For Stephen Neuwirth that one mitzvah was the mitzvah of emunah
ll of us could use a large dose of emunah at present. And frequently, the best source of emunah is observing it in others.
With that in mind. I’d like to share an email I received from Rabbi Moshe Schwed, director of the OU’s All Daf app, just before Rosh Hashanah. The bulk of the email consisted of a drashah given the preceding Yom Kippur by Mr. Stephen Neuwirth, from a tent on the grounds of his home in New Rochelle, which he had converted to a shul for the Yamim Noraim.
At the time he delivered the drashah, Mr. Neuwirth had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Though he had access to the best medical care available, he knew that the odds were heavily against him. And indeed, less than three months later, he passed away. Yet his subject on Yom Kippur was his gratitude to HaKadosh Baruch Hu for everything, including his dread disease. First, the drashah.
Nataly, our sons and I thank all of you from the bottom of our hearts for your being here to daven with us today. And we thank all of you who have been attending our daily minyan....
I do have one request to make, and that is that no one feel sorry for me. While I certainly wouldn’t wish my illness on anyone else, through this illness Hashem, in his Greatness and Mercy, has rescued me. Before I became ill, I had allowed my life to be filled with noise, and distractions, and pressures, and focus on things that didn’t matter. And all of that allowed me at times to be arrogant, self-centered, selfish, disrespectful, and even angry. And to anyone here who was on the receiving end of that I, with the deepest sincerity, ask your forgiveness.
But since I have faced this deadly illness of stage 4 pancreatic cancer, all of the noise, distractions, and pressures have disappeared. I have realized in a way that I never could have imagined before that I am completely dependent on Hashem’s Merciful Greatness. Only Hashem, our Father and King, can save me and all of us. And this realization has filled me with more simchah than I have ever had in my life. I genuinely spend every day filled with happiness. I have no fear. I only have the comfort of believing that the King of the World, in his Loving Mercy, has placed me where I am, and that this is where Hashem wants me to be. I don’t know what will happen, and I take this situation day to day. But what I believe is that whatever happens is what Hashem has determined is for the best. Gam zu l’tovah.
I woke up on Rosh Hashanah morning so filled with happiness that I would have an opportunity to attend the coronation of the King of the World. I put on my finest clothes on both days of Rosh Hashanah, to show my joy at this occasion.
But I must say that my great simchah at this time also comes from the incredible love and support and care I have received from my wife, Nataly. And the love and support of my sons and my extended family.
And also in great part from the incredible kindnesses that our New Rochelle community has shown us. My close friends have risen to new levels of kindness. And many people who were just acquaintances before have treated me like I have long been one of their best friends. I cannot overstate the comfort and happiness that all of these acts of kindness have brought to me.
And one of the great gifts that Hashem has bestowed on me through this illness has been to have the clarity to see that all Jews are great and have greatness within them. We are all connected. We all have different capabilities and talents, but in the end, we all are equal as foot soldiers in Hashem’s army.
There is a beautiful Gemara in Rosh Hashanah that discusses at some length how all the Jews are in a single-file line for judgment on Rosh Hashanah. The Gemara describes how it isn’t possible for any two or three people to be at the same place on the line — each person is judged separately, one after another. But then the Gemara points out that Rabi Yehudah taught that at the same time, Hashem looks at the entire line at once, and sees all of the Jews together as one. As I understand the commentators, they don’t interpret Rabi Yehudah to be disagreeing that each of us is judged individually, but rather to be adding that at the same time Hashem in His Merciful Greatness views all of us as one.
In Tomer Devorah, the Ramak, may his memory be blessed, explains, as I understand it, that when the Jewish People suffer, Hashem also suffers with us. And that we need to emulate this quality of Hashem by recognizing that all of us are connected. When one of us suffers, we all suffer. And when one of us is successful, we shouldn’t feel jealously or resentment, but instead should rejoice that this brings good to all of us. I thank Hashem for helping me, through this illness, to see all of this so clearly.
