This article first appeared in Mishpacha Magazine on March 29th and has been reprinted with permission. Photo credits: Judah S. Harris.
Thursday, the in-box gets flooded. It’s the day when the parshah e-mails and divrei Torah from a wide variety of organizations and institutions get sent out, a means of staying in touch with members and donors each week — and sharing some inspiration as well. Unfortunately, not all get read; some never merit getting opened.
But there is something about the weekly dvar Torah from Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb that makes it seem like a personal letter, written just for me.
Always opened, always read, and often saved.
But labeling Rabbi Weinreb a great writer is to minimize a man who accomplishes so much in so many fields. He is a man of learning and oratory, a pioneer in the world of mental health, an advocate for battered women, a baal tefillah, a diplomat, and — of particular delight — a great conversationalist.
But it was his pen that drew me to him first. Long before I met him, his writings, a fusion of information, entertainment, and a certain old-world wisdom, fascinated me.
Rabbi Weinreb is a new-age man, but an old-world Jew.
“My grandfather, Reb Chaim Yitzchok, was a chassid of the Tchortkover Rebbe, Reb Duvid Moishe, and later of his son, Reb Yisroel. When his shtetl in Ukraine was nearly wiped out in a pogrom, the survivors banded together and decided to emigrate as a group to America. They chose Batavia, New York, where they could continue the kind of life they’d had in the shtetl, amidst orchards and chicken farms. The Rebbe encouraged my grandfather to join them as their shochet, so he did, and spent his time there sitting and learning.”
Rabbi Weinreb pauses. “Let me share an amazing chinuch insight with you. My grandfather switched his minhagim when he arrived in America, keeping the halachot as delineated in Shulchan Aruch without the minhagim of the chassidim. He kept his gartel, but started to fast on his own father’s yahrtzeit, for example, and to eat in the succah on Shemini Atzeret — both of which are brought in halachah, and are unlike the minhagim of chassidim. In his wisdom, he saw that America wasn’t like Europe. If children see their fathers veering from Shulchan Aruch, even slightly, then they will take it as a license to change it even more. So he taught them that we don’t change, period.”
Reb Chaim Itche’s decision bore fruit: He succeeded in raising beautiful generations on alien soil, here in America.
Rabbi Weinreb shares another historical footnote. After the war, when Reb Mordechai Shlomo, the previous Boyaner Rebbe, had to reestablish the Chassidus, he asked Reb Chaim Itche Weinreb to come serve as his gabbai. The Rebbe loved his new gabbai’s style of writing, calling him a “safra rabba,” a gifted scribe. “I still have many of his letters from that era,” says Rabbi Weinreb.
Rabbi Weinreb’s legacy from his maternal grandmother is no less impressive. Reb Mordechai Hartman was a founder of a small shul in Boro Park called Shomrei Shabbos. “The name was serious business. These were people who were interested in real shmiras Shabbos, who were bucking the trend of hashkamah minyanim followed by a full Saturday workday that was so common in America. The founding group, my zeideh’s chevrah, would visit potential members at home and feel out the situation, making sure that the standards were high enough; they wanted to be shomrei Shabbos! I often think that perhaps that’s the zchus of the shul — Boro Park’s minyan hub — the reason it merits hosting thousands of Yidden a week. It isn’t the most spacious or convenient, but it has a special history.”
The family later moved to Boro Park, where they davened in the Bertcher shtiebel. “My father once walked in there on Pesach night in search of a Hallel, and he was taken by the Bertcher Rebbe’s davening. That became my father’s home until his last day — literally. He davened Shacharis in Bertch on that day and then went home and passed away.”
Young Heshy was sent to Toras Emes. “I still meet the principal, Rabbi Elias Schwartz. He comes to the Tisha B’Av program every year. I tell him, ‘Rebbi, I see you once a year and I can’t even say sholom aleichem!’”
With a Name Like Heshy
As he grew older, Heshy was sent to learn in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yaakov Yosef, or RJJ, as it was known.
