| Magazine Feature |

Destination Dimona 

How Boro Parker Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant of Dimona won the heart of this dusty development town

Photos: Elchanan Kotler

How did a Brooklyn-accented Boro Parker end up as the 40-year-long chief rabbi of a dusty Israeli development town most famous for a nearby nuclear plant? When you meet Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, tall, imposing, a magnetic mixture of a Sephardi baba and town sheriff who’s gained the trust of the Sephardim, Russians, Black Hebrews, Gerrer chassidim and amcha who populate this corner of the Negev, you’ll know the answer


It’s precisely 5,722 miles from Boro Park to Dimona — and Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant, the Israeli desert town’s Brooklyn-born chief rabbi, is nothing if not precise. “Make a left at the city entrance and I’ll be at the bus stop at 10:45,” he’d said, and there he is.

After a long drive through the Negev — past Bedouin sprawl, an air-force base, and a largely-barren landscape — the town suddenly appears. One minute there’s desert, the next there’s Dimona.

Standing at the bus stop in his frock coat,  wide-brimmed Homburg, and electric-blue tie, Rabbi Elefant is a commanding presence — a fact that’s reinforced as soon as he folds his tall frame into the dinky car. “Shalom aleichem,” he says briskly in a New York accent that’s the bedrock of his fluent Hebrew. “Let’s go, we don’t have much time.”

It’s that unmistakable sense of New Yorkery that has brought me to this town of almost 40,000, to meet a phenomenon — or rather, to answer a set of questions about the sheer incongruity of it all.

How did a Boro Parker end up as the chief rabbi of a dusty Israeli development town most famous for a nearby nuclear plant? How did he succeed in gaining the trust of the colorful array of Sephardim, Russians, and amcha who populate this corner of the Negev? And, after more than 40 years in office, what drives him relentlessly on?

One thing is obvious straight off the bat. Here in town, the chief rabbi is no mere religious functionary. Rabbi Elefant knows everyone, and everyone knows him. Like some magnetic mixture of a Sephardi Baba and town sheriff, he attracts passersby. From a secular theater performer recently arrived from Tel Aviv to a teacher and semi-vagrant, they all cross the road for a warm greeting, hearty chuckle, and a chance to say hello to  “Kevod HaRav.”

As we drive across town to our first stop, Rabbi Elefant keeps up a running stream of instructions (“turn left,” “slow down,” “let this man pass”) together with the bare facts about his principality. It’s come a long way from the town with only a few scant shiurim that he arrived at in 1982; today the place has ten kollelim, 80 shuls, and mikvehs that ply a brisk trade. Population has doubled, housing prices are through the half-built roofs of the gleaming new neighborhoods on the town’s outskirts, and in this industrial hub, hi-tech is the hot new thing.

And whatever part he — Rabbi Elefant — has to do with that transformation, it’s because of a few basic principles of old-style rabbanus. Nothing flashy, no conferences — just the hard, gritty way. One Gemara shiur after another, one Mishnah Berurah class founded after another; one more kashrus inspection and then another. No frippery, no flights of fancy; just the basics, done well, year after year. Those are the time-tested principles that have made him a rabbi’s rabbi — active in spreading his model of rabbinics across Dimona and beyond.

“I tell young rabbanim: ‘Visit every shivah, be there for people when they need you, not when you want them,’” Rabbi Elefant counsels as we head for his downtown office. “Respect them and they’ll respect you.”

Tradition, Tradition!

A crackly, nervous silence hangs over the room as Maor and Shirel, a secular-looking couple in their 20s, take a seat around the mahogany table to register their upcoming marriage. Obviously ill at ease in their surroundings, they look at the bookcase sagging under the weight of a well-thumbed Shulchan Aruch, exchange glances, and shift in their seats.

The silence is punctuated by a series of staccato questions as Rabbi Elefant fills in the details of their registration form. “Name? Parents’ names and addresses? Have you been married before?” he asks. Shirel laughs nervously; the rabbi appears oblivious.

