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22 Av 5759 - August 4, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly
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IN-DEPTH FEATURES

A Rebbi for America: HaRav Shmuel Yaakov Weinberg, zt'l
by Mordecai Plaut

Part I

The Mishnah (Bovo Metzia 33a) says that one should return a lost object to one's rebbi before returning the lost object of his father, "for his father brought him to this world, but his rebbe, who taught him chochmah, brings him to the life of Olom Haboh."

In our times, children grow up in environments that are suffused with Torah and yiras Shomayim. In Yerushalayim, Lakewood, Bnei Brak and Baltimore, and many other communities, with Hashem's mercy, the children of the chareidi community today can imbibe the basics of the path to Olom Haboh from numerous sources.

In the postwar generation, many of those who grew up and came of age in the 50's, the 60's and even the 70's, were not so fortunate. Even those who grew up in homes where they were educated to keep Torah and mitzvos and did not lose their basic observance along the way, could go through life without having tasted the sweetness and truth of Torah and without truly recognizing and following the real derech Hashem.

Those who came to maturity in those days and were zoche to become bnei Torah, know and understand from their own experiences what it means to have a rebbi who brought them to chayei Olom Haboh. Most can think back and see how things could have turned out terribly different, if the right rebbe had not brought them to the derech Hashem.

Outside culture was powerful and the Jewish community then was weak. The lure of the street and the university was strong. The temptation of American wealth was almost overwhelming. The vital links to the deep Torah tradition were in ruins. The Jewish community was dominated by the secular and anti-religious. The emes was truly rare and almost impossible to find.

It was in this context that the Rosh Yeshiva zt"l, HaRav Yaakov Weinberg, Rebbi, stepped in and brought so many to chayei Olom Haboh, who would have otherwise almost certainly have joined the American rat race to the be'er shachas.

Speaking at the 53rd annual convention of Agudas Yisroel of America in November 1975 (and later reprinted from the Jewish Observer in ArtScroll's A Path Through the Ashes), the Rosh Yeshiva observed: "Since 1945, Klal Yisroel can never be the same. Our areas of function, the nature of our feelings, the nature of our problems, the methods we employ to solve them, even our very feelings have undergone a permanent change because of Churban Europe. Not only has the focal point of Klal Yisroel been transferred from Europe to Eretz Yisroel, which brings with it a host of challenges, problems and shifts in perspective; not only have we lost our centers of vibrant Jewish life, with all the ramifications this must have on ourselves and our children for all generations to come; but we have lost our prime source of living Yiddishkeit. We must now struggle on a different level not only to understand the hashkafah, the philosophic outlook of Torah, but even to properly experience the simple awareness of our existence as Jews. Thus, our children are more impoverished than all preceding generations, for they cannot draw from this reservoir of a continuous, ongoing Jewish existence per se. The continuity has weakened and we must now recreate it."

And that is exactly what he did.

His Links to the Past

For the postwar generation, the Rosh Yeshiva reconstructed the link between American Jewish youth and the flow of tradition, the living Jewish essence that had been so cruelly and suddenly cut off by the Nazi legions. It is this link to the vital core of Torah life that is so important; and it is by no means guaranteed even among those who keep mitzvos.

It is, as he might have said, perfectly clear that he could not serve to link the younger generation to the mesora without being thoroughly grounded in it himself. In fact, his own connection was very broad and very deep.

The Weinberg family is from the Slonimer chassidic dynasty, a Lithuanian chassidus. The approach and relationship of the Slonim chassidim to Torah has been similar to the classical Litvishe approach. The founder of the dynasty was HaRav Avrohom ben Yitzchok Mattisyohu Weinberg, the author of Chesed LeAvrohom and Yesod Ho'avodah, who was the rosh yeshiva in Slonim before he became rebbi. His teachers in chassidus were HaRav Noach of Lachowitch and HaRav Moshe of Kobrin.

The Slonimers always had a special closeness to Eretz Yisroel. Every erev Shabbos, and on other occasions, they made a special collection of Eretz Yisroel gelt to support the yishuv there.

