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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven

Gala Reception at Gotham Hall

By Shelomo Alfassa for The Jewish Voice April 12, 2006

Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto shlita is the head of Shuva Yisrael, an organization for men, and Otzrot Chaim, an organization that focuses on women. Both are based in Israel where they are part of a network of educational organizations that includes yeshivot, kollelim, and other schools. Yet with all the attention paid to further Torah education, the crown of these organizations is their focus on outreach to the poor and needy.

Shuva Yisrael makes available nearly 100,000 hot meals each month to those in need. This includes food for orphans, the elderly and infirm, widows and others in need. The meals are prepared with dedication and love by a crew of professional chefs in a sanitary environment. The manner in which the organization distributes the food affords the beneficiaries not to loose their dignity. The emphasis is on helping their fellow human beings, to this end, meals are delivered in a most modest way, minimizing any potential embarrassment.

In preparation for Pesach, the organization puts together large packages of food as well as coupons for food that are then distributed to the needy. Some families get direct financial aid, this helps them feel the freedom of the holiday, making special foods available for the celebration. The same is done for the high holidays and other important celebrations. The story of the hilula of Rabbi Pinto's grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Aaron Pinto zs"l, demonstrates the generosity of the family. Instead of holding a grand dinner for the hilula of Rabbi Pinto, tzedaka that was gathered in his name, was used to provide food for needy students. While a modest hilula was made, the greater amount of the funds went to fulfill an important mitzvah.

Shuva Yisrael does not sit still for a minute. Not only is the organization publishing books by their rabbis, but the organization reissues the books of the Pinto dynasty, the books of the respected Pinto rabbis. In addition, the organization issues a weekly magazine that contains the weekly Torah commentary, the wonders of nature, articles on ethics, and history of the great rabbis of the Jewish world. The publication, distributed by the tens of thousands, is presented in an attractive and exciting manner to eager readers.

Every year on the holiday of Sukkot, Rabbi Pinto holds a huge celebration in his massive sukkah at Kiryat Malachi. There, hundreds gather for the celebration. They come to hear the rabbi speak, eat, listen to music, and dance; the celebration is held in honor of the Beit HaMikdash. Rabbi Pinto's students study all night with true devotion to the Torah. Then, marching in procession with the rabbi, the students walk with their lulavim and etrogim to the graves of the rabbis that have passed on. Surrounding the graves of the former generation of rabbis, they pray, pouring out their hearts and souls for the Jewish people.

During Sukkot, one of the works Rabbi Pinto teaches his students is the Pele Yoetz, the commentary written by Rabbi Eliezer ben Yehuda Papo zs"l, a major exponent of the musar (ethics) tradition. Born in Sarajevo in 1785 into a Ladino speaking home, Rabbi Papo became an outstanding rabbinic scholar, deeply devoted to piety and spirituality.

Rabbi Papo led a saintly life, taking little food, and restraining himself from every kind of pleasure. Because of this, he was known as Ha’Kadosh. Rabbi Papo authored many books of halakha, and musar, and was profoundly committed to kabbalah. Rabbi Papo served as rabbi of the community of Ottoman Silistra (modern Bulgaria) and was revered throughout the Turkish world. What the rabbi stressed the most was the need for sincere piety and saintliness among all Jews. He felt that Jews should devote themselves to fulfilling God's commandments, without worrying too much about the problems of this world. The rabbi preferred the traditionalism of the Turkish lands to the modernity of up-and-coming Europe.

It was the world-to-come which has ultimate value; it was that goal to which Jews should direct their lives. Rabbi Papo's death is subject of a local legend. It seems that he greatly assisted the townspeople during the time of a major cholera epidemic. But in his own valiant efforts, he caught the disease himself and perished in 1826 at the young age of forty-one. A monument stands near the Danube River. Today it has become a place of pilgrimage for many Jews, especially Rabbi Pinto and his students. Most of the Jews moved away from Bulgaria after World War II when the Soviet army entered the country. And while today only a few Jews live in Silistra, each year, the rabbis of Shuva Yisrael and their students, led by Rabbi Pinto, make a pilgrimage to the renewed gravesite of Rabbi Papo.

In addition to a pilgrimage to Rabbi Papo's grave, Rabbi Pinto and his followers make an annual Lag B'Omer pilgrimage to the burial place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, to celebrate the death of this Roman-era rabbi. His death is celebrated because he had been convicted of a capital crime by the Romans. By all rights, he should have died well before his time. But through tremendous self-sacrifice and a series of miracles, Rabbi Shimon was able to live out a full life. The climax of this great life was the revelation of Torah's greatest inner secrets, the Zohar. All this is cause for celebration by Jews worldwide.

While Shuva Yisrael pays respect to the rabbis of old, they remain focused on the future. Many different projects are underway, both in Israel and abroad. Shuva Yisrael is currently building a High School and expanding an elemetery school in Ashdod. In this same city they plan to build a seminary for girls, and a new men's mikvah. Being concerned with Jewry in the Diaspora, Rabbi Pinto is planning to conduct and publish a survey of the state of Torah Jewry in the West. In the United States, Rabbi Pinto and Shuva Yisrael are planning a new yeshiva and Torah center on the prestigious Upper East Side of New York City.


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