Mendy Dickstein, Beis Moshiach
Residents of Bnei Brak would never think that the dignified fellow with a truly Torah’dike appearance who lives among them, is someone with a rich past and a long list of accomplishments in the field of municipal governance. For one who does not know him, it is hard to understand how a Shomrei Emunim Chassid born nearly 90 years ago in Yerushalayim, managed to work his way into the highest ranks of officialdom in the Interior Ministry. Even those with a developed imagination would find it hard to connect this older man who sits in kollel, learning Gemara with a chavrusa, or bent over his computer and writing commentary on the mishna, with the person responsible, to a great extent, for their quality of life and welfare over many years.
So, allow me to introduce R’ Menachem Dov Shayish, who for more than a decade served as the “Appointee over the Central Region in the Interior Ministry.” On the face of it, his former job title sounds clerical and boring. People don’t know that the person who has this job has a wide range of authority. With one signature of his, he can turn an aging farmer into a millionaire; another signature and the narrow road that passes under the window of your house can become the main traffic artery of the area.
Despite the anonymity of the bearer of the title, the one who holds this position in the Interior Ministry wields enormous authority. He actually controls a million and a half dunams (a dunam is a little less than ¼ of an acre) and affects the lives of over two million people! He is responsible for all the documentation of the residents of the region from birth certificates to death certificates; he is the one who approves or does not approve the budgets of fifty-four local municipal councils including twenty-one cities and two Arab cities; he is the one who signs on the laws dealing with public assistance, the raising of taxes for citizens and the setting of rules and standards for workers. He is also responsible for the planning of houses and highways throughout the region; he is the man who is most responsible for what life looks like for about a third of the people in the country and the number of hours they will spend in traffic jams in the Central Region of the country.
I met Rabbi Menachem Dov Shayish in his home in the late evening. At his advanced age he is sharp and he describes events that happened decades ago as though they happened yesterday, backing up his stories with documents and pictures. To my great surprise, I learned that he is responsible, to a great extent, for the development of many Chabad mosdos in Eretz Yisrael as well as the development of the capital of Chabad in Eretz Yisrael, Kfar Chabad.
What was your first connection with Chabad?
The truth is, my first connection with Chabad began before I was born. My father learned in the Chabad yeshiva in Yerushalayim and had the privilege of seeing the Rebbe Rayatz on the latter’s visit to Eretz Yisrael in 1929. Unfortunately, I did not know my father for long since he died when I was nine. He was 32.
One of the most moving mementos that he left behind is a painting of the Alter Rebbe that he made. The painting hangs in our living room and is a daily reminder of my roots and the connection with Chabad Chassidus. Another nice memento that I have from my father is a kiddush cup that he got from the Chabad yeshiva in Yerushalayim upon his marriage with his name engraved along with a short dedication.
My personal connection with Chabad began much later, at the beginning of the 80s.
My father was a Chassid of the Shomrei Emunim Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Roth zt’l. He was one of the founding members of the Chassidus in Eretz Yisrael and until today, I belong to this Chassidus.
In 5715, when I was only 25, I was asked to lead an institution for juvenile delinquents in Kfar Chassidim. The students of this school were boys who had committed various crimes, mainly theft and burglary. They were caught and jailed in juvenile detention centers, and when they completed their sentence, they came for rehabilitation at our institution. We did not have much educational and psychological experience at first, but with lots of love and warmth we touched their hearts. These were kids who came, for the most part, from difficult homes, and along with our staff we got them back on track toward leading normative lives of people who support themselves by the fruits of their own labors. With time, we acquired more professional skills and training in sociology and education.
I sometimes meet older people who have grandchildren already and they hug me and say that the whole trajectory of their lives took a turn for the better thanks to the institution I ran for fifteen years.
