Rav Weinbach, zatzal
Each person has a list of people to whom he is indebted. To some he owes a little and to others he owes a lot. And then there are those few to whom he basically owes his life. For me, the most prominent in this last category was Harav Weinbach, zt”l. He was my Rebbe, my mentor and my advisor, as he was for hundreds of others.
I knew him as a talmid and worked together with him as a staff member, one of a handful who have done both. I was actually tickled silly to be privileged to have the constant access to him that the staff members had. I never took it for granted. As a matter of fact, the longer I was around him, the more remarkable he became. He was so personable and laughed easily and heartily, but I always had a sense of awe in his presence. There was a certain atzilut about him, a type of dignity. More impressive was the sense that he didn’t care a lick about personal kavod, and he deserved it more than most. One of the beginner students in the Yeshiva once said to me, “Your colleague Rabbi Weinbach said in a talk today…” I wanted to throttle the guy. He was not my colleague. A Rebbe is not a colleague. Common purpose? Yes. Colleague? Never! In speaking to each other we referred to him as “Reb Mendel”, but in person he was always “Rav Weinbach” or “The Rosh Yeshiva”. Due to his approachability there were underlings who referred to him in person as “Reb Mendel”, but I always cringed when I heard it. He treated us as colleagues and communicated the idea that while he is in charge and makes the decisions, we share a common purpose. I once spent about an hour and a half counseling one of the boys who was going through a traumatic family experience. I was emotionally spent and physically rung out. Just then Rav Weinbach walked past and grasped immediately what had been going on. “No one ever told me about this when I signed up” I joked. He gave an understanding chuckle and said, “No one told us when we signed up, either”.
When I arrived as a student at Ohr Somayach our personal contact was pretty much limited to hearing his talks in the Beit Midrash. However, anyone who ever heard him speak can readily understand that for that alone it would have been worthwhile to have come to the Yeshiva. For a struggling unsuccessful former Yeshiva high-schooler it was priceless inspiration. Each time he spoke, there was a reinforcement of my decision to give learning another chance. It wasn’t exactly charisma and it wasn’t exactly charm — though he certainly had both — but there was some undefined quality about him and the way he said things that left me and all the others charged up. Over the years I came to realize that he was the “rosh hamedabrim b’kol makom”. He was a peerless orator and always hit on the key point at any occasion. He spoke at countless vorts and always zeroed in on the target flawlessly, leaving the chatan and kalla feeling great. I remember one occasion, after he spoke one of the hanhala members leaned over and said to me, “The man keeps hitting home runs.”
We would play baseball in the park across from the yeshiva at the lunch break. There was one time he came out to play with us. He batted and played the field and could certainly hold his own. But when not batting he didn’t stand around and watch like the rest of us. He sat with a gemara and learned, until it was his turn to bat again. I realized that that was the real reason he came out. He wanted to teach us how one plays. You can enjoy yourself as a Torah Jew – but there’s never a reason to sit around doing nothing.
I knew he loved to learn, and he was constantly doing so. But not seeing him off campus, I had no way of knowing how he spent his time. I figured that having so much on his plate, his hours away from the yeshiva were spent running and planning programs and changing peoples’ lives. It was only when a couple of the boys who had spent bein hazmanim in Mattersdorf told me, “Every time we went into the local beit midrash Rav Weinbach was there learning” that it really sunk in that this is a man who is totally into Torah. And somehow he still ran programs and changed peoples’ lives.
The outside world knew him as pioneer in kiruv and life-changer of many. I saw him as an immense talmid chacham whose life was learning. As the years went on I realized more and more just how much he loved it. Any time I had a question on a gemara or a pasuk or in any other area of Torah, all I had to do was knock on his office door and enter with an open sefer. Whether in the middle of writing or speaking to someone or a meeting – he would be drawn to that sefer like metal to a magnet. Proper etiquette may have called for him to tell me to come back later, but he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He would stop what he was doing, hear the question and then give an answer. It was always a hands-on lesson that Torah learning reigns supreme. I must confess that a few times over the years I intentionally went in to “ask” a question because I enjoyed so much seeing how attracted he was to Torah. They say that if you want to know who a person really is and what is really important to him, look at his children. Yes, just look at Rav Weinbach’s children. Sons and sons-in-law who are all talmidei chachamim. Serious, no-nonsense talmidei chachamim. That was the man.
