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The Rosh Yeshivah and the Shliach

The Rosh Yeshivah and the Shliach

A Jerusalem Encounter

Rabbi Noach Weinberg of blessed memory
Rabbi Noach Weinberg of blessed memory

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 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 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.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz works at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, NY.
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Mark Okmulgee, Oklahoma February 1, 2010

a union The beauty of creation is found in the unity of two very different creatures. One is man, the other is woman. True each can be offensive to the other, yet in honorable observation the two can become one. The oneness gives birth to life by combining the two. There will be a mirror of the two flowing out of the one. And the one will respect the two, for out of the communion of the difference there would never have been a new life. I choose to honor, I seek to respect because the birth of unity makes a family. Reply

Judy Resnick Far Rockaway, NY December 21, 2009

The Messiah Will Come ...when we Jews stop bashing each other!! In the Next World, the Lubavitcher Rebbe zatzal and Rav Noach Weinberg zatzal and the GRA and the Baal Shem Tov are all sitting TOGETHER and listening to a Torah lesson from Moshe Rabbeinu himself. Does it matter whether it's Aish or Chabad that gets credit for bringing assimilated Jewish neshamos back to Torah and Mitzvos? Reply

Ms. Maureen Turner מאשה חנה August 14, 2009

Infuences on my life I had heard of Aish and Rabbi Weinberg while I was still living in Miami before I had made Aliya just over 7 years ago He and AISH are quite famous there. Even in the Lubavitch Synogogues there he is very famous. I decided one time after hearing so much about him and Aish to go one night and see for my self. It was quite Interesting and very different from the Lubavitch Chassidic ways of the synogogue I went to there. I found that I prefer the Lubavitch ways and started going to classes in Shul at night to learn Tshuva. Shortly after I started learning my parents and I made Aliya. My father G-d rest his soul was very sick and I had to take care of him until he died 2 years ago so my learning had been put off for a time. He felt it very important ever Jewish Person on this earth know their heritage and be proud of who they are. Now I am searching for a place here in Israel in the Sharon area Hertzaliya or Raanana to learn Tshuva and the chassidic ways of living. Reply

Michael Toronto, Canada via April 20, 2009

ChaBaD, Aish and everyone: RE to some comments... I think the changes in attitude (revolutionary as that may seem) has to start with the leaders, the guys at the top. I've been involved in both circles, ChaBaD and Aish HaTorah for about 8 years, and heard ChaBaD Rabbis bash Aish, and the other way around. It became a "which team do you play for?" mentality, and I leaned that from the Rabbis on both sides. I know nothing, but one thing I'm sure of, is that Moshiach will not come of we don't play on the same team. Our world today is filled with an enormous amount of Torah knowledge, and so many Jews doing mitzvahs, that you'd think Moshiach would have come already... We're missing one thing. It's so simple, we need to finally unite! That will bring the ultimate unity in Yerushalaym! Or I could be totally wrong... maybe we should never get along, who knows? Reply

Shlomo Smukler, Chabad and Aish Hatorah Chossid March 2, 2009

i apologize My dear friend MS.
I know i have plenty of dirt on myself and i have been eagerly trying to work on myself.
I sincerely apologize if i came across in a judgemental way.
I took your advice and i held up the mirror and yes i see a lot of shmutz on myself, and even in the words of my last response.
You are 100% right the Torah even agrees with you and says i should always give someone the benefit of the doubt.
I actually have great respect for the author, and may G-d bless him. and since you are clearly not accepting my own words the way i hoped they would be accepted, I understand i must have been flawed in my approach to raising the issue i wanted to present.
Have an awesome Purim :o) Reply

MS February 28, 2009

No offense, but where are YOU coming from?
One who sees dirt in others, should hold a mirror up to himself, because it means he has at least some dirt on himself. Don't you think it's time to think well of your fellow Jews? Why impute impure motives? It is very wrong of you. Reply

