An unorthodox approach to Orthodoxy

“Make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.”

Rabbi Berel Wein, a rare practicing Zionist among prominent American rabbis, made aliya in 1997. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Berel Wein, a rare practicing Zionist among prominent American rabbis, made aliya in 1997.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The mishnaic compilation Ethics of the Fathers shares this advice from the sage Shammai: “Make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.” Shammai’s aphorism seems to effectively describe the approach of Rabbi Berel Wein.
As an autobiography of a man who has accomplished a remarkable amount in his 80 years, Teach Them Diligently is a surprisingly slim volume. Without sacrificing depth – or the reader’s attention – Wein has managed to provide fascinating and honest insights into his career in Jewish communal life, while carefully avoiding anything that could be construed as inflammatory.
“Not everything need be recorded,” Wein writes in the final chapter.
The experiences and observations he did choose to record are presented in a compelling style honed, no doubt, through his numerous books and columns.
Growing up as “a short, fat kid, something of a nerd” in Chicago, Wein relished Torah study but also became a lawyer so as to have a marketable skill. The many Berel Wein fans who know him best from his Jewish history tape series or books, or from his lectures and films on behalf of his Destiny Foundation, may not know that Wein was at one time a practicing attorney who also dabbled in real estate and business management.
But his greatest achievements were guided by the words of Rabbi Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi of Palestine just after World War II, who spoke in Chicago about his frustrated efforts to recover hidden Jewish children from Catholic institutions.
“I cannot save those thousands of Jewish children,” Herzog declared, “but I ask of you – how are you going to help rebuild the Jewish people?” This spoken challenge inspired and encouraged Wein to persevere in his difficult self-appointed task of shoring up Orthodoxy in America, at a time when it was perceived to be on its last legs. He recalls being the only Shabbat observer of perhaps 100 Jewish boys his age in the neighborhood.
However, he had several outstanding teachers who guided him along the path his pious parents set out for him.
He stayed on that path despite exposure to shocking hypocrisy and dishonesty among many supposedly religious Jews with whom he had dealings. And though he prospered materially, by the early 1960s he realized that his greatest satisfaction was from “Shabbat Rav” duties and the communal work he shared with his wife, Jackie. When one of his rabbinic mentors recommended that he try out for the pulpit of Congregation Beth Israel in Miami Beach, he was ready.
Wein’s adult-ed classes proved popular.
(A great piece of trivia: He was one of the first guests on Larry King’s then-struggling radio talk show.) The Wein home in Florida received scores of visiting rabbis, lecturers and fund-raisers over the years; the long list includes everyone from the Satmar and Ponevezher rebbes to the IDF chief rabbi and Elie Wiesel.
Remarkably, Wein expresses sincere respect for Jewish leaders with whom he had differences of opinion and outlook.
He writes that he never compromised his values to be politically correct.
For example, during the five years in the 1970s that he directed the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union in New York, he took flak for rejecting some Boston meat products under the supervision of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, because they did not meet the standards set by Wein’s predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg. Similarly, he upheld Rosenberg’s standards regarding canned tuna, though they differed from those of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Nevertheless, he enjoyed warm friendships with these two pillars of American Orthodoxy.
Neither does he apologize for his criticism of Conservative and Reform rabbis.
“I sympathize with them, for they face terrible choices and a very difficult constituency. Yet they are destroying Jewish life and family in North America,” he asserts.
While heading a shul and a yeshiva he had founded in Monsey, New York, Wein earned a reputation as a speaker and a skilled, if unwilling, fund-raiser and astutely avoided being pigeonholed.
One year, he gave nearly the same speech on consecutive nights at the national conventions of the OU and Agudath Israel. Afterward, he was admonished by officers of both organizations and resolved never to speak for either again.
“I’m pretty disgusted with organized Jewish life and with people’s obsessive interest in protecting their own turf, rather than the welfare of the Jewish people,” he writes. “I’ve chosen other ways of trying to help the Jewish people globally.”
Among prominent American rabbis, Wein is a rare practicing Zionist. He and his late wife made aliya in 1997, even though their children and grandchildren chose not to follow them. Now remarried, he continues to lead a synagogue in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood while teaching, writing, lecturing and inspiring legions worldwide.