“The rebbeim there really made us feel connected to the mesorah. Rav Mendel Krawiec would grow emotional when saying over Torah from his rebbi, the Brisker Rav. That brought us into the European yeshivah world, and we felt part of the mesorah. Rav Shmuel Dovid Warshavchik was fresh from Shanghai, but he was so warm, so kind. He understood that he would need to inject us with self-esteem to make us successful in learning, and he did. We were Brooklyn kids, with nicknames like Rocky and Duke, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t even like Heshy. He once called me over and said ‘Heshy? What are you going to do with such a name when you’re a big rabbi?’
“I laugh at the story. It happened, and guess what? The big rabbi is still called Heshy.
“In those days, we still had some of the great prewar geonim around. Once a week, those of us who were learning for semichah took shimush by Rav Nissan Telushkin. His sefer of the halachos of mikvah, Taharat Mayim, has become a classic, but there is something else fascinating about the man.”
Rabbi Weinreb leans forward. “He was one of the first poskim who applied the timeless wisdom of halacha to the American scene, to shifting realities. In the back of one of his sefarim, he wrote a chapter on birchos hanehenin, where he dealt with the proper brachah on Rice Krispies and on a banana split. He was the first contemporary posek, so to speak, and filled that role until Rav Moshe came onto the scene and emerged as ‘the’ posek for the last generation. Rav Telushkin was a great conversationalist; he enjoyed talking to us American kids and understanding our mentality as well.”
Ultimately, Heshy Weinreb emerged as Rabbi Heshy Weinreb, with smichah from Rav Krawiec, Rav Telushkin, and Rav Yehuda Leib Kagan.
As was common practice, while learning in RJJ all day, the rabbi attended night classes at Brooklyn College to study psychology. After receiving semichah, he enrolled for a master’s degree in the New School for Social Research.
At the same time, he was given his first taste of chinuch. He joined the faculty of RJJ, teaching Torah alongside his own rebbeim.
A seminal influence was the famed Mrs. Golding, who hired him as director of Camp Deal, a pioneering camp for religious kids. “Mrs. Golding was the wife of Joseph Golding. They had hosted many of the visiting roshei yeshivah from Europe before the war, and she would frequently tell stories of Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Reb Boruch Ber of Kamenitz. She opened the camp for poor kids who would otherwise be stuck home on the hot city streets, but people would take advantage of it. They abused the system. She was no fool, though, and she asked me to find kids who really needed it. She would send those kids home from camp with more clothing than they came with — complete wardrobes.”
Anguish is evident on the rabbi’s face as he recalls a pivotal moment in his life. “A dear young counselor, Avi Grosser, was struck by lightning and killed, Rachmana litzlan, in the summer of 1964. I was all of twenty-four years old and was suddenly thrust into a new world of grief and tragedy, dealing with authorities who wanted to perform an autopsy, informing the family, trying to counsel the traumatized campers. It was a terrible time. The other parents wanted to pull their kids out of camp. I remember being overwhelmed by it all, but also feeling that this was an area where I could contribute. Today, we know all about grief counseling, about the blurry lines between rabbinics and psychology, but back then, it was a new field: bitachon mixed with therapy. I needed so much help, but I got through it, with Hashem’s help. I remember Rabbi Josh Silbermintz, the legendary head counselor of Camp Munk, calling to offer his support and guidance, and how others helped. From that experience, though, I discovered that this was something I wanted to do.”
He pauses again. “But the boy … Avrohom Lipa ben Yosef Chaim … his yahrtzeit is 22 Tammuz. I think about him often …”
The young rabbi/teacher/counselor emerged from that difficult time stronger and clearer about his calling.
“After that summer, Rav Tuvia Goldstein, my rebbi and fellow staff member at RJJ, suggested a shidduch for me. He was good friends with Reb Chaim Yitzchok Taub, son of Rav Shaul Yedidyah Elazar, the Modzitzer Rebbe, and he thought I would be a good match for Reb Chaim Yitzchok’s daughter. I was, baruch Hashem.”
The rabbi laughs. “You know how every Rebbe has a son who just knows how to get the job done, to take care of things? Well my shver was that son of the Modzitzer Rebbe.”
Rebbetzin Chavi Weinreb brought a new dimension to her husband’s multifaceted personality. “I got married and grew obsessed with Modzitz, the rebbes, the chassidim, and, of course, the music.”
