Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Rabbi Dovid Winiarz zt”l

This week, we lost a Torah giant, a star. With the passing of Rabbi Dovid Winiarz zt”l, our world is that much darker. The loss is unfathomable and incalculable because of all he might have achieved going forward.

But even the way he left us shows us the way. He was on his way to (where else?) a convention for the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals. He was on his way to learn and share more about the work that defined him during his short life: kiruv rechokim.

First, however, he took the time to learn with his young son and his son’s friend. He let his followers know that there might be a delay in his responses to the myriad messages he would surely receive, with no inkling that the delay would be final. Rabbi Winiarz also humbly gave public credit to his wife and children for encouraging him to travel to this kiruv convention to learn, grow, and further his precious work.

His was a pure soul, indeed.

If every Jew has a spark in his neshomah waiting to be lit, Reb Dovid was the shamash, setting sparks ablaze in every soul he touched. Who knows how much light he might have brought to our world had he been left among the living? But our zechus has ended, Reb Dovid’s tafkid has been fulfilled, and now we must use the lessons we learned from him to bring tinokos sh’nishba back to the klal, back to where they belong.

We heard the first reports of the dreadful news Sunday night. The long-time Staten Island resident met his end in a head-on collision on an icy road in Hartford, Maryland. Five other people were involved in the accident, including Reb David Chandlov and his wife, who were in the same car as Reb Dovid, also on their way to the kiruv convention. All five of the injured were transferred to a local hospital, Upper Chesapeake Medical Center. Of the six people in two cars that slid and crashed in the black ice, only Reb Dovid didn’t make it.

Hashem took him at a defining moment, when he was filled with that special light he used to ignite the buried embers among Klal Yisroel. And now it’s up to us to take up where he left off, as it says, “Hu hoyah omer lo olechah kol hamelocha legmor velo atah ben chorin libatel” (Avos 2:21).

Maybe we can start with something small: injecting positivity into our voices. Everyone who knew Rabbi Winiarz even slightly remarked upon his voice. He always sounded upbeat, even to those who knew him only as a voice on the phone. Everyone who spoke to him felt better, even if they hadn’t felt bad before. Just speaking to Reb Dovid lifted the spirits, made you want to try harder, made you want to be a better person.

A member of Oorah’s Kiruv Department told this author, “The first impression I have when I think of Rabbi Winiarz is of a happy, upbeat, positive, outgoing, friendly person who was always there to help Oorah.

“When we first started Torah Spot, Reb Dovid assisted us with spreading the word by hanging up and distributing flyers, postcards, and even telling people about the then new program by word of mouth. He did anything he could think of to help, all with positive cheer and energy.”

Another Oorah employee said, “Any time I had any contact with Rabbi Winiarz, it was always ‘service with a smile,’ whether it was hanging up posters for our JCC class or just providing me with someone’s contact information. His Facebook presence was permeated with this attitude and you see it in any photo you find of him, always a huge smile on his face.”

Rabbi Eli Biegeleisen, writing from the Association for Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP) convention, detailed his earliest memories of Reb Dovid. “Soon after I had unofficially accepted the position as the rabbi for Oorah responsible for outreach in Staten Island, when I was kind of nervous [about] moving to the unknown, I received an email from Rav Dovid, ‘How can I reach you?’

“Not quite understanding who this person was, I sent him my phone number. The phone rings. ‘Hi, Dovid here, we are really excited to have you in Staten Island. I’m here to help. Whatever you need, just ask.’

“‘Okay, sure. Nice,’ I think to myself. But he was serious. Without even waiting for me to ask, he gave me all the info he had about where, when, and how. He helped me connect to the various social media networks. Helped me move in.

“He was there introducing me to people, giving me leads, always ready to help, always thinking of what else can we do, always with a smile. I never had to ask him for a thing. He was always there promoting and sharing on social media, without getting any credit for these deeds. It was always about giving more Jews a chance.

“There were so many times I’d discuss an inyan with a secular Jew only to have him interrupt me and say, ‘Oh, Rabbi Winiarz once gave me a book on that subject.’”

Another longtime member of the Oorah Kiruv Department shared her memories of Reb Dovid. “He was one of our sponsors many years ago when he had a large business. He gave eagerly, generously, and always had something nice to say. He was a pleasure to deal with.

“When his parnossah took a turn for the worse, he never complained. He was the same happy, cheerful person as always. That’s why he was such a perfect candidate to become a kli kodesh. He had such a nice personality. He attracted people with his charisma.

“But it was more than that. He really cared. People could tell.”

