During the 70s, famous artists and entertainers like Icka Yisraeli and Uri Zohar shocked Israeli society when they jettisoned fame and fortune to return to their Jewish roots. The phenomenon was not entirely new. The baalei teshuvah of the 70s were preceded by Alexander (Sender) Uri, a secularist Jew who helped found Beit Alpha in 1922. This was the first kibbutz of the radical Shomer Hatza’ir movement. Uri spent the first part of his life as an anarchist, an organic food enthusiast, and an incurable optimist. No matter what life threw at him, he was happy so long as he was able to satisfy his ideal of seeking ideals. So Uri’s life rolled on until a chance meeting turned him into the first recorded baal teshuvah of the yishuv hachodosh of Eretz Yisroel. Idealism For Its Own Sake
Sender Uri was born in 1898 to a family with deep Chassidic roots. The family lived in Vienna, one of the most modern and cosmopolitan cities in Europe. Although the great-grandson of the holy Rav Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, author of the Bnei Yissoschor, the irreligious ambience of the town drove him to foreign pastures. He ended up joining the Blau-Weiss youth organization, founded in 1912 as an alternative for the German and Austrian scout organizations that refused to accept Jewish members. The Blau-Weiss organization was based on the idealism of simple, pre-industrial life. Later, the movement combined Zionism into its potpourri of ideals and many of its members moved to Palestine and joined the kibbutz movement.
After spending World War I serving in Austria’s military on the Italian front (unlike World War II, Italy fought against Germany and Austria in World War I), Uri moved to Eretz Yisroel as part of the third aliyah to Palestine.
The aliyah to pre-state Palestine is generally divided into seven aliyos, each one precipitated by Eastern European pogroms or unrest. The first aliyah, known as the farmers’ aliyah, was sparked by the Russian pogroms of 1881 and lasted until 1904. During these 23 years, the Jewish population of Palestine more than doubled from 26,000 Jews to 55,000. The old farming towns of Rishon Lezion, Rosh Pina, and Zichron Yaakov, date back to those years.
During the second aliyah (1904-1914), Jews founded the first kibbutzim and Jewish self-defense organization in Palestine, and consolidated Hebrew as a spoken language. Things were so tough during this ten-year period that nearly half of the second aliyah’s 40,000 immigrants left Palestine in despair.
Uri arrived in Eretz Yisroel during the third aliyah, which was actually a continuation of the second aliyah after its interruption by World War I. Forty thousand immigrants arrived during this aliyah and most of them remained in Palestine, despite many spending years doing back-breaking work that included building roads and towns, and draining swamps in the Jezreel Valley and the Hefer Plain. Uri was typical of the third aliyah breed.
Soon after his arrival, Uri joined the fiercely secularist Shomer Hatzair organization whose members loved nothing more than blistering their hands with rough hand tools under a blazing sun, all the while proving to themselves that they were the true benefactors of the human race. In 1920, the High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, initiated a road-building project between Chaifa and G’eda (modern Ramat Yishai) as part of a project to improve transport and communication in Mandate Palestine. This provided many young pioneers with a welcome opportunity for the backbreaking labor they craved.
Shomer Hatza’ir founded the special Shomriah Brigade that provided over half the workers for the project. Uri was a proud member of this brigade. Life in its ranks was strict. Special permits were required to leave its camp and members received two weeks vacation a year. Using primitive hand tools, workers sweated beneath the blazing summer sun widening the road, digging ditches on each side of it, and covering the road with rocks, gravel, and sand. Gravel was produced by blasting rocks from the surrounding hills and hammering them into bits by hand. During winter, the camp members suffered from floods, the worst one fondly remembered as “Venice Night,” when the pioneers were washed out and rescued by local Arabs.
Idealism For Its Own Sake
In those days, the secularist’s yetzer hora was not to glut himself with ice cream, but to slave for a false ideology.
Uri reveled in the hard simple life, feeling that he was freeing himself from the middle-class servitude to money and prestige.
A friend recalled his joy at trading in his well-made Austrian shoes for a pair of coarse sandals, finding freedom through the divesting of material goods. He went to his ditch-digging duties joyfully, always willing to lend a hand to man and beast.
At the end of the first year of road building, the Shomriah Brigade was instrumental in founding the Histadrut, Israel’s trade union organization, which, depending upon whom you ask, is Israel’s biggest bane or blessing. After finishing the road at the end of 1921, the brigade built another road and drained a swamp. Their plea to found Shomer Hatza’ir’s first kibbutz was answered with the creation of Kibbutz Beit Alpha in the eastern Jezreel Valley in November 1922.