But as he calmly throws out questions and writes, it becomes obvious that Rabbi Elefant is working to break the ice, with humor as his icepick.

“What do you work as?” he asks Maor, who’s about to join his reserve unit near Gaza. “You operate a construction crane? Ayayay!” he says, shaking his head as if impressed.

“And you,” turning to Shirel, “you’re an HR manager in Beer Sheva — ayayay!” Rabbi Elefant continues, shaking his head and writing busily. “And your mother works in a theater? Ayayay!”

That particular sound seems to be a stock-in-trade. Depending on context, it’s part encouragement, part wonder — and a trademark recognized from his shiurim to city hall.

“How much money do you want to pledge in the ketubah?” Rabbi Elefant smiles at Maor, who is of Moroccan descent. “A million shekel?! Shakran!”

The droll display — along with the rabbi’s infectious laugh — puts the pair at ease, and the discussion flows freely. It turns out that Shirel, despite her secular appearance, knows exactly what she wants: a halachic wedding. “My aunt is a well-known kallah teacher in Bnei Brak,” she says. “Can I go to her for classes?”

The answer is yes, and then timing comes up. “I’m about to be drafted for reserve duty,” says the groom. “Is it a problem to postpone the wedding if need be?”

“Only if you’re killing Yihyeh Sinwar,” Rabbi Elefant quips before turning serious. “It’s not good to delay a wedding,” he says. “What many people are doing is getting married in a home or shul with a few people there, and later having a big party.

“That way,” he says, “you still get the checks!”

As the door closes behind the couple, Rabbi Elefant observes, “You’ve got to use humor when you deal with people. And if you’d see a girl like that in the street, would you ever think that she was interested in keeping Jewish family laws?”

That last observation is a mark of how far Dimona has come, and the nature of being the city’s rav. Like all development towns in the country’s economic and geographic periphery, Dimona is heavily populated by traditional Jews whose parents fled their Muslim homelands as governments fulminated against the young State of Israel. The “development town” label — a staple of Israeli social classification — is true as far as it goes. Even the “secular” people around here, like Maor and Shirel, have unexpected links to religious practice. But the term misses the revolution that powered the change.

“The major difference from when I first came in 1982,” says Rabbi Elefant, “is that back then, being religious meant keeping Shabbos and kashrus, but there was no learning. And without Torah learning, nothing sticks, so children don’t follow their parents. Today, the place is bursting with shiurim, people are keeping mitzvos in general, and sending their children to religious schools.”

Rabbi Elefant is quick to point out that the phenomenon is a national one, and has a lot to do with the Shas movement.

“Rav Ovadiah Yosef created that revolution here and across Israel, by opening up religious schools and filling them with people who were chozer b’teshuvah. Here in Dimona, every building has a family who changed because of Shas.”


Brooklyn Bridge

That explanation misses the central role that Rabbi Elefant has himself played in the town. Forty-five years ago, on Tu B’Shevat, Yitzchok and Sarah (nee Gorlin) Elefant got married in New York. Both dreamed of settling in Israel — in Rabbi Elefant’s case a yearning he’d imbibed from home, where his parents had never renovated their New York house, spending their four-decade American sojourn with an eye on the Holy Land.

From a young age, Yitzchok — firstborn of four siblings — knew that he wanted to forge his own path and become a rabbi. “My father was a dentist  — a Holocaust survivor from Slovakia — whose own father had been a dentist,” says Rabbi Elefant. “So, it was expected that we follow him, as my next brother actually did. But although I chose my own path, I was following their values: My parents were upstanding frum Jews. They were very idealistic, and taught us not to live for ourselves — to have achrayus for others.”

It was another relationship, however, that set Rabbi Elefant directly on the path to dealing with spiritual, rather than oral, health.

