When I heard the sad news last week that Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder and rosh yeshivah (dean) of Aish Hatorah, had passed away, I knew I had to travel to Jerusalem to offer my condolences to his family and students.
I had to pay my last respects to a unique leader of the Teshuvah ("return" to observant Judaism) movement, one of the rare few who'd practiced Jewish outreach early on. Rabbi Weinberg's personal outreach, and the organization he created, helped thousands of Jews find their ways back to the love of Torah and the beauty of Jewish observance.
But I also carried an important message from Rabbi Weinberg, which I needed to relay.
Shortly before Rabbi Weinberg was diagnosed with the illness which ultimately took his life, I was shopping in Jerusalem, near the Kiryat Belz neighborhood, at a large supermarket called Shefa Shuk. I saw an elderly rabbi pushing his cart down the aisle. He seemed to be struggling to locate some items and I offered my assistance. After he accepted, I helped fill his cart with the items his wife had put on his shopping list. As we continued to speak, I realized that I was helping Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the celebrated Rosh Yeshivah of the Aish Hatorah institutions.
Thus began a particularly open and engaging conversation between a 78-year old Rosh Yeshivah and a 31-year Chabad-Lubavitch shliach (emissary) to Moscow, which I will forever cherish.
Thus began a particularly open and engaging conversation between a 78-year old Rosh Yeshivah and a 31-year Chabad-Lubavitch shliach
Both of my parents became "returnees" to Judaism in Jerusalem in the late sixties. My mother was one of the first students in the nascent Neve Yerushalayim girls seminary, and my father was a student for many years at the Yeshivat Torah Ohr, learning under Rabbi Pinchos Scheinberg, may he be well. Both these institution were associated with the "Lithuanian" or non-chassidic orientation.
While learning in the community kollel (yeshivah for married men) in Detroit, my father searched for the most Talmudically rigorous school for us and found it in the local Chabad-Lubavitch cheder. My childhood was thus an interesting blend of Lithuanian and Chasidic influences and I made it a personal mission to uncover the relationships and the interplay between the two.
I had once heard that Rabbi Weinberg had visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory, before setting out on his Jewish outreach path, and I wanted to hear more.
"Is it true that you met the Lubavitcher Rebbe?" I asked.
"Of course!" Rav Noach answered. "In those days everyone who wanted to get involved in kiruv (outreach) sought the Rebbe's advice and blessing."
He told me how his older brother Rav Yaacov – whom he held in great esteem and who later became Rosh Yeshivah of the Ner Yisrael Yeshivah in Baltimore – would visit the Rebbe's office weekly in the 1940's to receive materials and instruction, along with travel money, for the weekly "Wednesday Hour" Released Time classes for public school kids which the Rebbe spearheaded and personally administered. Rav Yaacov was very taken by the Rebbe's encyclopedic Torah knowledge.
Rabbi Yitzchak Matisyahu Weinberg, father of Rabbi Noach
Rabbi Weinberg related that his father, Rabbi Yitzchak Matisyahu Weinberg, came from a chassidic backround – he was a Slonimer chassid
, and a nephew and grandson of the Slonimer Rebbes. In 1929 he had to flee the Holy Land after a tragic accident in his mill when an Arab girl fell to her death. Fearing revenge from the local populace, Rabbi Weinberg and his wife grabbed their two younger children, Yaacov and Moshe, and fled to Egypt, leaving their two older sons behind. Eventually they arrived in America, where Noach and a sister were born.
After the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, arrived to the United States in 1940, Reb Matisyahu began to visit the Rebbe regularly and even asked him to arrange for someone to learn chassidut (chassidic teachings) with his children. In those times in particular it was considered perilous to raise a Torah observant family in the United States, and Reb Matisyahu sought the yirat shamayim ("awe of G‑d" and religious commitment) that the teachings of Chassidism would impart his children.
Eventually Rav Yaacov went to learn in the Rabbi Chaim Berlin Yeshivah under the famed Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, where he chose the "Lithuanian" path, followed later by his brother Noach. Their father, Rabbi Yitzchak Matisyahu, passed away in 1945, when Rav Noach was only 15. Their older brother Moshe remained a Slonimer Chosid with close ties to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and accompanied his brother Noach to meet the Rebbe in 1958.
Rabbi Weinberg became a salesman for his brother's company and traveled throughout the United States and discovered Jews of all kinds who were distant from their heritage
Needless to say, I felt privileged by all this information, and listened, transfixed. Somehow, though, we had made our way to the register, even while stopping to talk every few feet. Rabbi Weinberg paid for the groceries and, still engrossed in our conversation, we walked out together. After loading the groceries into his trunk, Rabbi Weinberg invited me to sit in his car.
