Rabbi Haim Druckman, a Leader of Religious Zionism, Dies at 90

JERUSALEM — Rabbi Haim Druckman, a prominent spiritual leader of Israel’s Religious Zionist movement, lifelong educator, founder of the Jewish settlement project and politician, died here on Dec. 25. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by the Hadassah Medical Center. It did not specify a cause, but the Israeli news media reported that he was hospitalized after contracting Covid-19 for the second time.

Rabbi Druckman, who escaped the Holocaust in Europe as a child and immigrated in 1944 to the British Mandate of Palestine, four years before the establishment of the state of Israel, once told an interviewer that he would most like to be remembered as an educator.

At 20 he joined the national leadership of the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement and a decade later became the head of a yeshiva, or religious seminary. He founded many more institutions, including one of the first academies that combined Torah study with military service.

Beyond the halls of religious study, he became a power broker who helped propel Religious Zionism — an ideological stream of modern Orthodox Judaism centered around the pioneering settlement of the biblical land of Israel — into government. Many of Israel’s leaders sought his advice in solving problems or building their ruling coalitions.

“He was a beloved personal friend who was very close to my heart,” Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu said in a eulogy at Rabbi Druckman’s funeral on Dec. 26, describing him as “a man of unity.”

Known as the elder rabbi of Religious Zionism, which spearheaded Jewish settlement in the territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, including the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, Rabbi Druckman was widely credited with representing every faction of that movement, from the most liberal to the most hard core.

He advocated settling everywhere in biblical Israel and denounced the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula as part of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. He backed a rabbinical ruling forbidding the evacuation of settlements.

In 2012, when he was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s most prestigious civilian honor, the judges cited, among other things, the significant contribution he made in bringing together disparate factions of the Jewish people, for example by creating and leadinga new state mechanism to ease the Orthodox conversion to Judaism of many immigrants, particularly from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia.

Those immigrants — the spouses or descendants of Jews — qualified for Israeli citizenship but were not considered Jewish according to strict religious law, and the Orthodox process of conversion was notoriously slow and irksome. Rabbi Druckman’s activities in this realm angered some of the more conservative rabbinical authorities, who argued that his conversions should not be recognized, but the Israeli courts ruled that they were valid.

Rabbi Druckman was a founding member of Gush Emunim, the messianic settlement arm that focused on settling the lands captured in 1967, where the Palestinians now envisage a future independent state. The settlements are considered by most of the world to be a violation of international law.

He served in the Israeli Parliament on and off for about 15 years between the late 1970s and early 2000s, mostly for the National Religious Party, though he broke away over ideological differences for a time, serving as a one-man parliamentary faction.

Rabbi Druckman in 2008. As an educator, he led a yeshiva and founded many institutions, including one of the first academies that combined Torah study with military service.Credit…Sebastian Scheiner/Associated Press

The rabbi’s death came days before the latest, hard-line iteration of the settler movement, the Religious Zionism party, which he backed, came to power as part of Mr. Netanyahu’s new governing coalition in a deeply divided Israel. The new government was ushered in amid a public uproar over legislative proposals that many Israelis fear will damage Israel’s liberal democracy and lead to discrimination against the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.

Haim Meir Druckman was born on Nov. 15, 1932, in Kuty, then in Poland (it is now in Ukraine), to Abraham Mordechai and Milka Druckman. He described in various interviews growing up in the shadow of the Soviet, then German, invasions of his hometown.

He recalled being forced by the Communists as a first grader to attend his Yiddish-language school on the sabbath and on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and remembered crying because he had missed some of the main prayers in the synagogue.

During the German occupation the family was moved to a ghetto and at times hid from the Nazis in a room they dug underground. The family managed to flee to Romania. His parents initially failed to obtain permission to travel to Palestine, so when he was 11, they sent him there with a childless couple who had received permits. They followed a few months later, at the end of the war.

Rabbi Druckman married Dr. Sarah Epstein when she wasin medical school in the late 1950s. She survives him, along with their 10 children and more than 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

He recounted that his life had been saved three times: Once when Nazis entered the family’s house but failed to find them in their underground hide-out; when they safely crossed a swelling river while escaping to Romania; and when one of three boats carrying refugees to Palestine was sunk by the Germans. He was in one of the two that made the journey across the Black Sea to Turkey. Having received his life as a gift three times, he said, he was determined to fill it with meaning and purpose.

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