An appreciation of Rav Sheftel Neuberger
Rav Sheftel Neuberger, who spent more than seven decades in Ner Yisrael of Baltimore, was a part of my life for over 57 years. I first arrived in Ner Yisrael at the age of 15, barely knowing which side was up. I quickly took note of a tall, striking, exceedingly friendly figure who seemed to be larger than life — as people would continue to describe him more than half a century later — and quickly came under his spell.
Shortly after arriving in the yeshivah, I joined a chaburah led by a young Sheftel. One Motzaei Shabbos, he decided to make a Melaveh Malkah for the chaburah. As yet unmarried at the time, he made the Melaveh Malkah in the home of his father, the incomparable Rabbi Herman Naftali Neuberger z”l, the president of Ner Yisrael. I remember one line Sheftel said at the event.
“If at the end of the year,” he remarked, “you can go into Rosh Hashanah saying that you ate Melaveh Malkah every Motzaei Shabbos, that’s a tremendous zechus.”
That made such a deep impression on me that I met that challenge from that day forward. I may not be like Rav Chaim Kanievsky, going straight from Havdalah to washing for Melaveh Malkah no matter the hour, but due to this casual comment from an elter bochur named Sheftel Neuberger, a young kid named Yissocher Frand accepted to observe Melaveh Malkah on some level ever since.
Throughout my life, then, I enjoyed a close connection to Rav Sheftel, and I would like to share a few personal reflections on a life devoted to the klal.
Rav Sheftel was always a mechadesh, he loved to share his own novel approaches to Torah — whether on Chumash, machshavah, lomdus, or halachah.
His personal take on one of the Avos captures so much about Rav Sheftel himself. He pointed out that everyone knows what Avraham Avinu’s avodah was all about: Avraham was the iconoclast who introduced the concept of monotheism to a world steeped in idolatry. We know what Yaakov Avinu represented. He was an ish tam yoshev ohalim, his niche was to seek truth in Torah. But what was Yitzchak Avinu’s avodah? We know precious little about what he represented.
Rav Sheftel suggested that Yitzchak’s avodah was to preserve and carry forward the avodah of Avraham Avinu.
Avraham was a revolutionary. He brought a new theology into the world, creating souls — es hanefesh asher asu b’Charan — by teaching them about the one God who created and runs the world.
Yitzchak’s avodah was to preserve and continue that work. Yitzchak’s avodah is perhaps best represented by his effort to unearth wells that Avraham had dug, which the Pelishtim had filled in after Avraham died. Not only did he re-dig those same wells, but he even named them with the same names that Avraham had given them (Bereishis 26:18). Why does the Torah make a point of telling us about this? Because this captures what Yitzchak was all about. He didn’t invent his own new avodah; he preserved and protected what his father accomplished.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, Rav Sheftel viewed his own mission in life in the same vein. His incredible father, the previous president of the yeshivah, was a visionary, a risk-taker, who developed Ner Yisrael into what it is today.
Ner Yisrael had once been doing well in its old home, on Garrison Boulevard in Baltimore City, but then the neighborhood began to deteriorate and become unsafe. On Friday nights, the locals would accost the bochurim, who would then have to fight back. Rav Herman Neuberger decided to buy the original 50 acres of corn fields on Mount Wilson Lane, when there were still horses living on the property, at $5,000 an acre. That was a fortune in those days! It was a revolutionary move, from a visionary who was willing to take that risk.
The yeshivah has now been on that property for over 50 years. Over the course of decades, buildings invariably deteriorate. What did Rav Sheftel do? He maintained those buildings, refurbishing, and beautifying the beis medrash, the dining room, the dormitories. Maintaining buildings is not as glamorous or exciting as building new ones. But he viewed that as his mission.
This doesn’t mean that he got stuck in a time warp. He was willing to change in terms of how the yeshivah functions and raises money. He certainly kept up with generational changes, dealing with the current crop of bochurim differently from the way he dealt with their predecessors. But he didn’t feel a need to create something new reflexively; when he could maintain what his father built, he was happy to follow in Yitzchak Avinu’s path.
You might think that someone committed to preserving the past would have a stodgy approach to the world, but Sheftel maintained a youthful exuberance. He was always fresh, excited in his avodas Hashem. Most people, as they get on in years, tend to get jaded, to view the world as “same old, same old.”
Another Simchas Torah? they think to themselves. So they just shuffle around the bimah a couple of times with the niggun they’ve sung for years, and then sit down to be maavir sedra or schmooze.
Sheftel celebrated the Simchas Torahs of his life as though he was 20.
And the same was true for every other occasion. Many people want to get Hoshana Rabbah davening over with as fast as they can. Sheftel took davening so seriously. He took Hoshana Rabbah seriously, he took Tefillas Geshem seriously. His legendary tefillos as the shaliach tzibbur on Yamim Noraim were so resonant that my children who have been out of Baltimore for over 20 years still hear his powerful and moving Hineini to begin Mussaf, no matter where they are.
In this week’s parshah, we read that Hashem spoke to Moshe from above the kapores, from between the Keruvim. What did the Keruvim look like? Chazal teach us that Keruvim means k’ravya, they were like children. The Baal HaTurim connects this with the pasuk, “Ki naar Yisrael v’ohaveihu” (Hoshea 11:1). Hashem loves Klal Yisrael because we are youthful. We aren’t always young, but we maintain a bren, an excitement, a devotion to Yiddishkeit even when we grow older.
Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv cites from his rebbi, Rav Yisrael Salanter, that there’s a message in the Keruvim having the form of children — Hashem is instructing us to keep learning, keep growing like children. Don’t allow Yiddishkeit to grow stale.
That was Rav Sheftel. He could say over a vort numerous time, with the same gusto, like the first time he said it.
Rav Sheftel passed away during the week of parshas Mishpatim, in which the Torah tells us: “Im kesef talveh es ami, es he’ani imach — when you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you.” Commenting on the words, “es he’ani imach,” Rashi teaches us that it’s not enough to just write out a check. “Imagine yourself being that poor person,” Rashi says. You have to try to put yourself into his shoes, to feel his pain.
In English, we call that empathy. We have to feel for ourselves what it feels like not to have enough money to cover the mortgage, what it feels like to fall so far behind on tuition that the school says that if you don’t pay, you can’t send your kids to school tomorrow.
Rav Sheftel had that empathy.
When coronavirus hit, the yeshivah building remained empty for a few months, and we taught via Zoom. The yeshivah spent a lot of money purchasing kosher tablets for every bochur in the mechinah (high school), so they could see the rebbi and the rebbi could see them.
The administration faced a dilemma. They had to continue charging tuition because the rebbeim were teaching and were entitled to their salaries. But the parents had already paid additional funds for room and board, and there was an internal discussion whether they should refund that money. It might have been justified to keep the money, to underwrite the expense of those tablets and other corona-related expenditures, but Rav Sheftel wouldn’t hear of it.
“There are people who are not working,” he said, “and some have even lost their jobs. They need to feed their kids. We need to send them back that money.”
That was es he’ani imach. Rav Sheftel Meir HaLevi Neuberger z”l felt the pain of those families and couldn’t bear to keep those funds. May he be a meilitz yosher not only for his family and the yeshivah, but for the entire Baltimore community and for the rest of Klal Yisrael that so desperately need a yeshuah.
Prepared for print by Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 849)
Oops! We could not locate your form.