even 10 years old, and had never slept away from my parents. But my father wouldn’t be swayed, and he added a statement that I never forgot: ‘Menachem Begin won’t reach you here.’

“It was hard at first, but those were the most wonderful years of my life, in the home of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, who kept a close eye on me. The following Pesach I stayed in Bnei Brak with the Rebbe. One of my father’s friends who saw me was surprised, and asked my father how he could send me away at such a young age, and how he could have a Seder without a child present to ask the four questions. My father’s reply was unemotional: ‘That’s exactly why I sent him. So that he’d have only four questions, not more!’ ”

Reb Menachem Eliezer with the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz.
Reb Menachem Eliezer with the Imrei Chaim of Vizhnitz.

If your father were here, what would he think about what you did today, swearing allegiance to the Zionist Knesset?


Let me tell you a story. Once, a distinguished friend of my father asked him to show him around the Knesset. He knew my father had helped Agudah leader Harav Yitzchak Meir Levin, zt”l, write his speeches, and he therefore had no doubt that my father had often been to the Knesset. My father surprised him with his reply: “Believe it or not, I’ve never set foot inside the Knesset. I refuse to walk into the entrance to Gehinnom!”

My father indeed never entered the Knesset building. Whenever he had to bring Rav Itche Meir his speech – there was no fax or e-mail back then – they’d meet at Menorah Square, adjacent to the Knesset, sit on a bench and go over the speech together.

That only intensifies the question. Would your father have approved of you becoming an MK?

Wait, I’ll explain with another story. Once, one of the Ge’onim of Yerushalayim, who later became one of the Gedolim, needed a favor from Rav Itche Meir, whom he met on Strauss Street, on his way to the Knesset, which was then on King George Street. Rav Itche Meir listened to the request and said, “Listen, right now I’m on my way to the Knesset, which is the entrance to Gehinnom, and I can’t concentrate on your request. If you’ll wait until I come back and return from immersing in the mikveh [and here, Rav Itche Meir showed him his private key] I’ll be able to speak to you calmly and help you.”

Those were the people of yesteryear. That was Rav Itche Meir. A man who would immerse himself in the mikveh after returning from the Knesset. And that is the answer to your question. I once asked my father how a chassidishe Yid and Rebbishe mentsch like Rav Itche Meir could serve as a member of the Knesset, and he said, “That great man is acting as an emissary of Torah giants, of Gedolei Yisrael. On the strength of that task he enters and exits that place without any harm coming to him.”

That is my father’s legacy: If one has to be an MK, then it should be only as an emissary of Gedolei Yisrael. That is the axiom that has accompanied me throughout my years as a public activist. When you don’t forget your role as an emissary, you also merit protection on the strength of that shelichus.

With his father, Reb Shlomo Zalman zt"l, in their sukkah.
With his father, Reb Shlomo Zalman zt"l, in their sukkah.

Don’t you think that things have changed since then?


Absolutely. I was familiar with MKs from those days, and I’m familiar with today’s MKs. You can’t help but notice the differences. When the Ponovezher Rav, zt”l, said it’s impossible to go to the Knesset because there aren’t enough suits with which to perform kriyah, he was giving an accurate definition of the situation.

In those days, the Knesset was full of heretics and enemies who were motivated by deep-seated ideology. Today, I can say with confidence – I met them all just a few hours ago – there’s almost no one who’s a lehachisnik. Most are the children of tinokos she­ nishbu.

Today, the Knesset is no different from the Belgian ­ parliament – a foreign place where our needs are not understood and whose members ­ couldn’t care less about us, but there is no great hatred. In contrast, in the years following the establishment of the state, they looked at us with condescension and anger. They recalled their father’s homes only too well and hated it with a passion! They were sure we were a disappearing breed.

Today, you often see them drinking in our words thirstily. Today I saw how the president, the prime minister and many others put on yarmulkes when chapters of Tehillim were read at the opening ceremonies. Would anyone have ever considered donning a yarmulke in those days? When Menachem Begin came to power in ’77 and he put on a yarmulke and recited Mizmor LeTodah, it almost caused an earthquake!