Even before he was bar mitzvah, the Rebbi sent his grandson Noach, along with a group of "Anash" from Slonimer chassidim, to Tiveriya in Eretz Yisroel in order to build a Torah yishuv.

The project took hold in Tiveriya. The chassidim contributed to the Torah development of the whole area. R' Noach grew up in Tiveriya. He became engaged in Tammuz, 5631 (1871), and in the "Roshei Perokim" drawn up on 3 Tammuz of that year, his future father-in-law promised him five years of kest. The wedding was on erev Shabbos parshas Toldos 5632 (1872).

On his engagement, his grandfather, the first Slonimer Rebbe, wrote him a note with important advice: "To my grandson the chosson Noach n"y. Mazel tov to you. From now on strengthen yourself and forcefully brace yourself to enter into avodas Hashem, as the posuk says: ". . . Bnei Yisroel are avodim to me." And this is impossible without the gevurah of conquering your yetzer. The main thing is first of all to purify your thought, and to worship Hashem with deed, word and thought. Temimus, simcha and zerizus are the guardians of avoda; yirah and ta'anug are the wings of avoda; and prayer from the heart and toil and steady learning of Torah are the gates to Heaven. But with all this [you need] entreating and supplicating before Hashem yisborach. There is no need write more because you have, Thank G-d, your teachers in front of you. And the foundation stone is to be shomer habris. (signed) AB"Z (Ovicho Zekeinecho) Avrohom

Among R' Noach's children were R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu, R' Avrohom (who was born in 1889 and became the Slonimer Rebbe in 5715-1955) and a sister Bubba who married R' Yoel Ashkenazi who was related to the Satmar family. R' Noach was niftar in 5687 (1927).

R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu had an intensive Torah education from a very early age. He was a big ba'al kishron and a talmid chochom, but also very practical.

He married at a very young age and his first wife passed away while giving birth to his son Yosef. His second wife bore him another son, Avrohom, before they were divorced. He struggled for several years raising his family by himself, but then he heard of a great tzaddik and talmid chochom who lived in Tzfas named Rav Avner Lorberbaum, a direct descendent of the famed Nesivos Hamishpot, whose oldest daughter Hinda was ready to be married. R' Mattis went to Tzfas to speak to him, and ended up marrying the daughter himself. He was in his early thirties at the time.

He married off his oldest son soon after. R' Chaim Yosef Dovid ("Yossel") married Pearl Lider of Yerushalayim in Adar, 5672 (1912). In those days and in that community, everyone married young. R' Chaim Yosef Dovid was about 16 years old at his marriage.

R' Mattis had a son and daughter by his second wife in relatively tranquil times. Chava, that daughter (today she is Rebbetzin Pincus), says that she does not know exactly how old she is, but they kept better track of the age of her older brother R' Moshe who was born in 1910, and she is a bit younger than he. Her treasured first memory is of her father and grandfather R' Avner learning together while rocking her.

World War I was raging in Europe, and times were very rough for the yishuv in Eretz Yisroel. A significant portion of the regular income of the Jews of Eretz Yisroel was composed of donations from chutz la'aretz such as the Eretz Yisroel gelt collected in Slonim. The severe disruption of the communities that was caused by the war made it difficult to collect the regular monies and impossible to send whatever was collected to its intended recipients.

Life in Eretz Yisroel was also disrupted as the Turks, who were allied with the Germans, used the area as a base of operations, and the presence of the army and its movements were very disruptive. The Turks also imposed taxes and other restrictions on Jews, especially those who were citizens of hostile powers.

R' Mattis had built a mill on the Jordan River near Tiveriya. His main customers were the kibbutzim in the area -- some of the earliest -- who brought in their wheat for milling.

Many of the area kibbutzim were far from religion. R' Mattis had a horse and he used to visit the kibbutzim to circumcise the children, unannounced. Although the kibbutzniks would not call a mohel, they did not usually refuse his services when they were proffered for free.

