December 20, 2012
As I was leaving Ohr Somayach after my most recent visit about a month ago, one of the veteran rebbeim mentioned to me that Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, zt"l, had been in the office that morning. I quickly ran back to the office hoping to catch a few minutes with Rav Mendel.
The last time I had seen him was a few months earlier, when he gave the opening address at the English-language Siyum HaShas. He was barely recognizable at the time, as a consequence of the treatments he was undergoing. But the voice was every bit as powerful and impassioned as I remembered from my days in Ohr Somayach 33 years ago.
Though I knew that Rav Mendel had been battling the dreaded disease for some years, it was evident that night, despite the power of his speech, that he was very sick. So it was with some urgency that I ran back to Ohr Somayach. But the secretary told me that Rav Mendel had left for the day. I made a note to call the next day, but never did.
How many reminders do we need before we learn one of life's most important lessons: If you owe someone hakoras hatov, tell them; you may not have another chance?
I DO NOT CLAIM to have been one of Rav Mendel's closest talmidim. Yet when my wife called with the news that he had passed away, I was astounded by the wealth of memories that rushed to the fore. In an odd way, my memories of Rav Mendel go back almost sixty years. He was best friends as a bochur in Torah Vodaas with two of my mentors, Rabbi Nisson Wolpin and Rabbi Nosson Scherman, and they often speak of him in those days with the smile of one savoring a particularly treasured memory.
The check marks in my Ramban on Chumash are taken from the parasha sheets that Rav Mendel prepared. No Chanukah ever passes without my repeating his insight (in a Tisha B'Av drasha) about Channah's words to the youngest of her seven sons: When you get to Shomayim, tell father Avraham, "You built one Altar, and in the end you did not bring your son on the Altar. But I built seven Altars and brought seven sons."
"Is that all that Channah could think about as she was about to lose her seventh son in one day – bragging rights on Avraham Avinu?" Rav Mendel asked. No, he explained, Channah was singing Avraham Avinu's praises: Your mesiras nefesh at Akeidas Yitzchak, left its mark on Klal Yisrael's spiritual gene pool. Because of what you did then a simple Jewish woman two thousand years later was able to offer her seven sons in a single day.
His descriptions in a Yom Atzmaut drasha of his own IDF service as a medic, and of life in the still new Mattersdorf neighborhood on the Jordanian border in the 1967 War still ring in my ear.
I DID NOT FULLY APPRECIATE Reb Mendel in my two years in Ohr Somayach. Nor could I have. My Torah learning was not at a level to begin to evaluate his mastery of Shas and poskim, though it was something I often heard about from my rabbis at Ohr Somayach. He was in a sense the rebbi of the rebbeim – many of whom had been chavrusas with him over the years. And until I first took on a public role as editor of the English Yated Ne'eman, nearly a decade after leaving Ohr Somayach, I had no occasion to benefit from his unfailingly incisive analysis of the Torah community and its various subcultures.
In recent years, however, he was the person to whom I turned whenever I felt the need to address a potentially controversial subject. I would fax him my pieces, and receive his responses in a matter of minutes. If the piece passed muster with him, I knew I was on safe ground. If not, I knew that I'd better go back to the drawing board.
I do not think I have ever met another person to whom the term geshict was more applicable. He did so many things well. With other excellent speakers, one can tell whether they have prepared. Not with Reb Mendel. He could be counted on for any occasion, and without any advanced notice, to have the perfect dvar Torah ready. It was said of his beloved Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Gedaliah Schorr, that he could shake pearls out of his sleeve. The same could be said for Reb Mendel.
And he wrote the same way. For decades, he wrote four or five columns a week for the Jewish Press, under various pseudonyms or on behalf of others. On more than one occasion, I watched him dash off ready for print material in a half an hour or less.
Because he did so many things so effortlessly it was easy to miss just how talented he was. That was most true of his Torah learning. Everything was instantly at his fingertips. He would rattle off Torah sources, as easily as he did, lehavdil, the roster of the 1927 Yankees. (A storehouse of baseball trivia can be a valuable asset for the Rosh Yeshiva of a ba'al teshuva yeshiva.)
