22
Sep

Rabbi Avraham Shalem z"l - by R. Yossi Azose

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In memoriam of Rabbi Avraham Shalem z”l, spiritual leader of Ezra Bessaroth 1959-1962. The following is a translation of an article published in the Iyar 5723 [1963] edition of the Sephardic Torah journal Kol Sinai. At the time, Rabbi Shalem had visited Eretz Yisrael to place his son in Yeshiva, and expressed his desire to return to the Holy Land during that visit. In an effort to help him find a new position, the editors of Kol Sinai decided to write-up and publish a short summary of his accomplishments up to that point.

[Avraham Shalem] was born in Jerusalem in the year 5688 (1928) to his father Rabbi David Shalem (may G-d protect him and grant him life), a beloved figure in Jerusalem who served as a soldier in the first Judean battalion in WWI, and who took an active part in the defense of Jerusalem during the riots of 5685. He was known as an active public advocate to promote Torah and its students. He was very active for Yeshivat Shaare Zion, which was founded by Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory. The Shalem family was well known for generations as a family of famous rabbis and lay leaders in the great Jewish community of Salonika, Greece.


After young Avram completed his studies in the Mizrahi (Zionist) Talmud Torah, his teachers recommended that he continue his studies at the “Seminar leMorim Mizrahi” (Zionist Teacher’s Seminary). But his father opposed this and brought him to Chief Rabbi Uziel, of blessed memory, and told him that his wish was that his son should continue in the rabbinic tradition of his family and fill the dwindling ranks of Sephardic rabbis.


The Chief Rabbi happily accepted the child and admitted him into Yeshivat Shaare Zion, at whose helm stood Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem.
With sacrifice and dedication he devoted himself to his studies, and was conferred rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Waldenberg, the chief rabbinate and Rabbi Uziel, and Rabbis Hizqiyah Shabbetai, Shalom Azulai and Yaakov Ades. After a year of exams and service at the Sephardic high court of Jerusalem, he was conferred as a judge by the Chief Rabbi. At that time he was also ordained at the institute of supplement for yeshiva graduates under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization headed by Rabbi I. Berman. At the same time, he served as a teacher of Talmud and professional religious service at the Talmud Torah Or Hahayim in Jerusalem. During the War of Independence, he enlisted in the field corps and helped defend the Holy City [of Jerusalem].


The Sephardic congregations of Peru turned to the chief rabbinate and the Jewish agencies to send them a rabbi that would lead these congregations that stood at the verge of acculturation and assimilation. Chief Rabbi Uziel selected the young, dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem for this position and rescue mission. In those days, the Sephardic lay leaders in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv arose to choose a Sephardic rabbi for the emerging community of Ramat Gan. This choice fell upon Rabbi Avram Shalem, and a struggle ensued between Peru and Ramat Gan as to which would claim Rabbi Shalem. The primary advocate to bring Rabbi Shalem [to Ramat Gan] was Mr. Avraham Recanti, an MK of the first Kenesset and a leader of the Sephardic community. However, Chief Rabbi Uziel stressed the importance of mission work in the Diaspora and combatting assimilation over that of being a rabbi in Ramat Gan, and also that a Hillul Hashem should not be caused in the eyes of the community leaders in Peru, who chose the venerable Rabbi Avram Shalem.


And so the Chief Rabbi told him as follows, “You should embark on this mission for the sake of the Jews who cry out to be saved from acculturation. And when your contract ends in five years, you can return to Israel and choose any number of positions”.


At the end of the year 5710 [1950], Rabbi Avram Shalem left to administer as the rabbi of the Sephardic community of Peru. In the capital city of Lima he accepted the responsibility of the spiritual leadership of all communities, both Sephardic and Ashkenazic. After some months, a unified community was organized for all matters of shehita, mikva’ot, burials, etc. The Rabbi [Shalem] was in constant contact with Chief Rabbis Herzog, Uziel and Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank to inquire about some of the more pressing questions that arose. As well, the Rabbi took the entire responsibility of Jewish education in the community schools, and his success was great, as many of his students were accepted to yeshivot, and many were sent to the large yeshivot in New York, among them Yeshivat Torah Vodaath, Yeshiva University, and others. He also brought back many families to Judaism and prevented intermarriage and assimilation and did much for the sake of Torah and Israel. For a number of years he served as an associate director of the World Zionist Organization, and traveled to the outer suburbs on behalf of the UJA. In those days, before there was an Israeli embassy in Lima but rather just an honorary consulate, the Rabbi contributed to diplomatic efforts and was in correspondence with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.


When he came to Lima, an epidemic of intermarriage plagued the community and it was in danger of acculturation and assimilation. The Rabbi succeeded in saving dozens of families from acculturation and brought them back to leading faithful lived of Torah and mitzvot. He led a forceful campaign for Torah education, mikva’ot and family purity and kashrut. There were a number of parnassim of the community who were angry about this. But the Rabbi, with his personality and skillful direction, succeeded in his efforts, and after seven years of work, he left the community on a solid and robust Jewish footing and he left his position to a graduate of Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Rabbi David Dayan, who continued with force and dedication to strengthen Torah and mitzvot in Peru.


