This Month in History: Shavuot in Liberated Tripoli (1943)

Excerpts from the memories of Military Rabbi Ephraim Elimelech Urbach
Shavuot in the Jewish community of Tripoli

After the Second World War broke out Rabbi Ephraim Elimelech Auerbach enlisted in the British Army in October 1941. Initially, he was sent to Egypt and served as the Rabbi of General Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army. From an administrative standpoint, Auerbach had to organize religious services for the British army. He held the rank of Captain and was entitled to a car with a driver and he traveled all over the Western Desert in Libya and Tunisia and then to Malta, Sicily and throughout Italy.
Due to his mobility, Auerbach met with many soldiers during his service as Army chaplain, Jewish and non-Jewish, from all the Allied armies. He tried to help anyone who approached him for religious, cultural, personal, social or military reasons. For this reason, sometimes his job was more like that of a social worker than that of a military Rabbi. He always tried to find the middle ground between his religious work and the secular work of the fighting itself. He appeared before people, taught Torah, gave sermons on the holidays and spoke about the political situation in the Land of Israel. He instituted an organized procedure for visiting sick and wounded Jews in all the hospitals in the area. He wrote down his impressions in writings that began as work reports that documented his activity. With time they became a description of his impressions of events he experienced that was the background of his work. Beyond his involvement with the military units, Auerbach met with local Jews during his activity as Army chaplain in Libya and Tunisia, many of whom were suffering under the Italian government's policies and even suffered from the German occupation in Tunisia, Libya and Italy. He became involved in the rehabilitation of communities at the time that they were attempting to break free from the horrors of the occupation and return to full function. Thus Auerbach helped numerous times in obtaining food, medicine and shelter for refugees, helped to build a school for the Benghazi community’s children, connected the communities with Israel and Jewish Agency representatives and worked with the military authorities to ease the suffering of community members as much as possible.
On Shavuot Auerbach was staying with the Jewish community in Tripoli. The following is his testimony about the arrangement of holiday prayer services in the community’s synagogue:

"On Shavuot we arranged four services. On Shavuot Eve the number of attendees was not large. However on the Sunday of Shavuot the synagogue was packed from wall to wall. Many Jewish soldiers, Israelis, Aviation Corps and Navy personnel and young English people and Americans attended. Levy [Raphael Levy, who served as Auerbach’s Military Secretary] led Shacharit (the Morning Service) and I read the Torah portion, led the service for Musaf (the Additional Service), and gave a sermon in both Hebrew and English about Shavuot, the time of the giving of our Torah, on the relationship between the People and the Law as a national and religious concept.

I said to the Israelis that nationalism is not enough and that political freedom without freedom from the shackles of assimilation and absorption does not deserve to be called freedom. I explained to the British soldiers that a full and complete Jewish life can only be lived in the Land of Israel. All the talk about the people of Israel’s role among the nations, to be dispersed and scattered in order to teach and guide, is nonsense that never had any substance. Our contribution to human culture - the Bible and the teachings of our Sages- are accessible to everyone and anyone who wishes to learn something from them can come and take from them; but all we achieved during the Middle Ages is not considered our contribution and our accomplishment. Perhaps our presence among foreigners also served to delay the penetration of our prophets’ ideas and our Law into other nations. In any case we must do a great deal of work so that we can imbue these ideas within ourselves and this is our main task. Implementation of this task will only be possible if we live in a piece of land in which we may live by our convictions, without constantly being under the jurisdiction of others and always being forced to justify crimes committed and sins which others blame us for of which we are not guilty. We do not wish to ‘poison’ the lives and minds of the Gentiles.


When I gave the honor of ‘Hagba’ [raising the Torah during prayer] to one of the sailors from the Israeli Navy, Lifshitz, a jolly good fellow who had grown a lovely beard, it made a great impression on all the soldiers and everyone present in the synagogue.

After the service I was invited to Farjoun [a local wealthy and educated Jew who speaks Hebrew] and when I got home I found several British Jewish soldiers there who were eating lunch at our house. I spoke with them and I was amazed to hear that they fully agreed with what I had said, especially with what I had said directly to them, as perhaps many of them will return home and find that conditions have changed and that they will not be able to start again where they had left off. But they have two advantages over the others. They have learned to fight and they are fighting and will fight for justice.

On the second night of Shavuot [The Diaspora second day of the holiday that is only celebrated overseas] there were about 40 fellows and even on the second day about 50 people attended. I was in a bit of a strange situation: I prayed at home and put on tefillin (phylacteries) and then I went up before the Ark and led the prayer service. I spoke about the book of Ruth and about David and Moses".

From: Ephraim Elimelech Auerbach, Writings at Wartime: Diary of an Israeli Rabbi in the British Army 1944 - 1942, Ministry of Defence 2008, pp. 180-178.