| Magazine Feature |

Bound for Eternity 

Rav Moshe Weinberger still holds tight to his father’s tefillin and simple faith

 


 Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab, Family archives

One Shabbos about a year ago, I joined Seudah Shlishis at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway, an extraordinary place bursting with young men who maybe didn’t have an easy time of it, who’d fallen or been nudged out of the system. The yeshivah has welcomed them, reassured them, restored them, and there, in a darkened room, the Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Mordechai Yehuda Groner, was speaking to the boys lining both sides of a long table.

He was talking about the eternity of the neshamah, of its essential purity, and he suddenly cried out, “You guys saw the tefillin. You saw them. You know that those are your tefillin too.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, so after the derashah, I asked the boy next to me. There was something resolute in his eyes as he told me that the bochurim had joined the Rosh Yeshivah on a shivah call a few blocks away, where they had been menachem avel Rav Moshe Weinberger, spiritual leader of Woodmere’s Congregation Aish Kodesh, who was mourning his father. And there, they had seen the tefillin of Mauthausen — the straps that had given their owner ropes to climb above the pain and despair — and in his words, I heard a different story: A bochur who had never been beaten by a Nazi, never been forced to stand straight in freezing rain for roll call, never been crammed into a cattle car, but still carried wounds. He had both his parents and lived in a privileged generation, but in a way, he too was alone.

And the tefillin in that house? They were his tefillin too.

At the levayah of Reb Mordechai Aryeh Yosef Weinberger a few days earlier, the niftar’s grandson, Asher, had addressed his own father, Rav Moshe, telling those gathered, “Dad, those of us on the inside track understand that the thousands of shiurim and millions of words you have spoken over the years contain one single unifying theme. A noble, maybe desperate attempt to articulate the idea, the symbol, that Zeide represented, and the world that once was.”

I’m certainly not qualified to assess the accuracy of the comment, but it does explain a lot: how the shiurim, the lectures, the informal conversations of the rav of Aish Kodesh burst with ga’aguim, longing, for something undefined, unexpressed — a goal impossible to cram into a subhead or shiur title.

Others have tried to find words: “neo-chassidic” and “conceptually chassidic” and a particularly presumptuous term I saw in an article, “socially-conscientious chassidic” — as if the Rebbe Reb Meilech and the Berditchever had it almost right except that they didn’t recycle.

In that hesped, Asher Weinberger got it.

Yes, the Baal Shem Tov enlightens, the Piaseczna Rebbe inspires, and the tzaddikim of today uplift, but it’s as if Rav Weinberger is crying, “Guys, don’t miss the boat, hold tight to this Yiddishkeit too!”

It was the pure Yiddishkeit of Martin Weinberger, a quiet man from Queens who owned a chain of dry cleaners.

“My father wasn’t a big talker. He chose his words carefully, so his gestures or expressions conveyed a lot,” recalls Rav Moshe Weinberger. “Once, though, when I was a young boy, I was listening to him talk about the forced journey from Ungvar, his hometown, to the labor camps. Hundreds of people were crowded together, in impossible conditions, but my father remembered how the tzaddikim were davening Kabbalas Shabbos. He was speaking with such reverence about the groisse Kabbalas Shabbos of these Jews on their final journey. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I asked him, ‘What happened with all those Yidden from the groisse Kabbalas Shabbos?’ In other words, what did it ultimately do for them?”

Now, sitting at a kitchen table, bare except for two coffee cups and a closed Sefer Tehillim, Rav Moshe Weinberger shrugs and makes a face, as if to say what do you want, I was a kid.

He doesn’t overdo it with the explanation or apology, though, because this too is a big part of Rav Weinberger’s message: that it’s no shame to be a human being, and it’s no great disgrace to have acted like a child when you were one.

And asking an honest question? That’s something to be proud of.

Where was Hashem in the Holocaust?

Martin Weinberger heard the question, but he didn’t answer his son. Not right away, anyhow.

A few years later, Moshe Weinberger became bar mitzvah.

He got a handsome tefillin bag with a new pair of tefillin inside, but on the day he first laid them, his father made a strange request. “He asked me to also wear his tefillin that day,” Rav Weinberger remembers.

And so, the bochur took off his own tefillin, then donned his father’s without saying a brachah.

