Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi Explains His Controversial Outreach to Jews
Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi lectures in Israel (Image Credit: Rabbi Mizrachi PR Photo)
He came from a secular Persian-Israeli home, attended a secular Zionist public school in Bat Yam, and at 18 became a member of the Israeli Air Force. At the conclusion of his three years in the military his father sent him to America, where his first job was working as cashier in a bagel shop.
He’d never seen or used American money, nor did he know how to use a cash register. When customers set their purchases down on the counter, he did what came naturally – he added up everything in his head and then hit the key that opened the cash drawer and put the money inside. His boss was totally bewildered and came over to see if his math – done faster than any cash register or computer – was correct. It was, down to the last penny. This 21-year-old kid from Israel, who barely spoke English, was able to hold long strings of numbers in his mind and, within seconds, add, subtract, multiply, and/or divide to arrive at the correct answer.
Yosef Mizrachi clearly did not belong in a bagel shop. He answered an ad about a job in Manhattan’s financial district, where he was the youngest applicant and the only one in informal Israeli-style jeans and shirt. He didn’t even own a suit and had barely enough money in his pocket to cover carfare. What he did have was a high-spirited youthful smile and respectful enthusiasm that caused the boss to give him a chance as a low-level salesperson. Within a short time, young Yosef Mizrachi became one of the top sellers in the firm. When it became clear that he was actually outperforming the person who’d hired him, he was promoted to that person’s job. Now Mizrachi was the boss of people who were much older than himself, and who had MBAs from schools like Wharton.
This rise to the top was absolutely meteoric. Although his family, his commanding officers in the IAF, and even the bagel shop owner knew how smart this “kid” was, his success and the speed that propelled him to the top was stunning.
So there he was, the same Yosef Mizrachi he’d always been, riding first class on the money train, living the American Dream – or so he thought.
He never dreamed of what was to come next. In fact, if someone would have whispered in his ear that he would turn his back on it all in order to serve Hashem with all his heart and soul as a kiruv rabbi, convincing other secular Jews in record numbers to follow his lead, he probably would have said, “Ma kara? Ma pittom?” (“What? No way!”) and laughed his head off.
In our recent interview after one of his regular shiurim in Brooklyn, Rabbi Mizrachi described how a nice secular Jewish boy with traditional ethical values decided to make a 180-degree turn in his life. What he really did at the height of financial success was incomprehensible to his colleagues watching from the side: Mizrachi, whose stamina allowed him to run far ahead of the pack without a break, hardly sleeping, appeared to come to a dead stop and look back to something so important that no amount of money could replace it. He didn’t know it at the time, but as with everything in his life, the answer would come speedily. Yosef Mizrachi was looking for G-d, and at the same time, G-d was looking for him.
“I got married in Israel to an American Ashkenazi woman from Manhattan. After our wedding, we went to my cousin in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). He was a rabbi learning in yeshiva for years. He spoke to me for about an hour and a half about the truth written in the Torah and that was it,” Mizrachi explained.
Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi (Image Credit: Rabbi Mizrachi PR Photo)
But he wasn’t making a major lifestyle change alone. He had a wife to consider. How did she feel about her new husband’s decision to transform himself completely – changing from a successful businessman into an Orthodox rabbi?
“My wife made the switch together with me. She had been sitting on the side listening to the whole conversation and she agreed. I was lucky. She had been educated at Ramaz, a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school in Manhattan. She actually didn’t care about the money. She was not materialistic. She married me because she loved me. That didn’t change. I worked a few more years and we lived in Manhattan, then moved to Monsey.”
Getting the Word Out
Then there was another revelation: Yosef Mizrachi was blessed with “the gift of gab,” or perhaps more precisely - the words spoken from his heart went straight to the heart of whomever was listening.
