Rabbi Haim Drukman’s entire adult life has been inextricably bound with the Religious Zionist / Modern Orthodox Bnei Akiva movement in Israel. As a leader of Bnei Akiva since the early 1950s, Rabbi Drukman has had a profound impact on the spiritual development and outlook of thousands of Israeli citizens, and – accordingly – he was recently awarded the Israel Prize, an annual honor bestowed by the Israeli government on an individual who has notably displayed excellence in their field, or contributed strongly to Israeli culture.
Born in Poland in 1932, Haim Drukman was saved from the Holocaust and arrived in Eretz Yisrael in 1944. After attending the Aliyah Institute in Petach Tikva and the Bnei Akiva Yeshiva in Kfar Haroeh, he learned in the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva in Yerushalayim, where he became a student of Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, a leader of the Religious Zionist movement. In 1952, Rabbi Drukman joined Bnei Akiva’s National Directorate, and served as an emissary of the organization to the United States in the middle of the decade.
On the basis of his Torah knowledge and rabbinical abilities, in 1964 Rabbi Drukman founded the Ohr Etzion Bnei Akiva Yeshiva High School, where he has served as Rosh Yeshiva to the present day. In 1977, he established the Ohr Etzion Yeshiva, which was the largest Hesder Yeshiva – a religious school wherein the students combine Torah studies with service in the Israeli Army – in the country, and in 1995 he founded an academy for Ethiopian Jewish high school graduates. Since 1996, Rabbi Drukman has been the director of the Center for Bnei Akiva Yeshivot and Ulpanot in Israel. He also played a leading role in the establishment of the Gush Emunim movement, which spearheaded the enterprise of building settlement communities in Judea and Samaria.
In concurrence with his devotion to Torah education and the propagation of the religious Zionist ideal, Rabbi Drukman spent many years serving in the Israeli Knesset, mostly as a member of the National Religious Party. Since 1990, he has served as director of the government’s State Conversion Authority, which oversees conversions by non-Jews in Israel to Judaism. As the newest recipient of the Israel Prize, Rabbi Drukman just spent ten days visiting Jewish communities throughout the greater New York area, where he spoke to numerous audiences about his life’s work and the vitality of religious Zionism in Israel today. Taking time out from his busy schedule, the Bnei Akiva leader sat down with the Jewish Voice to offer his unique perspective on contemporary Jewish and Israeli issues.
Looking back on his turbulent youth, Rabbi Drukman revealed that his life was saved from the hands of the Nazis on three separate occasions. In the first instance, he was hiding with relatives in an underground room that was adjoined by a closet, when the Nazis descended on the house. Using their guns to bang fiercely on the walls, the Nazi soldiers caused the closet to open, thus virtually guaranteeing that they would hear young Haim’s grandmother having a coughing fit at that moment. Yet amazingly, the invaders did not hear anything, and they left the premises. In the second instance, Haim’s parents had arranged for some non-Jews to transport the family out of harm’s way to Romania. “We were wading by foot through a great river,” Rabbi Drukman recalled. “The water kept on rising, and I was sure we would drown, but somehow we made it through safely.”
The rabbinical leader became somewhat emotional as he recounted his third near-death experience during the Shoah. “While we were in Romania, my parents were unable to obtain legal entry for us into Eretz Yisrael, which was being blocked by the British,” he explained. “So my parents put me in the custody of another couple who were preparing to travel there by boat. We were supposed to get on the second of three designated boats, but we waited for hours, until the man who was to be my new ‘father’ inquired about the delay. We finally boarded the third boat – having somehow missed the second one – and made it safely to Eretz Yisrael. We later learned that the boat we had originally been set to be on had been shot down by the Nazis.” Summing up each of these incidences as “open miracles by Hashem,” Rabbi Drukman emphatically stated that he received his life as a present from the One Above, and realized that he must use it for the benefit of the Jewish nation.
