Rabbi Menachem Froman, an influential West Bank religious leader who led interfaith peace efforts, died Monday evening after a battle with cancer. He was 68.
Froman, the chief rabbi of Tekoa, southeast of Jerusalem, was best known for his efforts to foster coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. A founder of the religious Gush Emunim settlement movement, he was also seen as an integral part of the peace camp, making contact with Palestinian leaders and reaching out to many whom Israel considered untouchable, including members of the terror group Hamas.
Froman had battled colon cancer for several years before his death. He will be buried at noon on Tuesday in Tekoa.
“My father took off his clothing of skin and put on clothing of light,” his son Yehoyashiv said in a statement Monday night. “He came in peace and went in peace.”
He was survived by his wife, Hadassah, and 10 children.
“We said goodbye to the rebbe,” David Ophir, 26, of Tekoa wrote on Facebook. “Yesterday we enveloped him. More accurately, he enveloped us. There was a strange sense of abundance coming into the world, of grace. I’ve never experienced such a parting. His soul flooded the entire courtyard, the town. It was as if it strove to fill the world with love and kindness.”
Froman was a “master of prayer,” said Rabbi Zvi Leshem of the nearby settlement of Efrat. “Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook used to tell people that if they want to learn how to pray they should study Rabbi Froman.”
“He was a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace, a Jew with a huge heart,” said Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party.
Froman was born in Mandatory Palestine in 1945. He was a member of the paratroop unit that helped liberate Jerusalem in 1967 and taught at a number of yeshivas over his lifetime.
He was best known internationally for his outreach — at times controversial — to Arab leaders in the name of making peace. He met several times with Hamas spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin, and drew up a peace plan with a Hamas journalist in 2007.
In 2012, he told Haaretz that common ground could be found between Israel and the Palestinians by looking to God.
“For almost 40 years I have maintained that it is impossible to forge peace here without taking into account the religious element, which is very powerful in the Arab public and also stronger than what some readers of Haaretz would like to believe in the Jewish public,” he said. [Sheikh] Ahmed Yassin once told me: You and I could make peace in hamsa dakika – five minutes. How so? Because we are both believers. In recent years I mentioned this to everyone who was ready to listen, and it was considered bizarre and crazy. Suddenly, the situation is slowly beginning to change.”
For years, he led weekly classes in the foundational Jewish work of Kabbala, the Zohar, introducing Jewish mysticism to many Israelis, both in the Orthodox community and outside it.
Froman could seldom be seen without a frayed volume of Zohar tucked under his arm, and was often surrounded by a group of clamoring young students.
On the bus — he never drove — en route to a class at the hesder yeshiva in the settlement of Otniel, one of the many places where he taught, young people would often gather around him to listen to an improvised class.
During the last years of his life, when word of Froman’s terminal illness spread, the weekly classes grew and were often attended by some of the Israeli pop culture icons who were profoundly influenced by him.
Figures such as Berry Sakharoff, Ehud Banai, and others, would perform in Tekoa, for free, out of respect for a man who contained multitudes, bridging the chasm between secular and religious, right and left.
Peace activist Gershon Baskin lamented Froman’s passing and called him his “beloved brother.”
“He so much wanted to live to see peace,” Baskin said. “I spent so many hours on the phone with him over the past years — him never stopping for a moment — always working for peace. We didn’t share faith in God, but we did share a great belief in our ability — Jews and Palestinians — to live in peace in this land.”