I want to share a story about the visionary founder of Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Noah Weinberg, of blessed memory. I believe it will shed but one more brilliant ray of light on the remarkable man that we and the entire Jewish people have lost.
On countless occasions, Rabbi Weinberg would quote the seminal Jewish concept of bishvili nivra ha'olam – "the world was created for me." He taught us that the meaning and implication of this concept is that each and every one of us must view the well-being of the Jewish people, and indeed even the well being of the world, as a personal responsibility. The idea that "the world was created for me" does not mean that the world is to use or abuse as we wish, but rather that it is ours to take care of.
Implicit in this teaching, Rabi Weinberg emphasized, is the vast potential we each possess to change the world. Speaking personally, I can tell you that no one believed more deeply in my potential to make a difference in this world than Rabbi Weinberg. If you ever met him, then you know what I'm talking about.
The following story is about how one young man embodied this principle, and how Rabbi Weinberg personally, though very discreetly, became this young man's partner.
A Partnership is Born
Earlier this year, I was at an event on Capitol Hill devoted to bringing the plight of the Israeli town of Sderot to the attention of the U.S. Congress. In recent years, Sderot has been battered by thousands of missiles from Gaza. Afterward, I had the opportunity to drive Noam Bedein, the founder of the Sderot Media Center, to a dinner meeting. In the car, I mentioned in passing that Rabbi Noah Weinberg had recently passed away.
Sderot is perhaps the world's only city where the entire population lives with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
Noam responded by saying, "I know. I want to dedicate the Sderot Media Center website in memory of Rabbi Weinberg." For a moment I was taken aback, but then, knowing Rabbi Weinberg, it made perfect sense. And then Noam filled in the details:
After finishing his service in the IDF, Noam Bedein set out for a year-long trek through the Far East. A photographer, a deeply sensitive soul, and a casual practitioner of meditation, Noam spent his time observing the daily challenges faced by his fellow human beings in eleven different countries. Upon returning to Israel, Noam enrolled in Sapir College in Sderot where he majored in cinema. It didn't take long for Noam to come face to face with the brutal reality of daily missile attacks on Sderot.
For Noam, the shock of living under constant threat of death by missile (in fact, a Sapir student was killed by a missile) was compounded by the shocking realization that few people in Israel, and virtually no one around the world, understood how profoundly the 20,000 people of Sderot were suffering. Sderot is perhaps the only city on the planet where virtually the entire population lives with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
So Noam made a decision: to awaken the world to the plight of the Jews in Sderot. At first, all he had was an idea and unwavering commitment. What he didn't have was the means to implement his vision or the financial resources to make it happen. That's where Rabbi Weinberg came in.
To launch his endeavor, Noam needed computer equipment, a broadcast-quality camera to film the aftermath of every missile attack, and a car to immediately reach each attack site as well as to bring journalists, politicians and foreign diplomats to see the nightmare of Sderot firsthand. Noam called Rabbi Weinberg and was invited to his home in Jerusalem. Almost instantly, the rabbi with the long white beard and the young man with the long red ponytail, formed a deep bond.
Rabbi Weinberg committed himself to getting Noam the funds he needed, and it wasn't long before the Sderot Media Center was up and running. Rabbi Weinberg's involvement didn't stop there; in fact he became the silent patron of the Sderot Media Center and asked various supporters of Aish HaTorah to join in helping Noam's efforts. To Rabbi Weinberg, it was simply unacceptable that the Jewish people were not mobilized on behalf of their fellow Jews.
To this day, Noam does not know the names of most of the donors that Rabbi Weinberg turned to for support. What he does know, is that with the passing of Rabbi Weinberg, the Sderot Media Center lost its greatest advocate as well as its primary source of funding. Students of Rabbi Weinberg are well aware that Sderot and the Islamic threat were uppermost in his mind until the very end.
Things Left Undone
Ponder the following quote from a Dutch psychoanalyst who hid a Jewish family during the Holocaust:
We all have memories of things we should have done but we didn't, and it gets in your way the rest of your life.
Consider this: If you had been around while the Holocaust was happening, and were afforded the opportunity to help save lives, is it possible you would have done nothing?
In Sderot, 20,000 Jews are living under the constant threat of assault, trauma and murder. Sderot is not "in the West Bank," it's not a "settlement," and no peace plan has ever thought that Sderot should be anything other than the Israeli working-class town it is. What distinguishes Sderot is that it lies less than a mile from the Gaza Strip. Hamas, the freely elected government in Gaza, is an Islamic movement whose aim is to wipe Israel off the map. Hamas is also the possessor of thousands of missiles – 7,000 of which have been fired at Sderot.
One Friday afternoon, while walking the streets of Sderot, I was feeling relaxed and safe. I felt safe because wherever I looked, I saw a bomb shelter. If a missile had been launched my way, it takes 25 seconds to hit a playground, old age home, bakery, or house in Sderot. But not to worry, because an early-warning-system sounds a red alert siren giving people an entire 15 seconds to find a shelter.
The next day, at Shabbat lunch, Shlomo told me about the morning he was driving with three of his small children, when suddenly the Red Alert sounded. He could only carry two children at once, so the youngest, who would hopefully never remember being left behind in her car seat, remained alone. In the shelter, Shlomo held his two children tight, and prayed that the missile would not find the third.
Sderot is home to over 7,000 Jewish children – but not to worry, because wherever kids are at play, you will find a missile-proof shelter. Sderot is probably the only city in the world that retrofits playgrounds with millions of dollars of reinforced steel.
Aunts and uncles in Sderot have buried nieces and nephews murdered by Hamas missiles. Ten-year-old soccer enthusiasts no longer have legs to run with. Eleven and 12-year-old children wet their beds at night and suffer from terrible nightmares; their psyches are haunted. High school girls can't concentrate on schoolwork or laugh with their friends because dread and trauma are their ever-present, silent companions. Mothers who try to be strong for their children gather in informal groups to cry and cry and cry – and then return to the task of being a strong parent.
Emptying out Sderot would be handing a victory to Hamas.
If it's so dangerous, why don't these people just leave? For one, most Sderot residents cannot leave because that is where their lives, their jobs and homes and their children's friends and schools are. It doesn't help that real estate prices have plummeted and the working-class population of Sderot simply does not have the resources to buy elsewhere.
But the more important reason that people do not leave is because "retreat is defeat." Emptying out Sderot would be handing a victory to Hamas, and embolden them to start aiming their rockets at the next town. If Sderot falls, everything else can fall with it. So Sderot residents are on the front-lines of the war against terror, and we must encourage them to hold fast.
If you were a Jew living under this kind of unrelenting threat, wouldn't you hope that your fellow Jews would do something to help?
Rabbi Weinberg worked behind the scenes to help Noam Bedein build the Sderot Media Center and fund an array of efforts on behalf of the Jews of Sderot. The Sderot Media Center is the only organization of its kind and the extent of what it does in the areas of providing comfort to victims and educating foreign journalists and visiting diplomats is simply remarkable. To gain an appreciation of the work that Rabbi Weinberg deemed so important, and to see what Noam Bedein and his small part-time staff do, visit www.sderotmedia.org.il