Beit Alpha was not a mere working place for radical socialists, but also a ferment of philosophical idealism. Frenzied conversations continued until the small hours of the morning, faithfully transcribed and printed in the journal of the organization, and decades later rewritten as a play. Uri’s egalitarian ideals spread to both man and beast. He threatened to beat anyone on the kibbutz who dared strike a horse, and on one occasion lay down in front of a mule wagon he considered overloaded and insisted that its passengers dismount and continue their journey on foot.
On the other hand, Uri liked it less when severe kibbutz life restricted his ideas of freedom and anarchy. On one memorable occasion when the kibbutz announced that budgetary constraints would be limiting the cigarette ration, as a sign of protest he stuffed a number of cigarettes into the holes of a flute and smoked them simultaneously. Restrictive incidents such as these led him to the decision that for him, kibbutz life was not all it was cut out to be.
Uri’s break from the pioneer life began suddenly. One day, he and a group of Beit Alpha comrades were sent to hew rocks at a quarry in Givat Shaul in Yerushalayim to use for paving a road to a local bakery. It was a regular humdrum job, but deep in the spiritual world, Hashem was laying plans for Uri’s escape. On one occasion, a group of Torah Jews stopped to watch them, including Rav Yehoshua Rubinstein, a local bookseller, who was carrying a few seforim with him.
“Do you have a copy of the Bnei Yissoschor for sale,” Uri asked him.
“Why should you want a sefer like that?” the man asked him.
He was astonished when the young man in shorts and sporting a long chup (forelock) replied that he was not only a descendant of the Bnei Yissoschor, but that his parents possessed the sefer’s original manuscript.
“And the grandson of that tzaddik and holy person is bareheaded and hewing stones in Eretz Yisroel?” retorted the bookseller.
On the spot, Rav Yehoshua Rubinstein decided never to abandon the lost soul. He visited his workplace everyday until he persuaded him to leave his lifestyle and join him and his kehillah in Meah Shearim. Repeated attempts of his cronies from Beit Alpha failed to convince Uri to return and he devoted himself to Torah.
“Rav Yehoshua, the bookseller, took me to a famous yeshiva in Meah Shearim where I studied with great diligence for an entire year,” he recalled in later years. “Every night I slept on a bench, though I was already used to that; from the time I became a chalutz
I was used to an ascetic lifestyle. During that year, I cut off my big chup (forelock), removed my chalutz clothing, and grew large payos. They also brought me a Yerushalmi coat so that I became like one of the original Yerushalmi crowd.”
As for his family’s manuscript of Bnei Yissoschor, it was eventually used to print an emended edition of the sefer that corrected many mistakes of the earlier editions and added a few missing sentences. Uri so prized the manuscript that he refused to let it out of his sight. When the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok Rebbe asked him to lend it in order to print a new edition, Uri refused.
“The writings don’t leave me,” he said. “A bochur can come to copy them.”
Uri became a follower of Rav Yochonon of Rachmastrivka, and became one of its famous baalei nigun. At first Uri was one of the minor baalei tefillah who davened on Shabbos, and sometimes on Yom Tov. During the reign of Rav Dovid of Rachmastrivka, he became the chief baal tefillah and shliach tzibbur during the Yomim Noraim. He married the daughter of the veteran Yerushalmi, Rav Shmuel Brichta, and worked as an accountant in the Shaarei Zedek Hospital.
Uri retained a soft spot in his heart for his idealistically misled comrades of earlier years and always gave them special devotion when they came to the hospital. When he occasionally met them in the street, he found ways to subtly rebuke them on their own terms. For example, when he was invited to speak at the celebration of forty years since the founding of the Histadrut in 1960, including himself for more dramatic effect he said, “When we were youngsters we dealt in our spare time with Plato, Freud, and Nietzsche. And what is there for our children nowadays? Football! Instead of real melodies, the strange music of the radio…”
Unfortunately, secular society was not yet ready for mass teshuvah. This had to wait several more decades until the seventies.
Sender Uri lived until the ripe old age of 94. During the last Melaveh Malkah of his life, after singing the melody, Rabu bonei hamelucho, vatishlam kol hamelochoh, dotz hasocher bir’oso ki nigmeroh melachto, he commented, “It seems that I too have completed my mission on earth at the age of 94 (dotz) and the work is complete.” He passed away that week in November 1992.
Some one thousand of his Torah true descendants attended his levaya. Due to his link to two worlds, his death sparked off an anomaly. Sender Uri, a bearded, long coated resident of Meah Shearim, was sincerely eulogized by both the religious and nonreligious press.