Rabbi Biegeleisen concurs. Reb Dovid was selfless and at the same time cared so much for others. “Once after a meeting he mentioned to me how he really was in need of more clients for parnossah. I turned to him and said, ‘Reb Dovid, maybe slow down a little on your myriad chessed projects and focus on yourself.’

“He said, ‘I try to make a parnossah too. But what can I do? There is so much I can do for Yidden to just give them the education to survive. How can I not?

“‘My only problem is that I can’t devote myself fully to the task, because I must feed my family.’”

Not that his family came last. Reb Dovid always made time to learn with his children, as was noted at the levaya. But perhaps the important point is that his family stood behind Reb Dovid, they were one with his goal of bringing Yidden close to Hashem. His mother, for instance, looked out at the crowd of some 500 people who came to mourn and maspid her son and she smiled between the tears. It was a smile so reminiscent of Reb Dovid’s.

There is perhaps nothing as terrible as losing a child, lo aleinu, but still Reb Dovid’s mother, Mrs. Subar, smiled and said, “What mother would not be beyond, beyond proud to hear all the words that were spoken? I have been proud since January 2, 1966, when my baby boy was born.”

And at that moment all knew that Reb Dovid’s smile had come to him from this eshes chayil, Reb Dovid’s mother who said, “Hakodosh Boruch Hu gave us a gift for 49 years and He wanted His gift back.

“I don’t blame him. It was worth everything!

“But every single one of us in this room, and the thousands [who followed him], and many more whom he met, you think he had a short life? No. He filled into these 49 years many lifetimes. That is the gift this neshomah left us. Let’s not waste it,” she said.

“That’s the greatest kovod we can give this neshomah: by continuing his philosophy, who he was. His philosophy was ‘a pintele yid is noch a yid.’ Every Jew is precious no matter what label they carry. Every Jew is precious! And that’s what we have to remember.

“Every Jew is precious. Every human being that has a mentschlichtkeit is precious. He knew that well and he practiced it well. The gift that we can give back is to continue [to use] the gifts that he left us.”

Reb Dovid’s eldest son, Reb Shaya, spoke about his father’s work and his humility. He related that his father used to say, “Wherever I go, I am going to plant seeds. Hopefully they’ll grow one day.

“It’s not my job to decide if they grow or not,” Reb Dovid would say. “That will be Hashem’s job. I just have to plant seeds.”

And plant he did wherever he went. So many of these seeds sprouted and proliferated, growing in Torah and mitzvos, into upright, sturdy Jews.

Meanwhile, at the AJOP convention, Reb Dovid’s absence was sorely felt. Rabbi Biegeleisen described the mood, the sense of something priceless gone missing forever. “At the AJOP convention, so many were heartbroken [at] the loss of a selfless man who had reached far beyond his brothers. The head of related at dinner how it was Reb Dovid who would look and see new nonreligious sign-ups, search for frum hosts, and suggest they host these Shabbos newcomers. It wasn’t his project and he received no credit for this, but he had the opportunity to make the connection for thousands [from] long distance, connections that could lead them to nitzchiyus, and so he did it.

“One rabbi here at the convention has a small kiruv shul in Jersey and told me with tears in his eyes, ‘I met him several years ago and ever since that time, he has called me every now and then just to ask how things are going and to show his support.’

“Reb Dovid always said that the goal of his radio show, Your Kiruv Connection with Rabbi Dovid Winiarz, was to serve as a resource to help all the different organizations get their messages out, reach donors, and reach more Yidden.

It was always about that, about reaching Yidden. And when a particular Yid seemed unreachable, still he tried. He’d try something different, try something new, try the same thing again. “I once got a phone call from Dovid asking me if he should sponsor a trip to Israel toOhr Someach for a certain nonreligious college student. I told him that in almost all cases I feel that a trip to Israel can be a life changer for a college student. However this particular student had been sponsored to go to Ohr Someach twice previously and after both trips he made sure to tell me, ‘It was a nice trip – but you know, Rabbi, that I will never become religious’

“So I said to Dovid that it may not be such a great idea to spend the money on this particular student. Dovid listened e and then asked me if I knew for a fact that this boy wouldn’t have an aliyah by going to Eretz Yisroel. I responded that I didn’t know anything for sure but it doesn’t look good.

“Several days later I found out that Dovid sponsored the trip. I called Dovid and asked him what prompted him to do that, sponsor this boy for yet another round at Ohr Someach. He said, ‘Isn’t it worth it if there is even a small chance his neshomah will be saved?’

“I said, ‘I guess so,’ but in my heart I thought that the money could have been spent on a more promising prospect.

