A True Educational Officer - Paul Laster, zt"l
When I first arrived at Ohr Somayach in the summer of 1979, groups of Israeli army officers were a regular fixture in the beis medrash during the afternoon break. Ohr Somayach was ideally suited for meetings between Israeli yeshiva students and the IDF officers by virtue of its large Israeli program and a distinguished staff, which included Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, Rabbi Moshe Frank and two famousba'alei teshuva, the artist Ika Yisraeli and the comedic actor Mordechai (Pupik) Arnon.
All the ba'alei teshuva learning in the Israeli branch had served in the IDF, including a number who had been high-ranking officers. So the army issue was off the table. The IDF eventually terminated the visits, however, when three pilots and some other officers became religious.
The moving force behind the IDF program was Paul (Avraham Pesach) Laster, a courtly Southerner from a socially prominent Richmond, Virginia family. Paul's father was the first Jewish judge in Virginia. Unlike most of the other established Richmond Jewish families, however, the Lasters had not yet succumbed to assimilation.
In 1967, Paul had just completed his legal studies at the University of Virginia, and decided to spend a year in Israel before taking up the practice of law. He arrived in the midst of the euphoria surrounding Israel's victory in the Six Day War, and soon decided to stay. He began to think a great deal about his own personal relationship to the Jewish people and its history.
Eventually he went to work for the Jewish Agency preparing emissaries to English-speaking countries. He returned to the United States to earn a master's degree in Contemporary Judaism at Brandeis University. But after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he knew it was time to return to Israel. Even then, he found frustrating the apathy of American Jewish university students, as Israel's fate hung in the balance.
The widespread national depression following the successful Arab surprise attack at the start of the Yom Kippur War caused the army to worry about a severe problem of morale in the ranks. Emigration jumped sharply.
Paul came to the attention of the IDF as a result of his earlier lecturing on Jewish identity. Typically, he would begin his lectures by telling his Israeli audience that he was returning home to America. "You are Israelis and I'm an American Jew," he would say as a means of riling up his listeners, "What does Israel have to do with me?" The message that he wanted to drive home was that being Jewish must mean something more than just living Israel, especially if Israel sought to maintain claims on the loyalty of Jews around the world.
Paul was invited to become an educational officer with the rank of captain. The IDF then had a three-week final course for new officers. The last week of the course included discussions of a variety of issues – e.g., the Ashkenazi-Sephardi divide, economics, Israel as a Jewish and democractic society, the Cold War and its implications for Israel, etc.
Paul took look one look at the curriculum and told his bosses that it was overloaded, and would not address the morale problem in the IDF. To do that it would be necessary to focus on Jewish identity. He prepared a program around the questions: Who am I as a Jew? What is my relationship to the Jewish people, particularly to Jews in the Diaspora? What is my relationship to Jewish culture? To Jewish religion?
To measure the effectiveness of the course, Paul had the participants fill in questionnaires about whether they would choose to be born again as a Jew and also on their basic Jewish knowledge. Around a third, responded that they would not choose to be born as Jews. The respondents were also shaken by their lack of knowledge of the basic tenets and practices of Judaism. Yet at the end of the course, 90% of the participants expressed an interest in participating in a course on Judaism even if it meant giving up IDF vacation days.
In time, Paul realized that yeshivos would be a logical place to look for information on the essence of Jewish identity. He began bringing groups to Rabbi Baruch Horowitz's Dvar Yerushalayim yeshiva and later to Ohr Somayach. After the first visit to Dvar Yerushalayim, he once told a reporter for Jewish Lifemagazine, "I couldn't tear them away. They were singing and dancing wildly." That experience was an eye-opener for Paul.
Yet during over the years he ran the program, he remained resolutely non-observant, even refusing to wear a yarmulke in the beis medrash. The program, however, was a reflection of his own wrestling with the meaning of being Jewish. In the end, the only person he could say with confidence had become observant through the program was him. But, then again, he once explained to Rabbi Nota Schiller, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Somayach, "They only heard the material once, I heard it 78 times."