“We grew up in the shadow of my mother’s father, Rav Eliezer Zev Kirzner, who was the rabbi of the Bnei Yehudah shul in Boro Park for decades. He was born in Lita and was a talmid of Rav Chaim Brisker and Rav Itzeleh Ponevezher, and had semichah from Rav Kook. He was first a rabbi in the Grove Lane shul in Stamford Hill, London, before coming to New York. My grandfather was my model for being a rav. He took an interest in every Jew, no matter his religious level.”

The rabbi of the 16th-Avenue shul was a towering figure: People would cross the street so as to avoid being grilled about their learning by the rav, who was fluent in Shas. Proximity to their formidable grandfather affected all of the Elefant siblings. Rabbi Yitzchok’s youngest brother, Rav Yosef Elefant, went on to become a prominent maggid shiur in Yeshivas Mir,  Jerusalem.

During those years by the side of Rav Kirzner, who was niftar in 1991, a teenage Yitzchok attended high school at Kamenitz — then in Boro Park — and then went on to encounter the second major formative influence of his life.

“For beis medrash I went to Rav Tuvia Goldstein’s yeshivah. Rav Tuvia was a talmid of Rav Elchonon Wasserman, a neighbor and close colleague of Rav Moshe Feinstein, and a major posek in his own right. He focused on halachah lemaaseh, and I finished my yeshivah and kollel years with semichah from him that took in large parts of what a rabbi needs to know in terms of Orach Chaim as well as Yoreh Dei’ah.”

Like his grandfather — who held a doctorate in philosophy — Rabbi Elefant took the time to supplement his rabbinic qualifications with a secular degree, earning a Master’s in Education from NYU.

“One course I did was about different cultures, which gave me an understanding of diverse backgrounds,” he says — a fact that has come in handy in Dimona, a town with a very mixed population.

Armed with semichah and a drive to make a difference, the Elefants wasted no time after their wedding on Tu B’Shevat 1979 in making aliyah. The day after sheva brachos ended, they boarded a flight to Israel and headed for the country’s south. That’s where Sarah Elefant’s parents, the Gorlins, were living, having made aliyah to teach in Beer Sheva.

Late-1970s Israel was a very different place from today — saddled with a socialist economy, per capita GDP half of America’s, and just about to embark on a bout of crippling inflation. But the Elefants threw themselves into Israeli life. The newly-minted rabbi took a position teaching at a yeshivah high school in Beer Sheva for three years. From his vantage point in the regional capital of the Negev, he heard about an opening for a neighborhood rabbi in the small town of Dimona, 25 miles to the southeast. When the position of the town’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi  (by law, each town has both official Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis) became vacant shortly afterwards, Rabbi Elefant threw his hat into the ring.

A municipal chief rabbi is a senior, well-renumerated civil servant with responsibilities for the functioning of the entire rabbinical system in the town — but with an otherwise unclear mandate. The rav runs the town’s kashrus and marriage systems, the mikvaos, answers sh’eilos, oversees more junior rabbanim, and is expected to give shiurim. Beyond that, the harbatzas haTorah element remains what the individual rabbi makes of it. From day one, the new chief rabbi made it clear that he had a sweeping view of his own responsibilities: He was there to serve his town.


Family Man

“People assume that Dimona was a backward place, some type of slum when we moved in,” says Rabbi Elefant, who remains a chief cheerleader for his baking-hot town. “But while it was out of the way, it was a clean, orderly place, where it was possible to buy an apartment or even a villa for a reasonable price.”

Not everyone was so bullish about the place back then. Named after a Biblical town mentioned in Sefer Yehoshua, Dimona was a poster boy for Zionist pioneering. It was founded in 1955 to provide a labor force for the Dead Sea Works, a potash plant on the shores of the Dead Sea a few miles to the east. Pessimists saw the grandiose project as doomed to failure, referring to the new town as “Dimyona” — or Fantasyville.

But the 28-year-old chief rabbi begged to disagree. As he was getting his feet wet in rabbinical waters, the first order of business involved education — for his own children.