The institution earned full government recognition and was under the jurisdiction of the Welfare Ministry (the former incarnation of the Ministry for Social Affairs and Social Services). The fact that I was a religious Jew, a Chassid of an Admor known for his isolation from the government and Zionism, was a total shocker to many of the folks in the establishment, which is why they scrutinized every move I made even more closely. Boruch Hashem, I did the work with a lot of integrity and total transparency, and was privileged to make a kiddush sheim shomayim among the people from Mapai (the left-wing party of Ben Gurion, now known as Labor) and brought honor to the community of loyalists to traditional Judaism.
In 5730, I was at a family event of one of the heads of the Welfare Ministry. I sat with my friends at a table and we spoke about work and timely matters. After a while, I got up and went over to the urn to get a cup of tea. By amazing divine providence, the Welfare Minister himself was standing there, Dr. Yosef Burg. He asked what a Jew like me was doing at this event. I told him briefly about my work with the youth and we got into a nice conversation. I had no idea it would lead to such a major change in my life.
A few months later, Minister Burg was appointed Interior Minister. Apparently, the impression I made on him in that one encounter was so positive that he decided to take me with him to his new appointment. A few weeks later, I was chosen in a bid application to serve as the regional officer in charge of the Central Region.
In order to understand the significance of the position, I have to first tell you that most of the Israeli administrative system relies primarily on the existing structure left behind after the British Mandate. The fledgling state, that was born while fighting for its survival, did not have the time nor ability to formulate a system of its own. It simply manned positions that had been filled by British officers and were replaced by Israelis.
The country was divided by the British into six regional districts and each district had an appointee or “officer in charge.” Each appointee had a deputy and under them are the local sub-district officers who are the officials that are out in the field, who in turn convey to the appointee and his deputy the facts and findings from the field.
The area I was assigned to as a field officer was called Nefet Ramle (Ramle sub-district) which included Kfar Chabad. In 5730 I was appointed by the Interior Ministry to one of the highest positions in the Interior Ministry in the most populated and important district in the country: Mechoz HaMercaz (Central Region).
GETTING ACQUAINTED WITH CHABAD CHASSIDIM
Shortly after I started the job, I observed the terrible discrimination against religious institutions under my jurisdiction. Knowing full well that I was under the observation of the veteran officials and that the slightest deviation from the rules on my part would be translated as corruption, I worked according to the official standards and completely by the book, whereby I obtained a lot of grant monies for mosdos and yeshivos in the area.
That is how, one day, people from Kfar Chabad and the administrators of Chabad mosdos in Lud and Kfar Chabad came to me. Although my father learned in Chabad, this fact had not left any real impression on me. I knew that there is a movement that does not suffice with focusing on their internal affairs but does “uforatzta,” and I had heard of the Rebbe, of course, but I did not know about the movement in any depth and I had no connection with the Rebbe.
My first visit to the Kfar was an initial meeting that took place together with the then secretary of the Kfar, Rabbi Shlomo Maidanchek, along with Rabbi Menachem Lerer. We toured the yeshiva, the seminary, and other mosdos chinuch in the Kfar. The truth is that I wasn’t particularly impressed. To me, they were ordinary mosdos whose administrators went out of their way to get me to help them. Then I came to the vocational school …
From the moment that I walked into this special school, I felt my heart really connect to the place. The work being done there with the boys was actually a preventative measure against the work done in the mosad that I worked in for years. Before my astonished eyes I saw how Chabad Chassidim take boys from impoverished neighborhoods and development towns, boys with a high likelihood of falling into a life of crime, like the ones I knew from my work in Kfar Chassidim; provide them with the possibility of an honorable profession and build them up, without exaggeration, materially and spiritually.
On the spot, I promised myself that the people in Kfar Chabad and the directors of the mosdos would find in me a listening ear and an open heart to a greater extent than other administrators who came to lobby me for assistance.
Today, I can tell you that one year when Rabbi Efraim Wolf came to my office and told me, in tears, that he needs help and that the mosdos could not go on and function due to debts and the financial burden, I was able to find a totally legal loophole in the budget of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for “supplemental education” after usual school hours and which is funded by the Education Ministry. I explained to R’ Wolf that since in the yeshiva and the vocational school they learn far more than the hours required by the Education Ministry, those hours could be subsidized by the Interior Ministry. I told him that he could submit a request for a budgetary grant and I would make every effort to get the plan passed and pay for those hours.
