Wednesday, Feb 21, 2024

Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg a”h: Matriarch of a Kiruv Empire

Rebbetzin Denah Weinberg, who alongside her legendary husband, Rav Noach zt”l, oversaw what is probably the largest kiruv institution in history, passed away on Sunday evening in her home in Yerushalayim. She was 86.

The founder and lifeblood of the women’s kiruv seminar EYAHT — which she named as an acronym of “ishah yiras Hashem hi tis’halol” — she was an active cofounder with her husband of Yeshiva Aish HaTorah. At the time of his petirah 35 years later in 2007, Aish, whose building opposite the Kosel generates thousands of visitors each year, boasted a $55-million annual budget and 27 branches on five continents, which reached an estimated 100,000 Jews annually.

Rebbetzin Weinberg was an isha tzidkoniyus, asserted her son, Rav Hillel. He recalled once saying Asher Yotzar as he was walking. “What is Asher Yotzar, a Tefillas Haderech?” she gently rebuked him. “Stop and say it like you’re thanking Hashem.”

With her husband away on frequent fundraising trips, it fell on her to inculcate a love for Torah and mitzvos in her twelve children.

She would hurry her sons out to cheder in the morning while singing the song of achas sho’alti. Shabbos preparations began on Sunday, with her putting things away for the special day. She would kiss the panels of the sukkah or the matzos on Pesach with emotion. Her davening was one long singsong, intoning each word with reverence.

Her siddur, Kavanas Halev, was full of notes she jotted down to help her concentrate. For example, in the part of Pesukei d’Zimra which discusses the praise for Hashem by the heavens and malachim, she wrote, “And you are part of this choir — unbelievable.” When reciting the wondrous shirah of the malachim in Yotzer Ohr, she left a poignant reminder on the side: “All this is happening right now.” Just before Shemoneh Esrei she recorded a prompt that, “I have time [to daven slowly]. I have all day.”

Despite the tens of millions of dollars that passed through the Weinberg home, they lived a simple life with few luxuries. She owned only one dress.

She once phoned her son, Rav Simcha, at 2 o’clock in the morning, apparently knowing that he was still up. “Imma, what happened?” Rav Simcha asked, concerned.

“Nothing, I just can’t fall asleep,” she replied. “I want you to tell me over a shtickel Mesillas Yeshorim.”

“The essence of my mother,” Rav Hillel declared, “was, ‘k’asher tzivah Hashem,’ she did everything with an eye to what Hashem wants.”

While spending her life in kiruv, she also spent ample time performing chesed with people who were cast aside by society, said her son Rav Simcha.

“If someone were to throw down on the floor in front of you $1,000 and say, ‘take it,’ you wouldn’t say, ‘No, I’m not a freier, a loser.’ When you love something then you run after it,” Rav Simcha said in his hesped at the levayah. “With her, we witnessed an extraordinary love for doing chesed. She took sick people to the hospital, had all sorts of guests on Shabbos — nobody entered the house without leaving with something.”

“For herself she was a strict middas hadin, she demanded exceptional behavior from herself,” Rav Simcha noted. “But for others, for her children, she was the middas harachamim. Her passing is a catastrophe for so many families whom she helped every step of the way.”

Born in Far Rockaway in 1936 to Albert and Esther Goldman, Denah stood out among the other Jewish children in that New York City neighborhood. A granddaughter of Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Goldman, who served as rov of Congregation Ohave Shalom in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, she was the only girl who chose a Torah way of life, with the accompanying tznius, shemiras Shabbos and kashrus.

Denah married Rav Noach in 1958, and shortly afterward set out to transform the world. They moved to Yerushalayim, settling in Kiryat Sanz.

Rav Noach Weinberg, born in the Lower East Side, was a great-grandson of the Yesod Ha’avodah, the first Slonimer Rebbe, as well as Rav Yaakov Loeberbaum, the Nesivos Hamishpot. His two siblings were Rav Yaakov, the rosh yeshivah of Ner Yisroel in Baltimore, and Chava (Helene), the mother of Rav Shimshon Pincus.

Orphaned as a teenager, Rav Noach did not feel it was right to be supported by his mother, a widow, so he would spend his bein hazemanim as a traveling salesman. He would travel by train across the length of the United States, from Philadelphia to Texas, selling goods and meeting Jews in the most unexpected places. As he spoke to them, he was astounded at their lack of knowledge of Yiddishkeit. They had a deep Jewish pride, but because they could not articulate the beauty of Yiddishkeit, Rav Noach lamented that their children or grandchildren would eventually assimilate.

The problem gnawed at him, until he decided to sail to Eretz Yisroel and consult with the Chazon Ish on how to respond to the threat of assimilation. Upon arriving on the shores of Eretz Yisroel, he received the news that during the trip, the Chazon Ish had been niftar. Disappointed, Rav Noach went to learn in the Mirrer Yeshivah, where he developed a close relationship with Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel, the rosh yeshiva.

He returned to New York two years later and married Denah, moving back to Eretz Yisroel shortly thereafter. It was she who gave him the courage to not give up, though kiruv work at the time was nearly unprecedented and engendered a torrent of criticism.