There was a small Chinuch Atzmai school in place, but the new rabbi enlarged enrollment to 400 children, to provide a good environment for his own young family. It ruffled some feathers that he wasn’t sending to the regular schools, but Rabbi Elefant persevered — and it paid off in the form of sons and sons-in-law who are talmidei chachamim.

“We were better parents in Dimona than we would have been in Yerushalayim, because we supervised every aspect of our children’s chinuch and didn’t allow the ‘street’ to educate them. And they gained from the ability to understand Jews who were different from them.”

Mrs. Esty Mandelbaum, the oldest Elefant daughter, has fond memories of those early years. “There were no Americans around — hardly any Ashkenazim, even — but wherever we went, we received special treatment as the Rav’s children. Naturally, we were very proud of it.”

The Elefant homestead was an English-speaking enclave in the southern town. However heavy the workload as chief rabbi, each evening Rabbi Elefant sat down with his two sons and three daughters  for dinner.

Every Friday night, Rabbi Elefant would head out to speak at a different shul — a rotation he continues to this day — and then head home to a Shabbos table that was for family only.

Dimona really was the back of beyond in those days. Before the Route 6 highway connected the Negev to the country’s center in 2004, a bus journey to Jerusalem could take three and a half hours. But even today, with a religious resurgence in the town and hundreds of Shas families in the town, the Ashkenazi chareidi presence is limited to a small community of Gerrer chassidim who’ve moved in recently. The Elefant grandchildren who visit their “Saba Dimona” for Shabbos from their homes in Jerusalem, still stand out.

“When I get on the bus to the city,” says Mrs. Mandelbaum, “the bus driver double checks that the chareidi passengers actually know where they’re headed to. ‘You know that we’re going to Dimona, right?’ they say.”


New Dawn

Basking under the blue sky of a Negev winter, a new neighborhood called “HaShachar” lives up to its name. Sunlight bathes a row of apartment buildings clad in a cool grey palette, which will soon house thousands of families. This housing development is a new dawn for the town — one of several, actually, as Dimona booms. A rising real estate tide has lifted all prices nationally, and these three-bedroom apartments are going for a cool one-million shekel. It’s not bad going for the end of the earth.

A new building on the corner of Rechov Isaac Bashevis Singer and Rechov Harav Mordechai Eliyahu — an unlikely pair, to say the least — gives concrete expression to the growing religiosity of Rabbi Elefant’s Dimona. Inside is a gleaming, state-of-the-art mikveh which has been paid for by the municipality.

Yossi Alfasi, who is responsible for the mikveh department in the local rabbinical council, is waiting for his boss. Clad in a white shirt, and with flowing beard and peyos, he’s an easy-going Dimonian who has known Rabbi Elefant for decades. “Kevod HaRav,” he greets the chief rabbi with affection, “come inside.”

The complex is so new that not all the doors have a mezuzah yet — a fact that Rabbi Elefant is here to correct. Reaching inside the capacious pocket of his frock coat, he fishes out a few cases and proceeds to affix them to various doors. Down one corridor is a room where kallahs receive instruction. It’s a beautiful new facility: On the other side of the building — the men’s side — is a mikveh so pellucid that it’s at first unclear where the water line starts.

While Rabbi Elefant does his inspection, Yossi takes me aside. “Everybody loves the rav,” he says in a stage whisper, “even us Sephardim. You know why? Because like us, he’s just so chik-chak. He puts on no airs.”

It’s an incisive take on the unlikely shidduch between the American rabbi and his flock; somehow, the blunt, no-nonsense part of his character has proved a good match for the townspeople who hail from places worlds away from Brooklyn.

Back outside, Moshe, the chief rabbi’s long-serving taxi driver, pulls up to the sidewalk. A tanned man in his 60s, he’s another proud Dimonian. Like many locals, Moshe’s parents came from Morocco, but they were among the first few families to arrive in town. “My father built the town’s first buildings with his hands, and then we moved into one of them,” he says. “There was nothing here when we came,” he says waving his hands all around.

