Call to war

There are powerful moments when life’s experiences bring deeper meaning to the Torah and her classic commentators.

It was Shabbat, June 5, 1982.

I was nearing the end of my first year abroad in Israel, and I spent that Shabbat in Haifa with my family. A few days earlier, on June 3, Israeli Ambassador to England Shlomo Argov was seriously wounded in an attack by three PLO terrorists. Reactions in Israel ranged from shock to outrage, and the winds of war were brewing.

I had a surreal experience at synagogue that Shabbat morning. The Torah portion was Beha’alotecha, which contains one of the most famous verses in the Torah: “Vayehi binso’a ha’aron vayomer Moshe, kuma Hashem, v’yafutsu oyvecha, v’yanusu m’san’echa mipanecha [When the ark was set forth, Moses would say, Advance, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You].” As we read this call to war by Moses, the synagogue’s building continuously shook to the rumbling of helicopters and F-15 fighter jets. When I peeked outside, I saw miles of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) jeeps, tank transporters and armored personnel carriers, all heading north. I had a front-row view of the IDF’s massive call-up of troops on their way to the region’s first real “war on terror.”

The Netziv commentary to the Torah says that the word “oyvecha” (your enemies) means “one who hates you deeply in his heart, and wishes nothing but to inflict harm upon you.” Rashi says that the word “m’san’echa” (your foes) means “those who pursue you with the intent to kill you.” These words from our Torah portion were what I both heard and felt that Shabbat as the IDF entered Lebanon, where the PLO had built a terrorist “state within a state.” Moses’ call to war rang clearly as the IDF was on its way to confront an enemy whose long record of hatred, harm and pursuit with the intent to kill included hijackings, massacring school children and staining the Olympics with bloodshed.

What does it mean to go to war and confront an evil enemy? You never really understand that until it gets up close and personal. I learned that part of the parasha the next morning, June 6 — the first formal day of the Lebanon War.

Through heavy traffic, I made my way back to my yeshiva. I attended Kerem B’Yavneh, a Hesder yeshiva where Israeli young men enroll in a five-year program that combines Torah study with service in IDF combat units. I studied there during the second semester of my senior year of high school, and I was scheduled to return to Los Angeles that week for my YULA graduation.

Running from the bus stop, I went straight to the beit midrash, where my chevrutah (study partner) waited for me. “Let’s begin studying, we don’t have much time,” he said. I didn’t understand what he meant, but I soon found out. I once again heard jeeps screeching outside, along with buses. Two IDF officers came into the beit midrash, which was filled with hundreds of young men studying Talmud. They approached the front of the room, and a sudden silence fell over us as they began to read names and numbers.

I sat there watching the entire beit midrash clear out. When my chevrutah’s name was called, he looked at me with a smile and said, “I have to go now, please promise me that you won’t leave, and I promise you that I will return here to continue our studies.” He hugged me and ran out.

I followed him to see all of the boys and some of the rabbis boarding the buses with their IDF duffle bags. Along with my chevrutah were Chovav Landau, who always opened his home to us students from abroad, and Yehuda Katz, who was one of the yeshiva’s top Talmud students.

As the buses rolled away, I witnessed something incredible. With full awareness that they were on their way to war, these boys broke out into songs of faith in God. The buses rolled away in the dust, and the voices of hundreds of boys faithfully singing continued to echo in my heart. I went back into the beit midrash, where about 25 of us remained.

I never went back for my YULA graduation. Instead, that summer included attending Chovav’s funeral, studying in the beit midrash (my chevrutah did return) and reciting psalms for the return of Yehuda Katz (who is missing in action until this day).

Thirty years later, I continue to pray for Yehuda’s return, much like I pray that this generation will not have to endure another war. Moses indeed declares a “Call to War,” and despite this, the Israeli governments have made multiple “Calls to Peace.” Are the Palestinians listening?

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center (SEC), an international organization with its own campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. He is currently launching the SEC’s new Makor program (

The Unsung Hero

The year was 1993, and the glitterati of the L.A. Jewish community gathered at Shaare Tefila to honor Rabbi Meir Lau, the new chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel.