The plan was set into motion and after a long talk with the regional comptroller at the time, she ratified the budget and it became reality. For many years, the mosdos continued to get special funding thanks to the “tip” that I dreamed up, and perhaps it is still ongoing.
I WROTE TO THE REBBE ABOUT THE DISPUTE
Rabbi Shayish’s first connection with the Rebbe was at the beginning of the 80s with his appointment as deputy to the regional appointee. With this promotion came greater responsibility as well as influence, as R’ Shayish himself relates:
“My first letter to the Rebbe was written in 1983 in a not so positive context. That year, there was an upheaval in Kfar Chabad when the veteran director of the Kfar, Rabbi Shlomo Maidanchek, completed his term of service and Rabbi Menachem Lerer was elected in his place. This created tension and fights. The result of this situation was that I received many conflicting requests from the communal activists of the village on all sorts of subjects and I felt that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.
It wasn’t my job to resolve arguments and inner disputes within a homogeneous entity like Kfar Chabad, but the fondness I felt for Chassidus and Chassidim as well as the genuine concern for the development of the Kfar and its mosdos, affected me deeply. After so many years of positive accomplishments, I felt that the situation was spiraling out of control and that is why I wrote to the Rebbe.
In a long, detailed letter that I wrote on 24 Teves 5743, on the official stationery of the regional deputy appointee, I laid out the events of my life and how I attained this influential role in the development of the Kfar. I told the Rebbe about the aid I provided for the Kfar from the beginning of the 70s. In conclusion, I asked the Rebbe what could be done about this dispute.
About two weeks later, I got a phone call from the rav of Kfar Chabad, Rabbi Nachum Trebnik whom I knew from my visits to the Kfar. He asked me to pass by Kfar Chabad on my way home to Bnei Brak after work in my office in Ramle. I didn’t know what this was about but out of respect to the rav, I said I would come.
When I entered the rav’s home, he put on a gartel and hat and with great emotion he handed me an envelope from abroad and said he had received a letter for me, from the Rebbe. I was completely bowled over and with a warm feeling I opened the letter. The Rebbe thanked me warmly for the great help I provided for Chabad matters in general and Kfar Chabad in particular. He said, thank G-d, they were seeing the fruits of the labor. Then, as the Rebbe always did, he urged me to continue in matters of Torah, chessed, and tzedaka and as he had expressed his thanks for the past, he wanted to say thank you for the future as well.
Most of the letter had to do with the painful dispute between the mosdos. First, the Rebbe noted that this was an explicitly internal matter, even for someone such as myself who had expertise in such internal matters this was in the category of “the inner sanctum” and therefore, he placed the job on the Chabad rabbanim in Eretz Yisrael to settle the dispute and even when “the sides, for whatever reason are not speaking among themselves …”
Toward the end of the letter, the Rebbe asked that the fact that they had involved me in these disputes should not cause me to, G-d forbid, lessen my relationship with all matters relating to Chabad, for these were passing things; on the contrary, I should increase the aid.
At the end of the letter, the Rebbe noted that the letter was sent to the Beis Din Rabbanei Chabad because I hadn’t written my address in my letter. However, it is my guess that the Rebbe had sent the letter via Rabbi Trebnik also because then he would see the letter for himself and together with his fellow rabbanim jump in and resolve matters as the Rebbe instructed.
Did these disputes actually causes you to diminish aid to Kfar Chabad?
“Do you think that was possible after a letter like that? On the contrary …”
THE FIRST TIME THE ISRAELI GOVERNMENT DISMANTLED A YISHUV
More from R’ Shayish:
Next to Kfar Chabad, starting from the 50s until the end of the 70s there was a yishuv of Yemenites called Tochelet. The proximity of the yishuv, which wasn’t as religious as Kfar Chabad, led to arguments. After many years, some of the residents of Tochelet were relocated to Azur, but the yishuv continued to exist with the few who remained. In official documents it was an active yishuv which prevented Kfar Chabad from expanding in that direction.