The Ramak also explains that when we confront difficulty, or pain, or illness, or other suffering, Hashem is not using intermediaries, but is caring for us Himself. As our Selichot today highlight, Hashem has told us: “I shall pour pure water upon you and purify you, of all your contaminations and of all your abominations I will purify you.” “I have wiped away your willful sins like a cloud and your errors like a mist — repent to Me, for I have redeemed you.” “I, only I, am the One Who wipes away your willful sins for My sake, and I shall not recall your errors.”
I thank Hashem for cleansing me, and for providing me with the opportunity to be close to Him. I can only be filled with simchah, and I hope this is a simchah we all can celebrate together.
I was blown away by those words and began reading them aloud at every Shabbos table where children and grandchildren were present. Nor was I alone in that reaction. Rabbi Aryeh Leibowitz of North Woodmere, for instance, read Mr. Neuwirth’s words as his pre-Ne’ilah drashah this year.
I also set out to learn everything I could about Stephen Neuwirth ztz”l, which included listening to over two hours of hespedim by his four sons and wife, his father, two brothers, his best friend from Yale College, Rabbi Reuven Fink of the Young Israel of New Rochelle, and Rabbi Etan Epstein of Monsey, who created the New Rochelle Community Kollel, and also set up Mr. Neuwirth for a daily two-hour chavrusa with Rabbi Menachem Sperka of Monsey. In addition, I spoke at length to his wife Nataly, and Rabbis Fink, Epstein, Sperka, and Schwed of the OU.
Even the quickest Internet search revealed that Mr. Neuwirth was not merely a “titan of the bar,” as Rabbi Schwed’s email described him, but a genuine “super-lawyer.” He was one of only two lawyers in America rated as both among the top plaintiffs and defense attorneys in anti-trust litigation. In one year alone, he won verdicts of $800 million for his clients. His life was a steady stream of accomplishments: senior class president in high school; a summa cum laude graduate of Yale College, followed by Yale Law School; White House counsel in the Clinton administration; and a key member of the Justice Department team that successfully sued Microsoft for anti-trust violations in the late 1990s. In addition to his unbroken string of academic and professional successes, in his younger days, he was both a star athlete and gifted pianist.
For me, however, the real question of interest is: How did someone who first stepped into an Orthodox synagogue in his mid-thirties become the person who could speak as he did 24 years later, while facing death in the eye? Alas, I did not quite solve the mystery.
Upon returning to New York City from D.C., Stephen contacted a fellow associate from his first job out of law school, who had become observant, and asked to join him for Shabbos. During that first Shabbos at the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, he was introduced to his future wife Nataly. It was not an obvious match. She was eight years his junior, raised in an observant family in Casablanca, and newly arrived in New York, after five years living in France, and far from fluent in English.
In the course of their courtship, Stephen told Nataly that he felt he had always been “religious, but not observant.” Unquestionably, Nataly’s insistence that she would only marry someone who was committed to an observant Jewish home provided the initial push toward Stephen becoming a regular attendee in shul. After their marriage, he was very drawn to Nataly’s family and their customs, even wrapping tefillin according to the Sephardi practice.
Still unexplained, however, is his constant growth in Torah knowledge and practice. That, Nataly is the first to admit, did not come from her. “I envied him. I performed mitzvos because that is what I had done all my life. But he was filled with enthusiasm.”
He completed one entire cycle of Daf Yomi, relying on the English translation, as he had almost no Hebrew background. By the end of that cycle, however, he realized that he had barely scratched the surface of Gemara learning, and approached Rabbi Epstein and asked him to find him a chavrusa with whom he could learn Gemara three hours every morning before leaving for work. When Rabbi Epstein cautioned him against taking on too much at the outset, Stephen replied with the example of Rabi Akiva, adding, “So I’m late. Better late than never.” (Rabbi Epstein did succeed in talking him down to two hours.)
