January 20, 2013

Remembering Rabbi Noah Weinberg

(This week marks the 4th anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the visionary founder of Aish HaTorah. Rabbi Weinberg was indefatigable in his efforts to teach Jewish wisdom to an increasingly assimilated population. Under his leadership, Aish HaTorah grew into a worldwide network of outreach programs, from Los Angeles to Moscow, Santiago to Johannesberg, Mexico City to Philadelphia. This remembrance of part of what made Rabbi Weinberg so special was written by my husband, Jeff Gruen, who first met this dynamic teacher more than 25 years ago.)

I spent my junior year abroad in England, and somehow, at the insistence of a devout Christian friend, I found myself in Jerusalem, at “The Wall.” Actually thinking this was a Pink Floyd concert knockoff, I discovered something very different: men and women praying and dancing in their separate areas. I stood there, taking in this strange atmosphere, a warm and sincere man asked me if I had the time. I told him. Then he asked me if I had had dinner yet, and if not, would I join him and some other guys for a hot chicken dinner? I wasn’t about to turn down a free dinner, so I went.

That night, heading up the stairway up to dinner, I also began my lifelong affiliation with traditional Jewish life and Aish HaTorah. After that night, I decided to stay for a week’s worth of beginner’s classes on Jewish philosophy and teachings that I had never knew existed. The following week, having warmed up to the environment a little, a group of guys invited me to the home of the head of the Aish HaTorah yeshiva, Rabbi Noah Weinberg. He lived a 30-minute walk from the dining hall in an ancient looking building. Climbing the dimly lit narrow staircase I felt a bit uneasy, not knowing who I would be meeting, or why, for that manner. I was used to a good Friday night party, college style, with drinking and carousing. As we approached the Weinberg home, I heard Hebrew singing growing louder and louder – totally unlike anything I had ever experienced. When the door opened I felt a welcoming warmth within the brightly lit room, which featured the longest table I had ever seen. I looked for a corner from where I could assess the crowded scene, but before I knew it I had been ushered to sit next to Rabbi Weinberg himself. He looked directly at me with such a genuine welcoming smile, as if he had been waiting just for me. The crowded table was filled with cookies, cake, fruit, and liquor. The festive environment was infectious, and I even started pounding the table and “oy, “oying” along with the unintelligible Shabbat melodies.

One man stood up to speak, wishing Rabbi Weinberg mazal tov on two momentous events of the week: the birth of two baby boys: one to his wife, and one to his daughter! How was this even possible, or legal, I wondered? I felt a little in awe sitting next to Rabbi Weinberg, a big man with a big white beard, the head of this yeshiva, who looked a little like an Jewish Santa Claus. As I sat next to him, he placed his warm hand over mine, resting on the table. I couldn’t even imagine my own father offering this type of public intimacy. Yet this gentle palm somehow felt comfortable and even securing.

Soon after, Rabbi Weinberg himself spoke. Don’t ask me how he knew, but he publicly addressed my own personal existential questions, ones I had been grappling with for years: What is love? What is goodness? What is the greatest pleasure in life? What are you willing to die for?  His New York accent and syncopated mode of speech reminded me of my parents, both raised in Brooklyn and Washington Heights. I was awestruck: How did he know me and know what was on my mind? This was one of Rabbi Weinberg’s greatest assets: knowing how to speak the plain truth and striking a spiritual chord from deep within. I soon began to study with him and his course on the 48 Ways to Wisdom, which focus on some of life’s most vital questions, such as the difference between comfort and pleasure; the difference between love and infatuation; the vital necessity of clarifying your goals, and knowing what you are living for. 

Rabbi Weinberg introduced me to authentic, challenging wisdom, packaged in bite-sized chunks for people who were assimilated. People like me. That first night walking to dinner in Jerusalem began my lifelong affiliation with working to live a meaningful Jewish life. I’ve been walking ever since. 

Click here to watch a 4-minute video of Rabbi Weinberg’s “Instructions for Living”


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