At the end of 5745, when I already held the position of regional appointee (both getting the position and the ability to operate effectively in the position I owe to the Rebbe, as I will relate) I signed on the document that eliminated the yishuv from the face of the earth. As far as I know, this was highly unusual, maybe unprecedented, that an appointee over one of the regions should eliminate a yishuv (which is not the case in the event of combining municipalities and the like). After eliminating the yishuv, I signed on the expansion of the borders of Kfar Chabad into the area of the now defunct yishuv, which enlarged Kfar Chabad significantly.
When you come today to the Kfar and see the 770 replica, the municipal building and the Levi Yitzchok neighborhood and such – all these are on land that that used to belong to Tochelet which, thanks to my signing, was transferred to Kfar Chabad.
The members of the vaad of Kfar Chabad sent the Rebbe the happy news about the Kfar’s expansion and about the new options for building that were not possible until then. Later, the Rebbe’s secretary, Rabbi Binyamin Klein, told me that when the Rebbe received the maps and the orders to dismantle and to expand that I signed, he was very happy.
In the middle of Av 5745, I received a moving letter from the Rebbe. The Rebbe noted that he had received the maps and the orders from the vaad of Kfar Chabad and he expressed his thanks and joy over the anticipated expansion of the Kfar. The Rebbe connected this to the period of “sheva d’nechemta” and added many brachos for all those who played a role in making it happen, especially to me who took an active role.
In the letter, the Rebbe referred to our face to face meeting which I will tell you about now.
RARE YECHIDUS ON THE STREET
At the beginning of 5744, Minister Burg told me that he wanted to appoint me to the job of appointee of the entire Central Region, a job that, as I described earlier, bore tremendous responsibility and significance for all the millions of residents who lived in the most populated part of Eretz Yisrael. The appointment did not need to go through a public tender for applicants; it only required the approval of the government.
This was at the start of Yitzchok Shamir’s reign after Menachem Begin resigned, and Minister Burg, who was a minister for a very long time, was able to arrange any approval that he wanted.
Not long after, the government accepted the suggestion and decided to appoint me to the job after a few months. In the meantime, I remained in my job as deputy appointee and started to go through the transition process with the outgoing appointee. In the meanwhile, I heard negative rumors to the effect that the board members of the regional committee, most of whom held their positions from the time that Mapai ruled, had decided to trip me up on the job so that I would leave the position in shame.
I continued to go to the office, feeling heavyhearted. I began to think that maybe I should turn down the higher position and remain in my role as deputy to avoid a situation of dealing with an adverse dysfunctional committee. It was a shame to destroy my reputation and very successful career.
At a certain point, I decided to fly to the Rebbe and consult with him. My connection with the Rebbe was already quite a lengthy correspondence through letters and I knew that if there was a person in the world who could solve this dilemma that was eating me up, it was only the Rebbe. When I spoke about my trip with Rabbi Lerer of Kfar Chabad, he told me that when I got to 770, I should go to R’ Binyamin Klein and he would help me.
Since this was the first time I was going to 770, I was unfamiliar with the systems in place. I walked in and asked where the secretaries were. When I went further inside, on the right of the door sat a man I didn’t know who introduced himself as Rabbi Groner who asked what I wanted. I explained that I had come from Eretz Yisrael and wanted to meet with the Rebbe and discuss a personal problem.
R’ Groner made it clear that it was three years already that the Rebbe did not have yechidus and he suggested that I write my question and he would submit it to the Rebbe and when the Rebbe answered, he would tell me the response.
I thought, if I wanted to get a written answer from the Rebbe, I would not have bothered to fly from Eretz Yisrael. All my pleading with R’ Groner got me nowhere.
I left with a bad feeling. Then I remembered what R’ Lerer had told me about R’ Klein. I asked Chassidim who were standing there where I could find him. He showed up at 770 not long afterward and that is when I connected the person to the voice that I knew well. R’ Klein was the contact man between the Rebbe and me and many messages from the Rebbe to me had gone through him.
