Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Cheshvan 5767 - October 25, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Rav Simcha Weissman — Torah Pioneer and Innovator in America
First Yahrtzeit: 12 Cheshvan 5767

by M. Samsonowitz

The 100 or so American yeshiva students who went to study in European yeshivas in the 1930s will be remembered as the early pioneers of the religious Jewish community in America. These men bucked the trends of the time, gave up lucrative professions and secular degrees, and dedicated themselves to rebuilding Jewry spiritually. Most returned to American soil after years of study and threw their efforts into building enclaves of Orthodox Jewry. Their combined efforts have resulted in the large religious community in America of today. With each passing year, we are losing more of these unique individuals to whom American Jewry owes so much.

At his passing on 12 Marcheshvan last year (5766), Rav Simcha Weissman was one such diamond plucked from us.

Early Years

Rav Simcha was born on 21 Shvat, 1917, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to staunchly religious parents who remained faithful to Torah even in the alluring and ravaging environment of early-twentieth-century America.

His father — who came from the Galician town of Shinova, and whose father's sandek was Rav Yechezkel Shinover, the son of the Divrei Chaim — had arrived at the age of 18 in New York in 1898. He succeeded in raising all his children to be observant Jews, an exceptional feat in those days.

Rav Simcha's parents who sought the best religious environment for their children moved to Williamburg when Yeshivas Torah Vodaas opened. They succeeded in raising their children to be observant Jews, an exceptional feat in those days. Rav Simcha and his brothers were among the first students sent to Torah Vodaas to gain ahavas Torah, unshakable emunoh and a proper Torah outlook.

Simcha later became one of the first talmidim of HaRav Dovid Leibowitz when he opened his Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim in Williamsburg.

Encouraged by his family and imbued with strong spiritual leanings, the young Simcha was not content with the level of Torah studies in the U.S., but longed for more. When he expressed the desire to his mashgiach — HaRav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg — to study in a European yeshiva, Rav Scheinberg urged him to leave immediately. They rushed to the local passport office and banged on the already- closed door. The clerk open the door for them and issued the passport on the spot.

A week later, the young Simcha was already on a boat to Europe, accompanied by the blessings of his family. After an arduous trip by ship and then traveling across France, Germany and Poland, he arrived in the Mirrer Yeshiva on Tzom Gedaliah, 1935.

Mirrer Yeshiva in Europe

He always recalled the four years which he spent in the Mirrer yeshiva as the years "which shaped his life". The young Amerikaner, who was known as a serious student even in his American yeshiva, blossomed in Torah and yiras Shomayim.

Until the end of his life, Rav Simcha considered himself a Mirrer talmid whose goals and daily life were spent living up to the exalted examples of his Mirrer rebbeim. Despite having known the mashgiach HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz and attending his sichos for only half-a- year, he considered him one of his main mentors.

The outbreak of World War II altered Rav Simcha's plans drastically. While the body of the yeshiva fled to Shanghai, Rav Simcha, due to his American citizenship, was able to cross into Denmark and procure a seat on one of the last ships to leave Europe for the U.S.

The passengers were in dread through the entire trip, which lasted from Erev Yom Kippur through Succos. Not only did they suffer from tempestuous storms and seasickness, but they knew that German U-boats were circulating in the open seas and might at any moment torpedo them to a watery grave. The crew hoisted a large American flag, hoping this would persuade the Germans to leave them alone. When the ship finally reached safe shore in New York, all the Jewish travelers benched Hagomel.

During the harrowing trip, Rav Simcha and the few other bochurim who were with him were occupied with thoughts of how to fulfill the mitzvos of Succos on the boat. They had a dried-out set of Arba Minim from the year before, which they used without reciting a brochoh. For a succah, they took an empty water tank, took off the lid, covered it with wooden slats and climbed inside with a ladder to eat their simple meals.

