By: Shimmy Blum. Sunday night in Lakewood’s Ateres Chana hall: Thousands of local bochurim, yungerleit and baalei batim stream in throughout the evening. The dais is graced by the Roshei Yeshiva and Mashgiach, shlit”a, among other prominent rabbanim.
On the top row of the dais sit two simple looking yidden from Eretz Yisroel in casual clothes. Yet, all eyes are trained upon them. Senior Roshei Yeshiva and rabbanim are eager to shake their hands and exchange a few words. A long row of fathers have brought their sons to receive a beracha from these two men.
Oded Kurakin and Ira Zimmerman are not rabbanim, martbitzei Torah or mekubalim. They are Keren Hashviis farmers whose fields are currently laying desolate in honor of the mitzvah of Shmittah. They have steep expenses and no income for a full year. They wonder how they’ll manage to put a box of cereal on the breakfast table for their many children, bli ayin hora, but they are relaxed, motivated and all smiles.
When asked how he feels about giving berachos to throngs of bnei Torah, Ira shrugs, “My beracha is that the zechut of Shmittah should bring blessing to them.”
Supporting the Mighty
Oded and Ira are 2 of nearly 3,100 Keren Hashviis farmers across Eretz Yisroel who are scrupulously resting their fields according to the dictates of the Chazon Ish zt”l and other gedolei Yisroel of our day and yesteryear. This accounts for the broadest fulfillment of Shmittah in Eretz Yisroel since the times of the Bais Hamikdash!
Chazal’s terminology of “malachav giborei koach” for these farmers is well known by now. Noted askan Rabbi Menashe Frankel commenced the program, quoting the dictum of gedolei Yisroel, “The achrayus of Shmittah is for all of klal Yisroel, as one man with one heart…We in chutz l’aretz have the responsibility to support these ‘mesiras nefesh yidden.’”
The Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Malkiel Kotler shlit”a, elaborated upon how when klal Yisroel subordinates itself to the will of Hashem against natural inclinations, we can enjoy blessing that defy the limitations of nature. Shmittah is the prime example of this, where farmers’ extraordinary mesiras nefesh is rewarded with the supernatural “V’tzivis es birchasi.” “These farmers are the ones who declare that the land belongs to Hashem,” the Rosh Yeshiva exclaimed. “They are the shluchim to bring Hashem’s hashgacha upon klal Yisroel.”
On the Ground
Next came personal addresses from the farmers, relating firsthand their experiences on Shmittah. It’s doubtful that even a single member of the audience ever farmed, but their interest in the farmers’ stories was striking.
Ira Zimmerman is a 40 year old father of six who owns a vineyard near Meron, and supplies grapes to the Yekev Ohr Haganuz winery. With a near-fluent English, Ira spoke of both his personal sacrifice in keeping Shmittah, as well as his work as a Keren Hashviis coordinator in his region, where he recruits, guides and helps support approximately 600 Keren Hashviis farmers: “It’s a zechus o be able to keep Shmittah. Farmer by farmer, acre by acre, I feel like it is getting us closer to the geulah.”
The applause in the hall was deafening as Ira concluded his address and Oded Kurakin walked over to the podium to share his story. Oded and his brother currently farm 1,400 dunam (350 acres) in the Sharon region in central Israel. The sacrifice of abandoning such a large tract is immeasurable. On Shmittah, the brothers must still pay $120,000 in leasing costs in order to keep the land, as well as spend on various other expenditures that are necessary even when no work is done on the fields.
Oded’s first properly observed Shmittah was in 5761. He and his wife had two daughters and were eager for a son. His Rav, Rav Yaakov Edelstein shlit”a, promised that he will merit a son if he keeps Shmittah. Oded heeded his rebbi’s calling and his wife gave birth to twin boys shortly after the Shmittah year ended. The Kurakins celebrated a twin Bar Mitzvah one month ago.
During this past year, Oded was gearing up for his third Shmittah while his brother was still deciding whether 5775 would be his first one. On the 600 acres that the duo grow their potatoes, precisely half the land produced twice its average crop; while the other half of the land produced an average crop. His brother got the Heavenly hint and is now keeping Shmittah for the first time. “On the one hand, Shmittah brings many nisayonos,” Oded told the audience, “but on the other hand, we see so much hashgacha.”
A Window to Hashem
As awe inspiring as the Kurakin brothers’ journey is, they are far from alone. As coordinator and farmer Ira Zimmerman told the spellbound audience several minutes earlier, “Every farmer can tell you a story.”
The event’s special guest speaker, Rav Avrohom Ausband shlit”a, the Riverdale Rosh Yeshiva, explained with fiery words how this is built into the world since Creation. “In the world of nature, you can’t always see Hashem,” Rav Ausband said. “On Shmittah, we get to see Hashem without halama; we get to see open berachos and nissim.”
Rav Ausband related how he made sure to personally visit Shmittah observant farmers during a trip to Eretz Yisroel this past summer. One farmer showed him how his tomato vines were growing significantly taller than usual – to the point where he would need a ladder to pick them. That farmer – a man who spends his free time at a Bnei Brak kollel – related how, last Shmittah, insects destroyed the entire crop of his non-Shmittah observant neighbor. The plague ended exactly at the border between farms. The wild sefichin on the fallow farm were untouched.
The event’s finale was a video presentation featuring a meeting of top Keren Hashviis rabbanim and activists at the home of Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlit”a. Rav Chaim was asked whether those in America who support Keren Hashviis and enter into partnership agreements with the farmers merit sharing in their miraculous beracha. Rav Chaim didn’t flinch: “Avaada!”
Following the inspiring event, the activity at the donations table at the hall’s lobby was frenzied, with stacks of receipts strewn around. Lakewood brought Keren Hashviis one big step closer to closing its outstanding $10 million budget gap and confidently meeting its obligations to the farmers.