The young chassan never really got to know his grandfather, the Rebbe. “The zeideh didn’t like it in America, and he moved to Tel Aviv as soon as he was able, where he joined his son and eventual successor, Reb Shmuel Eliyahu. The shtiebel there filled a vital role; it was a bastion of left-wing Jews, many of them secular. Reb Shmuel Eliyahu welcomed these Yidden, who hailed from chassidishe homes back in Poland, and they felt at home in the Modzitzer shtiebel, where the Rebbe’s unconditional ahavas Yisrael was a healing balm for them.”
The Modzitzer earned the title, “HaRebbe shel HaKippot HaSrugot.” “I was recently at a Mizrachi-sponsored Shabbos in Eretz Yisrael. I looked around the dining room and I thought to myself, Not too many ‘heimeshe Yidden’ there, right? But I sat down and started to sing Modzitzer marches, and before I knew it, we had a small crowd of real Mizrachi types sitting and singing along. They had all hung around the old shtiebel at some point.”
Passion for Modzitz emerges as Rabbi Weinreb recalls some of the old chassidim. “There was Cheskel Tarla, whom my shver recalled as being so poor that his beketshe was green from moss. He was with a group of Telshe talmidim in Vilna and he taught them a Modzitzer niggun — the one that evolved into the tune for Baruch Kel Elyon so popular today.”
And the rabbi tells a heartrendingly beautiful tale.
There was an old Yid, a chassid of Zvolin, which was from the same dynasty as Modzitz. He came to America after the war totally alone, broken and bereft. He was sure that there was no such thing as a chassidishe Yid left in the world, and accepted the job that the Joint found for him as a shammes in a Reform synagogue near Cleveland. He got married again, and his wife got a job as a cook in Camp Deal. She would always ask him to come for a Shabbos, but he wouldn’t. Finally, one Shabbos, this broken Jew showed up in camp. Head counselor Weinreb was sitting under a tree, teaching a group of kids a rousing Modzitzer niggun, as this Yid passed by. He stopped.
“That’s a Modzitzer niggun! Modzitz is gone, there is no more Chassidus!” he exclaimed bitterly.
“No, that’s not right,” insisted the young group leader. “The Rebbe is alive and the Chassidus is alive.”
The old man refused to hear it.
“I had to convince him, to tell him who I was, who my shver was, to share the details with him, until it began to penetrate.”
A haunting picture: a shattered individual standing under a tree, believing he is the last chassidishe Yid on earth, hearing that the world he considered gone was alive and well.
“After that, he was reinvigorated. He came to the shtiebel in Brooklyn and would travel in by bus several times a year, for the yahrtzeits and gatherings. Eventually he moved to New York, and he transmitted many of the unknown niggunim to Ben Zion Shenker, and there is a record of them thanks to him. I felt a part of techiyas hameisim, literally.”
The Word Psychology
Rabbi Weinreb knew that he wanted to pursue a career in mental health — the rabbinate didn’t even figure remotely in his plans — and the young couple settled in Silver Spring, Maryland, where there was a doctorate program at the University of Maryland.
“We lived in a neighborhood called Summit Hill, which is where I first appreciated the beauty and potential of kehillah life. We had many young couples, most of us students at the same institution, and we had a vibrant spiritual life there. We developed lifelong friendships and, being from Brooklyn, it was my first exposure to out-of-town living, where everyone counts and everyone is expected to contribute.”
The good rabbi expounds on the thought. “From the point of view of a psychologist, I can tell you that being a contributing member of society is a big ‘l’chatchilah.’ If you’re a baal korei, if your wife is on the chevra kadisha, it makes a difference in the way you perceive yourself. You’re not anonymous. Someone recently told me of a yeshiva in a small community where they send a different bochur every day to complete the minyan at the local shul, and when the kid walks in, they all applaud. Do you know what that does for the bochur’s self-worth? He counts!”
In time, the family grew and, for chinuch reasons, they relocated to Baltimore. Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb joined the Potomac Mental Health Group, a prestigious practice in Bethesda, a suburb of Washington DC. “Because of our location, we dealt with lots of VIPs and their secrets, issues that needed to be kept out of the news, obviously.”