Rav Simcha, always a handy person, served as the "cook" of the small religious group aboard. In Copenhagen he had bought several dishes and pans and toveled them in the lake that flowed through the Danish king's palace. He cooked simple meals using basic foodstuffs provided for him by the kitchen staff of the ship.

In Kolel

In the U.S., Rav Simcha took a number of positions in chinuch. In 1941 he taught in the afternoon talmud Torah in McKeesport, near Pittsburgh. During the year-and- a-half that he was there, he influenced a number of his students to continue their yeshiva education in New York. Afterwards, he taught in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the Jewish school just opened by HaRav Pinchos Teitz.

He married his eishes chayil, Rebbetzin Esther Blima (Cohen), tibadel lechaim tovim aruchim, also from Williamsburg, in June 1942. The couple moved to Lakewood, New Jersey to join the new kolel just being organized by HaRav Aaron Kotler, who had reached America shores shortly before. In addition to learning in the kolel, Rav Simcha helped Rav Aaron in the administration. Rav Simcha remained in contact with Rav Aaron until his passing in 1962, and frequently consulted with him.

The Brighton Beach Rabbinate

In 1944, Rav Simcha became the rov of the Young Israel of Brighton Beach at the suggestion of HaRav Aaron Kotler. The shul members were looking for a young English-speaking rabbi who could attract the younger generation and encourage their fidelity to Judaism.

Rav Simcha's success and his community's love for him can be seen in the fact that he retained this position for the following 41 years until his retirement in 1985.

Rav Simcha belongs to that genre of rabbonim who were not known well outside their community and its environs, but who turned over the worlds of those in their direct sphere of influence.

Young Israel of Brighton Beach was a typical Jewish community of the 1940s. The members were mostly well-meaning baalebatim. As was the case with nearly everyone in the religious community in those days, they were far from a true Torah perspective. In all of Brighton Beach, the residents were 90 percent Jewish but only a small percentage was observant. Rav Simcha felt a responsibility every minute of the day to be a faithful representative of the Torah. He told his children constantly that the measure of anything for them was always, "How will Hashem look at this? Will this make a kiddush Hashem?"

The young rabbinical student from the Mir was not fazed by this challenge. Rav Simcha won the hearts and finally the minds of his congregants through a combination of caring, dedication and simchah in his personal demeanor while uncompromisingly explaining religious views and initiatives.

Jewish Education Foremost

His main thrust was Jewish education, and teaching classes to both young and old. In the 1940s and 1950s, when many of his congregants' children were still attending public school, he taught afternoon classes at a high school level so they would retain their connection to Judaism into adulthood. He targeted youths from all over the neighborhood and not just his congregants' children.

He was willing to teach a congregant anything, no matter how simple. The main thing was that they learn Torah.

Throughout his life, Rav Simcha put his major efforts into adult and youth education. Due to his efforts and persuasion, young men went to yeshiva and girls to Bais Yaakov and seminary. Families' commitment to Judaism were strengthened, and many strong links were added to the illustrious chain going back to Sinai. Rav Simcha was a rebbi in the Yeshiva of Brighton Beach for thirty years.

One of these students was Rav Aaron Zuckerman, today the rov of Agudas Israel of Avenue H, whose father was among the first baalei batim in Rav Simcha's shul in Brighton Beach. But there were hundreds more like him.

In addition to his educational work, Rav Simcha was also a voluntary social worker par excellence. Anyone who was sick got a bikur cholim call from him. Not only was he present at the simchas of his own congregants, but also of everyone who lived in the wider community. People sought his listening ear and counsel twenty-four hours, around the clock. There was no such thing as "There is no time now," or, "We'll set you up an appointment."

Rav Simcha's closeness to his community was legendary, both for big and small issues. When a shul member's succah collapsed one year before Succos, despite the inconvenience of the hour, Rav Simcha enlisted a number of people to make immediate repairs so the family could enjoy their succah like everyone else.

Rav Simcha carried a tool set in his car and used it many times to help a person in an emergency. His assistance was extended to everyone, including his non-Jewish neighbors with whom he had friendly relations.