Rav Weinbach did not go for any of the gimmickry so widespread (and ineffective) today in the world of kiruv. He taught through word and deed that the way to bring Jews closer is to teach them Torah. As he once told us at a staff meeting, “We may call certain classes in the Yeshiva by certain names for the sake of packaging, but the bottom line is that they are all Torah.”
His efficiency was legendary. Everything he did was done with zerizut of mind and body. How else could he have accomplished as much as he did? His desk was clear at the end of the day – a sign that he had completed the various tasks he assigned himself at the beginning of the morning. Speaking to him was the same. In all the years of being at the yeshiva and dozens of conversations, I don’t remember him ever telling me to come back the next day. When I’d ask to speak to him it was always, “Come back in ten minutes” or “Just wait outside, we’re almost finished.” And one never left his office with any ambiguity. You received a decisive answer to any question. Whether it was in asking advice or in asking permission to embark on a project – it was inevitably a clear yes or a clear no. And in a poignant lesson to our generation, his efficiency was without the aid of a cell phone. He detested those instruments, as he did all of the modern technology which has brought so much vulgarity into the world.
The range of what he could be asked about was mind-boggling. I personally asked him halachic questions that arose in the yeshiva, personal advice, guidance for dealing with talmidim, and general Torah questions. And there was often a phone call or two where someone else was calling to ask a question. I, and so many others, would walk out of that office with our dilemmas resolved. He had a particularly clear grasp on the tricky Israel scene, ranging from the secular public on one extreme to the Neturei Karta on the other. I would also come to him to get a direction for putting together public talks, and he always came through. He would give ideas for topics to discuss and, possibly more important, what topics to avoid.
The gemara says that when Rabbi Chanina passed from this world, Rabbi Yochanan tore thirteen garments and cried, “The man I feared is gone.” We didn’t fear Reb Mendel in the purest sense of the word, but he was definitely the man who kept us in line. Any sort of deviation from pure Torah hashkafa, whether in action or in deed, would be pointed out. On the other hand, he was effusive in his praise for a job well done or a talk well delivered, and there was very little that felt better.
In the course of visiting various cities around the world, I have found that one phenomenon keeps on repeating itself. Whether a kiruv center in the U.K.or a shul in Australia, or an outreach operation in Denver, Rav Mendel was somehow involved. Policy decisions, halachic obstacle courses, the direction a community should take – the long reach of his wisdom had come into play. I came to realize how big he had really become and how large segments of Klal Yisrael were so dependant upon him. So many of his small physical actions had huge communal effects. A letter of haskama in a book or sefer affected countless people. Advice to a communal rabbi affected the many members of that given community. A phone conversation with a kiruv center director carried ramifications for who knows how many. And these sorts of things took place every single day, numerous times a day. How many lives were touched, changed, and saved by one person simply can not be measured or fathomed. And when I say “one person” I obviously mean the Rebbetzin too. The two of them were clearly one. There is simply no way a man could do so much without the encouragement, support, and yes, the advice and counsel of his wife. All of his, and therefore ours, is most certainly hers.
There was no shock at the petira, as we all knew the end was near. But we are numb. So many feel that they have lost the guide of their life. When Rav Moshe Feinstein was niftar, one of my Rebbeim said, “It was a world with Reb Moshe and now it’s a world without Reb Moshe”. That is the way I – and I’m sure countless others — feel right now. It was a world with and now it’s a world without Reb Mendel. The Yeshiva will continue and his talmidim will carry on. But it won’t be the same. It will never ever be the same. The heavens cried with us at the levaya as the rain poured down, much the same as my tears pour down with the writing of these words, and the realization that things will never be the same. On a personal level, I knew that he had nachat from me, and that knowledge was priceless, much the same as a child who knows his father is proud of him. Many other talmidim who are now involved in spreading Torah surely feel the same. How could one possibly get that back? Oy, Reb Mendel, we’re going to miss you so much. So very much.
The grand welcome Reb Mendel received in Shamayim cannot be imagined. The malachim created by his Torah, his mitzvot, the Torah of his family and talmidim, his chessed, and so much more, were probably laughing and dancing. Instead of him standing up and speaking, he was the one spoken about. And then there’s the tally of all the accomplishments. All that he put into motion will continue eternally to be added to his account and placed onto his desk. Only this time, his desk will never be cleared. The pile will only grow higher and higher.