Aliyah profile: A tribute from the heart - My father-in-law’s long journey

The little boy who narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 with his family, today has 24 grandchildren and 44 great-grandchildren (and counting), a true testament that Am Yisrael chai.

May 29, 2019 22:15
Aliyah profile: A tribute from the heart - My father-in-law’s long journey

THE BOY, the man: Holding a bag of candy on the first day of school in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1938; and today, sitting on his porch overlooking the Judean Hills.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Rabbi Norbert Weinberg, my father-in-law, was born in Bad Nauheim, Germany, in 1931, only two years before the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

His father served as a heart specialist helping all those who needed his expertise. After living in Bad Nauheim for 15 years, the family moved to Frankfurt. The virulent antisemitism of Nazi Germany reached new heights on the night of November 9, 1938, when more than 1,000 synagogues were set ablaze or damaged, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were ransacked, 91 Jews were killed and some 30,000 Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 were arrested and incarcerated, including Rabbi Weinberg’s father. That infamous night became known as Kristallnacht, or “the night of broken glass.”

Weinberg’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald for six weeks, only returning home through a miracle on the sixth night of Hanukkah.

Upon his release, the family knew they had to leave, but how could they obtain a visa? A visa to America was given only on condition that someone would back the family financially. Fortunately, as Weinberg relates, one of his father’s patients was Max Stern’s father, whose son was a very wealthy businessman who vouched to help the family when they arrived in America.

Thus the Weinberg family (with the exception of Weinberg’s older brother, Hans, who would join them later) packed their belongings and escaped the perils of Nazi Germany to Finsbury Park near London for nine months. From there they moved to Yonkers, New York, where they were to make their new home.

Tragically, most of Weinberg’s family, including three of his grandparents, were murdered during the Holocaust. His grandfather, Rabbi Magnus Weinberg, was the district rabbi in Regensburg, Germany. Two cousins, Joe and Esther Holstein, joined the family in Yonkers, and grew up with the Weinbergs.

When asked about his career choice, Weinberg explains that he had two main interests: law and the rabbinate. “Most likely,” he said, “I chose the rabbinate due to my family’s influence.” Many men in the family had served as rabbis, dating back to Rabbi Seligman Bamberger (1807-1878). He not only served as the district rabbi in Wurzburg for many years, but also authored many volumes on various topics of halacha (Jewish law) including safrut (the scribal arts, including writing Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot). Although Weinberg did not become an official sofer (scribe), his writing was impeccable, and many years later, he was asked to be the official witness at divorce proceedings in the Boston rabbinical court, signing his name like a scribe.

After receiving smicha (rabbinic ordination) from Yeshiva University, Weinberg assumed his first pulpit in freezing-cold Quebec City, Canada. “In Quebec City there were two seasons: July and winter,” he relates. “The biggest challenges were being involved in community life and personally involved in the lives of the families and individuals who needed assistance.”

Throughout his six-decade career in the rabbinate, he held many different roles. One of those was as chaplain for Jewish prisoners in the state prison at Walpole, Massachusetts. In addition, he regularly visited members of the congregation who were hospitalized, and offered comfort and support to their families. Another aspect of his job was to assist those who were interested in converting to Judaism. Whenever we visited him and wherever he was serving, there was always someone with whom he was studying in preparation for conversion.

THROUGHOUT HIS long career, my father-in-law served as the spiritual leader of congregations whose members were mostly non-Orthodox; many were traditional but not actively religious. One of his most important roles as a rabbi was to ensure that there was a minyan (quorum) every Shabbat. Many times I would hear him making phone calls to synagogue members to ask if they could make the minyan on Shabbat, and almost all replied “yes” to his appeals.

There was one time, however, when we were visiting on a Shabbat and for the first half-hour or so only nine men showed up. Wondering if we would have to pray without a minyan and miss the public reading of the Torah, my father-in-law left the shul to look for the tenth man. Perhaps, I thought, Elijah would make a guest appearance. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later in walked Mr. Cohen, who was not only Jewish but was also the mayor of the town! Apparently, there was some kind of city festival that the mayor was attending and he was snatched by the rabbi to complete the minyan.

Israel was always a very important component of Weinberg’s life, and many times he organized tours for the members of his congregation. He also brought his family along with him. My wife recalls seeing the fence that divided the new and the Old City of Jerusalem. “My dream,” relates my father-in-law, “was always to make Israel my home and to make aliyah. Every Jew belongs here.”

He had a strong influence on his four daughters, three of whom made aliyah and have been living in Efrat, in Gush Etzion, for many years. Rena, the only one still living in the States, has four of her six children living in Israel. She visits frequently and hopes to immigrate to Israel one day soon.

My father-in-law has authored a number of books ranging from commentary on the weekly portion of the Torah, humor, a book of short stories and a collection of blogs about his own life.

During the course of many years, he almost never missed a family simcha, be it a wedding of a grandchild or a bar or bat mitzvah. Everyone was always excited to have him present as he added a great deal with his humor and stories. Some of his jokes were introduced by: “Have you heard this one?” We smiled politely but never really minded hearing the jokes again – and again. It was just part of the experience of being with him.

After retiring from the rabbinate several years ago, Weinberg decided that the time had come to spend most of the year in Efrat, closer to the family, but his goal was to have his own “four amot (cubits)” or as he phrased it, “a place to hang my hat.”

And so finally in November 2018, Rabbi Norbert Weinberg officially became an oleh chadash (a new immigrant) at the young age of 87.

The little boy who narrowly escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 with his family, today has 24 grandchildren and 44 great-grandchildren (and counting), a true testament that Am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).

Living in Israel is a true culmination of his lifelong dream to be part of the country that he has loved and cared about his entire life. One of his favorite activities is sitting on his porch, catching the warm rays of the sun, and gazing out at the scenic Judean hills.

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