“And then,” says Rav Weinberger, “he told me a story.”

When the Nazis overtook Hungary, the young men and boys were forcibly sent off to either join the “Munka Tabor” — the forced labor brigades — or to fight alongside the Hungarian soldiers. The boys of Ungvar were no different, and 18-year-old Motyu Weinberger bid his own parents farewell.

His father, Reb Chaim Moshe, looked him in the eye. “I don’t know that we will see each other again, my son. We will meet up after 120 years, but until then, hold your tefillin close and make sure to wear them every day.”

Rav Moshe Weinberger reflects on this. “My zeide was a wise man. He understood that a Jew who wears tefillin every day is connected, bound to the essence. This was his request.”

In the Munka Tabor, Motyu Weinberger carried those precious tefillin, wrapping them around his body so as not to risk losing them. Eventually, though, he was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp, where all possessions were seized.

Except he didn’t give in the tefillin. He kept them on him at all times, like an additional limb attached to his body.

Before roll call, when a blanket of darkness hung low over the land of darkness, he forfeited a few minutes of his precious sleep and risked a beating or worse to lay the tefillin.

And not just him, but thousands of others, the line forming and stretching around the barracks.

One day, the camp was filled with horrific screaming, Nazi officers barking orders to immediately get undressed and throw all clothing and possessions into a pile. There were large, lice-like insects infecting the camp and the decision had been made to destroy all the prisoners’ possessions. A huge pit had been dug, and prisoners were instructed to throw in everything — clothing, shoes, and any other personal item — to be burnt.

There was no choice. The inmates were being searched. Soldiers were surrounding them, watching every move. Motyu Weinberger had no choice: He removed his shirt, wrapped his precious tefillin in rags, kissed them, and gently placed them on the pile.

Then he walked away, unable to look as the heaping pyre was set aflame.

Eventually, he came back and saw a little mountain of ashes. And on top of it, in the very same place he had left them, were his tefillin, perfectly intact.

“That was the story my father told me when I became bar mitzvah, and that was his answer to my question. He was saying maybe he didn’t know what had happened to those tzaddikim, but the Ribbono shel Olam is bigger. There is a tomorrow. There is a plan, and it is precise and eternal.”

Mordechai Weinberger wore those tefillin every day until once, when he was older, a sofer was in shul checking tefillin, and he informed Mr. Weinberger that the tefillin had a kashrus issue.

“No, I need to wear these,” Reb Mordechai insisted. “Please fix them.”

The sofer didn’t recommend it, telling him, “You will constantly have to repair them, it’s not worth it.”

“So I’ll do that, but I don’t want to give these up,” the older man insisted.

“Look,” the sofer tried logic, “you were clearly moser nefesh to wear these tefillin, and that’s why they mean so much to you. But they might well be pasul. Maybe it’s time to be moser nefesh again by wearing a pair that has no questions?”

Reb Mordechai nodded. Yes. It was time for a new pair of tefillin. But until the end of his life, each day he also wrapped himself in the old pair, without reciting a brachah.

Now, here’s the thing: Eight-year-old Moshe Weinberger asked a question, one that wasn’t just cynical, but also touched on the essence of hashkafah, on what his parents had experienced, on what being Jewish means. And his father waited five years to answer.

He didn’t panic. He didn’t run to a chinuch seminar. He didn’t over-talk. He waited.

Rabbi Weinberger smiles at the thought. “Years later, when I was in high school, I had a rough rebbi one year, I didn’t do well at all and hated going to school,” he relates. “Back then, lots of boys from religious homes were in public school, and many of them were my friends from the neighborhood. I knew they finished the day much earlier than we did in yeshivah, so I decided I would switch to public school.”

He told his father of his decision. “Think about it for a few days, it’s an important decision,” Reb Mordechai said. “You’ll rest up over Shabbos and have a clear head to think.”

On Sunday morning, the teenage boy had reached a conclusion. “I decided I’m going to stay in yeshivah,” he told his father.

“I’m proud of you,” was the response.

Moshe Weinberger turned to face his father. “If I had said I’m going to public school, you would have let me go?” he asked.

His father leaned forward and said, “Over my dead body.”