Moshe was a teen when the new rabbi arrived all those years ago. What did he think of Dimona’s American import? “Oh, I was never racist,” he quips. “I remember that I saw this tall, imposing rabbi. He was like a dignitary.”

Moshe concludes with some words of high praise. “Until today, wherever he goes — to an azkarah, to give a shiur — the rav knows how to speak to the point. None of this putting us to sleep for 40 minutes.”

Like many locals, Moshe isn’t outwardly religious, but he’s comfortable in his traditionalism. Mesorati’im like him constitute over 30 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, according to a recent survey, and here in Dimona, they’re a major force. They may follow the same sports and TV shows, and look the same as their secular counterparts, but traditional Jews like him are far-removed ideologically from the staunch secularists in places like Tel Aviv. Proudly Jewish, they straddle the borderlands between religion and modern Israeli life, making Kiddush on Friday night before heading out to a football game the next day.

Understanding this significant demographic is key to understanding Rabbi Elefant’s success in Dimona. Because the mesorati are far easier to reach than true secularists — if you know how.

“Let me give you an example of how people can change,” he says. “I know another taxi driver who’s started to wear a yarmulkeh and tzitzis. When I asked him what his story was, he told me that he’d noticed something: Whenever he worked on Shabbos, he ended up damaging the car and needing to make repairs. But as soon as he started to keep Shabbos, he made more money. That’s who we’re dealing with — people here are willing to change.”

Pulling up at a shul a few minutes away, Rabbi Elefant demonstrates how it’s done. “This is a ‘retirees’ kollel,’” he says. Forget visions of balabatim getting back to the shtender after a career in the office — the collection of individuals in the room have never seen the inside of a yeshivah. Men in their 50s and upward, it’s the Middle East meets Eastern Europe, with all the shades of the various aliyah waves represented.

Yet instead of sitting glassy-eyed as the rabbi reads an Ein Yaakov, this group is learning Gemara and halachah. There are a few wafers on the table, some pitzuchim to keep everyone going — but the results are serious.

Seeing as they’re learning about Bircas Hamazon, Rabbi Elefant throws out a famous question about a boy who starts a meal as a 12-year-old, bentshes, and then night falls. “Since he is now obligated mid’Oraita, does he need to go back to say Bircat Hamazon?” he asks the group.

The maggid shiur at the head of the long table gets into a discussion with his pupils, and the chief rabbi loses himself in a volume of Shulchan Aruch, emerging to offer the relevant quote with a triumphant flourish.

Outside, he offers the background to what’s going on. “I’ve put rabbis in 70 shuls across the town, and I pay them a monthly stipend. Their job is to sit and learn with groups like this, and interact with young people. That’s the only way to effect real change — from the grassroots.”

The subject matter at these learning sessions is no kiruv-seminar-style philosophy — it’s Rabbi Elefant’s own choice of material. “Rav Aharon Leib Steinman used to say that beginners should learn Eilu Metzios, because it shows the practicality and depth of Torah wisdom.

“My experience has shown the same. I don’t believe in bubbe maisehs — it’s Gemara and halachah that change people.”

It’s a good fit for the practical Dimonians who prefer the down-to-earth rather than philosophical discussions or “inspiration.”


Show Them the Money

Back outside in the sunlight, the low-key bustle that typifies small towns like Dimona continues around us. Forty-five miles to the east, the Gaza war rages, but aside from a group of soldiers who’ve stopped in the city center for a bite to eat, the only signs of the conflict are the ubiquitous signs declaring, “Together We’ll Win!”

The manager of a local WIZO branch recognizes the chief rabbi and hails him, so we go in. She — along with most of her volunteer staff — knows Rabbi Elefant, and she proudly shows him the piles of clothing, bags, and shoes that locals have donated and that are being sorted for donation to refugee families.