Today, there is no hatred for Yiddishkeit; the people are simply ignorant. Don’t misunderstand me: There is plenty of antipathy and even hatred, but the arguments are over the consequences, not the essence. When they ask why we don’t serve in the army, why we don’t contribute, they are concerned about the public Treasury. Ideological debates? They don’t’ exist anymore.

Does that mean that your job is easier than it was in the past?

Not at all. Even if the gaps are not ideological, they exist and have even widened. David Ben-Gurion, who was a heretic but remained connected to his past, still considered the chareidi sector a part of the Jewish nation that was in the process of building the independent Jewish State, according to his vision, and was thus entitled to a few crumbs and a certain measure of autonomy – even if he believed they didn’t have a future. Today, they want to take everything away from us, due to their lack of knowledge and understanding, which makes them alienated and antagonistic.

They may have been hostile to Yiddishkeit, but the Mapainiks were as good as their word. When you made an agreement with them, they honored it to the letter. Today, you can close deals and even come out with common declarations and write up carefully worded contracts, but at the end of the day, the technocrats in the Treasury who control the money will find a way to halt budgets and turn the contracts into a joke.

Would you say that the difficulty in fulfilling the needs of the chareidi sector stems from today’s lack of leadership?

Yes, I would. Today, it’s the bureaucracy that runs the show. The bureaucrats do whatever they want, but act as if they are driven by professional or legal constraints.

You can sit with a director general or even a minister and reach certain understandings and close deals, but it’s all castles in the air. In order to accomplish anything, you have to work ceaselessly until you have that achievement in your hand, signed, sealed and delivered, after endless running around. But even then, you need special siyatta diShmaya for it to last. When did we have such problems in the past? Never!

What do you suggest be done?

Let’s start with the problems: Housing, tuition and child allocation payments. In these areas the situation has become intolerable. The housing crisis has become a plague, taking away the health and peace of mind of thousands of parents who are buckling under the strain. Thousands of young couples are living in moldy basements, and there’s no relief in sight.

Buying apartments has always been a problem for chareidi parents. …

But it was never like this. Soon, there won’t even be basements to be had.

I was interviewed in the media and I quoted from a newspaper clipping the names of 70 new couples who became engaged that week alone. Where will they all live? They are forced to pay thousands of dollars in rent because they can’t purchase an apartment.

The Housing Ministry has not come out with one new project for chareidim in the last decade. Is it any wonder that we’re witnessing this pressure cooker?

Even worse, when the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) finally does come out with a tender, the cost of the property alone is $70,000 per unit, more than the cost of construction itself. This is inexplicable. We can understand that we have to pay for electricity and plumbing infrastructures, but why pay for the land that we received from Hakadosh Baruch Hu and which the state did not invest anything in?

In these circumstances, there’s no chance of purchasing an apartment.”

What do you think is the solution?

We have a plan, which if applied, be’ezras Hashem, (subject to the approval of Gedolei Yisrael, shlita), can make a major difference. In my opinion, we must demand that the Housing and Interior ministries as well as the ILA be in chareidi hands. This will solve the problem at the source.

Do we have to gain control of those ministries? Can’t we effect change according to the ­ methods that proved themselves in the past?

Again, because of the change in the makeup of the people and the method of working nowadays, there is no other way. In the past, you didn’t even need to be an MK to have influence. You could make agreements without having every decision getting stuck in committees, pending authorization and endless procedures, with people at every juncture trying to stop you from making progress.

In the past, I achieved the allotment of 400 housing units for the chareidi sector in Ashdod. Ariel Sharon was then the housing minister and he gave grants to accelerate the project. The technocrats in the ministry went out of their way to help, and land was sold at rock-bottom prices. There were loans, and the goal was to do everything to further the project.

Today? It’s the technocrats who call the shots. Everyone is afraid of his own shadow. If you don’t stand at the top of the pyramid and shake up the clerks, there’s no chance of accomplishing anything.

What about the yeshivos and other chinuch institutions that are currently being forced to deal with an unprecedented funding crisis?

