Sometimes you hear about someone only after he or she has left this world, and you so badly wish you had had the opportunity to meet them face to face in their lifetime.
So it was for me this past week with Rabbi Avichai Rontzki.
As I checked into Facebook after a two-day Passover holiday hiatus, Facebook post after Facebook post in my newsfeed was another memory from people across the Israeli political spectrum, recalling their special connection to this man. A sense of genuine grief and outpouring of love were palpable through the computer screen.
Who was Rav Rontzki?
Born in 1951, most famously he served as chief rabbi of the IDF, hence the multiple posts from across the spectrum, since military service in Israel is compulsory. Many soldiers from different walks of life crossed paths with the good rabbi.
Through Facebook posts alone, it became clear that even a one-time meeting and conversation with this man would have been memorable. A photo shows him in his military olive drab, his pristine, long, snow-white beard flowing just below his serious and piercing yet kind eyes. In the photo it feels like he’s looking at you.
As a youngster, he had enlisted in the army, meeting the criteria to enter the IDF’s most elite unit. Due to an injury, he was unable to continue doing so and instead became a commander in the paratroopers unit — no small feat in itself.
Some time after serving as a commander in the Yom Kippur war and hiking through the Israel National Trail, he embraced observant Judaism.
After he retired from army life, he turned his attention to street children who who were struggling, troubled and lost. He coached them, guided them, believed in them. Although Rontzki soon turned to serious Torah study, caring for children in need was a thread throughout his life, both personal and professional. He and his wife adopted children, among them special needs children, to join their already large biological family. One of the adoptees was a one-year old baby in need of a home whom he sort of “picked up” while on a hospital to a wounded IDF soldier.
Having acquired a Torah education, he partnered with others to found two towns in the West Bank, including a Torah high school for boys. The second community Rav Rontzki founded, where he served as its primary rabbi, was Itamar. Onslaught after onslaught of horrifying terror attacks plague Itamar. Through the fog of pain for the families and for his community, the role of comforter, supporter and pillar fell to him.
Not only did he strengthen his community of Itamar, but as word spread of his capacity for compassion and kindness, he became the address and comforter-in-chief for tens of thousands of broken Israeli families whose children or siblings sustained wounds in battle or were scarred by terror — or whose children never did return from battle.
Day to day, Shabbat to Shabbat, he met and connected with them all. Texts, phone calls, personal visits, Shabbat and holiday invitations — he was there for thousands of families. This is after he spent his life personally paying condolence shiva visits to every single family impacted by terrorism.
Rav Rontzki was the angel who ministered to them. For him, a labor of love and pain was wrapped into one act, one mitzvah.
In 2006, long after his departure from the IDF, he was recruited back to the IDF, this time as its chief rabbi.
In this one stroke, the IDF under Rabbi Rontzki was forever changed. He expanded the definition of chaplain the IDF meant.
He required all IDF rabbinic staff to undergo officers training, so they could understand a combat soldier’s experience and deepen their ability to serve the soldiers, both spiritually and emotionally.
Beyond that, leading by example, Rabbi Rontzki joined his soldiers in battle. In 2008, he entered Gaza with his soldiers, leading them into battle. Controversially, he felt that all IDF rabbis ought to join their unit’s soldiers in battle, not just to provide for their Jewish needs, such as tefilin or kosher food, but to provide spiritual encouragement to their soldiers; and ultimately to be present, in the event of a tragic outcome, with all of its halachic ramifications.
Rabbi Rontzki saw the rabbinic military role as a broad one. Combining his military prowess, Torah study, pedagogy and compassion, he founded a new IDF unit, a spiritual wing within the IDF, in which soldiers were exposed to spiritual strengthening and morale bolstering, and in which they were enabled to understand their Jewish identity and their historic opportunity to defend the Jewish people.
It was a paradigm shift within the IDF, one that is part and parcel of the IDF today.
There were so many facets to this man. He looked after his soldiers long after they left the military, at one point, going so far as to move to India for six months, erecting an open tent on the border of India and Nepal, to be a warm and encouraging stopping point for the many IDF soldiers for whom it’s become customary to go trekking through India and Nepal as release from their physically and emotionally grueling, three-year military service.
Always wanting to contribute kindness to the world, Rabbi Rontzki wanted to donate one of his kidneys to someone else in need. After being rejected as a candidate due to his age, he finally found a doctor willing to operate on him. As it turned out, the next donor recipient on the list was an Arab! Here was a founding rabbi of a settlement, the former chief rabbi of the IDF — whose role is to strengthen soldiers in protecting the Jewish state from Arab attack and terrorism — and the next guy on the list is an Arab. A humanitarian, after re-searching the Arab family and determining that it was upstanding, not connected to terrorism, Rabbi Rontzki went ahead and donated his kidney to the Arab.
Beyond all this, as I scrolled through each Facebook post, I was struck by their intimate, personal nature.
Clearly Rabbi Rontzki was a man of Am Yisrael, a leader of the nation, its land and its military. Nonetheless, he touched multitudes. A greeting, a telephone call, a conversation, a correspondence.
After corresponding with hundreds of his students throughout the years, many of these letters were collated into books.
Here was a rabbi who held within himself, intertwined, both the military might and heroism of a Biblical King David and the micro-acts of kindness. He life was a series of acts of kindness one after another, strung into an open tent like that of Biblical Abraham.
He was in our time.
Unique. Deeply loving and loved. Present. Low key and humble. A doer par excellence. An authentic tzaddik.
A visionary for Israel.; someone who, above everything else, actually embodying the injunction, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
A military hero who was a one-to-one guy.
If only I could have been one of the ones.
Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News