The Story of Rav Dov Begon, Rosh Yeshivat Machon Meir
His Life, Teshuva, the Founding of Machon Meir, Vision for the Future
by Rabbi Menachem Weinberg
HaRav Begon was born in Tel Aviv in 1940 to parents from Poland and Lithuania who had left their families to make aliya, a move that ultimately saved them from the Holocaust. His father worked as a physical laborer in construction and his mother was a homemaker. They were never well off, but they were happy because they were fulfilling their dream of living in Israel and building the land. Together with their second son, Zev, at first they lived in Nes Tziona near Tel Aviv until moving to Cholon where the children went to grade school.
Growing up, “Dovaleh” was an active member of the Meuhedet Kibbutz youth movement, and in 1954 he began attending the movement’s high school in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon, where they had classes for half the day and spent the other half working in the fields or orchards. Dov was active in various student social and cultural committees, and loved to hike, wandering alone as far as Eilat at the age of 16.
In grade twelve he participated in a special program in Beit Berl where the students debated ideology, arguing about issues such as the value of kibbutz versus city life, or the relative values of Socialism and Communism. He recalls standing up and saying: “We all agree and say ‘I believe.’ But what is belief itself?” For Rav Begon, this was a significant moment. He recalls: “I didn’t have an answer at that time, and neither did they. It took me a few years until I clarified for myself that ‘I believe’ means that ‘I accept and rely on the truth,’ but then I realized that I didn’t know the truth.” After reading about various religions and thinking that there must be some truth in them, he asked himself: “Who am I, what is my identity? In what way am I Jewish?” It was not long before he realized that he knew nothing about his heritage and decided that he must study Judaism.
With these questions in his mind and recorded in his journal, which he kept for seventeen years, he was drafted into the IDF to the Nachal unit, where for the first time in his life he met religious people. On October 12, 1957 he recorded in his journal that after debating theology and life questions with his religious fellow soldiers, he saw that they went to the synagogue, a place that offered them support and served as a “home base.” In contrast, he felt that he had nothing comparable to fall back on.
In one of his first mentions of Judaism in his journal he wrote: “After much thought I have reached the conclusion that three things will guide me from now on. Knowledge of the land, nature and Judaism. Why Judaism . . . ? I see involvement in Jewish studies – like learning Aggada, archeology of the land, and in general the wisdom of the Tanakh – as something that stores up in a person the wisdom of thousands of years and develops his thought.”
In the course of his service he served as a commander in an officers course that included his childhood friend and classmate from Mishmar Hasharon, Ehud Barak, who would go on to serve as IDF Chief of Staff and Prime Minister.
After his service, he left the kibbutz and helped found the field school in Achziv, becoming one of the first tour guides for the Society for the Protection of Nature. His religious stirrings grew together with his connection to the land, feeling revelation from nature itself, and he started taking a Tanakh on his hikes, learning about the rivers and valleys mentioned there.
At this point in his life, he turned to the Rabbi of nearby town Nahariya, Rabbi Aharon Keller, asking what it took to live as a Jew, and he was handed a copy of the Kitzur Shulkhan Arukh (Concise Code of Jewish law), which he proceeded to read and practice. The first time he experienced Shabbat was in Rabbi Keller’s home. At the close of Shabbat he found himself feeling spiritually uplifted “instead of being tired from swimming on the beach as usual.” He then joined Rabbi Keller’s son at Merkaz Harav (Rav Kook’s yeshiva) in Jerusalem. He relates that upon visiting the yeshiva he was overwhelmed by the noise, and felt lost in the fast pace of the prayers. With great disappointment he realized that he was not quite ready to move ahead, despite his best intentions to leave the past behind, so he bid farewell to the Rosh Yeshiva Rav Tzvi Yehuda (obm) who wished him well and told him to keep in touch.
Rav Begon returned to the Galil for almost four years, slowly growing in his religious awareness and practice. While living on Kibbutz Gesher Haziv he was inspired to put a mezuzah on his doorpost (out of ignorance he recited the verses each time he passed through the door!), and it was there that he bought his first Chumash and decided not to work on Shabbat. He spent many a Shabbat learning in the nearby yeshiva in Kfar Chasidim, where he heard the shofar for the first time. He wrote letters to Rav Tzvi Yehuda who gave him encouragement. At first he didn’t wear a kippah, until he finally dared to don one in front of a group of youth that he was guiding. In response to their questions he remembers telling them that he was trying to investigate and learn about God.
At first his parents were concerned, for they had different dreams and plans for him, but after overcoming their initial shock, his mother said that her father, his namesake Dov – a sofer (ritual scribe) and chavruta (study partner) of the Ostrovtzer Rebbe, would have been proud of him. Soon his mother asked him to bring a rabbi to kosher their kitchen and his father started asking to go to synagogue with him. For the fifteen years before their passing, his parents were fully observant.