“Almost 9 months later I walk into a local shul for Minchah and see this boy davening with a yarmulke and tzitzis. After davening I approached him and asked him what happened. He explained that on this particular trip to Ohr Someach he met up with a certain rebbi who was mechazek him and convinced him to stay in Ohr Someach for several more months. He was inspired and decided to start keeping Torah and Mitzvos and is still learning and keeping Shabbos by a Rov in his neighborhood.

“He made a real difference,” said Rabbi Y. Greenfield.

The executive director of Bikur Cholim of Staten Island, Rabbi Avigdor Fried, knew R’ Dovid for 29 years. “Even before we knew him, we were friends with his in laws and his wife from when she was a little girl. In fact she asked me for my opinion, should she marry him. It was a good choice.

“Here is the kind of person he was. Less than two weeks ago we had a situation where he was in charge of the food bank and got a shipment of many cases of eggs. There were 10 huge cases of eggs that had to be loaded into a van and delivered right away so he loaded the cases of eggs onto the van himself. There was no one with him that day.

“With him it wasn’t just about organizing things. He did the work himself–loaded those cases of eggs into the van himself. And he had a bad back! But he never complained.

“He had two main passions, kiruv rechokim and the food bank.

“Years ago, when he was just starting out in kiruv, he ran into Rav Chaim Mintz. Rav Chaim said to R’ Dovid, ‘I hear we’re in the same work,’ and R’ Dovid said, ‘What do you mean?’ and R’ Chaim said, ‘Kiruv rechokim!”

“R’ Dovid was so proud of that, to have Rav Chaim compare R’ Dovid to himself. After that he told people, ‘Rav Chaim and I are in the same field. I’m partners with Rav Chaim.’

“He told everyone he saw.

“But he was just as devoted to our food pantry as he was to kiruv. Do you know that he raised tens of thousands of dollars in grants for Bikur Cholim every year! Government grants, whatever grants he could find. He raised for us $40-50,000 every year. He was indispensable.

“He also went to supermarkets and asked if they had extra food. He organized all the donations for the food pantry. He made sure that the food was delivered in a discreet way so that no one ever had to be made to feel uncomfortable accepting our help.

“Maybe he was sensitive to the people we help because of what he went through. He had a business that fell through. He was in the mortgage business and when all the mortgages dried up in 2008, his business crashed. He had ten mouths to feed. You can imagine how difficult it was. But he never seemed down or worried. He was exactly the same as always. The same positive person.

“Maybe that’s why he was sensitive to the economically distressed, because he had gone through it himself. It made him more adept at handling the vicissitudes of life. His philosophy was, ‘If I can get out of this mess, I’ll be able to help others going through their own messes.’

“That was the thing about him: he learned from whatever he went through. When he went through hard times, he learned to help others and that’s the big, big lesson he has for us.

“He won!

“At the levaya one of his sons said Reb Dovid would ask him every day, ‘Did you make a difference? Did you do something to help someone today? Did you make the world a better place?’

“He won! He learned the lessons. He did what he had to do. He won.”

All the same, the impact of Reb Dovid on so many lives was perhaps never felt more than in the aftermath of his passing.

“As the news of the terrible tragedy broke, my phone beeped for hours with texts and emails, and social media went crazy as people from all corners of Staten Island, secular and frum, Americans, Russians Israeli, students, adults, Conservative and Reform leaders [heard about the tragedy]. All had bared their hearts to this giant of a man. He touched them all,” said Rabbi Biegeleisen.

He touched them in their own language. There was no subject he was afraid to broach with the Yidden he gathered close. Rabbi Winiarz understood that if he was to reach people’s hearts he had to brave the waters of the most difficult topics. More than that, he had to know enough to speak of such things on a high level in order to maintain credibility. Reb Dovid understood that kiruv requires courage because of the need to approach people on their own level without losing a firm toehold on the ladder of kedushah.

Rabbi Winiarz had that courage and more to spare. He would bring up any subject fearlessly, whether it was The Secret Ingredient of a Successful Marriage, or The Power of Prayer, as long as his words would touch another’s soul. Sometimes he shared his own words, but more often he shared the words of others. Anything he thought might get through.

He took great care to frame the items he shared with a song, a photo, a saying, a beautiful drawing, or perhaps a video. He put thought into everything he did. A story was not just a story but The Wisdom of the Sages through the Ages in the Pages.

With a title like that, how it can it not grab your attention? With a title like that, a simple story reached deep into the heart of even the most secular Yid:

The young man approached his rosh yeshiva. It had been several years since he had married and moved away and he was excited about the visit. “How is everything?” inquired the dean.

“Baruch Hashem, my job is good and my home is comfortable. But there is something that bothers me. I don’t feel the kedushah, the spirituality, in my neighborhood to be the best. It’s not like yeshiva and I think people could be more spiritually sensitive.”

