An American author and cultural critic once had this to say about the attribute of charisma: “Charisma only wins people’s attention. Once you have their attention, you have to have something to tell them.” Rav Amnon Yitzchak has plenty of things to say. The fact that he can attract people by delivering his points with such startling in-your-face directness proves his charismatic personality.
All it takes is seeing one of his lectures to recognize his unique style. Frequently sparring with listeners who challenge his perspective, he pulls no punches and speaks straight from the shoulder, even raising his voice. His bluntness makes him a standout in the field of kiruv. Those who engage in Jewish outreach and seek to convince non-observant Jews to commit to living an observant lifestyle usually do so through gentle and persuasive words of love and encouragement. Not so Rav Amnon Yitzchak.
Many of us are familiar with the fable about the sun and the wind and their argument over which one was stronger. They agreed that whichever could persuade someone to take off his coat would be the winner. The wind blew and blew, but the man down below only held on more tightly to his garment. Then the sun began to shine gently, and within minutes the man was coatless. While most kiruv professionals take the sun’s approach, Rav Amnon Yitzchak’s style is more in line with the blustery wind. In fact, not only does he convince people to remove their coats, he also gets them to change their mode of dress. At his mass teshuvah rallies in the not-so-distant past, hundreds and sometimes even thousands of non-Orthodox Israelis would publicly pledge to cut their hair, throw away their TVs and follow the dictates of halachah.
Born on November 8, 1953, in Tel Aviv to a traditional Yemenite family, he turned away from religion as a youngster but then returned at the age of 24. Since then he has inspired countless others who have gone astray or who were never observant to begin with to follow his path.
As an avid critic of Zionism he boycotts the Knesset elections and has subsequently established a close relationship with Satmar, which has given his Shofar organization much financial support. Then in late November 2012 he formed the Koach Lehashpia political party as an alternative to the Sephardic Shas. That brought about a rift not only with Satmar but with Rav Ovadia Yosef as well. With only 28,000 votes, Koach Lehashpia failed to pass the election threshold. But the fallout from his decision to enter the political arena is something that unfortunately reverberates until today.
Nonetheless, Rav Amnon Yitzchak remains a formidable force in the field of kiruv. When I visit him on this summer day in his below-level headquarters in Bnei Brak that is lined with his books and videos, I try to stay focused on his mission to bring people closer to Hashem and steer away from contentious issues. His trademark bluntness, however, manifests itself the moment he says, “Shalom aleichem.”
Defining His Role and Mission
“One of the things I find unique about your derech is your bluntness,” I tell him rather bluntly after I’m seated in his spacious office.
“I am not mekareiv,” is his direct response. “Today there’s something called kiruv rechokim. I don’t do that,” he says again.
“What does kiruv mean?” he asks me teasingly, clearly enjoying the challenge. “To make a kumzitz? To bring people closer to the fire or to the kartofel?” he asks, using the Yiddish word for potatoes. “What does it mean to be mekareiv? Either you’re machzir or you aren’t. We have to state the truth. If you want to do it, fine, and if not, then don’t do it. Meanwhile, I’m the one who was machzir many, many Jews, and in a way that most people think is impossible or at least incorrect. ‘How can you just blurt out the truth to someone’s face and expect him to return?’ they ask. But the fact is that truth is a lot more powerful than falsehood. That’s why when you say something sharp that comes from the heart, even if the person doesn’t accept it right now, it will penetrate and stay with him until it ultimately has an effect.”
“Truth inspires the heart,” I suggest, trying to understand his approach.
“There is nothing more inspiring, because truth that comes from an earnest heart enters in earnest.”
“Without any compromise?”
“Why should I compromise?” he asks rhetorically. “Is the Torah mine that I should be able to compromise on it? If I were given a place to stay as a guest, would I then go and divide the apartment? All I can do is relay the instructions of the Baal Habayit.”
“I know that the rav also has question-and-answer sessions in which the rav sometimes attacks the questioners.”
“Rabbeinu Bechaye writes in Perek Vav of Chovot Halevavot Shaar Ha’ahavah that we have to straighten out the resha’im either softly or harshly, according to the time, place, and particular tzibbur.”
“I guess it also depends on the person,” I interject.