Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg died last Monday, Jan. 23. The German-born rebbetzin, a universally well-respected advocate of women’s rights and domestic abuse awareness in the Jewish community, was the wife of Ner Israel Rabbinical College’s late rosh yeshiva (dean), Rabbi Yaakov S. Weinberg. Her late father, Rabbi Yaacov Yitzchok Ruderman, was the yeshiva’s founder and first rosh yeshiva. Rebbetzin Weinberg served as a consultant on the formation of CHANA (Counseling Helpline and Aid Network for Abused Women), a project of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
The following is a tribute written by Phil Jacobs, editor of the Washington Jewish Week and former executive editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times.
Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg entered my life in 1984. My mother of blessed memory, Bernice Jacobs, had recently passed away. Mrs. Weinberg was a founding member of an organization that called itself Caregivers.
The idea was to train volunteers to provide respite care for people who were exhausted from the care they were giving to sick loved ones. For about a year, my father, Morton Jacobs, and I attended meetings. I can remember the two of us leaving the Clarks Lane location of these meetings and talking about how incredible a leader Mrs. Weinberg was.
She was, as my father put it, a “leader of leaders.”
It was less than a year later that my father would succumb to colon cancer. During his illness, I came to learn what it was like to be a caregiver and to be tired.
But it was the encouragement from my new friend, the Rebbetzin, that helped keep me focused on the work that had to be done to keep my beloved father comfortable through his last days.
When he passed away, Rebbetzin Weinberg was there with me at Sol Levinson and Bros. again, helping me and teaching me, in this case, how to mourn. While we had our share of serious conversations, there is one story that the two of us shared that I’ll never forget. It’s a story I’ve written about before. I was at her home on the Ner Israel campus to interview her about Bikkur Cholim. She was at the time the driving force of this wonderful organization whose mission still is to visit the Jewish infirm.
I was sitting in her living room, and while I was waiting for her to come in from the kitchen, I noticed all of the photographs of gedolim (Torah giants) on the walls staring down at me. It was almost as if they wondered why I had merited the time of Mrs. Weinberg. I was wondering that myself.
I started asking her questions for the Bikkur Cholim story when I noticed she was staring at my feet. I was wearing an old, beat-up pair of black leather loafers. I asked the Rebbetzin why she was looking so intensely at my feet.
Her answer: “What size shoe do you wear, Phil?”
I responded, “What size shoe do I wear? Why do you want to know this? Besides, I’m interviewing you, you’re not interviewing me.”
Her reply: “Phil, your father and I were friends. Now what size shoe do you wear?”
This time, she was getting a little perturbed, so I told her. I looked up at the photographs of the gedolim, and I think their collective brows were furrowed.
The Rebbetzin got up, disappeared to the back of her home and returned with a shoebox. She took out a pair of gray suede Hush Puppy loafers.
Still in the perturbed voice, she said, “Try these on.”
“Try these on? I can’t try these on. Listen, I came to do an interview. What is this, a shoe store?
“Phil, put the shoes on.”
So I did.
“Now walk to the dining room and see how they feel.”
“Have enough room for your toes?”
Okay, I’m interviewing one of the greatest rebbetzins in the history of Baltimore Jewry. I was nervous about being with someone with such grace and grandeur. And she’s asking me if I can wiggle my toes.
Meanwhile, I didn’t want to admit it, but the shoes felt really good, and they looked good as well.
“Good, they’re yours.”
“I can’t take these shoes from you,” I said to her.
Her reply: “Philip Jacobs.”
My reply: “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”
Her reply: “I bought them for the Rabbi [Yaakov Weinberg, one of the late truly great rabbis of Baltimore’s Jewish community] and they aren’t his style.”
This is where that one line that I heard myself saying to her, unable to take my hand and catch the words and scoop them back in my mouth before they were audible, comes in.
I said, “This is about as close as I’ll ever come to filling the Rabbi’s shoes.”
She smiled that “Oy, I can’t believe he just said that” smile one gives to another person.
I realized that here I was sitting with one of the greats, and this is the best line I could come up with.
I gave myself an invisible smack in the forehead.
Weeks later, the Rebbetzin invited me to sit on a committee to explore a possible homeless shelter for the Jewish community. She ran the meeting in a business-like way with her loving and caring style from the central offices of the Rebbetzin’s work, her kitchen table.
I wore my new shoes to the meeting.
The gedolim approved.
Baltimore has lost a champion and defender for the abused and traumatized. May her memory serve as a protective force for all of us.
We’ll never forget you, Rebbetzin.
This article originally appeared in the Baltimore Jewish Times.