Israel never leaves its fighters behind, but when there are no signs that a service member is alive or dead, what is the halachah? For the past four summers, Rabbi Dr. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff stays in Kew Gardens Hills for a month with his wife Malka, speaking around the metropolitan area, meeting his former students, and fundraising for Shvut Ami, the kiruv organization in Israel serving Russian-speaking Jews.
“We were very involved with Soviet Jews, and our work had a big impact on our three daughters. They all went on to contribute to the Jewish people,” Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff said. “Our middle daughter was involved with the International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers.” He was then introduced to fellow American oleh Yona Baumel, whose son Zechariah was listed as missing in action following the battle of Sultan Yakoub in the 1982 First Lebanon War.
In 1991, the status of this missing tank commander was brought up by Meyer “Mike” Kaplan, head of the forensic unit in the Israeli police, who believed that there was enough evidence to declare Baumel dead. But the soldier’s father, Yona Baumel, believed that he was alive. “Kaplan believed that he died on the battlefield.”
Before reconstructing the conditions of the battle where Baumel disappeared, Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff relied on the similar situation of missing married men whose widows have the status of agunos. If there is enough evidence to declare them dead, then the widows could remarry. Likewise, with certainty that Baumel is dead, his parents can mourn properly for their son.
Sworn to secrecy by the IDF, Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff visited the military headquarters in Tel Aviv to see reconstructions of the battle, along with footage, survivor accounts, and positions of the opposing forces. It was a reenactment that reminded the rabbi of his own experiences in the army. “When I walked out, I was so depressed. But we did our work. Here’s the sad part: When all was over, I concluded that the boys were dead.”
Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff argued that along with the conditions of the battle, had he survived, he would have either contacted his family, or the Syrians would have publicized his capture for use in a prisoner exchange. Considering the high-profile Israeli captives of recent years such as Hezbollah’s holding of Elchanan Tenenbaum and Hamas’ capture of Gilad Shalit, both of them appeared in videos, letters, and statements confirming they were alive. This was not the case with the Syrians who had taken Baumel’s tank and body to Damascus.
“I asked the army not to publicize my t’shuvah,” Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff said, with sensitivity to the Baumel family. “It was going to be a very difficult task to convince the parents that they were dead.”
Yona Baumel died in 2009 at age 81, having spent nearly three decades in prayer, protest, and activism in the hope of freeing his son. A decade later, on April 3 of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country’s army received Baumel’s remains from the Syrians. The niftar still wearing the uniform and tzitzis from 1982. The body was subsequently buried at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl.
At age 81, Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff continues to contribute to the klal in numerous ways. The Bronx-born educator was a talmid of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l, later writing a biography on his life and work. He initially served as mara d’asra in the New Jersey communities of Maplewood and South Orange. In 1969, he made aliyah to Jerusalem, becoming a pioneer in the gap-year concept where American Jews studied in Israel between high school and college. He teaches at Yeshiva University’s Gruss Kollel, where American students can study in Israel while earning credits towards their Judaic studies.
As he had witnessed historic events in recent history, he also contributed to the body of knowledge on pivotal American Orthodox leaders, including Rabbi Eliezer Silver, Rabbi Bernard Revel, and Rav Soloveitchik. In 2011, he published a scholarly autobiography, From Washington Avenue to Washington Street, named after his birthplace street in the Bronx and his present home in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff will be speaking on the topic, “How a Little Bronx Boy Inspired the IDF to Establish a New Approach to Soldiers Missing in Action,” this Sunday at 6:45 p.m. at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. He will be introduced by Rabbi Stuart Verstandig, his former talmid.
“It was in 1978 when I was a student at Beit Midrash v’Talmud, when the Jewish Agency was promoting Torah culture. That was my year of study in Israel,” Rabbi Verstandig said. “We then followed each other.” In turn, Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff added that he taught other members of the Verstandig family and knew Rabbi Verstandig’s father.
This year has been one of many historic golden anniversaries and a personal one for Rabbi Rakeffet-Rothkoff, who is celebrating his 50th year since making aliyah. “We went with our daughters and granddaughter to the absorption center in Katamon Tet. It was the worst area in Jerusalem. Today it’s low-income housing. We knocked on the door and it was very emotional to see our first apartment again.”
The family noted how the neighborhood has become more religious and Sefardi. “We were very impressed. Photos of Rav Ovadia were everywhere.” They finished their aliyah anniversary at Shalva, the nonprofit organization in Bayit Vegan that assists people with disabilities. “They work with special children. That’s where we had our s’udas mitzvah.”
By Sergey Kadinsky