“I started to see that the people I talked to about being an observant Jew – my friends – started to change. One became shomer Shabbat, another left the non-Jewish woman he was living with, another began keeping kosher and so on, with more and more people starting to do what I’d done. I saw I had this talent to convince people to change. So I started to learn more, recorded a lot of lectures, read books and passed them onto others. This was only the beginning – I was just a new baal teshuva.”
He was still standing in two worlds, but that would also change. “I left my job. I went to yeshiva in Monsey and learned for a few good years. I even started teaching Gemara at Yeshivat Ohr Yisrael.”
Once he was “all in,” he started using modern technology in a new and innovative way: to bring Jews back to Hashem.
“In 2002, together with former HBO director Yuval Ovadia, we produced a 72-minute film which was a tremendous success. Remember, at that time, no one had ever made a real film to make people become religious. There were only recorded lectures, but no films with editing and pictures. Then, in 2004, a couple who had become baalei teshuva after learning with me gave me a surprise. ‘We created a website,’ they said.”
That website created for him, www.DivineInformation.com, contains over 700 lectures in both video and audio form and has viewers from more than 50 countries – mostly from the United States, Israel, England, and Canada. According to Rabbi Mizrachi, the website was rated by Alexa.com as ranking among the top 1% of websites in the world. In addition, he has a strong following on Facebook, with over 100,000 registered fans. He was also the first rabbi to give lectures on TorahAnytime.com. A wealthy Jewish businessman began to produce and distribute thousands of CDs and DVDs (at no charge) with the rabbi’s most famous lectures: “Torah and Science,” “Life After Death,” “The Debate: Christianity vs. Judaism,” and more.
Rabbi Mizrachi is painfully honest – giving some shiurim that are considered “politically incorrect” or too harsh to be tolerated in certain circles. He constantly reminds his audience he is just the messenger, that whatever he says comes straight from the Torah, Gemara, Zohar, Kabbalah, or Tanach. He connects the words of the Prophets to modern day events that prove the Torah is not only a book of Divine laws, history, and customs, but actually a blueprint for predicting the future.
Shabbat is described by rabbis as an “island in time” when we stop working, eat delicious food, pray, and speak of spiritual subjects, but few of them will tell newly observant Jews that the Torah also says the penalty for working on Shabbat is death – because they think saying the whole truth is too scary for secular Jews to accept. These rabbis are certainly not fans of Rabbi Mizrachi, to put it mildly. Some of them use the most shocking language to describe the rabbi’s blunt, honest approach; others are busily involved in letter-writing campaigns that tell other rabbis not to let Rabbi Mizrachi speak in their shuls.
If you’ve lived long enough, you’ll know this bears striking similarity to what was done to the late (murdered) Rabbi Meir Kahane HY”D, whose “controversial” statements have sadly all come true. One of the only reasons we even know what Rabbi Kahane said was because the late Rabbi Sholom Klass, publisher of The Jewish Press, allowed him to write a weekly column warning Jews, especially liberal ones, to beware – because the day would come when Arab terror would spread throughout the entire world.
That day is here. Oddly enough, few rabbis want to address the rise of radical Islamic terrorism even now, but Rabbi Mizrachi, who served proudly and honorably in the Israeli Air Force, isn’t one of them. He is not only honest, but fearless – because the reality today is that being honest can get a person killed, chas v’shalom.
Mussar (ethics), say some rabbis, can scare people away, and therefore, they teach Judaism like a fairy tale by leaving out the “midda k’neged midda” (measure for measure) punishments for various sins. However, Rabbi Mizrachi believes that mussar, which at one time meant just the teaching of ethical behavior, is essential and that people need to know the whole truth. Conducting life in accordance with “partial” truths may lead to the commission of more sins than a religiously uneducated person can atone for in one lifetime. And it also seems that people in general are better behaved when they have at least some fear of G-d.