We must demand equal treatment from the Education Ministry. I am saying this as someone who has worked in the ministry as the deputy director general, under former Education Minister Zevulun Hammer. I know how much can be obtained directly through the ministry.

A lot has changed since then. Since officials in the Justice Ministry like De Hartoch and his ilk instituted new procedures, it’s no longer enough for the minister to give his OK.

That’s exactly why we must try to change things from the inside. We must build a legal system that closes all the bureaucratic loopholes. Today, we’re not getting a thing. They don’t authorize classrooms for us, even though in new secular neighborhoods schools are included in the zoning plans. But it’s not enough just to build classrooms; they refuse to authorize classrooms that we built on our own. Then they refuse to grant us licenses, and claim that as the reason for the lack of funding.

When I was in the ministry, I was able to bring about the construction of 200 classrooms. In recent years, hardly any classrooms have been allocated. That’s the difference between being on the inside and having to beg from the outside.

Do you think it will ever be possible to have budgeting for yeshivos anchored in law?

If we can gain control, then yes. But for that, we’ll also have to demand funding for yeshivos through the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Today, everyone agrees that dismantling that ministry was a mistake. It harmed many Torah mosdos, which today are barely managing.

When I became the deputy director general of the Education Ministry, Hammer pushed through his plan to have high schools funded by the state. Until then, the Compulsory Education Law applied only up to middle school. The cost of Hammer’s plan amounted to billions, but Hammer came up with an original solution – to add another 0.4% to National Insurance Institute payments, which amounted to a minimal amount per person.

The project was ratified, and since then, parents have not had to pay for their children’s high-school education – except in the chareidi sector. Once, when I was driving together with Hammer, I asked him, “Don’t chareidim also pay National Insurance Institute payments? Why can’t we also get free education?” Hammer replied, “What’s the problem? Put your high schools into the system.”

That same day I called a meeting of chareidi principals and initiated a project according to which Torah institutions that met the criteria were recognized as state high schools. This gave our schools NIS 600 per student each month, but was subsequently annulled with the closing of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

When you speak to the Likud about reinstating child allowance payments, what is your argument?

I say that all I want is parity between the chareidi child and the Arab child living in Umm el Fahm.

What do Arab children receive that chareidi children do not?

Free education. Your average chareidi parent spends close to NIS 20,000 a year on tuition, while the Arab child can learn about Nakba Day and study virulently anti-Semitic literature – all at the expense of the Israeli government.

This is the basis of my new approach: “Give us an education allowance.” I want NIS 500 per child per month to be allocated as an education allowance for parents whose children study in schools that are not funded by the government.

What’s the connection between the NII and education?

As I explained to you, Zevulun Hammer collected an extra 0.4% in NII payments that went to education. This payment continues to this day, but the chareidi sector, which pays national insurance like everyone else, does not benefit from it.

The time has come to rectify  this injustice. If they won’t give children’s allowances, let them give education allowances. The Treasury won’t have to pay a shekel, and we’ll gain honestly from the NII, which in any case has an annual surplus of billions of shekels.

Before All – The Individual

In the middle of our interview, Reb Menachem Eliezer suddenly jumps up and grabs his two cell phones, which have been vibrating insistently for the last three hours (and whose calls he didn’t pick up except for one – from home).

Oy!” he shouts uncharacteristically. “How could I forget? I can’t believe it!” he begins dialing and muttering to himself.

Apparently he suddenly recalled that someone with a medical emergency had called him earlier that day. The Knesset ceremony and later, our interview, had pushed that conversation to the back of his mind. “I have to arrange something immediately,” Reb Menachem Eliezer said, and almost left us to lock up the office.

This time, we don’t need him to tell us a story or give us a well-formulated answer. His actions speak louder than words.

A new Agudah representative has come to the Knesset, but he’s not new in the world of askanus. When a Jew calls for help, Reb Menachem Eliezer is there for him. No matter how busy he is, he won’t go to bed before putting things in order.

Working to alleviate the truly pressing matters of the community does not justify leaving the individual to his own devices.

Another lesson he learned from his father.

{By Yisrael Hershkowitz and Aryeh Feinstein for Hamodia}

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