Insular, uninterested about anyone other than themselves, unconcerned with the State of Israel – so runs the familiar stereotype of the haredi community. That stereotype, however, cannot survive the briefest contact with my friend Moshe Weiss. Though Yiddish is the primary spoken language of the Weiss home, on any given Shabbat evening, Moshe, his wife, mother, 10 children and spouses are likely to be joined at the table by a visiting journalist, a top analyst in the US Defense Department or a senior government official.
Moshe grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of four brothers born to two Auschwitz survivors. Older brother Manny was the activist in the family. He began canvassing for Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson as a teenager. Moshe was the studious brother, turning down a scholarship at Columbia University to study at Jerusalem’s Mir Yeshiva after high school. While at Mir, he became exposed to the nearby beit midrash of the Stoliner Rebbe and eventually became a Stoliner Hassid.
WEISS’S PUBLIC career began January 1, 1991, when he received a phone call from the Stoliner Rebbe demanding to know, “How can you just stand around when thousands of Jews are arriving monthly from the former Soviet Union?” Weiss, then 30, was serving as a mashgiah (guidance counselor) in the Stolin Yeshiva. The rebbe instructed him to stop and to open a dormitory high school for immigrant boys within five days.
Weiss found a building in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood. Rabbi Sender Linchner, head of the nearby Boys Town, sent over his cleaning crew to prepare the building. He told Weiss that Boys Town’s facilities would be open to his students. Then an ad was placed in Vesty.
Five boys showed up for the first day. But by the end of the first two months, Lezion B’Rina had 60 students.
Moshe Glatstein was among that first group of students. He had not known his father until he was 12 years old. The elder Glatstein was arrested and shipped to the gulag for attempting to establish a Jewish newspaper in Kiev when his wife was pregnant. At an emotional meeting in Kiev shortly after his return from prison camp, Glatstein’s father asked Weiss to take his son to Israel and provide him with a Jewish education.
After studying at Machon Lev and serving as an officer in the air force, Glatstein today heads his own computer company. The only compensation for growing up without his parents, he says, is: “Moshe Weiss became our father.”
Another early Lezion B’Rina graduate was Shaul Resnik. His black kippa and long beard did not keep him from becoming a political satirist for Vesty, hosting a Hebrew-language radio program for Russian speakers or becoming head of Russian-language marketing for McCann-Erickson.
Weiss’s work at Lezion B’Rina brought him to the attention of Natan Sharansky, whose struggle for release from the Soviet gulag had been supported by a broad cross-section of Jews around the world. He was determined that when his Yisrael B’Aliya party entered the first Netanyahu coalition in 1996, it should not be a divisive force. He appointed Weiss as a senior adviser to Yisrael B’Aliya on personal status and Jewish identity issues.
Subsequently, Weiss went to work in a similar capacity in the Immigrant Absorption Ministry under Yuli Edelstein. There he spearheaded the creation of an inter-ministerial committee to resolve personal status issues of immigrants before they arrived, which succeeded in rescuing more than a thousand potential agunot. Another major effort was the development, under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate, of burial plots immediately adjacent to Jewish cemeteries for non-Jewish relatives. Many of the solutions created in those days, with a maximum of goodwill, remain in place today.
After leaving the ministry in 2000, Weiss once again assumed the administrative and financial responsibility for Lezion B’Rina. (The Stoliner Rebbe also urged him recently to take on responsibility for Bat Zion, the Stoliner girls’ school and dormitory for immigrants from the former Soviet Union.) He also opened a consulting firm for foreign investors seeking to invest in the country.
In the latter capacity, he was approached by Rabbi Yehoshua Shapira, the rosh yeshiva of the hesder yeshiva in Ramat Gan. Concerned about the corrosive effect of the pornography, sado-masochism and gambling sites easily (and often accidentally) accessible on the Internet, Shapira had requested former students with an expertise in hi-tech to develop filtering programs. The result was Internet Rimon.
Two months later, Internet Rimon had exhausted its start-up capital, had only 2,000 subscribers and was on the verge of closure. Shapira approached Weiss and asked him to save the business. The latter could not resist Shapira’s passionate concern for every Jewish soul. He secured a loan to keep the company afloat and set about reorganizing the business model, eventually becoming chairman of the board.
Today, Internet Rimon is the fastest growing Internet service provider in the country, providing users with multiple levels of filters, according to their sensitivities. It has also formed an international company, Netspark, that has made available its filtering technology to anyone seeking protection from the most pernicious aspects of Internet.
BUT WEISS’S driving mission remains Lezion B’Rina, which now has nearly 1,000 graduates. He employs four full-time workers seeking out Jewish children in the furthest hamlets of the FSU. Those who express an interest are flown here together with their parents (or more commonly single parent) for a 10-day seminar introducing both the country and Lezion B’Rina’s Betar Illit campus – with its combination of high quality secular education and introduction to Jewish living in a tolerant setting. Recruiting alone costs over $150,000 a year, all of it raised privately, with no Jewish Agency or government help.
Any Jewish child who Weiss feels can grow up to function as a Jew here is accepted, regardless of whether Education Ministry financing is available. In the words of Sharansky, “Incredibly, Lezion B’Rina takes children from Ukraine, from Belarus, from Russia, from the most broken homes imaginable and fashions them into leaders in the Russian community, leaders in Israeli society in general.”
The secret is to function fully as a home-away-from-home for every
student. That means a warm staff, including social workers and
counselors and big brothers. The bond with Lezion B’Rina and Bat Zion
does not end with graduation. Weiss covers the marriage expenses for
every graduate, and even attempts to provide a down payment on an
How does he explain his willingness to take on this often overwhelming
burden? “Maybe being the child of Auschwitz survivors draws me to
projects for the salvation of klal Yisrael. After what he had been
through, my father Yosef, a hard-working carpenter, could not stand to
see Jews downtrodden or suffering. Neither can I.”