Much beloved former IDF chief rabbi brigadier general Avichai Rontzky died on Sunday, aged 66, after a two-year battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife, six children, and his grandchildren.
While undergoing medical preparations after volunteering to donate a kidney to a stranger in 2016, Rontzky discovered that he had colorectal cancer.
Tributes poured in from leaders, including the Prime Minister and President of Israel.
Rontzky was a “fighter and a Torah scholar who loved the people of Israel and the land of Israel”, tweeted Prime Minister Netanyahu. President Reuven Rivlin described Rontzky as “a scholar and a warrior, a rabbi and a commander,” who led his troops by example.
At the funeral, Rontzky’s son Moshe delivered a moving eulogy: “I admired you as a wonderful father. You were so sensitive, you explained to us when we were children to look where we tread, to lift up our feet and be careful not to step on insects.”
Education Minister Naftali Bennett spoke of Rontzky as his “teacher and companion,” and fellow lawmaker Betzalel Smotrich called him the “perfect warrior-scholar,” one who was “brave and groundbreaking” in the movement to rebuild a Jewish state in the Holy Land.
Bennett described visiting Rontzky the week before he died. Rontzky requested that Bennett one final wish to the Israeli people, that when crossing paths with others, on the street, in the line at the supermarket, people should make an effort to smile and greet one another.
A PIONEER OF ISRAEL’S RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT
Although Rontzky grew up in a secular family, he embraced religion during his military service. When people think of a “military rabbi”, they tend to imagine someone far removed from combat duty, but Rontzky was actually a combat soldier before becoming a rabbi. His compulsory military service was spent in an elite IDF unit, and he became an officer commanding a company on the southern front with Egypt during the Yom Kippur war in 1973.
Rontzky was a pioneer of the Hesder yeshiva movement – a movement of religious seminaries in which students combine years of Torah study with service in the IDF. In 1980 he helped found one such yeshiva in Elon Moreh, a then-new community in Samaria named after the place of Abraham’s altar location (Genesis 12 6): “And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Sichem, unto the plain of Moreh.”.
Four years later, Rontzky established the nearby community of Itamar together with his wife and other newly religious families. He initially served as the community rabbi, and later also headed the local yeshiva, which he established and led till 2016.
Rontzky’s tenure as the military Chief Rabbi, from 2006 to 2010, was marked by his conviction that the role of the rabbinate should not merely be supervision of kashrut and religious service but also include Jewish teaching among soldiers to strengthen the fighting spirit — an approach that provoked controversy both within and outside of the military.
Rontzky left behind a powerful legacy in the IDF after boosting the number of chaplains serving in each unit, and ensuring that they were trained not only regarding Jewish ritual law, but also well-prepared to act as a moral compass for soldiers looking for guidance.
A man of great vision, Rontzky understood the need for action and spirituality in our times. During one of Israel’s operations against terrorism coming from Hamas in Gaza, military rabbis were sent to combat units and delivered lectures and Torah classes. Rontzky was resolute in his campaign to support the troops and reinforce their resolve in the fight against terrorism.