Rabbi Drukman told the Jewish Voice that the abiding purpose of the Bnei Akiva movement has been to build up Torah together with a strong connection to Klal Yisrael. “We have trained our students to feel obligated to the Jewish people,” he said. “Sixty years ago, so many children were leaving the Torah path after finishing religious school – the Bnei Akiva movement dramatically changed that situation. We created a Torah world with a Zionist outlook that was rooted in a firm belief in those values.” When asked to cite the movement’s chief accomplishments, Rabbi Drukman responded, “Every area of Israeli life that requires idealistic people has our graduates in its ranks. We have built up Yehuda and Shomron, we have the best IDF officers…Bnei Akiva alumni are renowned for their strong Jewish morality and motivation.”
Commenting on the current efforts by some in the Jewish state to encourage the relinquishing of land in Judea and Samaria to the Palestinians, Rabbi Drukman sadly noted the tragic outcome of the Gush Katif evacuation seven years ago, indicating that any future actions of this nature would have similarly harmful results. “Those who supported that action now realize their great mistake,” he contended. “The evacuees are still mostly not resettled, and the area has become a launching pad for bombs on Israeli cities.” The rabbi described evacuations from settlement areas as “harmful to Israel’s security, to Zionism, and – on a basic level – to humanity.”
Speaking about his tenure as a representative in the Knesset, Rabbi Drukman asserted that leadership in the political arena affects every aspect of life in the country, and he noted in particular the opportunity for religious MK’s to influence Israel’s secular education system to include curricula that focus on authentic Jewish heritage. “We need a great religious Zionist political movement for all of Am Yisrael,” the Bnei Akiva head declared.
Responding to recent efforts within Israel’s chareidi sector to delegitimize many of the conversions which were granted under his supervision – based on the claim that a large number of those converts were subsequently discovered to have abandoned Torah observance – Rabbi Drukman insisted that every one of those conversions were performed in accordance with halacha, as per each bet din’s investigation and reasoned decision. “There may be legitimate differences of opinion in halacha,” he stated, “in which case we can each respect the other side. It is simply evil to deny the validity of another opinion.” Touching on the specific contention that a conversion should be invalidated if the convert does not fulfill their initial commitment to shemirat hamitzvot, Rabbi Drukman said, “The Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch both rule that if a ger ends up worshipping idols, he is still considered a Jew, albeit one who sins.”
The Religious Zionist leader was not hesitant to express his feelings to the Jewish Voice about recent tensions between chareidi extremists and Modern Orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh. “I can understand having different opinions, having a different way of thinking about religious issues, but I cannot understand violence,” he declared. “In general, I am all for unity between the chareidim and religious Zionists, but I doubt if everyone in the chareidi camp agrees. For example, the Israeli version of Yated Ne’eman always gives the title of rav to a chareidi politician once he is elected to the Knesset – but they never give that ‘honor’ to someone from our camp who becomes an MK. It’s just terrible – they have no derech eretz for us.”
Rabbi Drukman was similarly open about the movement in Israel to draft chareidim into the army and put a limit on the allowance for them to engage solely in full-time Torah study. “The Rambam says that in a milchemet mitzvah (Torah-obligated war), every man who is able must serve, and that is our situation today in Israel,” he asserted. At the same time, though, we need to find a way that would enable yeshiva students to continue learning full-time and still perform some army service, perhaps during bein ha’zmanim. Rather than forcing such a change through a law – which I don’t believe would work – we should do it through educating people to adopt the correct attitude.”
When asked about his feelings regarding the State of Israel’s future, Rabbi Drukman replied that he is always optimistic, but that the Jewish people must “strengthen the Jewish state in all aspects of its Jewish nature” to ensure a positive outcome.
“A two-state solution?” he asked rhetorically with regard to a possible Palestinian state. “Let there be 100 states – but not in Eretz Yisrael. It is one state for the Jewish people, and it belongs to Am Yisrael.” In reference to his receipt of the Israel Prize, Rabbi Drukman opined that it is important for the state to recognize the great value of a religious Zionist education. Summing up his message to the American Jewish community, the Bnei Akiva leader stated, “Come to Israel to strengthen medinat Yisrael, and help it in every way possible.”