I introduced myself and he greeted me warmly and asked what I needed. I told him that I had come to meet with the Rebbe and consult with him but understood from R’ Groner that this wasn’t possible anymore.
R’ Klein affirmed that formal yechidus with the Rebbe no longer took place, but gave me an idea, asking me to keep it a secret. He said that on that evening, when he drove the Rebbe home, he would ask the Rebbe whether it would be possible for him to meet with me in the morning. He told me that every day, before ten o’clock, he went to the Rebbe’s home on President Street and drove with the Rebbe to 770. He thought this was the best time for me to speak with the Rebbe. He asked for the phone number in the place I was staying and promised that as soon as he would speak with the Rebbe, he would let me know.
Late that night, he called and said the Rebbe approved of our meeting the next morning near his house. He suggested to confine my question to a few words and to wait near the Rebbe’s house and he would introduce me to the Rebbe. He warned me to keep this a secret so there wouldn’t be a crowd.
That morning in Iyar 5744, I stood near the Rebbe’s house and waited for him. Then, R’ Klein arrived with the car and when the Rebbe left his house, R’ Klein introduced me to him. The Rebbe smiled at me in such a special way and held out his hand for “shalom aleichem.” At the time, I did not know that Chabad Chassidim do not shake the Admor’s hand and I held out my hand. My hand remained in the Rebbe’s hand throughout the conversation.
I told the Rebbe briefly that I had been appointed to the position of “Appointee over the Central Region,” and I asked the Rebbe that I find favor in the eyes of G-d and man.
Did you tell the Rebbe about the concerns and intrigues among the members of the Regional Council, who were plotting to cause you to fail on the job?
Is it necessary to tell the Rebbe? He knows better than I do …
The Rebbe listened as I spoke and when I finished, he said, “The merit of the shver [the Rebbe Rayatz] whose mosdos you helped so much, will stand by you, and he will be a meilitz yosher (advocate) for you for success in the position.”
The conversation continued when the Rebbe asked me whether I would remain in New York for Shavuos. I said that unfortunately, I was unable to stay for I had to return to Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe blessed me very warmly, “that you merit to receive the Torah with joy and pnimiyus.”
This encounter with the Rebbe left me with a special sense and feeling that my soul became bound up with his soul. I must say that I attribute to the Rebbe’s bracha the fact of my entry into the position in peace and my exit from the position in peace, without any taint or suspicion attached to me. Those who remember that period when Shas reigned at the Interior Ministry and the unpleasant result, know what I am talking about.
After the improvised yechidus ended, the Rebbe entered the car and went to 770. When I met R’ Klein later on, he excitedly told me that he did not remember the Rebbe ever holding the hand of the person he spoke with throughout a conversation. The only time he remembered something like that was with President Shneur Zalman Shazar.
As we spoke, I told R’ Klein memories of his father, R’ Mendel, who lived in Battei Ungarin on the second floor. The yeshiva I learned in was on the first floor. The conversation and personal meeting were very nice and strengthened our relationship.
What ended up happening with the hostile board members on the committee?
“When the Rebbe promises you that the Rebbe Rayatz will be your advocate in heaven, everything works out. Those appointed officials became my best friends who relied on me completely on important votes. I can tell you, with all due modesty, that due to the manner in which I administered the region I made a kiddush sheim shomayim and brought great honor for shomrei Torah and mitzvos. I demonstrated to all that my being a religious Jew did not take away from my ability to do the job, but added elements of integrity and respect.
When I returned to Eretz Yisrael, I was surprised to receive a special letter from the Rebbe. At the end of the letter, the Rebbe added a note in his handwriting about our special face to face meeting and he blessed me with success in my “very responsible” position.
OPEN RUACH HA’KODESH FROM THE REBBE
The connection with the Rebbe continued throughout the period that followed via letters and my visits to him. At a certain point, I spent Pesach with relatives in New York and every year I made sure to go there for 11 Nissan to attend the Rebbe’s birthday farbrengen.