In time, Dr. Weinreb became chief psychologist, so he had the luxury of setting his own hours. “I spent a lot of time learning with Rav Yitzchok Sternhell, who combined amazing fluency in Torah, knowledge of all the teshuvah seforim, and an appreciation for psychology. He once told me that the first time the word ‘psychology’ appears in a teshuvah is in Arugas HaBosem, from around the year 1870. I researched it, and of course he was correct. He loved original teshuvah seforim, like Tzitz Eliezer and those of Rav Ovadiah Yosef. He was a talmid muvhak of the Minchas Elazar, the Munkaczer Rebbe, and when he would quote his Rebbe in his Shabbos HaGadol drashah, he would start to weep.”
“Rav Sternhell was a ‘rav’s rav.’ He would say these long, intricate stories on Purim that were filled with meaning and depth.”
After Rav Sternhell’s petirah, the community was thrown into turmoil. Together with his friend Reb Yankel Hershkovits, the learned psychologist established a daily daf yomi shiur to help keep the kehillah vibrant.
“It was challenging for me. At Rav Sternhell’s shul, there was no English whatsoever. I mean, you couldn’t announce ‘Minchah at six o’clock.’ Everything was in Yiddish. So the shiur had to be delivered in Yiddish, of course, in addition to the fact that learning daf yomi — let alone teaching it — is a tremendous undertaking. Reb Yankel still delivers the shiur, until today.”
The people recognized that the Dr. Weinreb was gifted as a rabbi as well, and they began to push him toward the rabbinate.
And a Rabbi Too
One of the great old congregations of Baltimore was Shomrei Emunah, led by a talmid chacham of renown, Rav Binyomin Bak, a talmid of prewar Telshe.
“Rav Bak was getting older and had sustained the loss of his beloved son Pinny Bak, one of the great lights of the kiruv world and a remarkable young man, so he was broken in spirit. He felt that he needed assistance, and the gedolim I was close to, including Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky and the Klausenberger Rebbe, encouraged me to take the position.”
“What can I tell you, Rav Bak was a prince! He made the job so pleasant for me.”
The rabbi laughs. “I always guide young rabbis taking positions under a rabbi emeritus to try to send the rabbi off to Australia — Eretz Yisrael is too close. It’s tough for an older rabbi to let go. But not with Rav Bak. He was so concerned for my honor that he insisted that I sit in a more distinguished seat than he, and when I was in New York, he would call me for permission before answering sh’eilos in my absence.”
I wonder aloud if there was a connection between the background in psychology and his future in the rabbinate.
“Absolutely. Every rav should have some degree of training, because every single rav — from Fifth Avenue to Williamsburg — is essentially a counselor. That’s what today’s rabbanim spend most of their time doing.”
What about the economic considerations of trading billable patients for non-billable congregants?
“It was hard. Chavi joined her family’s jewelry business, so that helped. But we were happy.”
The rabbi threw himself into delivering shiurim. “I believed — and I still believe — that there is no better way to connect and uplift a congregation than through learning Torah, each person on his or her level. In addition to the daf, I taught shiurim tailored to the learned and unlearned, men and women, teenagers, and even children.”
If there was a mandate that the rabbi felt he had to uphold while at Shomrei — a pulpit he would hold for thirteen years — it was mutual understanding.
“I wanted a scholarly congregation, and also a tolerant congregation. Klal Yisrael is composed of many stripes, there are many customs and different mesoros. I wanted each of them to learn how to get along with other Yidden.
“‘If you can’t handle that the guy sitting next to you says the tefillah for the shelom hamedinah,’ I would say, ‘remember that it irks him that we have separate-gender youth groups, which he thinks is too extreme.’ You know what? They learned!”
Friends of mine who davened at Shomrei still feel a close connection to the rabbi, years after he left. I ask about that. “It could be because of a minhag we had, something I saw brought down in Maaseh Rav about the Vilna Gaon. He would bentsch all the children on Friday nights, after davening, and I thought it would be wonderful to bring that minhag to our shul, as a way to connect with every single child.”
So after davening, the children of the shul would line up and step up to the rabbi, who had a comment, joke, or thought for each — and, of course, a brachah.
