The Human Spirit: Getting the message

The story of Mike and Pete, told in memory of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, whose 30-day memorial was this week.

barbara sofer 88 (photo credit: )
barbara sofer 88
(photo credit: )
"I don't need a yeshiva," the young man explained to Rabbi Noach Weinberg. "The Almighty and I are already close friends." He'd been riding his motorcycle up a winding mountain road when a truck forced him to veer to the right. He fell off the cliff, screaming for divine help. The motorcycle landed between two rocks, tossing the rider into a soft hedge. "You see, God does miracles for me," said the young man. Rabbi Weinberg smiled. "And who, do you think, sent that truck?" The story is familiar to all those who had the privilege of even a modest acquaintance with the late Rabbi Noach Weinberg, who died on February 5. At the heart of his teachings was the importance of acknowledging and acting on the heavenly messages that come our way. On Saturday night, February 7, I made a condolence call to the Weinberg family in the Kiryat Sanz neighborhood of Jerusalem. I had a chance to ask Rebbetzin Deena Weinberg how her husband had veered from total devotion to his own Torah scholarship to a life-mission of instilling love and appreciation of Judaism in mostly non-observant Jews. Back in 1961, the idea of opening a yeshiva or even your own private home to non-observant Jews was novel and controversial. Rebbetzin Weinberg started telling me about the rabbi's first students, twin brothers then 18. "One," she said, was the national president of Young Judaea. I heard myself interrupting. "And the other was the president of Connecticut Young Judaea." She was surprised that I could know who she was talking about. But I explained that I, too, was from Connecticut and was an active member of Young Judaea. I'd never met those twins because they were older, so we hadn't overlapped in high school. Nonetheless, they were such legends that nearly half a century after their youth movement presidencies, I remembered their names: Pete and Mike Blumenfeld. Later that night, I recalled that a year or two earlier I'd given a ride to a woman who turned out to be married to one of the Connecticut Blumenfelds. When she got out, she'd left me her number on a scrap of paper. I regretted not having saved it. It would have been interesting to hear the story from their point of view. To complicate any hope of a search, I'd prepared for an office move the week before, ruthlessly throwing out oversized boxes filled with thousands of papers, notebooks, newspaper clippings and magazines. In a final moment of triumph over paper clutter, I'd cleared my desk. On Sunday morning, I sat down to work. On the surface of my desk was a single folded paper torn from a pocket notebook. On it was the name "Blumenfeld" and a phone number. So here is the story of Mike and Pete, told in memory of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, whose 30-day memorial was this week. THE BROTHERS BLUMENFELD came to Israel on the small post-high school programs running in the early '60s. Mike was one of some 40 teens on the Young Judaea Year Course, and Pete, the national president, was picked for Machon Lemadrichei Hutz L'Aretz. The Young Judaeans were living in downtown Jerusalem at the San Remo Hotel. Mike was grounded for cutting classes to watch the trial of Adolph Eichmann. His roommate went off to buy a pizza and returned followed by two bearded strangers. Recognizing a fellow American, they'd befriended him, offering a home-cooked Shabbat meal and a chance to talk about Judaism. "Not me," answered the roommate. "But I have a friend who's interested in that kind of thing." So young Rabbis Nota Schiller and Noach Weinberg came to the San Remo Hotel and met Mike. They talked for an hour and invited him to visit their yeshiva. Mike was curious and brought along his girlfriend. He was bareheaded; she was wearing shorts. The rabbis greeted them warmly, but suggested they talk outside. This time, the upshot of the conversation was that for the months that the year course was centered in Jerusalem, Mike would study weekly with the rabbis; his girlfriend would study with Deena Weinberg. By the time Mike was supposed to leave Jerusalem for a kibbutz experience, he balked. He'd rather try a yeshiva. He'd convinced his brother Pete to do the same. Their program directors offered them a speedy return to the United States. Back in Wallingford, Connecticut, Mike and Pete's parents were distressed, and who could blame them? Their sons had already registered for Ivy League colleges - Mike at Columbia University, Pete at Harvard. Their mom was a teacher and their dad, one of 12 children, was an officer in the Merchant Marine. He hadn't had the chance to go to college. Where were their talented sons heading? Rabbi Weinberg asked a university-based colleague in Cleveland to drive 600 kilometers to convince the Blumenfelds that their sons weren't being hoodwinked by bearded fanatics. They reluctantly agreed to let them stay in Israel. Pete and Mike began calling themselves "Israel" and "Mordechai" - the names by which they'd been called to the Torah at their joint bar mitzva. There were no Torah schools for beginners, so they went to study in Jerusalem's venerable Hebron Yeshiva. Their father wouldn't speak to them for an entire year. Disappointing and angering his parents was the hardest part for Pete. "I wanted to be a good son, but I sensed there was something deep here that I needed to explore. Through Young Judaea, I was already convinced of the uniqueness of the Jewish people. I had read Hertzberg's The Zionist Idea from cover to cover. Nonetheless I was puzzled about what love of Israel and pride in Judaism meant." Mike, who was following the testimonies of survivors at the trial, was moved by Rabbi Weinberg's premonition of a spiritual Holocaust as large numbers of Jews were rejecting their roots. "He believed we were losing so many Jews that someone had to do something." This was in 1961, when more than 90 percent of American Jews still married fellow Jews. Barriers were falling for Jews in academia, law and medicine as they gained upward social mobility. Today's stream of Jews returning to Orthodoxy wasn't even a trickle. Few were the bridges linking the world of Torah education and the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Weinberg, himself a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, understood how to tutor the public-school educated, brilliant brothers through their first steps of Torah study. More important, he fanned the fire of love of Judaism he believed was inside every Jew. TODAY, RABBI MORDECHAI Blumenfeld is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of clinicians specializing in drug addition. Rabbi Israel Blumenfeld heads a yeshiva for North American teens from religious homes, who are often in need of spiritual strengthening. Each has seven children. Both are appreciative of their meeting with Weinberg and the satisfaction they've experienced in their lives. "There's a gap between what you know you should do and what you feel like doing that moment," said psychologist Blumenfeld. "You don't feel like getting out of bed and taking the bar exam, but you get up and do it. Deep down your reality is that you feel good doing what you know you should do. The more you close that gap the better you feel." Their furious father once came to Israel to confront their teacher. He was greeted by a smiling Weinberg. "Why are you smiling?" he demanded of the rabbi. "I've come to punch you in the nose." But Weinberg's warmth and intelligence won him over. The rabbi and the father wound up hugging good-bye. Eventually, their parents accepted their sons' life choices, and moved to Israel for their final years. "My dad was a strong union man, and I think I convinced him that we realized we had a previous collective agreement with Torah Judaism that I had to honor," said Israel. Today, the Young Judaea Year Course has more than 500 participants, and two tracks are geared for youngsters like Mike and Pete, who want to explore greater observance and Torah study - part of our own era's openness to religious ideas. Weinberg's success with the Blumenfelds encouraged him to start yeshivot for beginners, the best known of which were Ohr Sameach and later his flagship Aish Hatorah, dedicated to proactive outreach. The night I made my shiva call, more than 100,000 men and women had already listed themselves as having been positively impacted by Weinberg. The Blumenfelds, of course, are on that list, but so is the motorcycle rider.