The rock-star treatment that he’s accorded by these non-religious people is more evidence that his modus operandi works: He’s been to all their shivah houses, spoken at their schools; Rebbetzin Sarah — a long-time English teacher — has taught one of the staff members, and the rabbi knows their families. Showing up makes all the difference. In return, they’re clearly his people.

“What’s this broken floor?” he gestures to the old speckled tiles of the run-down building. “What’s with Benny?” he asks, referring to Mayor Benny Biton, the town’s long-standing chief. “Why hasn’t he given you a better site? I’ll speak to him,” the rabbi promises on his way out.

For all Rabbi Elefant’s boosterism about Dimona, there’s no hiding that this is still a socio-economically-challenged place. Over the last few years, the town has risen up the scale on the government’s prosperity tracker. But the local wage lags the national average significantly.

Evidence of that is a man who shuffles over to the rabbi outside the WIZO office. Clad in faded sports gear, he’s come to say hello to the rav, and get some help. Rabbi Elefant slips him a credit note for 100 shekel that he can redeem at a local minimarket.

“My brother in Florida sends me a generous yearly sum to help local people who don’t have enough to eat,” he says matter-of-factly. “I give these pieces of paper because it’s better than giving cash — this way they’ll definitely be spent on food and necessities and not on alcohol.”

Is it normal for the chief rabbi to operate a gemach out of his pocket? It is if your concept of rabbanus is to be a father figure, taking care of peoples’ needs, whatever they are.

The bread and butter of his rabbanus, says Rabbi Elefant as he settles back into Moshe’s taxi, involves kashrus and teaching. There are 100 venues with a kashrus certificate across the town, including wedding halls and eateries, and Rabbi Elefant has put a rigorous inspection regimen in place.

“Hi-hi-hi, Shalom,” he says, once again employing his multi-functional salutation by way of greeting as he strides into a large function hall. Inside the events space — rather-garishly decorated in a mixture of dark tones, mirrors, and gilt — the owner and kitchen staff greet him like the old friend that he is, and show him what’s cooking.

There’s an industrial-size rice checker in the corner, and something good is frying. The mashgiach comes over to say hello, and to report the changes that the war has wrought.

“People have started holding weddings here again instead of making small events in homes or backyards, which is good news,” the owner says. “But we’re not back to normal because our Arab staff isn’t working now. But we’re managing — and really, we should get used to doing the work on our own.”

Such spot-checks are a regular part of his routine — as is hands-on Torah. Rabbi Elefant has 17 weekly learning sessions with locals — secular people with no Gemara background but with the head to keep up with him. Some of those slots are one-on-one chavrusas, some are shiurim for a group. “I’m learning 15 masechtos at the moment — including a daf yomi shiur — and I also give a regular Mishnah Berurah shiur.”

It’s an enviable output, one that many rabbanim would struggle to match. It’s possible because Rabbi Elefant is relentlessly disciplined — and he genuinely enjoys what he does. Asked how a rav maintains enthusiasm after decades in the same position, he fails at first to understand the question. “How does a rav stay fresh? By believing in his work. I certainly do — it’s fascinating.”


High Places

The scene in Mayor Benny Bitton’s office is unexpected, to say the least. At one end of the large conference table that abuts his desk is the mayor himself — the very picture of a development town boss-man. Short, tanned, and with an authoritative mien, Bitton has been in local politics for decades, has been in office since 2013, and has no plans to go anywhere else.

The walls of his newly-renovated suite showcase the mixed influences at work in Dimona. Ben Gurion — a local Negev man — stares at pictures of old-time pioneers, who brush shoulders with a portrait of the Baba Sali. Left, right, secular, and religious — all make peace on Benny Bitton’s wall.

But all that pales before the mayor’s visitors: three middle-aged men in flowing, embroidered robes.

“This is Prince Emmanuel, Prince Arthur, and Prince Israel,” the mayor says. “They’re elders from the Black Hebrew community.”