Gently nudging the conversation back to that night in the Rebbe's study, I asked Rabbi Weinberg, "What did you speak about with the Rebbe?"
Rabbi Weinberg told me that in those times it was highly unusual to become involved in reaching out to non-observant Jews, and this type of activity was often frowned upon or even condemned by many leading yeshivas. Lubavitch was the trailblazer, he said, but slowly a few others had started to combat the great fire of assimilation tearing at the Jewish People. In 1953 he – Rabbi Weinberg – traveled to Israel by boat to speak about this with the Chazon Ish, who passed away before his boat arrived.
Later he became a salesman for his brother's company and traveled to small cities throughout the United States to rustle up business – and discovered Jews of all kinds who were distant from their heritage.
Upon meeting the Rebbe, Rabbi Weinberg said, he asked the Rebbe for a formula to reach alienated Jews.
The Rebbe told him that he should reach fellow Jews through their neshamah, their soul, by sharing with them the teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidism), and that he, Rav Noach, should also begin learning chassidut regularly in order to inspire his own service of G‑d.
Rabbi Weinberg told me that, out of respect toward the Rebbe, he listened but remained silent, since he followed a different approach and could not agree. Later he went back to receive the Rebbe's blessing after he got married.
He concluded, it is high time to set any differences aside, and focus on the commonality and appreciate each other's roles in Jewish outreach
Rabbi Weinberg then reflected that although initially chassidut was indeed not taught in Aish Hatorah, the yeshivah had since incorporated into its curriculum some of the principal ideas of Chassidism. Some of the yeshiva's teachers are Chassidim as well, he added.
On this topic, I spoke to Rabbi Weinberg candidly about how pained I was from seeing discord in some communities between his students and Chabad. Rabbi Weinberg told me again how he recognizes the great work of Lubavitch in leading the Teshuvah movement and said that many of the students who learned at Aish Hatorah were set on their Jewish path – and were still connected – with Chabad rabbis, and that many students who began at Aish are now Chabad-Lubavitch chassidim.
He and I shared anecdotes with each other, both positive and negative, about some of the differences. (The conversation also veered off to some of his earlier attempts, in the '60's and '70's, to create various yeshivas and organizations.)
But, he concluded, it is high time to set any differences aside, and focus on the commonality and appreciate each other's roles in Jewish outreach.
To hammer home his point about the positive interplay between his work and Chabad, he shared with me the story of his first baalat teshuvah ("returnee"), a story I finally heard repeated again, in greater detail, in his very modest apartment in Jerusalem's Kiryat Sanz last night as I sat with his eight sons, all rabbis and scholars in their own right:
In the early 1960s a young woman in Jamaica, whose mother was Jewish and her father a former priest, began to read the bible in her home and became fascinated with Judaism. With no options for her on the island, she somehow obtained a ticket from the Jewish Agency to fly to Israel to live on a kibbutz. After some time on the kibbutz she recognized that her goal of exploring Judaism was not being realized, so she wrote a letter addressed simply to "The Chief Rabbi of Meah Shearim, Jerusalem" and dropped it into the mailbox.
The woman's letter made its way to Rabbi Amram Blau, the head of the Neturei Karta group who lived in Meah Shearim and, since it was written in English, lay on his desk until someone could decipher it. Eventually Rabbi Blau passed on the letter to Rabbi Weinberg, who was considered the local American. Rabbi Weinberg read her plea, and went to the kibbutz to meet her. Sensing her commitment to making a full return to Judaism, Rabbi Weinberg invited her to live in his home along with his growing family, which she did for a year while becoming fully observant.
This girl eventually married a brilliant student learning in Kfar Chabad and today, as Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim, they, too, have helped hundreds along the path of Teshuvah…
We had been sitting in the car on Yirmiyahu St., with the motor running, for more than an hour. I could sense that the Rosh Yeshivah, who'd experienced so much during his lifetime, was tired, and suggested that we continue another time.
Rabbi Weinberg agreed, but said that he found the conversation very important, an expression of Divine Providence, and invited me to come to his home next time I'm in Israel to continue it.
After giving me his home and cellphone numbers, the Rosh Yeshivah repeated that he appreciated the opportunity greatly and we both expressed our hopes that it would eventually lead to more ahavat yisrael and unity among Jews.
After thanking him, too, I went on my way.
Rabbi Weinberg fell ill shortly afterward and, due to me living on shlichut in Moscow, that meeting sadly turned out to be our only one. But I feel that the message and the content of our conversation must be recorded and shared to further the unity between fellow Jews.
The staff of Chabad.org join with Rabbi Berkowitz in expressing our heartfelt condolences to the Rosh Yeshivah's family and students. May your efforts in continuing his work of bringing the light and joy of Torah to our People bring you true consolation.