On Sukkot of 1963 Rav Begon returned to Jerusalem and spent two weeks in the house of Rav Tzvi Yehuda. Despite the challenges, he decided to stay, and with patience and determination he remained and studied there for the next ten years. Slowly but surely, the devoted and diligent student progressed in his studies and received rabbinic ordination.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda also introduced Rav Begon to Nava, a teacher and student at the Hebrew University, who eventually became his wife. They have 12 children, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Tragically, one of their sons, Ariel, passed away from cancer at age 35, leaving four orphaned children, and another of their grandchildren Shilo Ariel Weinberger also died of cancer at the tender age of two and-a-half.
Memories from the Six Day War
In 1967, Rav Begon was called up as a reserve officer to command a unit in the Jerusalem brigade. His first mission was commander of the Notre Dame building with the goal of holding the border line opposite the old city from Musrara to Mamila, and stop the Jordanian forces from entering the Jewish homes. He recalls being outnumbered by 600 Jordanian soldiers lining up against his 40 men, with very few weapons. They filled up sandbags on the roof, protecting their two big guns, one trained on the New Gate, and one aimed at Damascus Gate. As the Jordanians started to shoot, Rav Begon realized war was upon them as they suffered a night long bombardment. At 11 am (his watch stopped at that hour) a bomb exploded near him and blew him a few meters off the roof, but miraculously he came out unscathed. He keeps the shrapnel from the bomb in his office as a reminder of his miraculous survival.
In fact, this was not his first brush with danger; Rav Begon recalls that as a child in 1948, he was playing outside when an Egyptian plane flew over Tel Aviv and started shooting at him, chasing after him as he ran inside to hide. At that young age he had already overheard that his 15 year old youth leader was killed in battle.
Rav Begon’s next assignment was on Ammunition Hill, where he was sent to release the soldiers who were surrounded on Mount Scopus. He recalls how inspired he was when he saw weary, dirty and injured soldiers marching and wistfully singing “when He comes peace will come.”
Then Rav Begon’s unit travelled south to Gush Etzion. Upon arrival they discovered that the Jordanians had already just fled, and he found their coffee cups still warm! He was in the Mukata in Ramallah when he heard the radio announcement “The Temple Mount is in our hands” and he participated in the crying, dancing, and general euphoria experienced by Jews everywhere. A few weeks later Rav Begon served on guard duty at the Kotel during the first Shavuot after the war, and to this day he is still moved as he describes the throngs that streamed to the Kotel that Shavuot.
The Genesis of Machon Meir
In his journal Rav Begon wrote: “The purpose that I staked out for my life is to live by the light of the Torah, and to the degree that I will merit to do so, to shine her light on others with love.” In an Israeli TV special documenting his teshuva process, he declared that he had decided “to devote my life to education – to teach Torah and love of the people and land of Israel, to both religious and secular youth, to help those dealing with the same questions I once had, and now I try to the best of my abilities to also give them answers.”
In 1973–74 Rav Begon taught Geography and Bible in Gymnasia Rechavya, a secular high school in Jerusalem. At the same time he saw many Israelis who came to Merkaz Harav after the Yom Kippur war, searching for their path to faith, and felt that he had to help them and care for all those “thirsty for God’s word.” He recalls: “When I came to Merkaz I almost drowned. There was no program for beginners. It was like a university, and I was only learning how to read and write. We decided, a group of us, to start a program that could be an address for baalei teshuva and all those who want to get stronger in their Judaism in the spirit of love of the people and the land, something which did not exist at the time. . . . .
In yeshiva one night we were studying Orot [“Lights” by Rav Kook] and all of a sudden I got up and said to Rav Tzvi Yehuda: ‘Lights, Lights, Lights . . . but all the lights are remaining in this room! What about the Jewish people? We have to give over this light to all of the Jewish people!’ He was holding my hand, and I can still feel the warmth of his hand, as he said ‘Nu, Nu [So, So . . .]’ I said, ‘we have to do something!’ and again he said ‘Nu, Nu [So, So . . .]’ – This ‘Nu, Nu . . .’ is what led to the creation of Machon Meir.”
Why do people come to Machon Meir?
“Every Jew, religious or secular, has a Jewish soul, and it is only natural for a person to return to his true self. Serious people search for their selves and their path in life and very quickly reach the roots. In the end of the day I am a Jew – which doesn’t start from me, or even my grandparents. It starts from Am Yisrael, the nation of Israel, the collective. So those who search a little deeper come to learn what is Am Yisrael and what is the Torah and this tradition – it is only natural.”
Machon Meir is named for a relative of Rav Begon’s wife, Eliezer Meir Lifshutz, may Hashem avenge his blood, a paratrooper killed in the Yom Kippur war crossing the Suez canal, who was a Torah scholar also studying to become an engineer in Machon Lev. This combination was to be a model for Machon Meir’s signature approach to Torah that is integrated into Israeli society. “We also wanted a name with light in it – to shine the light on the Jewish People.”
Since its humble beginnings over forty years ago, starting off with only a few students gathering in Rav Begon’s home, today Machon Meir has had thousands of students studying in its Jerusalem campus. With a sister school for women, Machon Ora, a weekly radio show by Rav Begon, millions of downloads each year from the famous webpage Arutz Meir, including tens of thousands of shiurim and over 6000 shiurim by Rav Begon himself, a TV channel of the same name, and the popular children’s channel, Machon Meir has become the headquarters for Religious Zionist ba’alei teshuva, their families, and many Jews in Israel and beyond.