In response to an offer from the great Sephardic synagogue “Yehuda Halevi” in Mexico, he left to lead that congregation. But because of differences of opinions involving fundamental Torah issues, as he saw that this congregation had strayed completely from Jewish law and tradition and was unwilling to correct its crooked ways, he resolved to leave them and went to Congreagtion Ezra Bessaroth in Seattle, WA in the US. There he joined the work of the rabbis of that place, and at his initiative, a Bet Din comprising the four Orthodox congregations was founded, a va’ad of kashrut, a special va’ad of education and others. In the year 1961, when a crisis [concerning the legality] of ritual slaughter arose throughout the US and it was in danger of being harmed, it was the State of Washington that scuttled this effort, thanks to the organized efforts of the rabbinate there, under the diligence of the dynamic Rabbi Avram Shalem, who succeeded in influencing important politicians, chief of whom was the governor of Washington who granted Rabbi Shalem the privilege of presenting before the Senate an argument for the defense of Jewish law. This achievement also encouraged other communities and states to continue to fight this, and the proposal was abolished. Messages of encouragement came in from all rabbinic organizations, as well as from Rabbi Soloveitchik and others. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, the grand rabbi of all Chabad chassidim throughout the world, endeared him and one of his meetings with him lasted a number of hours. A rare thing that demonstrated the appreciation that the great leader of Chabad had for Rabbi Shalem was the fact that he continued his correspondence with him and advised him in congregational matters.


The Sephardic Jewry in Mexico previously was led by Rabbi Mordekhai Atiyah as head rabbi of the community, and he did much toward its Jewish education, but he returned to Israel after some years in the rabbinate. These communities were thus left without a spiritual pastor, so they searched for a prominent spiritual guide and they sought out Rabbi Shalem.


Some time passed and a request came from the prominent “Congregacion Monte Sinai” of Mexico to become their head rabbi. A pointed and difficult struggle erupted between Seattle, WA and Monte Sinai, Mexico. In this pitched battle, the Mexicans won the upper hand and they gained the privilege of Rabbi Shalem, and in the month of Shevat, 5722 [1962] he became the head rabbi of the Monte Sinai Sephardic congregation in Mexico. In short time, he worked in cooperation with the Ashkenazic community of the place and formed a central rabbinate in Latin America, under the guidance of Rabbi Mordechai Hershberg, and Rabbi Shalem was chosen as its Vice President. This organization joined and coordinated the services of the communities of Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru and Mexico. This center oversaw the rabbinic and educational efforts throughout Central America and Caribbean, and in the past year, they sent certified shohetim to Guatemala and Venezuela. In Mexico itself, the center took care of issues with kashrut and established a unified bet din for the three congregations that judged on matters of kashrut and marriage.
The school of the Monte Sinai congregation counts almost 600 students, and here too the rabbi assumed responsibility for educational matters, and he raised its Torah and educational grounding to a very high level. In addition to this, there is a Talmud Torah and Yeshiva in the evening where close to 30 students learn under the guidance of Rabbi Shalem.


Throughout the years of his rabbinic service in the Diaspora, he did much to aid the Torah and charitable institutions in Israel. Chief among them is our great Yeshiva, Midrash Porat Yosef, Yeshivat Shaare Zion, Chinuch Atzmai, Torah U’mlacha Shel Hamizrachi, orphanages, the educational network Chanoch Lena’ar, Torah Vodaath and tens of other institutions and yeshivot. In the past year, he became the president of Israel Bonds in Mexico, the rabbi’s house being the address for all emissaries.


The rabbi is proud that after years of hard work and toil, he merited helping his esteemed congregations to be free of intermarriage, to love Torah and its students, and whose generous hands are extended to strengthening and supporting the bastions of Torah in Israel. These are the congregations of Monte Sinai and Zedek Umarpe, where prominent men stand at their helm and greatly help in outreach efforts in their congregation, to teach them about Torah, their faith, and mitzvot.


Many stories abound of the deeds and efforts of this young and dynamic rabbi, and it has been 13 years that he has wandered throughout the streets of the Diaspora to save Jews from apostasy and assimilation. The time has come for the young rabbis of Eretz Yisrael to take the place of this great rabbi so that he could return to his home, his family and the land to which his soul is drawn, where last month he came to Israel to enroll his eldest son in yeshiva; at which time he strengthened his resolve to return to his heart’s desire – to the sacred air of our Holy Land. Is it not fitting that the Chief Rabbinate and Office of Religious Affairs and mayors of Israel, whose Sephardic congregations are vacant without a spiritual leader, should choose this dynamic and active rabbi that he should return to lead as a chief rabbi of one of the cities of Israel? Indeed it is proper that those who have power to decide should give precedence for these positions to those rabbis who fulfilled their service and missions in the Diaspora. By doing so, it would encourage and strengthen the will of our young rabbis to leave to the Diaspora and save our scattered, acculturated and assimilated [brethren].


There is not enough space to contain all the details of the deeds and qualities Rabbi Avram Shalem, who is an erudite speaker, whose audiences include speakers of a number of languages including, English, Spanish, Castilian [Ladino] and others. He is a man of learning and deed, of pleasant manner; a man of the people who knows how to chastise them and raise them upon the pedestal of faith Torah and mitzvot. Most of all, “his fear [of Heaven] precedes his wisdom”.


It is our hope for Rabbi Avream Shalem, that G-d should grant him health and long life to continue his wonderful work in the Diaspora, and soon he should return to Israel to assume the leadership as a rabbi of one of the cities in Israel. Well done!

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