As the rabbi walked on the red carpet among other prominent rabbis and Jewish machers, he paused and looked toward a short, 63-year-old man who was serving drinks, and called out: “Avramale!”

The crowd wondered, “Who is this Avramale getting a hug from the chief rabbi?”

Avramale is Albert Lanciano, now 75, who today is the shamash/caretaker of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. This year will mark his 10th anniversary as the synagogue’s resident jack-of-all-trades.

“He makes the whole thing run,” said his boss and good friend, Rabbi Daniel Bouskila. That usually means getting up at 5 a.m. to open the chapel for the day’s morning prayers, and when there are simchas or other events, which is most days, it can mean being back in bed in the early morning hours. It helps that his two-bedroom studio is down the hall from Bouskila’s office, so he can steal the occasional nap. It also helps that he’s a real happy guy who loves his life.

And what a life it’s been. After emigrating from Egypt to Israel in 1947 at the age of 17, he fought in four wars, and raised four children who are now married with their own children and grandchildren. As the catering manager of the storied ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) House in Tel Aviv, he met lots of interesting people with names like David Ben Gurion, Ezer Wiseman, Yoseph Berg, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Rabin and a young rabbi named Meir Lau. They all called him Avramale.

I met Albert five years ago during the Café Olam days at the Sephardic temple, and although I must have greeted him 100 times, most of our conversations were quite short, like, “Have you seen the rabbi?” or “Do you know where those Oriental pillows went?”

A few weeks ago, I made a mistake and arrived an hour early for an event at Albert’s synagogue, and of course, he was there to greet me and offer me some food. So we schmoozed a little, and next thing you know we set up a coffee date at Urth Café on Melrose Avenue. That’s when I got to meet Avramale.

You probably know an Avramale in your shul. I bet there are thousands of Avramales all over the Jewish world, in community centers, synagogues and social halls. They don’t make speeches or give press interviews or get honored at banquets. They just take care of the place. If anyone needs anything, they usually call their Avramale first. You might call these people the unsung heroes of Jewish continuity.

A few months ago, there was a minicrisis at the Sephardic temple. Bouskila had purchased 300 user-friendly haggadot for a community seder. Unbeknownst to him or Albert, a janitor had mistakenly put them away in an old closet. A few hours before the seder, Bouskila called Albert in a panic, and, of course, Avramale instinctively figured out where the haggadot were. It’s what he does.

The kids in school call him saba (grandpa). One of his many functions is to buy the Shabbos candy and make sure it always gets into the right hands. A few weeks ago, he was busy planning the dairy meals for Shavuot and replacing all the prayer books. When I asked him for his job description, he said simply, “I do whatever the rabbi needs me to do.”

Albert and Bouskila have this unusual relationship. Bouskila is a Torah scholar who loves to talk Talmud and Jewish philosophy. Albert is all tachlis all the time. Their minds are occupied with different matters, yet they love to spend time together. Maybe it’s the fact that they were both in the same army unit (Givati), Albert in 1948 and Bouskila in 1984. Or it could be that because Albert speaks eight Arabic dialects, he feeds the rabbi inside information from the many Arab stations on his satellite TV. I think it’s also Albert’s sense of humor; he really makes the rabbi laugh.

Six years ago when the rabbi’s first daughter was born, Bouskilla and his wife decided it might be a good idea to find another home for Freeway, a mutt they had rescued who was now making jealous growls toward the new arrival. For the two months it took to find Freeway a new home, Albert took loving care of the dog. When a shul member gave him kudos for his remarkable devotion, Albert shot back: “Are you kidding? I’m just lucky it wasn’t an elephant!”

Bouskila gives out a belly laugh when he tells that story.

Albert’s life is full of stories. One of his favorites is from the old days at the ZOA House. As he tells it, a well-known founder of the State of Israel would give him a little wink, and Avramale knew that meant he should put a little cognac in his coffee cup. Albert knows from discretion: he asked that the gentleman remain nameless.

If you’re lucky like I was to get to a shul event an hour early, keep an eye out for your own Avramale, and buy him a cup of coffee.

David Suissa is founder and editor of OLAM Magazine and founder of Jews for Truth Now.