An Orthodox rabbi’s unorthodox calling

Although making aliya was hardly a foregone conclusion, Israel was always part of Weisz’s life.

Rabbi Tuly Weisz (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Tuly Weisz
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tuly Weisz was destined to follow in the family business.
Originally, he planned to finish law school and join his father’s real estate company. In the end, this grandson of a pulpit rabbi joined his grandfather’s business when he took over his grandfather’s pulpit.
Why the shift? “It turned out that, when I started dating Abby [now his wife], she very much wanted to be a rebbetzin. I was in law school and in a smicha (rabbinic ordination) program. I switched my focus from law to rabbinics.”
Although making aliya was hardly a foregone conclusion, Israel was always part of Weisz’s life. Raised in a Zionist home, Weisz and his siblings came to Israel on summer programs and on winter vacations. After high school, he spent two years studying in Mevaseret Zion, just outside Jerusalem. He met his wife in Israel in 2002 on Yeshiva University’s “Operation Torah Shield II,” a mission to support Israel during the second intifada.
Weisz’s first trip to Israel etched a sentimental memory on his heart. After he marked his bar mitzva by being called to the Torah at the Western Wall, a friend of his grandfather gave the family a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. The group made an unplanned stop at a modest army synagogue overlooking the Wall.
Opening the Holy Ark, the family was stunned to see a Torah scroll that had been donated to the IDF by Weisz’s grandfather during the Suez Crisis of 1956.
Weisz’s grandfather was Rabbi David Stavsky, who served as the rabbi of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Columbus, Ohio, for 47 years. Stavsky died just as Weisz was finishing his law degree and getting his rabbinic ordination. His grandfather’s congregation reached out and hired their beloved rabbi’s grandson as their new rabbi.
“We were in Columbus for five years and we really loved it. It was very special, filling in for my grandfather, serving as the rabbi in the shul I grew up in,” Weisz reflected. Their first child was the family’s third-generation student at Columbus Torah Academy. Things were going so well that Beth Jacob Congregation offered him a long-term contract.
And that’s when Tuly and Abby confronted their family’s future. Faced with the prospect of a long-term contract, they took a whole year to think about it.
Stay in Columbus or go to Israel? “My only example was my grandfather, who had many opportunities to move on but dedicated his career to a small Midwestern community.
“We knew that either this was going to be the rest of our lives, or we were going to try living in Israel. We didn’t want to someday regret not trying. We were looking for an adventure and to raise our children in the land of our forefathers.”
Sufficiently conflicted about the decision, they told everyone it was “not necessarily for our entire lives, but we’re going to try it for three years.”
The five years in Columbus introduced Weisz to his current mission.
“In Columbus, through the Jewish Federation and other communal responsibilities, I encountered Christian Zionists for the first time. I was very impressed with the sincerity and the passion these non-Jews had for Israel.
I couldn’t believe it. In Columbus, I personally knew every Jew who was supportive of Israel. All of a sudden, I was introduced to all these people from Columbus I didn’t know, who loved Israel as much, or more than, some Jews even.”
Weisz used his connection to Christian Zionists from Columbus to start “a nonprofit organization to help connect rabbis and pastors to cooperate on behalf of Israel on a local level.” His original, modest email list was made up of family, friends and the Israel-loving non-Jews he had met in Columbus.
Very quickly, Weisz moved the enterprise online. Inspired by Deuteronomy 11:12 which says of Israel, “the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year,” he named the project Israel365 and officially launched at the beginning of the year – January 1, 2012.
His goal was to help people connect to Israel “from the beginning of the year until the end of the year.”
The mission of Israel365, which Weisz oversees from his offices in Ramat Beit Shemesh, is to “promote the biblical significance of the Land of Israel. We reach out to Jews and non-Jews. We’re very much focused on speaking a language that Christian Zionists can understand, relate to and appreciate.
“There’s so much great content available to Jews who love Israel and not so much for non-Jews who want more of a religious, biblical perspective.”
Israel365’s daily email originally included one news item about something happening in Israel that had biblical resonance.
“I picked stories that helped demonstrate how Israel makes the Bible come to life, and how the Bible makes Israel comes to life.
“The demand was so great. Our list was growing. We were driving a lot of traffic to other news sites. So we decided to start our own news site.”
Breaking Israel News, a project of Israel365, launched in July 2013.
“We started the email list four years ago, and we now have over 200,000 daily email subscribers. Our websites reach millions of people every month. We have such a great influence on how so many people see Israel,” Weisz boasts.
Beyond fulfilling an important role in creating and disseminating the kinds of content that people are so passionate about, Israel365 employs over 20 Anglo olim, allowing them to support themselves in Israel. And through the Israel365 store, “We help Israeli authors, artists and musicians sell their products to people they would otherwise not have access to.”
Weisz answers those who might be skeptical about his outreach to Christians.
“Not only is it kosher for an Orthodox rabbi to be doing this, there is no one better than Orthodox people to be reaching out to Christians. We have a natural language that we can connect over – the Torah. Rather than leading us away from our conviction to Judaism, our interactions with Christian Zionists strengthen the connection to Israel. I think it’s what Hashem [God] wants from the Jewish people – to fulfill our historical role to be a light to the nations, and reaching more people and teaching what the Torah has to say. I really believe there are few things that we could be doing today that are more important than that.”
Reflecting on where his aliya has taken him, Weisz says, “This is certainly not what I was expecting to do in life.
On the other hand, so much of what a pulpit rabbi does is to make Judaism relevant. So it’s similar to what I did as a pulpit rabbi. I’m helping make Israel relevant.”
For people who are considering making aliya, Weisz advises, “You don’t have to be a hard-core Zionist to make aliya and to thrive here. I think that our model is a good option. We didn’t necessarily know this would be the rest of our lives. We gave it a shot and we absolutely love it.
“We’re doing exciting, important and cool things professionally. Personally, we had a daughter born in Israel three years ago and a son born in August.
We held the first family brit in Israel in 2,000 years. No level of professional accomplishment can even hold a candle to that level of Jewish pride.” ■