In the 1978, the IDF began to develop cold-feet about Paul's program, and he retired from the IDF. In reality, he just switched hats and became Ohr Somayach's liason to the IDF. In that capacity, he continued to bring groups of soldiers into Ohr Somayach, sometimes hundreds in a week, for all-day sessions. Rabbi Ron Rinat, a former naval commander, then learning in Ohr Somayach's Israeli division, remembers that Paul had an unbelievable power to show the participants that they had not begun to think about the most fundamental issues of life in any serious fashion.
He would push them hard, until they did not know which way to turn. But his Southern charm and ready smile, allowed him to get away with it, no matter how confrontational he was. "Israelis," Paul once told his chavrusah of 25 years, Rabbi Chaim Chait, "can take a punch." They haven't heard yet of micro-aggressions and safe spaces.
The myriad Shabbos guests that Rabbi Meir Schuster used to bring from the Kosel to the Lasters' home found themselves similarly challenged as they never had been. But they never felt it was personal or that Paul was trying to prove he was smarter than them. Many came back Shabbos after Shabbos drawn by warmth of Paul and his wife Sharon's welcome as soon as they entered the door, Paul's unsurpassed raconteurial abilities, enhanced the mellifluous Southern drawl he never shed, and the singing of Paul and his sons. They returned repeatedly even knowing that their defenses would be put to the test by Paul's bullseye, prodding cross-examinations. Sharon was Paul's perfect match in clarity of vision, genuine warmth and capacity for active listening.
In 1985, Paul decided it was time to focus on his own Gemara learning. He took a seat in the beis medrash of Chofetz Chaim yeshiva and did not move budge from it for the next 31 years. He had first fallen in love with the yeshiva when he brought a group of soldiers there in the year (1979-80) that Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz brought the entire yeshiva from Forest Hills to Jerusalem's Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood.
He started in the lowest shiur learning with young men less than half his age. But it was not a problem, recalls his first rebbi, Rabbi Yossi Granovsky, because he did not let it be. He was not embarrassed to ask questions.
Few of the bochurim would have guessed that he was twenty years their senior. For decades, he ledbein hazemanim hikes in the Golan on which the bochurim could not keep up with him. And he organized weekly basketball games.
His greatest impact on the beis medrash was his example, according to Rabbi Dovid Chait, the current rosh yeshiva. Eighteen-year-olds came to Israel to learn Torah, but also dreaming of living the good life on their return to America. It did not occur to them that the fleshpots of America might be incompatible with growth in Torah.
The example of someone raised in a well-to-do home, with a promising legal career in front of him, who had traded it all for the simplest possible stone hut, helped them realize that growth in Torah only comes with sacrifices. At the same time, the joy on Paul's face after ever mussar shmuess from Rabbi Moshe Chait, the excitement every time he cracked a Gemara from which he refused to budge until he was sure he fully understood it, made it clear that the sacrifices for a life a Torah were well worth it.
He and Sharon kept in contact with many bochurim he had influenced in the Chofetz Chaim and those in Ohr Somayach whom he tutored one-on-one (the only way he could relate – on a personal level) over his last fifteen years. Two of those from Chofetz Chaim flew from America to visit him in his last week.
His passing on Thursday before Pesach was exactly as he would have chosen – with the shortest possible shivah and no hespedim. His ego had long ago been cleansed by his love of Hashem. Though he could talk about his journey to help others on the path, to hear himself praised would have pained him. Few even knew of his illness until he could no longer come to the beis medrash, and almost none that he had been battling the dread disease for years.
That singular lack of ego, his disarming simplicity and directness, is what made it possible for him to challenge others to examine their most fundamental assumptions while still building a close personal relationship with them.
This article was originally printed in Mishpacha (May 6, 2016). Reprinted with permission.