One year, the Rebbe saw me sitting in the crowd and he asked me to come up and sit next to him. A few days after the farbrengen, R’ Klein surprised me when he brought a big, beautiful picture of the Rebbe at the farbrengen with me sitting behind the Rebbe. The picture was given to me in a beautiful frame and I keep it together with the letters I received from the Rebbe.
At the end of farbrengens, I would get a bundle of dollars from the Rebbe to give out. I can say with confidence that these dollars did wonders for the people who received them from me. Likewise, one time, I got a bottle of vodka to give out as l’chaim which I gave to the talmidim in the yeshiva in Kfar Chabad. Of course, over the years, I also went for dollars.
I want to tell you about one of those times:
Over the years, I had connections with contractors who became friends of mine. One of them was Mr. Yitzchok Teshuva who was a small-time contractor at that time. Teshuva had a hobby of watching horse-racing. One day, he met me and asked me to join him on a trip to New York to a famous horse race that he wanted to attend. The truth is, horse-racing did not interest me much (nor does it today) but I agreed to go with him on condition that on Sunday he would come with me to the Rebbe.
When it was our turn, the Rebbe blessed us and gave me two dollars as he would always do. I then introduced Yitzchok Teshuva who was a member of the city council of Netanya at the time. I said that he helped Chabad mosdos in Netanya. The Rebbe gave him a dollar and added another dollar for his help to Chabad in the past and then another dollar and blessed him with success in the future. Of course, I don’t need to tell you about the tremendous success he has had since those days when he was a middling contractor, relative to where he is today.
Did you have any personal signs of the Rebbe relating to Dov Shayish the person, as opposed to Dov Shayish, the Appointee from the Interior Ministry?
Definitely. One day, I got a phone call from Menachem Lerer, chairman of the vaad of Kfar Chabad. He was calling about something personal. He told me that R’ Binyamin Klein called and said that the Rebbe wanted to know why I didn’t sign my letters with my name “Menachem Dov.”
I should point out that at my bris, I was named Menachem Dov but the name “Menachem” was forgotten in my childhood. My father’s passing at a young age, when he was the one who gave me that name, caused the name “Menachem” to be forgotten entirely. For decades, I was only called Dov. When I had an aliya to the Torah or signed anything, it was Dov. Now, suddenly, I was getting this question from the Rebbe. He certainly had no natural way of knowing my full name.
Since then, I am particular about writing my name as Menachem Dov. I told my entire family that I have another name and also informed the gabboim in shul for when I get an aliya.
I KNOW …
In 5755, I retired from my job as appointee, but not from public service. Minister Aryeh Deri, who respected me and my work, appointed me as chairman of the council of Shoham which was a new, modern city that was built at that time. After four satisfying years, I retired entirely and went on pension.
I began my first day by learning Gemara on my own and a few days later, a chavrusa joined me. After many years of public service I went back to yeshiva.
Since then, I’ve written some books including a new commentary on Mishnayos, various compilations of the teachings of gedolei Yisrael and Chassidus, etc.
Recently, I discovered a new facet in the teachings of the Rebbe. This was after I was asked by several people to write a book on education of the very young. How surprised I was to read and even watch what the Rebbe has to say on this subject. It became clear to me that the Rebbe had an entire set of teachings on this subject and that the Rebbe ascribed great importance to chinuch for the very young. However, the greatest chiddush to me, which I want to convey, is the chiddush about not giving children toys with non-kosher animals on them. This shows how careful one must be in chinuch, for the youngest of all.
What message would you like to leave us with?
The message I want to convey is to believe in divine providence. In endless instances throughout my life, I’ve seen the hand of Hashem guiding the world, putting the right person in the right place at the right time. There is the story about the Alter Rebbe that I love to repeat. When he returned to his father-in-law after Mezritch and was asked what he learned there, he said he learned there is a G-d. This answer amused his father-in-law who called in the simple maid who also said she believes in G-d. Said the Alter Rebbe, “She believes; I know.”
Today, from the perspective of my age and experience and after reviewing my personal and professional journey in life, I can say unabashedly, I know there is divine providence!
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