AS GIFTED AS HE WAS, I have never met anyone with less need to make others aware of those gifts. Most writers of my acquaintance would sooner write for free than take their name off a column. Not Rav Mendel.
His air was always casual and unassuming. He rode the buses and made his own way back and forth to the smachos of his talmidim. Leaning far back in the chair in his office as he offered his wry observations, the twinkle of a smile on his lips, he seemed to resist being addressed in the third person.
That ability to leave his ego out of the picture made him a superb ba'al eitzah. He had a keen sense of the difference between the ideal and what could be realistically achieved in any given situation, and provided astute guidance on how to navigate an imperfect reality without losing sight of the ideal.
He was one of the few Amerikaners to fully integrate into the institutional life of Israeli chareidi society. His was recognized by all as a kluge Yid, and he became a leading player in many communal initiatives outside of Ohr Somayach
The same lack of ego made him the perfect partner. Sitting together with him and his partner in Ohr Somayach of more than forty years, Rabbi Nota Schiller, in the latter's large office, one always sensed the easy rapport and mutual respect between the two. There was never the slightest hint of friction. They complemented one another perfectly.
Never was Rav Mendel's ability to take himself out of the calculation more evident than that horrible moment, around twenty years ago, when he was called to identify the body of his son Shimmy, who had been struck by a car while bicycling in the Jerusalem forest. On his way to the hospital, Rav Mendel thought to himself: Should I hope that it's not my son? But if it's not my son, it is someone else's son. How many of us would have had the question?
Rav Mendel's lack of need to impress did not derive any lack of sense of self. Just the opposite. He was so at ease with himself he did not need the approval or admiration of others. Rabbi Simcha Wasserman noted that he was an "individualist," who knew his own mind, during the zman that Reb Mendel and nine other Torah Vodaas bochurim spent in Los Angeles to help Reb Simcha start a yeshiva high school. (A photograph of that group, which was headed by Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky, hung in Rav Mendel's office.)
Perhaps his independent streak made it possible for him to be one of the first to imagine a yeshiva for young adults with no learning experience and enabled him to be so comfortable with those from very different backgrounds.
MY GREATEST DEBT to Reb Mendel can never be repaid. He founded and guided a yeshiva in which rank beginners like myself could learn Torah with some of the greatest scholars of our time – Rabbi Dov Schwartzman, zt"l, Rabbi Moshe Shapira (both before my time), and Rabbi Aharon Feldman, and be exposed to the rich tapestry of Torah thought by Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt"l.
No less important was the constant message that our late start did not have to be a bar to reaching a high level in Torah learning. The highest shiur in the yeshiva today is given by a former talmid, and many former talmidim play prominent roles in Ohr Somayach, by virtue of their Torah learning, not their alumni status. Former Ohr Somayach talmidim occupy positions as rabbis and maggidei shiur around the world.
Rav Mendel was a dramatic, but not emotional, speaker. The one time I remember him being overcome by emotion was at the levaya for Rabbi Dovid Speyer, zt"l. Rabbi Speyer began his Torah learning in Ohr Somayach, before studying under Rabbi Abba Berman, zt"l, for a decade. He then returned to "give back" as the Mashgiach at Ohr Somayach for seventeen years, during which time he forged intense bonds of love with hundreds of talmidim. After his passing, Reb Mendel could not speak of him without tears.
The evening after Reb Mendel's levaya, Rabbi Speyer's son was married, an emotional ending to the day for many Ohr Somayach talmidim, who were reminded of being twice orphaned in little more than a year.
I WAS OUTSIDE of Jerusalem, relating the story of my religious journey to a group of secular Australian high school students, when the loudspeakers announcing the levaya went around. But my sons in Jerusalem knew, without being told, to go to the levaya.
I'm pleased that they understood what they owed to Rav Mendel. And even more so that they feel no disconnect between their status as talmidim in Jerusalem's most famous yeshivos and their father's start in Ohr Somayach – rather it is a point of pride for them.
Thank you, Rav Mendel for everything you made possible.
You can read other articles by Jonathan Rosenblum at Jewish Media Resources
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