“We live in a very fake world and I don’t mean just the superficial culture which is shown to us in movie theaters and on television. We see fakeness in shuls, at work and in social circles…. Even those who dislike Rabbi Mizrachi would not call him fake. Just like there is fakeness in politics, there is fakeness in the kiruv world. Don’t get me wrong, my friends as well as myself have greatly benefited from the kiruv movement. But at the same time, I always had this feeling like I was being lied to. I prefer things to be honest and blunt rather than fake and nice. If a person says something which I don’t agree with, but he is honest, we can actually have a conversation.”
Mistakes and Atonement
Rabbi Mizrachi has made some mistakes. Years ago, he made a video saying that the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust were not all halachically Jewish; according to Jewish law, a Jew is someone converted by an Orthodox Beit Din or someone born from a Jewish mother.
When interviewed, he explained the basis for that statement: “For 150 years, from the time of Moses Mendelssohn’s death in 1786 to the rise of Hitler in 1936, many Jews in Europe were assimilating, marrying non-Jews.” Some celebrate Mendelssohn as the father of Jewish Enlightenment (the Haskalah), the first Jew to bring secular ideas, values, and culture to Orthodox Jews. Others revile him for contaminating observant Jewish communities throughout Europe with toxic non-Jewish philosophies, which ultimately encouraged and accepted intermarriage. The resultant rise in assimilation included Mendelssohn’s own descendants, such as the famous composer Felix Mendelssohn who left Judaism for Christianity.
In his speculation on how many of the six million murdered by Hitler were Jewish according to halacha, Mizrachi said, “I realized I exaggerated and my numbers were off. I apologized immediately.” His original statement, proven wrong and particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors, caused him great remorse.
In a story published by Yeshiva World News, Rabbi Yair Hoffman spoke about being present at a meeting between Rabbi Mizrachi and Dr. Moshe Katz, a frum businessman and author of his own Holocaust memoir, entitled Nine Out of Ten:
“Last night, in Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, I also saw genuine regret. A regret born of a pain – a pain inadvertently caused by this remarkable kiruv Rabbi to his own people. This was a man who genuinely wanted to learn, to correct errors past – and to change – for the future.
First and foremost, we must realize something very important. Rabbi Mizrachi could have done what others do. And he could have refused to apologize. Now, he could also have doubled down on an erroneous position, and have taken pot shots at those who have called him out for an error. Klal Yisroel, however, has benefited here. Fortunately for us, Rabbi Mizrachi didn’t take this path. Ultimately, he owned up to an error and took full responsibility for it. Responsibility, taking acharayus for our actions, is something we could all start doing a bit more. To do so, however, is truly rare. Every one of us could learn an invaluable lesson from here. Remarkable individuals make up for mistakes by apologizing for them, and thus become all the greater for it.”
There were other “controversial” things that Rabbi Mizrachi said, but they weren’t mistakes; they were direct quotes from Torah, Gemara, Zohar, Kabbalah, and other holy books passed down through the millennia, preserved and studied by our Torah scholars.
Rabbi Mizrachi, a straightforward, powerful speaker, approaches his fellow Jews with respect, never demanding they “believe” anything on faith alone, but giving sourced definitions in the Torah – proving it could only have been written by G-d.
Rabbi Mizrachi’s role models are Torah giants – Rav Ovadia Yosef, Rav Avigdor Miller, and Rav Shach – who believed that mussar, telling people the whole truth no matter how harsh it might be, was the greatest kindness a rabbi could do for fellow Jews. He finds it ironic that he gets compliments from Christians and Muslims who watch his lectures on YouTube, but complaints from liberal Jews who accuse him of being “politically incorrect,” even though he is only quoting the Torah and other holy scriptures.
When asked to state his greatest life goal, Rabbi Mizrachi said: “To make as many Jews as I can become religious and observant – loving and fearing G-d. After 23 years of hard work around the clock, I can say my kiruv efforts have brought thousands of Jews back to living according to Torah.”
This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared as "The Saga Of Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi." JewishPress.com. May 26, 2017.