In 1935, my family migrated to Jerusalem from the Greek town of Larissa, near Salonika. It was the middle of the school year so the schools were not willing to accept me. Eventually, my parents found a Kurdish rabbi, Chacham Fatal, who agreed to, despite his concerns that I didn’t know Hebrew.
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“Take a chair, put it in the corner, and let him sit there,” my mother told him. “He won’t disturb anybody, and by the end of the year he’ll be speaking Hebrew.” I was just a quiet seven-year-old who was afraid of this new rabbi, but that was what we did.
Later, I moved to a more modern school, then received a scholarship to attend the Hebrew University secondary school, and graduated from the David Yellin Teachers’ College in Jerusalem in 1948. By this time, I was a member of the underground Haganah, and was already an officer training new recruits for what would eventually become Israel’s army after the founding of the state.
When I left the army, I went to work as a teacher, mostly educating young children who had migrated from North Africa and the Middle East. I was promoted to principal of the school and held that position for several years before going to earn a graduate degree from Columbia University.
After that, I was hired as an assistant to Israel’s minister of education, and would continue to work in the ministry for thirty years. It was in that capacity that I was asked to go meet the Rebbe in 1971.
At the time, Yigal Allon was the minister of education. He was a war hero and a former general, and after the Six Day War, he informed me of a plan he had developed. Known as the Allon Plan, it would have given some land back to the Jordanians, while giving Israel control of the border areas. “After we have peace,” he told me, “I want to make sure that the line from the Jordan Valley in the north down to Chevron will remain under the sovereignty of Israel.” Part of the plan involved building up a settlement on a hill overlooking Chevron – not in the city itself – and to do this he needed to bring many people to live there.
“Go see the Rebbe,” he instructed me, “and convince him to recruit one thousand young couples.” The idea was that we would bring them to Israel, plant them in the Chevron area, and then cover their expenses, as the men studied Torah. The Chabad community in Chevron had nearly been annihilated after the 1929 massacre there, but Mr. Allon wanted to bring Chabad back. He believed that a fiery movement like Chabad would be able to inspire others to join them there as well.
So I flew to New York and took a cab straight to 770, where I was invited to sit in a waiting room. People were going in and out of the Rebbe’s office, and one of the Rebbe’s assistants offered me a cup of coffee, as I was jet-lagged and hadn’t slept the whole day.
At nearly 3:00 AM, I was allowed into the Rebbe’s dimly lit office. As I entered, he stood up and shook my hand, and then we both sat down at his desk. I felt he wanted to create a quiet, detached spot where two people could talk openly to one another, but on my part, I felt a certain reverential fear mixed with excitement.
After I introduced myself as Yigal Allon’s representative from the Ministry of Education, he asked me about Allon and about the ministry. He didn’t have many questions, but he wanted me to tell him what we were doing in the field of education.
We also went on to discuss the Allon Plan, which the Rebbe did not support; he thought Jewish people should be able to live in Chevron proper. However, in my next visit, and then the one after that, we returned to education. He wanted information about what was going on in the field, which I was happy to provide.
By my third meeting with the Rebbe, which took place in the late ‘70s, I had been the director general of the ministry for some time. One day, a young Chabad man came to my office and said that the Rebbe wanted to see me. So, on my next trip to America, I took the opportunity and went to visit. The meeting was very heartfelt; by then we knew each other. When I came in, he smiled like an old friend, if I may say so, which put me at ease. I had also gotten used to the late hour of these meetings.
In those days, drugs were becoming a problem for us, and this was what he wanted to talk about. For the most part, it was hashish, and also some pills. They were being imported from across the borders of Lebanon and Egypt, and later on they began to come in from South America, too. Once in the country, they were being pushed into the schools.
The Rebbe banged on his table and said, “I’m worried that there are drugs in your school system and I want you to discuss what we can do together to uproot it.”
He was particularly concerned about the army. “The Arabs are trying to push drugs into the IDF,” he warned, and stressed that we had to make sure that Israeli youngsters were properly deterred from taking drugs before they went into the army. “If we don’t overcome this plague,” he declared, “I am concerned that we are putting Israel’s security in jeopardy.”
I was in total agreement. I described to him what exactly was going on and what we were doing about it, but he felt that it wasn’t enough. I also described an interdepartmental committee that had been formed, jointly putting several ministries on the problem – so that the police could put pressure on the pushers, and the welfare organizations would identify families in need, while we in education explained the risks of taking drugs to the younger generation – which he approved of.
He asked me to continue to do my best in this struggle when I went home, and then to come back to report to him. Unfortunately, the follow-up meeting never happened, but it felt like in addition to the minister I was working under, Zevulun Hammer, I had a kind of super-minister who also wanted to hear my reports.
I had the feeling that he was really interested in the education of every child in the system. He was worried about teaching, about learning, about behavior, and he wanted to use me as a source of information and a channel of influence. He was saying: I want to fight against drugs – through you; I want to educate teachers – through you.
Mr. Eliezer Shmueli was a lifelong expert in the field of education who spent twelve years as director general of Israel’s Ministry of Education. He was interviewed in his home in Jerusalem in January of 2010.