He assumed the sage would tell him to find a new place to live, but he didn’t. He was not ready for what the sage did tell him: “There is not enough spirituality there? So you add kedushah to your neighborhood!”

It was up to him. Why hadn’t he thought of that?

It wasn’t just stories and posts. Inquisitive Jews asked him hard questions and he answered each question on a personal level, with tact, understanding, and erudition.

Rabbi Winiarz spent countless hours researching what he would say to those who reached out to him, yearning for their connection to Hashem and to their people. To them, he was a kind and knowledgeable man.

To the rest of us, he was a tzadik par excellence, the perfect example of how to do kiruv, always with a smile, always brave.

Rabbi Winiarz leaves a wife and ten children and the thousands of Jewish souls he touched.

Yehi zichro boruch.

Mrs. Epstein writes for Oorah.


Rabbi Dovid Winiarz zt”l: A Burning Question

By Rabbi Sroy Levitansky

I drove up to the hotel where the Association of Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP) National Conference was held this past Sunday morning. As I approached the doorway I thought about how much I was looking forward to seeing old chaveirim and enjoying the welcoming atmosphere of AJOP. The warm air that greeted me as I entered the building was a welcome respite from the icy cold outside. Within the first minute of my arrival I met a dear friend of mine. The pained look on his face startled me.

“Did you hear the news? There was a terrible car accident on the way to the AJOP this morning. Rabbi Dovid Winiarz was killed.”

Suddenly it felt more frigid inside than it had felt outside just moments before.

I was not acquainted with Reb Dovid personally, yet I knew him nonetheless. I had read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of emails he had sent to fellow mekarvim. Each message was laden with love for each and every Yid. Each post was an expression of his passion to make a difference along with his dogged determination to positively impact others.

In a daze, I looked around. The pain and sadness was palpable. Reb Dovid was well known to almost everyone at the gathering. We stood in mourning. Reb Dovid’s selflessness for Klal Yisroel was an inspiration to so many of us, and in that sense, we were all his talmidim.

Thinking about Reb Dovid, I felt a powerful rush of emotions. Questions flooded my already dizzy head. Why was I spared? Why did I arrive at the conference safely despite the icy roads? Recognizing the fallacy of my questions, I moved onto a more effective one: what is the message for me in my life?

Paradoxically, when faced with death, life takes on a deeper meaning. One may begin to appreciate the gift of every breath. An honest person recognizes that it is only by the grace of Hashem that he was spared. No other reason exists. This knowledge breeds an overwhelming feeling of vulnerability which in turn leads to an unprecedented appreciation for life. The newfound appreciation engenders a desire to accomplish and fulfill the mission for which we were created. If this tragedy does not serve as a catalyst for us think a bit more deeply then we have failed the most basic test of life.

Reb Dovid was a businessman, not a kiruv professional, yet he lived a life of meaning that was defined by Hashem, Torah and Klal Yisroel. Reb Dovid dedicated his life to satisfy the fundamental question of “how can I help another Yid?”

The question is basic, but unfortunately is not asked frequently enough.

How do we define accomplishment and success? Are we living a life of meaning? Do we even entertain this question?

One who looks at the Jewish nation with an unjaundiced eye sees a resurgence of Torah that is virtually unparalleled in the history of Klal Yisroel.

But this fact is only half of the equation. It is time we left our myopia behind and recognized the concept of the totality of Klal Yisroel. We do not exist in a vacuum. We exist as a nation, and our very nationhood is being challenged like never before.

Yes, we are part of a resurgence in Torah. Yes, tens of thousands are in kollel, but millions still do not know Shema Yisroel. Hundreds of children in our Torah communities are struggling. So many of our brothers and sisters living within our frum circles are disengaged and not passionate about living a Torah life.

Rav Moshe famously said that there is a chiyuv of ma’aser with our time just as with our money. It is not just about kiruv, it is about a feeling of achrayus to Klal Yisroel. For some, this manifests itself as a deep desire to engage our broader family in Torah, while for others it may mean a warm greeting to someone going through a hard time. There are no wrong answers; we only fail when we do not ask the question.

Each and every Yid, especially one who considers himself connected to Torah, has an obligation to ask two very simple questions: how can I help Klal Yisroel? And what can I do to make a difference? The answer for some may be to sit and learn, and that is a perfect answer. But a question can only be answered after it is asked. A Jew who merely goes through the motions is missing the boat. We are alive! What an awesome gift! These questions should be rooted deep in our hearts. One who spends time pondering these questions will find a powerful and personally meaningful answer.

Reb Dovid is no longer with us, but his message lives on. Can we hear it?



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