Rav Noach made eight attempts at kiruv — starting five different organizations and three yeshivos — all of which failed to take off. Each time he saw that his latest venture wasn’t turning out the way he wished it to, he was not hesitant to shutter its doors and go back to the beis medrash. He felt that learning would eventually bring him clarity regarding which kiruv strategy would succeed.

Sheva yipol tzaddik v’kom,” Reb Noach used to repeat. A tzaddik falls seven times, but raises himself up for an eighth battle.

It was his ninth enterprise — Aish HaTorah, opened in 1974 — that worked out and changed the world.

“My father told me clearly,” Rav Hillel stated, “that until he married my mother, he wasn’t able to accomplish his vision. She would tell him constantly, ‘continue, continue, continue.’ From that emerged Aish HaTorah. This was her mesirus nefesh for Torah, and this is how she taught her children and students — Torah, Torah, Torah.”

Learning Torah, though, remained his passion. He slept three hours a night, learning for the rest of the day. A friend from those early years, Rav Mordechai Kashinsky, recalled at the levayah that he learned with Rav Noach in kollel shortly after their move to Eretz Yisroel. Rebbetzin Weinberg would prepare him a hot lunch “every single day” so he could learn uninterruptedly without having to return home. He would travel to the Negev each week to deliver shiurim, and later on, spent chunks of the year fundraising abroad.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein, a lecturer at Aish HaTorah’s Project Discovery, once asked Rav Noach how best to explain to baalei teshuvah the mesorah that the Vilna Gaon only slept two hours a day.

Rav Noach answered that it was not a hard thing to do — if you enjoyed learning. “I had a great experience in the Mir,” he said. “When you have simchas haTorah, when you have pleasure from learning, then anybody can do it.”

The concept of “Avrohom was mekarev the men and Sarah was mekarev the women” was repeated by several speakers at the levayah. Rebbetzin Weinberg delivered weekly classes at Aish HaTorah for years, before opening EYAHT, the College of Jewish Studies for Women, in 1984.

The class for which she achieved fame was “The 48 Ways to Wisdom,” a curriculum developed by her husband based on Pirkei Avos. She also developed on her own a popular class on the beauty and meaning of Shabbos. She placed a strong emphasis on the role of the Jewish woman in her family and community, with special classes on shalom bayis and chinuch habonim.

Like her husband, Rebbetzin Weinberg passionately believed in the greatness of every human being.

“I once had a dream,” she wrote for an essay published in Jewish Matters: A Pocketbook of Knowledge and Inspiration. “My dream was that one day all the animals in the zoo woke up and did not know who they were. The monkey didn’t know it was a monkey, the giraffe didn’t know it was a giraffe, and the hippopotamus didn’t know it was a hippopotamus. They didn’t know what sounds to make. They didn’t know what foods to eat. And they didn’t know when or how to sleep. It was bedlam.

“Then I awoke and I realized something. This is also true about people. We don’t know who or what we are. And if we don’t know who we are, then we don’t know what our potential is.”

Rav Noach gave a similar answer when a cousin told him that a tzaddik once requested that his accomplishment of making a single baal teshuvah be etched onto his gravestone. “But you,” the cousin asked, “have made tens of thousands of baalei teshuvah. How did you do it?”

Rav Noach answered that he too had not known the answer until he once saw a crane at a building site lowering a pallet of bricks to the ground. Workmen were standing below to grab the pallet as it was lowered, moving it around as they helped it settle down.

“Do you think that the workers are strong enough to hold an entire pallet of bricks?” Rav Noach asked, explaining that they are merely settling the bricks down after the crane does the hard work. Hashem, Rav Noach said, had already promised that the Jewish people would come back — “I am just settling them down,” he said.

Rav Noach, speaking at a Yeshivah Torah Ore dinner, once urged the crowd to recognize the power of the individual. “Sarah Schenirer cried over girls going off the derech and then got up and started the Bais Yaakov movement,” he exhorted them. “Find something you will cry over and then go do something about it.”

In his final years, Rav Noach was in Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in Manhattan where he received a discouraging prognosis. He turned to a grandnephew who accompanied him and recounted the Medrash that the reason Nodov and Avihu were punished was that they expressed the hope that Moshe and Aharon would die so that they could take over the leadership of Klal Yisroel.

Their sin, Rav Noach declared, was for waiting for others to pass on before taking the reins of leadership. Why did they have to wait until old age to do something?

“Grab the reins!” Rav Noach said passionately. “Take over now. Do something. When we were younger — me and your grandmother — we had dreams; today you’re just sitting around. We had dreams we were going to change the world; where are your dreams?”

At Rebbetzin Weinberg’s levayah, her son urged her to complete from her new perch the vision she and her husband first foresaw so many decades ago.

“You and Abba imagined that by this time there won’t be a single Yid who doesn’t recognize the Ribbono shel Olam,” her son, Rav Hillel, cried, begging her to daven for Klal Yisroel. “But unfortunately, we are not finished yet.”