That morning chavrusa became inviolate, no matter how little sleep he had the previous night. In a nighttime message to Rabbi Sperka, after medical tests had confirmed his diagnosis, Stephen concluded matter-of-factly that he looked forward to learning with Rabbi Sperka the next morning at 7:30 a.m. Stephen was delighted when he and Rabbi Sperka were forced to learn by phone during Covid because it meant that they could learn even when Stephen was traveling for work.
It would have been natural for someone as accomplished as Stephen to have compensated for his quasi-beginner status in Gemara learning by letting Rabbi Sperka know of his professional status. Yet at the end of more than four years learning together daily, Rabbi Sperka knew nothing of that status, other than that he must have been a successful lawyer if he could afford to take off two hours every morning to learn. They simply did not talk about things outside of what they were learning.
And similarly, it would have been natural to have let Rabbi Sperka lein the Gemara, rather than reveal how haltingly he read the Aramaic text. But Stephen always insisted on leining. He wanted to learn better, not save face. Over those four years, Rabbi Sperka did observe that the more difficult the perek they were learning, the more excited Stephen was. The last perek they learned together, prior to Stephen’s diagnosis, was Hazahav, generally considered one of the most difficult in Shas, and they reviewed it a second time. Whatever he learned, whether in hashkafah or in halachah, he implemented immediately.
One of Stephen’s strengths was his ability to establish clear priorities and live according to them. And chief among those priorities were his sons. “His face lit up whenever one of them came into the room,” his brother remembered. And each of his sons mentioned in his hesped that he never missed one of their basketball games or a music recital, and always seemed genuinely happy to spend time with them.
That love was more than reciprocated. “How grateful I am to Hashem that you were my father — my best friend and hero,” one son said in his eulogy. “You gave us 120 years of love,” said another. And they got his message: “Thank you for filling my life with meaning, Torah, and trust in Hashem. If Hashem decides, it is for the best,” said one son, speaking for all four.
He worked hard to implant his own enthusiasm for learning into his sons, sometimes taking them with him to the 5:30 a.m. Daf Yomi shiur. And when he returned from the shiur, “he made the daf sound so interesting,” remembered one. One night he returned late from Philadelphia, where he had suffered a rare loss in a trial, and went to the night kollel, where his oldest son Oren was learning. He remarked to his son, “In law, you win some and you lose some. In Torah, you never lose.”
That love of Torah was reflected in his extreme generosity. He once heard that a certain yeshivah was in dire financial straits, and immediately wrote out an unsolicited check for $25,000. And he did the same for individuals. He and Nataly dedicated the five-volume Mesoras HaRav Chumash, culled from the writings of Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik and published by the Orthodox Union Press.
And Stephen also made, while insisting on total anonymity, a large seven-figure donation toward the creation of the All Daf app, which curates a wide cross-section of the leading Daf Yomi shiurim in the world and provides an ever-expanding list of materials to deepen understanding of the daf, from halachic conclusions based on the daf to historical material relevant to the discussion. At an initial conference call with the senior rabbinical staff of the Orthodox Union, he made clear that he wanted to create a tool that would be of use to serious students, not just a potpourri of interesting items — “not a mall, but a Tiffany’s,” he put it. But as to how that should be done, he left completely in their hands.
He was a commanding presence. “When he walked into the room, the room expanded,” in the description of one of the eulogizers. As such, the other board members of the Young Israel of New Rochelle always looked to him when issues arose. His response was always the same: “Whatever the rav [Rabbi Fink] thinks is best.” Every rabbi, no matter how many decades younger, was addressed as “Rav” and referred to that way in third-party discussions.
IN THE SIX MONTHS between his diagnosis and his petirah, he elevated himself to an entirely new level. “He was no longer living in this world,” according to Rabbi Epstein, who was in constant contact.
The Gemara records that as Rabi Akiva’s flesh was being flayed by the Romans, the angels questioned the Divine Judgment. To which Hashem responded, “Your portion is life. Happy are you, Rabi Akiva, for you are mezuman to Olam Haba.” That response is puzzling. Could there have been any doubt that Rabi Akiva was worthy of Olam Haba? In his hesped, Rabbi Epstein explained that in this context, perhaps mezuman means “prepared.” That is, Rabi Akiva in his lifetime achieved a level of closeness to Hashem and clarity as to His greatness that is generally only possible in Olam Haba. And so it seemed to be with Stephen.