Another interesting practice that made the children part of the congregation was that during Neilah, which Rabbi Weinreb would lead, he would gather the children around him as a sort of choir. “But in truth,” he reveals, “it wasn’t for musical accompaniment; it was to have the zchus of tinokos shel beis rabban during that auspicious time.”
During Rabbi Weinreb’s tenure at Shomrei, the rabbinate was changing, and he was a great force in that change.
“Rebbetzin Chana Weinberg of Ner Israel was an early activist on issues of domestic abuse, and she introduced me to the need for active leadership, voices of support, and guidance for battered women.
“One of the first in-house training sessions for rabbanim took place in 1995, sponsored by Agudath Israel. I recall clearly how Rav Shlomo Miller spoke about the halachos of choleh sheyesh bo sakanah, and Rav Dovid Kviat about pastoral care, what to say and how to aid the patient’s family. I went over to Rabbi Shmuel Bloom afterwards and I said, ‘I’m not an Agudist, but any such event to equip rabbis with the tools they need every single day, and I am there!’ Today, every rabbinic organization offers these type of lectures, but back then, it was an innovation. You know, there is no Pri Megadim on most of these issues. The classic halachah seforim don’t address the questions and ethical issues that come up nowadays.”
Another landmark conference was held at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, featuring rabbanim from all across the spectrum. The topic? Domestic abuse. “Rav Pam spoke, as did Dr. Twerski and Rabbi Berel Wein. I remember that Rav Pam suggested that domestic abuse was a result of economic pressure, that much of the problem was rooted in the frustration of husbands unable to make a living. Today, we know that he was prophetic.”
A National Pulpit
In 2001 the call came. The Orthodox Union, with its hundreds of member synagogues and tens of programs, was at a crossroads. The prestigious organization had the infrastructure and membership, but they wanted to shift their focus to issues that really mattered to the American Jew. They were seeking a leader with the qualifications to take the OU where it wanted to go, and Shomrei’s rabbi was a prime candidate, a perfect fusion of rabbanus and keen professional insight.
Rabbi Weinreb got the nod, and assumed the position of executive vice president. “It was very difficult to leave Shomrei, to leave our children and so many good friends in Baltimore, but I was excited by the challenge.”
By all accounts, he was hugely successful. Rabbi Weinreb emerged as a leading national voice on issues such as domestic abuse and molestation, anorexia and other eating disorders, and a host of conditions that had suddenly become household words.
“There is a misconception that the OU is a hechsher on tuna fish and NCSY — in truth, there is virtually no area in Jewish communal and family life that we aren’t impacting.
“When I was offered the job at OU, Rabbi Neuberger wasn’t happy with my leaving Baltimore. He told me he would only agree on the condition that I champion the cause of Orthodox college students. He said, ‘This is an area where Agudah can’t do much. It’s not their constituency sending their kids to college — it’s yours. Go do something for those kids.”
To that end, the Orthodox Union launched the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, or JLIC. “We sent gifted young couples to live on campus, not for kiruv as other organizations do, but for maintenance, to be there for the already-Orthodox student. You have no idea what kind of challenges the frum kid out there on campus faces. Shabbos, Yom Tov, minyan, social situations … these couples are the home they need. It gives them a place to be and a social life. And very often, these couples serve as their shadchanim as well. We are extremely proud of the success of this program.”
“There has never been a more dangerous time for the Orthodox student than today,” says Rabbi Weinreb emphatically. “The faculties and student bodies at American universities are overwhelmingly liberal, anti-Israel, and often anti-Semitic as well. Who would even believe that in America of 2011 it would be a problem to wear a yarmulke in public? But it is dangerous. You know where? On campus!”
Rabbi Weinreb doesn’t mince words in highlighting an important feature of the OU’s program. “Sending couples prevents another serious issue. How can we put a young kiruv professional on a college campus? What about the challenges it presents for him? The nisyonos of hedonism and permissiveness of college life is tremendous — how can we place him there? So we send a couple and follow the words of Chazal, ‘Avrohom megayer es haanashim v’Sarah megayeres es hanashim.’ They work side by side, but not together. We have hilchos yichud, and we follow them scrupulously.”
The Changing Synagogue
We discuss some of the issues facing OU shuls, particularly, an issue that was termed “the shteibelization of Orthodoxy” by Jewish Action magazine several years ago.