One of the curios of Dimona, the Black Hebrew Israelites, are a community of about 5,000 individuals who descend from a group that emigrated from Chicago in the 1960s, claiming to be the descendants of the Lost Tribes. Not recognized as Jewish, they tangled with immigration authorities, and are now naturalized citizens — a status that grants them government benefits but doesn’t imply Jewishness.

On cordial terms with the group, the chief rabbi greets the Elders — American to American — before they head out.

In this small, conservative town, the mayor — a Likud man — reigns supreme, but the chief rabbi knows how to work with him.

“Benny, what are you going to do about repairing WIZO’s building?” demands Rabbi Elefant. “They can’t stay there with that crumbling floor!”

Bitton agrees, and says that the repair was scheduled, except that there’s a worker crunch due to the war.

“The rav is Dimona’s consensus figure,” Bitton says when Rabbi Elefant is talking at the other end of the large office space. “He understands politics and knows how to get people to see his point of view. Take me for example: I was against the arrival of the Gerrer chassidim, but he told me, ‘Think about it, this town has to grow — do you want Bedouins to come instead?’ ”

Politically-astute is one way of describing Rabbi Elefant, but as a label it falls short. Rabbi Elefant genuinely knows how to get along with people; in turn, they respect his single-minded devotion to Torah causes and helping others.

All of those faculties have come into play over the months since the war began. Nineteen Dimona families have lost loved ones since the Hamas massacre, either on October 7, or in the war since. City Hall initiated a project to write a sefer Torah in their memory, but in the case of one family of Russian descent, the tragedy led to a sensitive halachic question:

“The parents and children were killed in the Gaza Envelope area, but the father wasn’t Jewish — could we include his name on the Sephardi sefer Torah box?”

Rabbi Elefant thought that eivah, or possible hatred of Jews, was sufficient basis to permit it, but not wanting to rule on his own, sent the sh’eilah to Chief Rabbi Lau’s office, who indeed gave the go-ahead.

“It’s a question of the fifth Shulchan Aruch — in many cases, you need to be born with it. You need to know when to take a stand and when to find another solution. But it helps to have had teachers like my grandfather Rav Kirzner and my rebbi, Rav Tuvia Goldstein.”


Finding the Fit

After more than four decades in office, and brushing 70 years old, Rabbi Elefant is far from done. He wants to stay in his role until the retirement age of 80, because there’s much work still to be done. And for a man who says that a rav should be focused on his local beat, he’s got a surprisingly sweeping vision: to put a rabbi in every shul in Israel.

Israel has 15,000 non-chareidi shuls without a rabbi, he says. “When a shul has a rabbi, he can transform his people and the surrounding community, one person and one shiur at a time. If we can put a rabbi in every shul, what could this country look like?”

That’s not a theoretical possibility, as far as Rabbi Elefant is concerned. He already provides stipends for dozens of rabbis across the town, and ten rabbis far from Dimona’s precincts — in places like Petach Tikvah and Givat Shmuel near Tel Aviv. “For a few hundred dollars monthly per shul, we could have a revolution.”

It was Rav Elyashiv who gave him a solid piece of advice about placing rabbis — “make sure that the rabbi fits the community” — which is why Rabbi Elefant’s protégés embrace the gamut of rabbanim, from chareidi to dati-leumi.

But in a way, that piece of advice describes Dimona’s chief rabbi himself. Since his arrival from New York all those decades ago, he’s grown into a local legend, a beloved icon of this dust-blown town; a fissile core like the reactor down the road.

And as he joshes with the mayor, or shares an idea from the Vilna Gaon with a roomful of Moroccan pensioners, all of the questions about how this American rav has worked it out in the Negev fall away. Whatever the explanation, it just fits. This maverick, larger-than-life talmid chacham from Boro Park is the spiritual sheriff of the town.

He may have been born in Brooklyn, but Rabbi Yitzchok Elefant was always destined for Dimona.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 997)

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