A firsthand account of the historic trip by members of the Edmund J Safra Synagogue to dedicate a new Sefer Torah in memory of Hacham Baruch Ben Haim  and Hacham Ovadia Yosef – marking the first Yahrtzeit of the sage’s passing.

Just over a year ago, on 3 Marheshvan, 5774, the world lost one of the greatest Torah sages of the modern era,  Maran Hacham Ovadia Yosef, zt”l.

The magnitude of that event was captured when literally hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Jerusalem, in just a few hours’ notice, to take part in the rabbi’s funeral. The huge outpouring of emotion and respect was a loud testament to Hacham Ovadia’s impact upon the Torah world and Israeli society.

Shortly after his passing, at The Edmund J Safra Synagogue in Brooklyn, the seeds for something historic were planted when Rabbi Eli J Mansour suggested that the congregation dedicate a Sefer Torah in the great rabbi’s memory. In almost no time, the wheels were in motion, money was raised and collected, and plans were made for a communal trip to Israel for the first anniversary of the sage’s passing. It was decided that the Sefer Torah would be dedicated in memory of both Hacham Ovadia and his life-long friend and colleague, Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim, ztl, the leader of our community who studied together with Hacham Ovadia in Yeshivat Porat Yosef in Jerusalem. When the yeshiva’s building was damaged by a fire, they relocated and continued their studies in Bet Knesset Mosaiof. Appropriately, the members of The Edmund J Safra Synagogue decided to donate the new Sefer Torah to Bet Knesset Mosaiof, currently the largest Sephardic synagogue in Israel, which runs minyanim and classes around the clock.

“A Day That the World Changed Forever”

On Mosaeh Shabbat, Rosh Hodesh Heshvan, approximately 60 men and women from the Safra Synagogue and the Ben Haim family travelled to Israel to launch this historic week-long event. This amazing group included a baby girl born just seven weeks earlier, as well as Hacham Baruch’s wife, Mrs. Charlotte Ben Haim.

Led by Rabbi Eli J Mansour and Rabbi Yaakov Ben Haim of Bnei Shaare Zion, our trip began Sunday evening in Bnei Brak with visits to three of today’s leading Torah sages – Rav Haim Kanievsky, Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, and Rav Shimon Baadani, each of whom wrote a letter in our Sefer Torah and extended a blessing to the group.

On the morning of Hacham Ovadia’s yahrtzeit, the women attended “The Gratitude Workshop” led by Sara Yoheved Rigler, while the men visited other great rabbis. Their trip began with a visit to the legendary Mir Yeshiva – which is home to over 7000 (!!) students – and a meeting with Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel. We then proceeded to the home of Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz, and afterward to the yeshiva of the renowned Kabbalist Rabbi Mordechai Attieh.

Our group was then treated to a shiur by Hacham Ovadia’s son, Hacham David Yosef, in his yeshiva, Yeshivat Yehave Da’at, which held a special day of learning in honor of the hacham’s first yahrtzeit. The shiur was followed by special addresses by Rabbi Mansour and Rabbi Ben Haim.

We were then given a tour of Hacham Ovadia’s famous library in his home in Har Nof. We were shown that although the great sage is no longer with us, his sacred work continues to be disseminated throughout the Jewish Nation. We saw over 80 notebooks filled with Hacham Ovadia’s handwritten essays which have yet to be published. This material, as well as other writings, are currently being organized and cataloged by a team of rabbis in preparation for their eventual publication and dissemination throughout the Torah world. Rabbi Mansour remarked that the day Hacham Ovadia passed away was “a day that the world changed forever,” and that “there is the world with Hacham Ovadia and the world without Hacham Ovadia.”

The day of the yahrtzeit concluded with a beautiful event on the roof of Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in the Old City of Jerusalem overlooking the Kotel. The final letters of our Sefer Torah were written, several of which were written by leading sages of Israel who had come to grant their blessings. Among the prominent rabbis in attendance were Rishon Letzion Hacham Yitzhak Yosef, Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel; Rav David Lau, Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel; Rav Yaakov Hillel; Rav Azriel Mantsour; renowned Kabbalist Rabbi Yaakov Ades; Rav Shalom Cohen, Rosh Yeshivat Porat Yosef; and Rav Benayahu Shemueli. The group was also graced by the presence of Ofir and Bat-Galim Sha’ar, parents of kidnapped and murdered teenager Gilad Shaar.