The Slonim community in Tiveriya founded a learning kollel near the hot springs there and the tomb of Rav Meir Ba'al Haness. Rav Noach was involved as was R' Mattis and other members of the Slonim community in Tiveriya, including R' Mattis' good friend R' Osher Werner. The mill was powered by the waters of the Jordan. Where the water entered the mill to turn the water wheel, it flowed strong and fast. The currents apparently brought fish to the area, as they had a perennial problem with the Arabkes (Arab women) who came to sneak in to catch fish. R' Mattis was concerned that someone might get hurt and he posted signs and even mashgichim whose job it was to keep out the Arabkes. All this did not prevent one of them from getting her hair caught in the machinery and getting severely injured or killed. This brought the wrath of the Turkish authorities down on R' Mattis, despite his efforts to avoid just such an accident.

Some said that the Turkish authorities had their eyes on the mill even before the incident. In any case, this incident gave them an opportunity: If they executed the owner they could take over his property. R' Noach's second wife, Mumma ("Aunt") Brocho, was a citizen of Russia, and she wasted no time in traveling to Yerushalayim where she prevailed upon the Russian consul to go to Tiveriya to free her step- grandson -- which he was able to do.

The European powers had all established consuls in Eretz Yisroel as part of their grand designs on the crumbling Ottoman Turkish Empire. Each consul had wide powers under Turkish law, and they watched over their citizens jealously.

Once World War I began, however, and the Ottoman Turks were at war with the European powers, all of the old power that European consuls enjoyed disappeared. The authorities began to arrest those who had been freed because of the intervention of a foreign consul, and R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu hastily fled for Alexandria with his close friend R' Osher Werner. This was in 1915.

From the relative safety of the Egyptian port (which was under British control) they wrote to the Slonimer Rebbe for advice. R' Mattis thought that the war would not last long, and he wanted to sit it out in Alexandria and return to his family and community in Tiveriya after it was over.

The Rebbe wrote him back that he was mistaken. The war would be a long one, and he should not expect to be able to return soon. He advised him to take the next ship out for America.

It is hard to imagine any other circumstances that would have brought R' Mattis to America. Although the streets of America held a strong attraction to many who were concerned about parnossa and material wealth, for a Yid like R' Mattis the well-known spiritual dangers of America made it very unattractive, to say the least. However, under the circumstances he had little choice, and on top of that he had the advice of the Rebbe. The Torah community of America and the English-speaking world was immeasurably enriched by his move.

The trip took a long time under the wartime conditions. They had little to eat, but R' Mattis and R' Osher had a gemora and they did not care if the food was sparse or monotonous.

R' Mattis' family was left behind, and things were not easy for them. There was real famine in Eretz Yisroel, and thousands of Jews died of hunger. This was true all over Eretz Yisroel. The Yerushalayim community in particular has bitter memories of that period, as the Zionists seized control of all the money that did trickle through from chutz la'aretz and refused to release it to those who remained faithful to the traditional ways.

In Tiveriya, Rebbetzin Hinda Weinberg proved bold and resourceful, perhaps pushed by the circumstances. Her sister Esther got her a machine for making woolen stockings and other warm clothing. It gets quite cold in those areas in the winter, and there was a big demand for warm clothing. After making them, she took them herself, at great risk, to Syria to sell. She came back with flour, a scarce and precious commodity in those days in Eretz Yisroel. They used the flour to bake large loaves and measure the pieces into which they cut them, so that everyone could be fed.

Living in Tzfas

Left alone, Rebbetzin Weinberg spent most of her time in Tzfas with her own family. Chava's childhood memories are not of a harsh or difficult time. She remembers sitting in those days on Shabbos afternoon in the large window of their house that led out to the courtyard, as her mother, grandmother and aunt softly sang G-tt fun Avrohom at shalos seudas time.

She also remembers the early snows of the winters in Tzfas. Tucked warmly into her mother's fur jacket, she would listen for her older brother Moshe walking home from cheder in the dark. The cheder boys were nervous about walking home by themselves in the dark, and they used to carry torches and sing Ho'aderes veho'emuna to keep up their spirits.