Shlomo Smukler, Chabbad and Aish Hatorah Chossid February 27, 2009

Lets bring Mashiach I think Chabad and Aish have both made incredibly positive impacts on this world, and have clearly both contributed to the speedy coming of the Mashiach.
I am sorry if you take offense to this but Yehuda said it very well. There is an obvious dis-unifying message here if you choose to read slightly in between the lines.
I ask the writer, what were your intentions when you chose to write this story? Were you doing it solely for the sake of helping Jews to love one another and ignore their unimportant differences, or were you doing it consciously or perhaps subconsciously to boost your own ego driven agenda?
True the potential message of this article can be beautiful, but if we truly and i mean truly want to leave exile and create unity amongst the Jewish people, then we MUST put in the extra effort to at least consider how what we say may make others feel, and weather our words our justified according to G-d’s will. Reply

Joe Money new york , ny February 23, 2009

Steal The Show? I'm mystified how someone could read this article and the only thought they could have is that Chabad is as they put it stealing the show. What show? Look into yourself sir before writing such trivial dreck. Reply

Anonymous February 19, 2009

let's be positive this is a very inspiring article Reply

Malka Stern February 18, 2009

HaShem should comfort the Weinberg family with all mourners of Tzion and Yerushalayim.
Mrs. Weinberg, your husband, of blessed memory, did indeed hold of the Rebbe of Lubavitch. Reply

Yehuda February 17, 2009

"so typically Chabad" To clarify - Aish did not write the JTA article - JTA did. you seem to slight Aish in your comments. I agree that JTA's article lacked unity and taste.

What did seem typically Chabad was trying to steal the show while praising others.

I support both groups but did not see that the author was truly being L'shmah in his article. Reply

Steve Weingort February 17, 2009

Prescient.. What brilliantly simple advice from the Rebbe, as to the focus one should take when trying to reconnect a Jew with his heritage. Doubtless RNW thought the Rebbe was simply pushing the Chassidic line, but in truth, had RNW adopted this approach, he'd have been spared much of the constant criticism that hounded him over the years from within his own circles.... Reply

Nacha Leaf Oak Park, MI February 16, 2009

Let's stop factionalism Rena of Tzfat, Israel is "right on the mark." It is the sephira [divine attribute] of Tiferet, a blend of seeming opposites, that actualizes the synergy that is higher than the sum of the parts. It is too late in the game to be doing "one-upsmanship." Let all the players unite for the victory of the Jewish nation with Moshiach! Reply

Mrs. Y. Homnick February 16, 2009

Thank you very much for this article! Reply

rena Tzfat, Israel February 16, 2009

very initriguing This is the first that I've heard of the esteemed Rosh Yeshiva's ties with chasidut and the Rebbe. It offers quite a different picture than that painted by both groups of followers. Indeed, the tremendous growth of Orthodoxy has presented us unfortunately with even more division and baseless hatered, seemingly offering even more barriers to the Redemption. May this article point the way to harmony between the different "factions" of Judaism, where each can appreciate the forte of the next one to help the nation of Israel achieve a harmonious blend of them all. Reply

Anonymous February 16, 2009

So typically chabad.... What a stark contrast to the article in the JTA from Aish, I commend you Chabad for always pointing out the positive and the commonality vs the JTA article which chose to point out what they felt one had over the other.
I will always choose those who choose to bring us together, rather than set us apart! Reply

vic huglin liverpool , england February 15, 2009

rav noach i heard him speak at the last aish diner and was inspired by his words of love and caring for everyone . we can all take a little of his humility and inspiration and apply it in our daily lives
He will be missed but his teaching live on for ever . Reply

Tom New York, NY February 15, 2009

More ahavat yisroel Rabbi Berkowitz, very well articulated, as always. Reply

Yitz Wyne Las Vegas, NV February 15, 2009

Appreciation. As one of Rav Noach's students, who is now the rav of a Young Israel and has a warm working relationship with the local Chabad rabbis, I appreciate the article and condolences. Thank you. Reply

Nacha Sara Oak Park, MI February 15, 2009

The Rosh Yeshivah and the Shliach A beautifully-written tribute to the unity in Torah Judaism and the mutual respect among the proponents of Orthodoxy in previous decades. Unfortunately, the growth and success of Orthodoxy since this time seems to have contributed to a divisiveness and sense of competitiveness between the groups. The point of encounter between the rosh yeshivah and the shliach is one that celebrates the interconnectedness and helps us to put the relatively minor differences in perspective. Reply

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