Following the letter writing ceremony, the celebration moved downstairs to the banquet hall, where we danced with the Sefer Torah and then settled into our seats to hear words of Torah and inspiration from the great rabbis in attendance, who spoke in praise of Hacham Ovadia Yosef. The unforgettable evening was capped by beautiful pizmonim by Moshe Habusha and ensemble.

“Hashem is Always Watching Over Us”

Day two of the trip began with a visit to the army base of Yamam, the Israeli counter-terrorism unit. We were welcomed by the unit’s commander and amazed by his presentation, in which he explained Yamam’s instrumental role in protecting Israel from those who seek to murder its citizens. The commander and other members of the unit told us story after story of how they have seen Gd’s providence in their line of work. As one of them poignantly explained, “You cannot serve here without knowing that Hashem is always watching over us.” In case there had been any doubt until then, it became abundantly clear that kiddush Hashem – the glorification of Gd’s Name – was the prominent theme of this trip, and this continued to become even more evident with every passing day.

The tour concluded with a visit to the room that serves as a memorial for all the fallen soldiers of Yamam.

After prayers at Kever Rachel, we travelled by bus to Har Hamenuchot to visit the grave of Hacham Baruch, zt”l. The group, including the hacham’s wife, Mrs. Charlotte Ben Haim, prayed at the gravesite and then listened to heartfelt speeches by Hacham Baruch’s student, Rabbi Mansour, and then from his children – Rabbi Yaakov, David, and Dr. Yehuda – who spoke about our great rabbi’s unique qualities.

Praying at the gravesite of Hacham Baruch, a pure tzaddik who formed the bedrock and foundation of our community, reminded us of our good fortune that even during the modern era, we are able to live in an atmosphere of sanctity and spirituality, devoting ourselves to Torah study and observance. Throughout the trip, we heard the students and children of Hacham Baruch speak of his self-sacrifice and dedication to our community. Seeing and praying by his gravesite in Jerusalem, together with dozens of community members, was, without question, the most emotional moment in this very emotional trip.

A Parade Like No Other

From Har Hamenuchot we proceeded to Sanhedria, where we prayed at the gravesite of Hacham Ovadia Yosef. As we walked through the streets, we could feel the buzz in the air as preparations were being made for the parade and Hachnaset Sefer Torah that would be taking place. Sure enough, soon after the group finished praying, the music started and a brief address from Rabbi Mansour kicked off the festivities as we started our march from Maran’s grave to Bet Knesset Mosiaof.

While we knew that a parade through the streets of Jerusalem would be something to remember, none of us could have expected what happened next. Our group was joined by what seemed like the entire town. Literally thousands of people, including hundreds of children, sang and danced with our precious Sefer Torah in what would be yet another amazing kiddush Hashem.

This event, too, was graced by the presence of a leading Torah sage, as Rav Shlomo Amar , former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel and newly-elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, joined the parade and danced with the Torah, with Rabbi Mansour, and with our entire group. As we marched through the streets, we looked up to see people watching from every window and door of the homes we passed.

On a normal day, a walk from Sanhedria to Mosiaof would take about 30 minutes. But on that night, it took close to three hours. The love of Torah and the respect for Hacham Ovadia and Hacham Baruch were on full display as we arrived at Bet Knesset Mosiaof, where the other Sifrei Torah were brought outside to welcome the new addition. After the celebrants danced with the Torah inside the building, it was brought up to the Hechal, where it was read from for the first time, by Rabbi Yaakov Ades. Rabbi Abraham Cohen of Mosiaof told us that his synagogue has held many Hachnasat Sifrei Torah celebrations, but none of them came even close to matching what he had just witnessed.

Afterward, we were invited to the home of Moshe Nidam, the brother of Ouri Nidam, for a festive meal. As was the case throughout the trip, dinner was never just dinner. As we were eating and reflecting on yet another amazing day, we were joined by three surprise guests. At about 10:30pm, Rav Shlomo Amar joined us yet again, along with Rabbi Benayahu Shemueli and Moshe Habusha. The rest of the evening was celebrated with amazing food, music, and words of Torah from each of the rabbis at the dais.