From time to time the family went to visit their relatives in Tiveriya. To do so, they had to organize a shayoro, a small caravan to travel by mule or donkey. These caravans were led by local Arabs or by one of the Sephardic Jews. The family had to be ready early in the morning, for the journey took them a full day (today it takes less than an hour). As evening fell they could just make out the twinkling lights of Tiveriya in the distance.

The Struggle in America

R' Yitzchok Mattisyohu had to struggle to establish himself in America. Working on Shabbos was out of the question for him, but it was not easy to find work during the rest of the week for someone who was not willing to come in on Shabbos. In those days all of America worked five and a half days, including half a day on Saturday. It was not until much later, in the 1940's, that America went on the current five day workweek that made things so much easier for those who keep Shabbos.

So R' Mattis tried many things. One of his ideas was to start a small dairy to supply cholov Yisroel. He found someone who had a place in the mountains that he called "Har Sinai." That man used to rent out rooms in the summer to those from the city who wanted to escape the oppressive heat. R' Mattis tried keeping some cows on his place, but it did not work out.

After many trials, R' Mattis eventually opened a wholesale trimmings store on the Lower East Side on Bleeker Street. Since he owned his own business, no one could tell him to stay open on Shabbos. He became known for his scrupulous honesty in business.

But it was not only shemiras Shabbos that was important to him. R' Mattis was determined to live even in America just like he had in Tzfas and Tiveriya, in terms of kedusha and taharo, and in this he very much succeeded.

Together Again

Still, it was six long years, and 1921, before he could send for his family to join him.

Today, Rebbetzin Pincus still remembers the trip well. They first went to Jaffa where they stayed a few nights at a hotel near the beach. They boarded the ship for the two-week trip to America. On board they had to make do with salads and eggs.

As they approached the American shore, the young Chava recognized her father waiting for them. Although she had been too young to remember him the last time she saw him, before he fled, the resemblance between him and her older half- brother Yossel was so strong that his identity was unmistakable.

The reunited family set about building Yiddishkeit in America, both on a personal level and in the community.

R' Mattis was described by his son-in-law, Rav Avrohom Pincus, as a kodosh and a tohor. He was determined to live in the arba amos shel halacha even in America of those days, when shemiras Shabbos was the big nisoyon for many Jews, and there was not even any dream left of such rarefied kedusha. R' Mattis created and lived in a veritable teivas Noach in the turbulent waters of the yetzer hora of America.

As one stunning indication of his achievements, he did not look out of his own arba amos. He lived within the arba amos of Hashem and learned Torah constantly. There are many anecdotes connected with this, and as incredible as it seems to one who did not know him, it was part of life for his family. The Rosh Yeshiva used to tell how he always knew that he could avoid his father if he remained silent in his vicinity. R' Mattis would simply walk right by, completely unaware that his son was standing there.

Rebbetzin Pincus tells that she once left their house just as her father was approaching. In a mischievous mood, she blocked his path. Her father moved to one side to go around her. She quickly moved over as well. R' Mattis tried once more, but then suspected something. He looked up, saw that the woman was his daughter, and they both had a laugh.

R' Mattis learned at every opportunity that he had. In between customers in his store, he opened a sefer.

On Sundays, which was not a business day in those days, he used to go around to collect Eretz Yisroel gelt, with a leather valise. While speaking with people about the money, he also spoke to them about Shabbos, learning and kashrus.

He was also deeply committed to bringing up his children in the path of Yisroel Saba, and did not spare effort nor expense to realize this.

His daughter was the only American to go learn with Soroh Schenirer in Cracow. R' Mattis wanted to send her almost as soon as she arrived in America, but her mother insisted that she wait until she was 18. Rebbetzin Pincus remembers that her father used to pay her a dollar for each perek of Pirkei Ovos that she learned -- and that was in the days that a dollar was a dollar.

Showing his combination of business acumen and commitment to Torah learning, R' Mattis developed this approach of giving rewards for his children's learning, and to each the offer was different, as they discovered only years later when they compared notes. R' Noach remembers that he was also offered a dollar a perek, though his sister Chaya was offered the princely sum of five dollars. Recognizing his older son's abilities, R' Mattis offered R' Yaakov only ten cents a perek!