His community viewed Rav Simcha's own family — and his 11 children — as an exemplary model of what a Jewish home is supposed to be.

The Building of the Brighton Beach Mikveh

A number of the unique initiatives that Rav Simcha developed were the result of his efforts to upgrade the observance of his shul members. One of the first of these initiatives was the building of a mikveh in Brighton Beach so members would not need to travel a distance to use other mikvehs. Today a mikveh is taken for granted, but in those early years, people looked askance at it, and local authorities were unsympathetic.

It seemed an impossible mission. Since so few appreciated the vital necessity of a mikveh, few were willing to donate to the cause. The initial money to buy the mikveh property came from the money gifts which one of his sons had just received for his bar mitzvah.

But the down payment was not the biggest hurdle. Brighton Beach was a middle-class neighborhood with strict zoning laws. The city placed hurdle after hurdle in Rav Simcha's way. Liens were placed on the property, complicated city codes had to be satisfied, and construction problems had to be overcome. It took years until finally, after much toil, the beautiful state-of-the-art mikveh was finally completed in 1974. It was used by communities all around. The mikveh is still in existence to this day, despite ongoing financial difficulties. It was built with all halachic hiddurim under the guidance of HaRav Moshe Feinstein and other leading gedolim.

The extensive experience in mikveh construction which he had gained in the process helped him jump into a similar project years later — halfway across the world in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines. Here too Rav Simcha spent time and energy to ensure that a beautiful mikveh was built in this place which was far from the main Jewish communities. It was a point of nachas for him when he heard close to the end of his life that this mikveh was still functioning. He also provided counsel when the mikveh in Liberty, New York was being constructed.

In addition to his rabbonus activities, Rav Weissman was involved in a number of initiatives affecting the wider community. Wherever he saw an opening to help Jews or promote Judaism, he jumped into action.

Such involvement started right at the beginning of his rabbonus. He organized the young people in his congregation to collect money for the Vaad Hatzala to send to European Jews. When the Mirrer yeshiva arrived from Shanghai right after the war, he found the old military building in Rockaway that served as their first quarters.

The First Religious Weekly after World War II

Perhaps the most daring, trail-blazing initiative which he carried out was the founding of the first chareidi weekly during the early 1950s. This newspaper, which he published for eight years, provided the small community of Torah abiding Jews living in New York with the straightforward Torah hashkofoh on current events. Despite the challenging religious environment of the 1950s, the articles which his paper ran were as resolute as the chareidi newspapers printed today, when the Torah community is much larger and better established. To do this, one needed not only courage, but single-mindedness for Torah causes.

He consulted HaRav Aaron Kotler concerning the guidelines as to what to print and what to omit.

The importance of having one faithful beacon of Torah hashkofoh in New York against the numerous secular and liberal Jewish papers that existed in those times, cannot be underestimated. The Brisker Rov himself, one of the leaders of Torah Jewry in Eretz Yisroel in the 1950s, sent him instructions on how to report on the desecrations of Tanoim's graves (in Beit Shearim), one of the major battles of Torah Jewry in Israel of those days.

Rav Simcha's weekly paper was not at all sympathetic to the prevailing Zionist institutions, even though most of Rav Simcha's congregants were typical pro-Zionist Modern Orthodox Jews.

When Ben Gurion publicly stated kefirah about the number of Jews who left Egypt, Rav Simcha took it to heart personally and expressed his anguish at the chilul Hashem, in large headlines which denounced Ben Gurion. Most of the other community Jewish papers praised Ben Gurion and spread his kefirah further. Rav Simcha kept up his protest for weeks.

Another affair to which Rav Simcha gave wide coverage was the issue of drafting women for the Israeli army and the innocent- looking but even more dangerous related proposal of Sherut Leumi. At Rav Aaron Kotler's urging, he continued to publicize protests against the decree, remaining the only American paper to protest the general Jewish community's pro- Israeli government stand. He didn't hesitate to speak out against prestigious American rabbis who criticized gedolei Torah on this issue.

