or me, the hardest columns are those written while traveling abroad, usually in the wee hours of the morning after a full Shabbos of speaking. The easiest, by contrast, are those written upon returning home, since I have always heard many stories that I’m eager to share.
This last trip was no exception. Last Erev Shabbos I met with Anthony Moshal, a South African expatriate entrepreneur now living in London. I had heard that he enjoyed a relationship with Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l and asked him how that came about. Anthony told me that in 2001, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein arranged for him and Damon Hoff and Dr. Michael Setzer, two fellow directors of Yad Mordechai, the charitable foundation Anthony and his older brother Martin had established in honor of their paternal grandfather, to travel to Israel to meet with a number of gedolim to discuss what ought to be the foundation’s priorities in tzedakah.
Each of those consulted emphasized the importance of supporting Torah learning. But Rav Moshe also told them that if there were Jewish lives in physical danger and it was possible to save them, that should take precedence.
Rabbi Edelstein began researching whether there were clear instances of Jews under physical threat, and discovered that there were thousands of Jewish children in the former Soviet Union (FSU) who were roaming the streets, at best semi-orphaned, homeless, and vulnerable. Some of these children had eventually died of starvation. Yad Mordechai approached Rabbis Shlomo Bakst and Refael Kruskal of TIKVA Odessa and Rabbi Moshe Fhima of Yad Yisrael in Pinsk and asked them to save 100 Jewish children. Yet even though the Moshals committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the effort, the rabbis refused unless the commitment was for at least three years, lest their organizations end up bankrupted by undertaking a major project for which there would be no funding down the line.
In mid-2005, Anthony was meeting with his brother at the latter’s office in Durban, South Africa, overlooking the Indian Ocean, when he received a call from his wife Lauren in Johannesburg, telling him that she had just finished her weekly grocery shopping and was heading home.
About two minutes later, Lauren was back on the phone, much to Anthony’s surprise. “I’ve been hijacked,” she blurted out.
On the way back from the supermarket, Lauren had not noticed the gold-colored jeep following her. When the security gate in front of the Moshal home swung open, three men jumped out of the jeep and ran through the gate. One overcame the security guard. Another ordered the family’s nanny out of the car and pushed her against a wall, and the third put a gun to Lauren’s head, while her two-year-old son remained strapped in a sturdy car seat in the back.
Lauren immediately noticed that the man holding the gun to her temple was high on drugs and extremely jittery. He practically ripped her earring from her ear, and “freaked out” when it dropped on the ground. At one point, he accused her of not handing him the car keys, until she pointed out that they were in his hand. She knew she had to remain totally calm so as not to spook him and likely cause him to shoot her.
The gang argued among themselves briefly about whether to take Lauren and the nanny inside the house and lock the doors or just take the car and flee. Eventually, they decided that the security guard had likely had time to push an alarm to alert the private armed security company and decided to flee with only Lauren’s gray Audi and all the jewelry she was wearing.
As one jumped into the driver’s seat, Lauren managed to grab her two-year-old son Jacob, who had for the first time ever extricated himself from his car seat and was sitting up front. In the same motion, she extracted her handbag, which was carrying all the family passports.
Later, when Anthony told a friend about the interval between the first and second call from his wife, the friend asked him what precisely he had been doing while his wife had a gun held to her temple. “Just a regular business meeting,” Anthony replied.
But his interlocutor kept pushing for more precision, until it suddenly struck Anthony that something very specific had taken place in that time. He and his brother had decided to go ahead with the three-year commitment — far and away the largest tzedakah contribution Yad Mordechai had ever made. Just then the gang zoomed out the driveway, and Lauren could finally let out all the emotions kept in check while she was being held at gunpoint.
ANTHONY MOSHAL RELATED that story on Erev Shabbos. After Shabbos, I heard another remarkable story involving the return of the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel Hy”d to Israel 37 years after the tank battle of Sultan Yacoub in which he was captured. When I heard the story, it was still in the category of a rumor (though I was told that it had been related over Shabbos in the presence of a religious MK who is close to Prime Minister Netanyahu and he did not contradict it).
Subsequently, however, I viewed a clip of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the son of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, retelling a conversation he had with Osnat Haberman, the sister of Zachary Baumel. She told Rabbi Eliyahu that when Prime Minister Netanyahu made a shivah call during the Baumel family’s one-day observance of shivah, she had told him that had he come years earlier, he would have received a very cold reception from the family members, who felt that he had not done enough to secure Zachary’s remains. But two years ago, the family collectively decided to be mochel the prime minister for failing to do more and to judge him favorably. He was likely motivated by affairs of state and not by a lack of concern, they reasoned.
When he heard that, Netanyahu was visibly shaken, and he asked Mrs. Haberman the date of the family’s decision. He explained that around the same time, Israeli intelligence had uncovered a terrorist plot against Russia that would have inflicted large numbers of casualties if successful. The information was conveyed to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and the plot was foiled.
Netanyahu knew that Putin now owed him big-time, and he began consulting with his security advisors as to what he should request on his next visit to Moscow. Eventually, the list was whittled down to three items. But as he sat with Putin on his next visit to the Kremlin, Prime Minister Netanyahu suddenly found himself thinking about Zachary Baumel and the other two Israeli soldiers, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, who had also gone missing in the same battle. Israeli intelligence had identified the likely area for their bodies to be found — an area of Syria then controlled by Russian troops. And Netanyahu asked Putin for assistance to find the remains of the three soldiers.
Putin expressed amazement that 35 years after the battle on June 11, 1982, the return of the soldiers was Netanyahu’s highest concern. For his part, Netanyahu himself wondered what had put it into his mind to seek the return of the soldiers. He also worried about how he was going to explain to security officials why he had not pursued any of the three items on the list in his pocket.
He need not have worried. In response to Putin’s surprise, Netanyahu admitted that he had, in fact, come with a list of other crucial security needs with which Russia could be helpful. Putin was so impressed by Netanyahu’s concern with the return of the remains of fallen soldiers that he told Netanyahu, “That one’s on me. Now what else do you have on your list?”
That fateful meeting, and Netanyahu’s sudden decision to place the return of the fallen soldiers’ bodies at the top of his priorities, took place soon after the Baumel family’s decision to forgive Netanyahu for what they had previously viewed as his dereliction.
For the rest of us, the message we can all derive from these two incidents is: One never knows the power of his or her mitzvos, especially those that require overcoming oneself in some way.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 761. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at email@example.com