“So then why did you tell me it’s up to me if you wouldn’t have let in the first place?”

Martin Weinberger, dry cleaner, part-time tailor, a survivor who had been separated from his own parents as a teenager and never attended a single parenting class, met his son’s gaze. “Because I trusted you to make the right decision,” he said.

Martin Weinberger was a strong, quiet man.

“Others might use the word ‘inflexible,’” says Rabbi Weinberger, “which is where I have that ma’alah from.”

I’m not sure whether it’s polite to smile at the comment but Rebbetzin Myrna Weinberger hears and laughs out loud, so I guess it’s fine.

“But not inflexible in a bad way, though,” the Rebbetzin is quick to interject. “It’s more like, if Waze says to turn right in half a mile and we both know there’s a better way, he still won’t do it. He follows instructions to the last detail.”

“My father,” continues the Rav, “used his determination to achieve great things. At his own bar mitzvah, he had been tested on Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Basra, and he knew all of them well. He never told us that, of course — my uncle did, but all that was interrupted by the war, and once he came here, he was busy trying to build a family and take care of us.”

Eventually, though, he found his way back to the beis medrash. “Today, young people might come in at 7:05 for the 7:00 minyan and feel virtuous, but my father walked in to Young Israel of Hillcrest, his shul, at precisely 6:30 every morning, so that he could join the Mishnayos shiur.”

And he started learning Gemara again. He learned Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh on the parshah. He was driven.

But one day, that drivenness would present a challenge of its own.

“One Motzaei Shabbos, my father sat us around the table — me, my sister, Beverly, and my mother — and announced that we were making aliyah. Period. It was time to go home. My mother was as surprised as we were.”

Just 14 years old, Moshe Weinberger experienced the upheaval of moving to a new country, learning a new language, joining a new school.

“Let’s just say, the experience was not especially positive for me,” he remembers. “My father didn’t really find a parnassah there. First we were in Netanya, then Savyon, but it didn’t really work out. After two years, we came back.”

Today, though, that experience equipped the Rav with the ability to understand others and help them with the uncertainty and vulnerability of teenagers in similar situations. But there is another lingering effect as well.

A few years ago, the Rav and Rebbetzin took a Sabbatical year from the shul they built and into which they give heart and soul, spending it in Eretz Yisrael.

Not long after arriving, though, Rav Moshe started suffering from intense shoulder pain. “My rebbetzin suggested that there was some sort of unexpressed tension within me, connected to the trauma of living there as a teenager. I thought she was probably right.”

But Rav Weinberger ended up dealing with it his own way. “I was at a simchah there,” he remembers, “and I saw Rav Shlomo Bussu, a grandson of Baba Sali and a tzaddik in his own right. I told him about the pain, and he called over his brother, Rav Shimon.”

Rav Shimon Bussu took one look at Rabbi Weinberger and announced his diagnosis.

“You’re a lefty, so you wear tefillin on your right arm, but you need to wear tefillin on this arm too,” he tapped Rabbi Weinberger’s left arm. “That’s why you feel pain.”

Rabbi Weinberger, who was already wearing Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin each day, was caught off guard. “Until when?” he asked.

Rav Bussu laughed. “Until Mashiach comes for sure. Maybe afterward too.”

Reb Mordechai Aryeh Yosef Weinberger arrived in America on a chilly Erev Shabbos in 1948. In the streets of New York, he saw, for the first time, a little dog wrapped in a sweater. “This is a place,” he thought, “where the animals are warm and the humans are cold.”

He came into shul that first Shabbos and was met with more surprises. People were sitting on chairs (not benches), and learning Torah in English! So he bought a Yiddish-English dictionary and each day, he went through the New York Times with it, teaching himself English. Through a survivor friend, he was introduced to a young woman from Muncacz, Perele Krauss, and they married.

He slowly built himself up, opening one dry cleaners, and then another, but for his only son — whom everyone called Mark, but he called Moish — he had other dreams.

“The options were doctor or lawyer, accountant was also okay. I had already been accepted to law school, because that was expected,” recalls Rav Weinberger, “but one Shabbos a friend came over to me and said, ‘Moish, you really want to be a lawyer? You know, you would make a good rebbi. You love learning. You’re good with people.’

“I had never thought of that as a career.”