A more local issue which he took up is one that may seem archaic to today's generation, but which greatly burdened the shomer mitzvos community in the first half of the 20th century — the "Blue Laws" which required stores to remain closed on Sunday. This constituted a huge trial for shomer mitzvos shop owners who not only had to give up income from their stores on Shabbos, but couldn't even offset their losses by opening their stores on Sunday.

Rav Simcha kept writing about the issue in his paper. On his own initiative, without the backing of any organization, he even went with HaRav Avrohom Kalmanowitz to see a New York Supreme Court judge on the matter, asking him to tell police not to fine store owners until the law would be officially abolished. The issue was a difficult fight because religious Jews hardly had political clout in those days.

His religious weekly paved the way for the Jewish Observer of Agudas Yisroel that was launched a few years later, and other Torah media that came onto the American scene later.

American Esrogim?

When he saw the difficulties involved in importing reliably kosher esrogim to the United States, he decided to encourage the growth of kosher esrogim locally. He brought Chazon Ish esrog seeds to a family in California and encouraged them to plant them.

The project was eventually taken over by other bnei Torah who planted an entire orchard in California. This initiative provided the American frum market with reliable esrogim for the past two decades. During the Shmittah year, when a number of gedolim in Israel were reluctant to use local esrogim, they were sent an esrog from the Californian orchard which they used. The Californian orchard supplied bnei Torah in America and even some in Israel with esrogim in the last Shmittah.


Another community project which drew his involvement was the Shomer Shabbos Council that was active in getting Jews to close their stores on Shabbos. He would travel around in a truck with a loudspeaker before Shabbos to warn the Jewish shopkeepers, "Shabbos! Shabbos!" The Shomer Shabbos council organized a Shabbos parade on Kings Highway in Flatbush. Rabbis, bnei Torah and all people who wanted to be mechazek Shabbos walked from Ocean Parkway to Ocean Avenue encouraging stores to join the ranks of shomrei Shabbos.

In 1950, he published a booklet detailing the complicated laws of erev Pesach that falls on Shabbos.

The Debilitating Stroke

Rav Simcha retired from his position of rav at the age of 68 and moved to Flatbush. Free of his community esponsibilities, he was able to return to his primary love — learning Torah.

From 1970 he had been studying in the Mirrer yeshiva unofficially, teaching groups of older retirees and also young bochurim who needed chizuk and special attention. This he continued after he became a retiree himself.

A difficult period began for him in 1986, when he suffered a massive stroke which left him immobilized. But a man like Rav Simcha would not suffer such a debilitating setback without putting up a fight. He invested superhuman efforts to stand again and regain his mobility. No one could believe it when, within half a year, he was once again walking independently. He became a regular at the Rav Landau shul where he continued learning, his kiruv work with boys who needed encouragement, and his teaching of seniors.

He suffered from a large range of medical disabilities and conditions in the following two decades until his passing. Nonetheless, against all odds and the predictions of all his doctors, he survived one medical crisis after another.

His miraculous medical escapes were well known in the family. When asked to report her recollections of her grandfather, his young granddaughter wrote, "My grandfather always overcomes difficult situations with a sense of humor. When he is in the hospital, the nurses enjoy taking care of him because he always has a good joke for them and never complains. Whenever I go to his house, he is always happy. I don't think I ever saw him unhappy, even when he is in a lot of pain."

Despite his weakening state and his need to use a wheelchair during the last six years of his life, Rav Simcha kept going. He kept up his daily davening in shul and his learning sedorim, right up until his entry to the hospital three months before his death.

Medical Miracles

Even during his last illness, when every day looked like it would be his last, Rav Simcha was true to his name. He never despaired of his condition and was always hopeful that he would recover. He would lightly tell his doctors that he has a backup system — his children and grandchildren in America and Israel who were davening for him. Medical personnel admitted that the old rabbi just wouldn't follow the rules. Elderly people in his condition just didn't pull through as many medical crises as he did.