At the outset, he told a brother, “I’m a human being. Of course, I’m scared.” “But that is way down on my list of concerns.” Soon after his diagnosis, Rabbi Epstein took him to meet Rav Yisroel Dovid Schlesinger in Monsey. Rav Schlesinger told him to focus his energies on being mekabel his yissurin b’simchah, and that is what he did.
At one point, a group of Chabad chassidim was sent to the Neuwirth house to cheer up a sick person. Stephen danced and jumped up and down with them with so much energy that when they left, one asked, “Who here is sick?” When one of his sons would ask him how he was feeling, a frequent answer was: “Rabi Akiva had it much worse.”
He tried to sing a shirah chadashah to Hashem every day because yesterday’s shirah was no longer adequate to express his gratitude. During the most difficult treatments, he would sing Perek Shirah, and he carried with him everywhere a scroll that Rabbi Epstein had given him on which was inscribed “Ein od milvado.” He passed away with that scroll in his hands.
He told Rabbi Epstein that if he recovered, he would spend the rest of his life learning full-time. And during those final months, he devoured entire seforim. Shaarei Teshuvah of Rabbeinu Yonah was a particular favorite. When he learned it the preceding year, he commented to Rabbi Epstein that he had seen it as primarily a mussar sefer. But now, he realized it is primarily a guidebook as to how to pursue and accept Hashem’s love and mercy.
At the beginning of Shaar Sheini, Rabbeinu Yonah writes, “When a person accepts mussar from Hashem, and as a consequence corrects his ways, it is fitting for him to rejoice in his afflictions, because they brought him great benefit, and he should give thanks to Hashem, as on any other success.” And with that in mind, Stephen asked his rebbeim whether he could make a seudas hoda’ah, even before being cured, on the disease itself.
When he davened to regain his health, he explained to Rabbi Epstein, he was davening not so much for his well-being but that there should be no diminution in kevod Shamayim among all those who had been davening so fervently for him to get better. “He had never heard a mussar shmuess in his life, and yet he managed to intuitively grasp Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s understanding of prayer, as set forth in Nefesh HaChaim,” marveled Rabbi Epstein.
By the end, he had fully refined himself. On his penultimate trip to the Sloan Kettering hospital emergency room, he was in intense pain from internal bleeding caused by his tumor impinging on a vein. But when the once tough and assertive trial lawyer approached the nurses’ desk, he simply said, “I realize that everyone here is in pain, but I think it would be good if someone could examine me soon.”
As his family gathered around his hospital bed, he asked them to sing “Amar Rabi Akiva.” And like Rabi Akiva, in his final moments, he laughed while his sons and wife wept.
“I would cry with you too,” he told them, “but I’m too overwhelmed by Hashem’s greatness.”
On Rabbi Epstein’s final hospital visit, Stephen could no longer speak, but he was able to write out a last note, “Gam zu l’tovah.”
Rabbeinu Yonah writes (II:16) that when a person performs a mitzvah close to his petirah, it is as if he was lacking only that mitzvah and has now fulfilled the entirety of the Torah. At the shloshim, Rabbi Epstein explained that statement based on the Rambam’s interpretation, in his commentary on Mishnayos, of the statement of Chazal that Hashem gave the Jewish People so many mitzvos to increase their merit. As a consequence of that multiplicity of mitzvos, explains the Rambam, each person has the chance to perform at least one mitzvah entirely lishmah and with no outside considerations. That could be the one mitzvah close to one’s death to which Rabbeinu Yonah refers.
For Stephen Neuwirth that one mitzvah was the mitzvah of emunah. And that mitzvah, the Gemara in Makkos (24a) concludes, is the final distillation of all 613: V’tzaddik b’emunaso yicheyeh (Chabbakuk 2:4 ).
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 988. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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