Throughout the remainder of the trip, our group could not get over the events of the first 48 hours. With Hashem’s unmistakable providence, our relatively modest plan to dedicate a Sefer Torah in memory of two great tzaddikim had grown into the greatest kiddush Hashem any of us had ever experienced.

Celebration at the Border

Day three started with a three-hour journey to the Israeli-Lebanese border, where we visited the army base charged with protecting Northern Israel. We were warmly welcomed by the soldiers of the Field Intelligence Corps of the Northern Command, and we saw the preparations being made for yet another Hachnasat Sefer Torah – the dedication of two Sifre Torah to be used by soldiers at the base.

Before the dedication, we were given a tour of the base. We marveled at the courage and resolve of the young men and women, who sometimes spend 70 hours or more on surveillance operations, during which they cannot move more than a few inches at a time. They expressed to us how honored they are to serve and protect their country.

We then made our way to the front of the base where our two Sifrei Torah were on display. The first Torah was generously donated by the families of David, Sol, and Michael Wahba, and the second by Morris and Sophia Dweck on behalf of The Edmond J Safra Synagogue of Brooklyn. The donations were in memory of Max Steinberg, a”h, and Rami Kahlon, a”h, two IDF soldiers who fell during the Gaza War this past summer. Rami Kahlon’s wife and three children joined us for the event.

Our group stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the soldiers as Rabbi Mansour, Rabbi Ben Haim, and the rabbi of the base spoke words of Torah, after which the music started and the celebration began. Our group danced and sang with the soldiers as we paraded the Sifrei Torah around the base.

As we approached the mobile synagogue, the soldiers brought out their Sefer Torah to join the celebration. The three Sifre Torah were escorted into the Hechal with exuberant dancing. Before we left, we heard a beautiful speech by the daughter of Rami Kahlon and took pictures with the family and all the soldiers. We felt honored to provide the family with a day of happiness during their time of sorrow.

After bidding the soldiers farewell, we departed south to Meron to pray at the gravesite of Rav Shimon Bar Yohai. From there we travelled to Tiberias to visit the gravesite of Rabbi Akiva. Rav David Derli surprised us with a fully catered outdoor dinner, complete with food, drinks, and beautiful music from Ofer Levy. After dinner, we boarded a boat for dessert and more music as we celebrated on the Kinneret until midnight with Rav Derli and other guests from Tiberias.

Shabbat of Emunah

On Thursday night, the men walked to the Kotel to meet with Rav Benayahu for Tikun Hatzot prayers. After the standard 2-3 hours of sleep, we woke up to pray at sunrise, this time with Rabbi Bussu, grandson of the Baba Sali, who then led us in reading Shenayim Mikra, which was followed by an inspiring address and private meetings for consultation and blessings. Afterward, we met with Rabbi Benayahu at his home in Geula. He invited the group into his library to receive blessings and ask any questions we might have. The group spent the rest of the day preparing for Shabbat.

As anyone who has ever spent Shabbat with Rabbi Mansour can attest, it is always memorable. Our Shabbat meals were all spent together as a group and were filled with divre Torah from Rabbi Mansour and Rabbi Ben Haim along with beautiful pizmonim and camaraderie.

For most of us, this Shabbat will forever be remembered as the “Shabbat of Emunah.” We listened to stirring stories from both rabbis and from several members of the trip. Each of the stories were unique and remarkable in its own right, but they all related to the theme of hashgahah, divine providence, how Hashem is always watching over us and leading us to precisely where we need to be at all times. What a perfect way to end a trip during which the Hand of Hashem was clearly manifest at every moment!

Needless to say, something this special could not have happened without the hard work and effort of many people. The group expresses special thanks to Rabbi Oren Bar Shalom for organizing the parade, for coordinating our trip with the busy schedules of all the great rabbis who joined us throughout the week, and for so much more. Special thanks as well to Solomon Franco for working so hard organizing the trip, and to Jack Sasson for hosting us at The Inbal Hotel.

May we all be privileged to celebrate together in Eretz Yisrael as we welcome Mashiah Tzidkenu, speedily and in our days, amen.