Side-by-side with Rav Weissman's optimism and love of life, was the great devotion and love which his family showered on him. More than once, the family battled the doctors and demanded treatments that would preserve their father's life. His children explained to the exasperated nonreligious doctor, "We believe that another second on earth is worth every effort. Even if a person's body does not function, his soul is alive and precious."

A medical intern once commented to the family, "Your family is a testimony of how one should take care of a father."

Two weeks before Rosh Hashonoh of 5766, he was again battling for his life in the Intensive Care Unit and experienced clinical death. The main doctor told the nurses, "Do everything possible to keep him alive because that's what the family wants." The staff managed to resuscitate him.

Still Thinking About Others

On Rosh Hashonoh, a chaplain was going around the wards to blow shofar for the Jewish patients and he entered his room. An assimilated Jewish medical secretary came to hear the tekios. Although Rav Simcha could no longer talk and was extremely weak, he motioned to his daughter in the room with him that the secretary in the corner should cover her hair, which she willingly did.

After tekias shofar, Rav Simcha motioned that he wanted to communicate with this Jewish lady. He lifted two fingers to her. His daughter figured out he wanted her to light two candles every Friday. The lady, visibly overwhelmed, committed herself to this request. He made another gesture, and they realized he wanted her to light the candles before evening. The Jewish woman apologized and said she regretted that she had never had a Jewish upbringing, but she would go to a Jewish bookstore and buy a calendar.

The next day she surprised everyone when she brought eighteen apples ("chai") with honey for all the Jewish clients.

Even at such difficult moments, Rav Simcha was always thinking of others and how to be mekarev others to Hashem.

On the night of the 12th of Marcheshvan last year he passed away.

Levaya and Burial

The levaya was held the next day in the Mirrer Yeshiva of Flatbush. Among those who attended were HaRav Chaim Pinchos Scheinberg, rosh yeshiva of Torah Ore in Israel. Maspidim included HaRav Shmuel Birnbaum, rosh yeshiva of the Mirrer yeshiva in America; Rav David Hollander, rav of the Hebrew Alliance of Brighton; Rav Shalom Simpson, rav of the Seabreeze Jewish Center; Rav Nachum Goldberg zt'l rav of the Adas Yisroel of the Lower East Side; Rav Aaron Zuckerman, rav of the Agudas Israel of Avenue H; Rav Dovid Weiner, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim; Rav Moshe Handelsman, former executive director of the Mirrer Yeshiva; Rav Simcha Soloveitchik and his sons.

The aron was then flown to Eretz Yisroel where further hespedim were said in the Achva shul in Geula by his son Rav Shlomo, a rosh kollel; his nephew Rav Heshy Weissman, the rosh kollel of Kolel Meshech Chochmoh, and his son-in-law Rav Menachem Roodman.

He was buried in Har Hamenuchos in the new Chelkas HaRabbonim.

He left behind not only a sterling life of accomplishment and a beautiful name, but outstanding children and grandchildren who are at the forefront of harbotzas haTorah in our generation.

His sons include Rav Moshe Weissman, a rosh kollel in Flatbush; Rav Nosson Weissman, menahel ruchani of the Yeshiva Gedoloh of Passaic; Rav Tzvi Weissman, a rebbe in the Lakewood cheder; Rav Michel Weissman, a ben Torah in Lakewood; Rav Shlomo Weissman, a rosh kollel in Eretz Yisroel; and sons-in-law Rav Zelig Pliskin, author of famous Torah books, Rav Menachem Roodman, a maggid shiur in Yerushalayim, Rav Shmuel Bender of Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway, Rav Dovid Levovitz of the Lakewood cheder, Rav Binyomin Bock, a marbitz Torah in Flatbush, and Rav Chaim Weg, a rosh kollel in Scranton.


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