“It’s a real issue, but not an OU issue. People want something else, so the rabbanim have to adapt. The decorum and dignity of a more formal davening has been lost in many places. People can’t sit and follow along the way they used to, they can’t listen to speeches. In many shuls, the rabbanim have taken to delivering their sermons — once the highlight of the week — after davening, so that people have the option of walking out.”
Isn’t that demeaning? “Sure it is, but being a rabbi teaches you humility. We’ve all been honored to speak, gotten flowery introductions, and then stood up to see three minyanim file out of the room. That’s why the greatest are also the most humble. I remember Rav Pam sitting at one of these seminars and listening to me and Rav Dovid Weinberger speak — I was so scared to speak in front of him, but he listened eagerly, as if our words were meant for him. Rav Hershel Schachter will also remain at these shiurim to listen to other rabbanim speak. It’s amazing. ”
The rabbi doesn’t necessarily see the move toward shtiebels as a negative trend. “I don’t know if smaller, basement-style minyanim are such a bad thing, provided that the members realize that they are part of a greater whole. If they daven in a small private minyan, but still contribute to local causes, carry the burden of tomchei Shabbos or Hatzolah or local yeshivos, then it’s fine. The problem is when they become ‘us’ and laugh at ‘them,’ there just to serve their own members.”
About three years ago, Rabbi Weinreb’s duties shifted, and under the new title of executive vice president, emeritus, he continues to lead. Today, though, the role is more intellectual, through teaching and writing, advisory (helping young rabbis and individuals), and ambassadorial, serving as the OU’s voice at conferences and events across the globe and in the media. He also dedicates several hours a week to his private practice.
The Ninth Rabbi
Weinreb’s name has become synonymous with the saddest day in the Jewish year. He laughs at the comment. “In a way, it’s true, I always felt a connection with Tisha B’Av. When I was a youngster in Camp Munk, the old Rabbi Munk, a”h, filled the day with great significance. He managed, with his songs and stories, to make us Brooklyn Dodger fans acutely feel the loss of the Beis HaMikdash. Much later, in Shomrei, I realized that for many of my mispallelim, Tisha B’Av was a ‘lost day’; they had no clue what to do. So we had the idea of doing kinos right, of inviting various rabbanim to speak on different kinos and add meaning to the recitation.
“You have to realize, this is our poetry! These magnificent kinos are the most Jewish expression of pain, but they were out of reach for many people. Once we gave them a way to connect with it, people responded, and eventually, the service at Shomrei was jam-packed.”
The OU had the idea of asking Rabbi Weinreb to lead a nationally broadcast kinos service, since many working men were unable to be at kinos for the full morning. The program is a huge success. Men in offices or women at home with the kids weren’t the only ones tuning in. The webcast attracted an audience as varied as US soldiers stationed in Iraq and a Conservative rabbi, who wrote a moving letter to Rabbi Weinreb stating, “We were never given Tisha B’Av, just Simchas Torah and Shavuos night. Now I know about this day as well.”
Last year, a landmark new English Kinos was released. Translated by Rabbi Weinreb, it features insights from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. Proving the rabbi’s philosophy that people are searching for ways to connect with Tisha B’Av and comprehend the Churban, the book sold out within days. Last month, it was awarded the National Jewish Book Award.
“I loved working on it. I would sit in the library all day with just a Kinos and a Yiddish translation, allowing the message of each one to fill me before trying to translate.”
And so, the man who’s familiar with the name and treatment of the most contemporary disorders and societal problems, who keeps a schedule that would tire a man half his age, who seems to have the energy for his massive workload and then some, is still holding on to the past.
Holding on to the message of his two grandfathers, who held on to their past with all their might.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb: very much an American Jewish leader of 2011, yet in the shadow of Modzitz, still humming the notes of the Bertcher shtiebel.
One eye is on the road, but one eye is still fixed on the mirror, looking back. —
Yisroel Besser is contributing editor at Mishpacha Magazine and the author of several books, including Reb Shlomo, a biography of Rav Shlomo Freifeld.
Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer. If you’re a fan of great writing and photography, sign up for his popular email newsletter at http://www.judahsharris.com/visit
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.