The second yahrtzeit of Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l (Yisrael Noach ben Yitzchak Matisyahu) is on Shvat 11 – Saturday night and Sunday, January 15-16, 2011. Commemorative events are being held in numerous locations.
"It is hard to think of another Jew in the last 2,000 years who has had a direct impact on more Jews than Rabbi Noah Weinberg, zt"l,” a prominent rabbi in Los Angeles, who had no personal relationship with Reb Noah, once told me. As a pioneer leader of the movement to bring Jews back to their heritage, and as the founder and dean of Aish HaTorah, the ripples of his influence continue to spread wide, two years after his death.
The head of Young Communists of Great Britain stumbled into Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem, where he and Reb Noah used to go at it toe-to-toe on a daily basis. The ex-Communist spent a few years studying in Aish HaTorah before taking a position in a non-religious Jewish school in Liverpool. There he challenged his students to take seriously the possibility of God’s existence. For his efforts, he was fired by the school, but not before he had directed five students to Aish HaTorah, one of whom would become the founder of the Aish branch in England. Ripples of influence.
Reb Noah used to say that with ten committed men he could change the world.
Reb Noah used to say that with ten committed men he could change the world. And though he passed away with a feeling of failure that he had not succeeded in reversing the tide of assimilation engulfing the Jewish world, he produced hundreds of close students who burn with a desire to save the Jewish people. He used to ask, “What can we give to the Almighty Who lacks nothing?” And he would answer, “We can return His children to Him.” That is what he dedicated his life to doing and inspired others to do as well.
Under his guidance, his students created the Discovery seminars attended by close to 200,000 Jews, 95% of whom reported feeling more Jewish pride. Other students early saw the potential of Aish.com, today one of the world's largest websites providing Jewish content with 385,000 weekly email subscribers in English, Hebrew and Spanish. Project Inspire, which promulgates the message that reaching out to other Jews is the responsibility of every Jew, has already trained over 4,000 committed Jews in how to do so, in a multi-part training program. Project Chazon, another initiative that Reb Noah helped to launch, runs 500 seminars in Jewish schools annually dealing with questions of Jewish belief.
The key to understanding Reb Noah lies in the intensity of his relationship with God. From his earliest youth, his father, Reb Mattisiyahu Weinberg, would ask him every time he saw him, “Noah, Who loves you more than anybody?” The answer was always the Almighty. That simple lesson was one he repeated endlessly to his students. “He completely changed me,” remembers Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein, a veteran of some of the finest yeshivas. “Not just a tweaking, but a sea change. He showed me that it is possible in our day to be real with the Almighty and strive for greatness."
Rabbi Yaakov Salomon had a similar experience. “Reb Noah palpably lived with the Almighty. He made God real for me.”
Reb Noah never despaired because God is capable of granting us any success.
There was no area of the religious duties of the head and heart about which Reb Noah had not thought deeply – nay, that he was thinking deeply – and in which he did not have a ready answer to any question. He made his students see not just that God exists and that His Torah is true, but that the Torah is relevant to their lives. Often in the space of the first “48 Ways” class with Reb Noah, a lifetime of misconceptions about Judaism simply washed away.
The solution to every problem – personal or communal – lies in the Torah, and he showed his students how to relentlessly search for those solutions and insights into life. He made the Torah deep, relevant, and personal – Toras Chaim, the “instructions for living.”
His deep awareness of God was the source of his power, and of his ability to empower others. He never despaired because God is capable of granting us any success, as long as our purposes are His. "Is the power of God lacking?" could have served as Reb Noah’s motto. Success, in his view, depended not on natural gifts but on knowing that if something needs to be done for the Jewish people, then it can be done. He taught that the Jewish principle of not relying on miracles applies only to individuals in their private affairs, but when it comes to the needs of the Jewish people it does not apply. In a play on John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, he taught, “Don’t ask what you can do for God, but what will you let the Almighty do for you.” And many would argue the proof that he was correct lies in all that Aish HaTorah has achieved.
Urgency of the Mission
Failure did not bother him – not his own and not that of others. He proudly boasted of all the institutions he had brought into being and which failed, prior to Aish HaTorah. What he could not tolerate, however, was for someone to allow himself to be defined by his failure. In that he was the most demanding of leaders, and not all were up to the demands he placed upon them. He conceded nothing to human weakness and frailty – his own or others. Both reflected a lack of faith, in his view. A student once told him that he did not believe that he possessed the ability to complete all of Talmud. Reb Noah told him, “When you arrive upstairs, don’t tell them you knew me.”
He looked at every Jew, whatever spiritual level he was holding, and saw his potential for greatness.
He did not think of Jews in terms of religious and non-religious, insiders and outsiders. Rather he thought of Klal Yisrael, the community of Israel. That, too, was a function of his faith. He looked at every Jew, whatever spiritual level he was holding, and saw his potential for greatness.
Reb Noah was so big because he made himself small before the Almighty. Even many of those who disagreed with some of his approaches saw him as a giant. “He was the biggest person I ever met,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits. That bigness consisted of his total lack of self. His desires and needs never factored into any calculation. The only question he ever cared about was: What does the Almighty want from me?
Reb Noah felt that the threats facing the Jewish people meant that one could not live a “normal” life. He saw the urgency of the situation and with unceasing energy never stopped working toward solutions. His office was akin to a “situation room” where at all hours Reb Noah would be conceiving and evaluating strategies that could make a real difference.
Because he remained focused laser-like on the mission, he was able to achieve so much. His closest associate in his final years, Rabbi Eric Coopersmith can rattle off 20 organizations for which Reb Noah raised in excess of a hundred thousand dollars, even as Aish HaTorah labored under heavy debts. If the Jewish people needed something, no distinction was made between his organization or institution and anyone else’s. Anything that affected the Jewish people was his business because he took personal responsibility for the entire nation.
It was no accident that he touched so many lives so deeply. He cared more and therefore did more. Above all, he demonstrated that one Jew can make a difference in hundreds of thousands of lives. And with his ripples of influence, that number grows each year.
Jonathan Rosenblum is working on a biography of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt”l.