Arguing with his parents was never an option, so it seemed unlikely that it would happen, but just the same, Moshe Weinberger mentioned the idea to his father.

“You want to be a rabbi? How will you pay the bills?” asked his father, running through the various costs involved in building a home and family.

But then Martin Weinberger called his wife into the room and said, “Paula, this is why we survived, that he should go get semichah. Moish, go learn Torah gezunterheit.”

“My father,” says Rav Weinberger, “was crying when he said that.”

Moshe Weinberger joined the semichah program at RIETS and soon became Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, a close talmid of Rav Dovid Lifshitz. He married Myrna Schall, and started teaching — first at Shaar HaTorah in Queens, but he quickly realized that in the conventional yeshivah system, they didn’t need him.

“I myself had gone to more modern schools, and I felt like I could reach boys from non-religious homes too,” he says. “There weren’t too many qualified people busy with that, so I went to work at Ezra Academy in Queens. Rabbi Eli Freilich is a hero — he was doing amazing things and I loved it there. I became very close to the students, and many of those relationships endure until today.”

The young rebbi was close to Rav Shlomo Freifeld, who intuited that Woodmere needed Rav Moshe Weinberger to open a shul… and you probably know the rest of the narrative, the stuff of dinner journals and communal lore and who knew that everyone really needs chassidus in their lives? Rav Weinberger was likely the first (and probably the last) figure to grace both the cover of Jewish Action magazine and also the cover of the Yiddish monthly, Otzros, the subject of a glowing feature article entitled “Ah Fei’er Brent in Woodmere.”

He built a unique kehillah, exposing a new need — a new thirst — in the souls of orthodontists, actuaries, and air conditioning salesmen. He reached their families too, showing the relevance and appeal of an active, vibrant connection with the Creator, forming a family-like congregation that learned, one shiur and uplifting davening at a time, about connection, inspiration, and depth.

He also emerged as an advocate of the young people, the kids turned away from school, kicked out of school, rejected by a system, showing them that the Ribbono shel Olam of whom he spoke wasn’t outside them, but inside them.

Okay, everyone knows that. You’ve heard the shiurim. Seen the clips. Cried when he cried and laughed when he laughed.

What I want to know is how it appeared through the eyes of Martin Weinberger? What did he see happening?

Rav Moshe contemplates the question for a while.

“My father definitely had his ideas about what being a rav entails, that’s for sure,” he finally answers. “One summer day he saw me leaving the house holding my baseball glove. He asked me where I was going, and I told him that since it was bein hazmanim, the guys were playing ball. ‘I never saw someone become a talmid chacham from playing ball,’ he said wryly.”

Another time, Rav Moshe recalls, his father observed him learning. “I was sitting there with a huge pile of open seforim all around me, looking like a big lamdan. He says to me, ‘Moish, why do you need so many seforim to learn Gemara? I don’t see a talmid chacham coming from open seforim… Learn Tosafos and Maharsha.’

“I don’t think my father was sending a message about superficiality. I think he was letting me know that rabbanus is real, it’s not just a ‘thing’ you do because it makes you feel good. If that’s really what you’re doing, then go all in.”

From the vantage point of 30 years at Aish Kodesh, it looks like the rabbi has figured it out.

 

In 1992, when the shul took root in Woodmere and started to grow, a building campaign was launched.

“My father would come once a week and watch the building take shape,” Rav Weinberger recalls. “But then, when it was near completion, he noticed that workers were bringing in stained glass windows and he panicked. ‘Such windows? The goyim will break them, you don’t need that.’ He was traumatized, 70 years after leaving Europe….”

During the final months of construction, Rav Weinberger asked his father not to come check on the progress of the building. “I wanted it to be a surprise for him when it was ready. I wanted him to take it all in at once.”

When the kehillah moved into its attractive new home, Martin and Paula Weinberger came for Shabbos as honored guests.

“My father walked in and the whole thing — the shul, the aron kodesh, the people — took his breath away. I looked at him, remembering how he cried when I said I wanted to teach Torah, and I felt like, this was his. It was all his.”

When he’d come to America, Motyu Weinberger had seen human beings that were cold. In Aish Kodesh, he saw the place that would make them warm again.

