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About Rav Noach Weinberg
Rabbi Noah Weinberg, founder of Aish HaTorah, dies By Ben Harris
NEW YORK (JTA) -- Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder and dean of the sprawling global outreach operation Aish HaTorah, was being called a "unique visionary" following his death in Jerusalem. Weinberg, a brilliant educator and charismatic lecturer, was suffering from cancer when he died Feb. 5 at his home. He was 78.
A pioneering figure in the ba'al teshuvah movement, the process of bringing secular Jews to Orthodox Judaism, he was the guiding force behind Aish HaTorah's emergence as a leader of efforts to turn back the tide of assimilation. With just five students, Weinberg founded Aish in 1974 in Jerusalem. It now occupies prime real estate opposite the Western Wall and encompasses dozens of branches around the world. About 100,000 people reportedly attend Aish programs annually in 77 cities in 17 countries.
The organization also operates a rabbinical training program in Jerusalem, a hesder Yeshiva for Israeli soldiers and draws untold numbers of Jewish students and travelers to its introductory courses in Jerusalem and around the world. Aish.com, the organization's home on the Internet, is among the most popular Jewish educational Web sites and features endorsements from a range of celebrities, including Steven Spielberg, Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher.
“Rav Noah was a unique visionary who believed that every Jew was innately interested in their Jewishness, but because of the lack of education was ignorant of the wealth of their heritage,” said Rabbi Yitz Greenman, the executive director of Aish HaTorah New York/Discovery. “He saw it as his mission to make Judaism relevant to an apathetic generation. He was incredibly successful over the last 50 years at reigniting the spark of Jewishness in hundreds of thousands of Jewish souls.”
Like the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose vast global network comprises what is probably the best known and most successful outreach effort in the Jewish world, Weinberg believed the greatest challenge facing Jewry today was the loss of Jews to ignorance, apathy and assimilation. He spoke of a spiritual holocaust that was depriving the world of more Jewish souls than the actual Holocaust. His disciples at Aish headquarters in Jerusalem would frequently invoke war metaphors to describe the struggle they were engaged in to save the Jewish people.
To drive the point home, Weinberg led a delegation of Aish rabbis to Poland in 2006, a journey that became the subject of a film, “From the Ashes.” “Why did we come here? Why did I come and ask all the fellas, all the rabbis, to come?” Weinberg asks in the film. “To wake us up. The time is drawing closer. We are losing more neshamas [souls] every day than we're gaining. We're in trouble. We got to wake up.”
Weinberg is lauded for taking a non-judgmental approach to outreach. He welcomed atheists and non-believers to his yeshiva, saying he would make them better atheists. He even reportedly allowed a practicing Muslim to study at Aish, even though the student prayed five times a day to Mecca.
“A lot of Orthodoxy's outreach was always tinged with judgmentalism -- not always, but often,” said Samuel Heilman, a sociologist of American Jewry and a critic of what some observers describe as Orthodoxy's rightward drift. “Both Chabad and Rabbi Weinberg found you could reach out to people without having to force them to deny who they were, and not be quite as judgmental. And that was a key element. Now we take that for granted.”
Unlike Chabad, Aish principally relies not on the warmth and charisma of its emissaries but on presenting a rational, cogent argument for God's existence and the unique mission of the Jewish people. For a time, Aish was virtually synonymous with the popular Discovery seminars, a series of lectures on topics such as Bible codes, Genesis and the Big Bang, and Jewish history, that collectively attempt to present a logical and scientific case for the divine origins of the Torah.
Weinberg's devotion to programs like Discovery was rooted in his interest in changing perceptions about Judaism and stressing the practical applicability of its teachings. One of his most famous lectures was “Five Levels of Pleasure,” in which he taught that Judaism wants human beings to derive pleasure from the world, but that the highest pleasure of all is spiritual connection.
Weinberg once asked a young visitor if he was capable of repaying all the kindness of his father simply by saying thank you. When the boy replied in the negative, Weinberg drew an analogy to the relationship between God and his creations. “There's nothing that you can do for God,” said Rabbi Moshe Mayerfeld, an Aish rabbi in London and the boy's father, recalling Weinberg's message. “He doesn't become more infinite when you pray. He doesn't become more infinite when you eat more matzah on Pesach. He doesn't need anything from us. All He wants from us is to gain the pleasures of the world that He created for us.”
Aish also differs from Chabad in another crucial respect: Chabad's emissaries often are the children of emissaries themselves and the movement's most dedicated cadre, steeped in its values from an early age and charged by the movement's late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to retrieve Jewish souls from the far corners of the world.
Weinberg, after trying and failing several times to start outreach efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, realized he needed to populate his organization with individuals who once were secular. Only they, he believed, understood the urgency of the task. “He had a way about him,” said Adam Jacobs, a rabbi at the Aish Center in Manhattan who first encountered Aish as a secular Jew studying at Brandeis University and eventually found his way to Jerusalem. “He was so focused on other people and it was so genuine the way he would interact with other people. He paid attention to people in a way I don't recall seeing ever before.”
Over the years, transformations like Jacobs' have drawn criticism, with some branding Aish a cult and speaking in hushed tones of their once-secular friends who had been “Aished.” Heilman says such reactions are inevitable. “Anytime you have a movement that causes people to convert -- and that's what we're really talking about, conversion -- the groups from which they've been converting are always going to say these folks have been brainwashed,” he said. “To some extent it is. Brainwashing is just a negative way of talking about conversion. It's sort of inherent in the process.”
As the organization has drifted into Israel advocacy work, in North America principally through its Hasbara Fellowships program, it also has been branded as right wing and a supporter of Israeli settlements. Aish is “just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today,” Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic wrote in October.
Rabbi Shalom Schwartz, one of the original group of students who joined Aish in 1974, said Weinberg always emphasized the need for students to apply their studies to real-world problems. He recalled Weinberg once blasted a Time magazine article that accused Israel of unleashing biblical justice on the Palestinians and, in later years, he insisted on confronting the threat of radical Islam.
“He was very, very concerned about the current rise of anti-Semitism and the situation in Iran,” Schwartz said. “He made a point of pressing whoever would listen to him that these are not normal times. This is a time when every concerned human being has to take up the cause of confronting militant Islam, and especially the threat from Iran, and that this is a responsible position of every caring -- not only Jew, but every human being. This is from day one in his teaching.”
Greenman recalled once visiting Weinberg at his home on a Friday night. On entering, Weinberg's young son was climbing up a pipe. Expecting the rabbi to scold his son for misbehaving, Greenman was shocked to discover him offer to lift his son on his shoulders so he could better reach the ceiling. “That's who Rabbi Weinberg was,” Greenman said. “He was a man who said to everyone, stand on my shoulders and I'll help you go further. He helped every Jew try to reach the ceiling.”
-- JTA, February 6, 2009
The Rosh Yeshivah and the Shliach: A Jerusalem Encounter By Avraham Berkowitz
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.
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 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.
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. Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz works at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, NY.