He felt this a very effective method of chinuch and wrote his son Yosef in Eretz Yisroel to offer his own children financial incentives to learn Torah (their families were both about the same age).

One can imagine that the sons got a lot of attention. Although he sent them to the best schools he could find, he did not spare himself in learning with them as much as possible. On leil Shabbos they davened in the Nine Unninetzik shul on the Lower East Side, and R' Mattis learned with his sons for two to three hours before they all went home to their seudas Shabbos.

A Trip to Eretz Yisroel

In 1931 (5691), Mrs. Weinberg went to Eretz Yisroel to visit her family. She left her oldest son Moshe in America. Her daughter Chava was in Cracow, the only American student of Soroh Schenirer. She took her two younger sons with her, R' Yaakov, who was eight at the time, and R' Noach, who was just a baby.

In Tiveriya, the young Yaakov was tested by his father's family almost as soon as he arrived. They were surprised to see that he had mastered two masechtos. When he was asked who taught him, he answered, "My father."

At first he went to cheder in Tiveriya, until a certain incident that he often retold in later years. Outside the cheder one day, a woman's clothing caught fire and she screamed for help. She burned to death. The rebbi of his class said they could not go to help her because she was a woman. The young Yaakov refused to go back to learn with that rebbe, since he displayed the obvious trait of a chossid shote, and he could not bear to learn Torah from such a person. "This is not Torah," he said. "If he does not do what the Ribono Shel Olom wants, I cannot learn with him."

Altogether, they spent three years in Eretz Yisroel. For a time R' Yaakov learned in the famous Yerushalayim cheder Eitz Chaim.

He was young and at first the yeshiva did not want to even interview him. For one thing, they said, he is American. For another, he is very young. They could not do anything about the first but to at least make the second less obvious his mother bought him an older boys' type hat (a cappalootch or "super"), so that he would not appear so out of place.

Materially the life was very simple, even as it was spiritually rich. It was still the time of the old-time Yerushalayim shel ma'alo.

The young boy lived with his older half-brother. He slept on the floor. The school day was from eight in the morning until eight at night. He used to say that breakfast in those days was bread and onions, while supper was onions and bread. Even in later years, material comforts meant nothing to him and those years certainly taught him that one can survive without material comforts.

Back in America, he went to Torah Vodaas, and then to the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva started by HaRav Dovid Leibowitz, now in Forest Hills. R' Mattis liked the fact that they hardly had any bein hazmanim, learning through Tisha B'Av, just like in Eretz Yisroel.

When he got older he went to Yeshivas Rabbenu Chaim Berlin under HaRav Yitzchok Hutner, zt"l, where he became a star talmid.

Rav Hutner said of him that he has a tefisa and a schnellkeit in kishron that are unparalleled. HaRav Aharon Schechter quoted HaRav Hutner as saying that he had a shtarker kop.

Rav Emanuel Feldman, formerly of Atlanta and now of Yerushalayim, recalls that when he went to the high school of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in 1942-43, Rav Hutner gave him special attention since he knew his father from Slobodke. Every young bochur was assigned an older bochur who took care of him, making sure that his needs were met. The younger boys had their older mentors to turn to when anything bothered them. Because of Rav Hutner's special relationship with the senior Rav Feldman, Rav Hutner assigned R' Yaakov Weinberg to be R' Emanuel's mentor.

When R' Emanuel arrived and went to greet Rav Hutner, the rosh yeshiva told him, "I have arranged for you a special young man to take care of you." Then he introduced him to R' Yaakov, the top bochur in the beis medrash.

R' Emanuel Feldman eventually met up with R' Yaakov later at Ner Israel in Baltimore, and much later they became mechutonim when R' Yaakov's daughter Miriam married R' Emanuel's son Ilan, now the rabbi of his father's former shul in Atlanta.

As the star talmid of HaRav Hutner, R' Yaakov was sent to a weekend rabbonus at the tender age of 19. He received semichah from his rosh yeshiva in 1944, at the age of 21.

End of Part I


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