Over the years, the Aish Kodesh shul has taken many joint trips to Eretz Yisrael and to the towns of the holy masters around Europe. Two years ago, they went to Hungary, stopping in Kerestir, Uhjel, Liska and other well-known cities.

“I also wanted to visit Ungvar, my father’s town,” Rav Weinberger says. “It was overwhelming, because I felt like I had always known this place, and seeing it, the landmarks of my father’s youth, the kloiz, the river, the park, made me feel like I was there with him. He would often speak of his holy rebbe, Rav Yosef Elimelech Kahana, the last rav of Ungvar. Then we went to the beis hakevaros and the caretakers initially didn’t want to let us in, although they finally agreed to let us have half an hour there.”

Rav Weinberger had very much wanted to visit the kever of his revered great-grandfather, Reb Usher Zelig Lefkowitz. “At the end of his life, the elter-zeide had lived in my grandparents’ home, and my father often spoke of him, but it didn’t seem possible to find the grave. There were thousands of kevarim in there, and we had so little time. All we knew was that it was near one of the walls, but that wasn’t much to go on.”

Rav Weinberger and his group started by davening at the kever of Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, but his son Asher headed off to find the kever of his namesake.

“It was like a magnet was drawing him,” Rav Weinberger relates. “He just walked straight through to a certain kever, pulled the vines away and called out, ‘I found it, it’s here!’

“We stood there, we took pictures for my father, we made a rikud. I felt that for my father, it was the closing of a great circle.

“Two years ago,” he continues, “Myrna and I were honored by the shul dinner — you know, it’s a way to make money, don’t worry, it doesn’t represent real honor or anything. They showed a film about the history of the shul, and when it was done, my father leaned over to me. Now, my father wasn’t a demonstrative person, but he gave me a kiss and mumbled that he was proud. He had nachas. It was a special moment,” there are tears in Rabbi Weinberger’s eyes now, “and pretty soon after that, he got sick. He was getting ready to go. He grew a beard, and then, a few weeks before his petirah, he started to tell me, ‘Ich vil aheim gein — I want to go home.’”

On Tu B’Shevat a year ago, Reb Mordechai Aryeh Yosef ben Chaim Moshe went home.

 

In his introduction to a booklet of Tu B’Shevat shiurim being released for the first yahrzeit, Rav Moshe — teacher of Torah and chassidus, listener and guide, visionary and yes, “the Rebbe” whether or not he accepts the title, but really, just a son who has spent his life trying to find words to share the strength and sturdiness of a simple Hungarian “tefillin Yid” — writes:

It is written in the pasuk “From the ends of the earth we hear singing…” The Arvei Nachal writes that “the ends of the earth” means from the depths of Hell, the furthest extreme of earth. From there we hear the songs that praise Hashem Yisbarach.

The song from the “ends of the earth” is not the same as the one we sang as we emerged from the Yam Suf. At that moment in time, Hashem’s loving Presence was so clear to us. Swept along by the great miracle, we raised our voices in gratitude and praise.

My father’s journey began almost a century ago in Ungvar, Hungary, where he was raised in the loving embrace of a remarkable family, a holy rebbe, and the all-consuming embrace of the yeshivah, Shas, and poskim. The song was brutally interrupted by a different world known as Mauthausen. He somehow survived, built a life for himself and our family, and returned to his Gemara, his Tehillim, and song.

Tu B’Shevat, his yahrzeit, is a celebration of the earth’s song. It does not commemorate any miraculous event in our history. It simply pulls each of us all the way down to the earth to hear her voice….

If ever you’ve heard the niggunim that come forth from Aish Kodesh, then you might have been frozen by emotion, overcome by the intensity, the passion, the way the melody lingers behind even when the sound has stilled.

Ein Shum Yiush. Alei Lema’alah Alei. Veshavu Vechayu. V’chasdi Me’itech Lo Yamush. These are their theme songs, sung at different events and times — the background sounds to Shabbos, to shiurim, to yahrtzeits, to the life cycle.

And the man at the head of the table, his face illuminated by candles on either side, conducting the song, but also the stirrings of so many souls, hears the music too.

It’s the music of the Yam Suf, to be sure, but mixed with it, loud and clear, is the song of the earth as well.

It’s his father’s song.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 848)

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