Machon Meir: Educational Principles and Methods, in Rav Begon’s Words
“We believe that the Torah belongs to us, to the soul of all of us, and to each one himself. Unfortunately not all of us merited to draw from this wellspring of living waters, and so as the first step we have to introduce the people to their Torah. The first principles are: a) Love of Torah
- Love of the people – like Aharon HaKohen – “Love the people and bring them closer to Torah” – but it must be unconditional love.
- Love of the State and love of the Land, based on the approach of Rav Kook who said “You can’t reach the truth of teshuva and Torah without seeing the unfolding redemption with our national revival.”
“When a new student comes to Machon Meir we usually start by learning with him books of Emunah [Jewish faith] like the Kuzari and works of the Maharal, but also the Rambam’s introductions to Mishna, Pirkei Avot [Ethics of our Fathers] with commentaries, and of course Tanakh [Bible]. Rav Tzvi Yehuda [Kook] zt”l quoted the Mishna in Brachot ‘So that he accepts the yoke of heaven first and only then accepts the yoke of mitzvot’ as a directive to first cover the foundations of faith and only after he establishes himself do we learn halakha (laws.) Only at the next stage do we proceed to Gemara with the goal to achieve independence by learning skills.
“We also have a track for religious youth that went ‘off the derech’ and are finding their way back. A standard yeshiva gevohah is not appropriate for them. Here we have Emunah studies that are needed as a basis. The Machon curriculum is comprised of an Emunah track and a yeshiva track. First a student strengthens his faith and then, and sometimes in parallel, he learns Gemara.
“Every student should have a personal mentor, who takes an interest in how he is feeling, and invites him to his home. He’arat panim [a shining countenance] is very influential in welcoming a student. The key is to foster a dialogue that clarifies the truth from great openness, and not to try to convince nor to brainwash. We are not learning here for a degree or a diploma, but searching to connect to the truth. It is also important that there are questions that they ask and I am not embarrassed to say that I don’t know.
“What is success? As soon as a student starts to feel happy, I know we have done our part. When he knows with confidence what he wants, to know ‘who am I’ as a human being, as a Jew, to strive for good, to leave his personal ego, to find his direction in life – from this point he can fly and achieve on his own.
“In the Machon there is great love of all people, and the approach is not to separate or disconnect; therefore we are able to accept and encompass the other, and identify with the entire klal [collective community]. Every year we go out and spend a Shabbat in various development towns throughout the country, to connect to the people and to add our light to Israeli society.
All of our students either serve or have served in the Israeli army, some in very significant roles. We see this as a holy value – a person’s value is through his relation to the collective, and Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael are the collective.
“We also have a conversion track. I believe we have found a formula for righteous converts that need to identify with the Jewish religion, the Jewish people and the land of Israel. The Beit Din rely on our recommendations and every year tens of beautiful new Jewish homes are built.
“The Machon has become the International “World Cup” of Torah learning. We have a French department that has become the preferred path for young men to make Aliyah even before their parents arrive, and Spanish speakers from many different countries in the Spanish department. The students in the English department might be the most open and questioning, while the Russian speaking students are often the most closed and slow to trust, but perhaps the most intellectual group. They usually take longer to open up, like some flowers have a different pace than others. We see this gathering as a tremendous Kiddush Hashem, as Jewish unity ultimately invites the presence of the Shechina (Divine Presence.) All the varied groups connect through living in the same dormitories, eating and studying together, but we see even more connections being made when we all go on hikes and together discover the land of Israel through our feet. No one feels condescension or separatism in Machon Meir.
“The soul of man is the candle of God” – every person is a good soul, you just have to light the candle. We have young and old, including pensioners from around the world. We do it for the sake of Heaven and believe that our role is to do good for everyone.
Vision for the Future
“When we started Machon Meir, ‘Teshuva from love’ that Rav Kook spoke of was not in the public consciousness, but now forty years later it is widely recognized as ‘the way to go,’ the teshuva that the Jewish people need. There is personal teshuva, but we need collective teshuva. All of the arguments in society are temporary – in the future we will all unite like in the Exodus from Egypt and at Sinai. We must honor and sanctify Hashem through setting a personal example of Torah together with derekh eretz.
“We are full of hope that more and more people will connect to the path of Rav Kook, integrating their physical and spiritual development, both personally and nationally. I am amazed by this country. We are developing on the right path. It feels like there is an underground current, and a movement above ground too, of return and drawing close to Judaism from all sectors – most people respect the tradition even if they are far from it. There is almost no family or town where there aren’t people getting closer to Judaism. More and more Jews are understanding that they can’t live only dealing with the material aspect of life and are searching for meaning and spirituality. They want to pour Jewish content into their lives. Barukh Hashem we are on the right path.
“When the Lord brings back the captivity of Zion, we will be like dreamers. Then our mouth will be filled with laughter and our tongue with singing” (Psalm 126:1–2). When the nations say, “The Lord has done great things for them,” we will say, “The Lord has done great things for us” (Ibid.).