Venerable individuals still among us share their recollections of personal encounters with yesteryear's giants
Rabbi Berel Wein
Eyes that saw Rav Yitzchak Isaac Herzog
Rabbi, teacher, and historian are just a few of the many hats Rabbi Berel Wein has worn over his illustrious career. Growing up in Chicago in the 1940s brought him in contact with many prewar giants — including his own grandfather Rav Chaim Tzvi Rubinstein, who had studied in the Volozhin yeshivah in his youth and was a close student of the Netziv.
At Hebrew Theological College — Beis Medrash LeTorah, Rabbi Wein’s rebbeim included Rav Chaim Kreiswirth, Rav Mendel and Rav Herzl Kaplan, Rav Mordechai Rogow, and others. These great rabbanim brought the Torah majesty of Baranovich, Slabodka, and Mir to the American kids of Chicago’s West Side.
Yet some of young Berel’s most memorable encounters took place when Torah leaders came to Chicago to fundraise, and utilized the opportunity to reach out to the younger generation.
Rabbi Wein remembers when Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav, delivered an electrifying speech at the yeshivah. “He related to us that there were Jews who’d been imprisoned by the British authorities in Palestine, because they had acted on their determination to drive out the British and create a Jewish state. He then stated with great conviction that if those activists could be matched by a cadre of Jews who were equally determined to build a Torah state in Eretz Yisrael, they would undoubtedly succeed!”
A life-changing moment came with another illustrious visitor in the late 1940s: Rav Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Herzog, the chief rabbi of Palestine. It was only a few years after the conclusion of World War II, and the immense tragedy of the Holocaust was just beginning to sink in when Rav Herzog embarked on a fundraising tour on behalf of the Vaad HaYeshivos. A staggering sense of loss propelled the entire campaign, lending it urgency and passion that Rabbi Wein can still relive decades later.
Berel was a young lad when he accompanied his father and much of the city’s rabbinate to greet Rav Herzog at the airport. He watched, entranced, as the regal rabbi descended the airplane staircase. The procession then drove to the yeshivah where Rav Herzog delivered a lengthy Gemara shiur.
Then he turned to the younger students and addressed them directly.
This visit, Rav Herzog explained, came after another recent trip where he’d spent several months strengthening the broken remnant of European Jewry in Poland, as well as the various displaced persons camps in the Allied zones of Germany. He had then traveled to Rome, where he sought an audience with Pope Pius XII. There he presented an impassioned plea to return the thousands of Jewish children who had been cloistered in monasteries, convents, and other Catholic institutions by their subsequently martyred parents. The pontiff refused to do so, citing baptismal concerns.
As he related this tragedy to his audience, Rav Herzog put his head down on the shtender and began to weep.
“I have never before or since seen a grown man crying like that,” Rabbi Wein says. “Two thousand years of our bitter exile came pouring out in an overwhelming display of emotion and copious tears.”
After several minutes, Rav Herzog finally looked up and thundered to the crowd, “I cannot save those thousands of Jewish children. But I ask of you — how are you going to help rebuild the Jewish People?”
Following the speech, all participants lined up for the opportunity to shake the Rabbi’s hand and receive his blessing. When young Berel Wein approached, Rav Herzog demanded of him, “Did you understand what I said? Don’t forget it!”
More than half a century later, Rabbi Wein still hears the echoes of Rav Herzog’s question — a constant mandate and charge. How are you helping rebuild the Jewish People?
Now in its 99th year, Hebrew Theological College has had many great rabbinic legends serve on its faculty over the years, including Rav Dovid Lifschitz; the Novominsker Rebbe, Rav Yaakov Perlow; Rav Ahron Soloveichik; Rav Nissan Yablonsky; and Rav Chaim Zimmerman, to name a few.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 854)
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