*****

Remembering My Rebbetzin

By a student, Rebbetzin Nomi Bracha Travis

Planting Seeds in Kiryat Yovel

Today Kiryat Yovel is a thriving religious community. There are yeshivos and shuls and the streets bustle with mothers and fathers taking their children to religious schools. It wasn’t always like this, and we must ask, who planted the seeds for this to happen?

I would like to suggest an answer based on my personal experience. One day when I was studying at EYAHT, where Rebbetzin Weinberg was a principal, classes were canceled. It was the last day of year for the secular kindergarten, and we were all taken to Kiryat Yovel. When we got there the rebbetzin asked us to speak to the mothers of these children, and try and convince them to send their children to religious schools.

We were divided into pairs and were asked to speak to the mothers about their children’s Jewish education. One woman told us, “Maybe if my son is in a religious school he will learn to respect me more,” and she agreed to transfer her son to a religious school. It is very likely that this boy today is a ben Torah.

Shaking Up the Dress Codes in Kiryat Sanz

Our seminary, EYAHT, was located in Kiryat Sanz, one of the more religious neighborhoods in Yerushalayim. You can be sure that great attention was paid to keeping the laws of tznius. Any deviation from these halachos stuck out like a sore thumb.

Many of the girls there were just starting to learn about Judaism and had not yet gotten to the point where they were ready to keep tznius properly. One such girl walked into a local grocery store, and a customer told the owner that this girl was a disgrace to his establishment.

The owner, who understood what EYAHT was about piped up in her defense, “She is a student of Rebbetzin Weinberg. Just wait a short time and she will be keeping tznius l’mehadrin!” His prophetic words came true, and she built a mainstream Torah home.

Thrown Out of Seminary

I was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and as a teenager came to study in EYAHT. At that time there was very little outreach in Rio de Janeiro. EYAHT was one of the pioneers on this frontier.

Rebbetzin Weinberg understood the challenges of a young lady growing up in Brazil. She used to ask her students to be very supportive of the Brazilians. Many of the girls who came with me are religious today and living in Eretz Yisroel raising Torah families.

After two and a half years in the seminary, I was called into the rebbetzin’s office. I was very shocked to hear that I was being thrown out of the seminary!

Rebbetzin Weinberg explained that I had outgrown her seminary and it was time for me to move on to a Bais Yaakov school. My teachers helped me and I wound up in a second-year American Bais Yaakov Seminary.

If You Don’t Learn Anything Else

Rebbetzin Weinberg founded EYAHT, an acronym for Isha Yiras Hashem Hi Tis’halal. This was the theme of the seminary and permeated everything we did. It was impossible to leave her presence without being inspired to higher and higher levels of yiras Shomayim.

There was one line that the rebbetzin repeated which still rings in my ears. She would tell us, “If you don’t learn anything else here except that if you do a mitzvah you will be rewarded and if you violate a transgression you will be punished; I will feel that I have fulfilled my mission.” She would often quote Chazal (Sotah 3a) that a person does not transgress unless they experience a moment of insanity.

The curriculum was very rich in Tanach, halacha, and hashakfah — we learned large sections of Mesillas Yeshorim and Chovos Halevavos. We also had a daily class on the “48 Ways to Wisdom” based on Rav Noach Weinberg’s shiurim on Pirkei Avos.

Teaching By Example

We merited to have many great teachers in the school including Rav Yitzchok Berkowitz, as well as special shiurim by Rav Shlomo Brevda and others. During many of these classes, the rebbetzin would sit and take notes as they were speaking. She was a majestic person yet was a paradigm of humility.

The rebbetzin performed mitzvos with simcha infused with yiras Shomayim. During Yomim Nora’im she would take us to the Mir Yeshiva to daven. I still remember the exquisite beauty of her sukkah, Pesach seder, and the approximately 80 Shabbos candles she would light each week for all of her children and grandchildren.

The rebbetzin had an extremely clear outlook on life and wanted to pass this on to us. She taught us by example. She was very strict with herself and extremely careful with her mitzvah observance.

Often the rebbetzin would point to a table and chair and tell us the following. “Do you see this table and chair? As clear as you see these pieces of furniture there is an Alm-ghty in this world.” Serving Hashem was concrete, and everything else paled against this lucid reality.

Getting Ready for Marriage

Many students had little or no background, while others wanted to strengthen their observance. The rebbetzin, whose greatest desire was that we marry a ben Torah, would often quote Rav Elya Lopian, that the shidduch one gets is according to the place where she is when she dates. She would encourage us to wait to start dating until we were more advanced, in order to merit a more religious husband.

Before I dated my husband, he was given a thorough interview to determine if he was fit to marry an EYAHT girl. During that interview he was asked many questions, including why he wanted to get married and why he learned Torah. Luckily, he passed the test.

Not all bochurim were so fortunate. One bochur unwisely replied that he enjoyed learning Torah because it gave him intellectual stimulation. The rebbetzin told us, “Such a boy is not fit for an EYAHT girl!”

Rebbetzin Weinberg would go to students’ simchos even at an advanced age when she required someone to accompany her. These occasions provided her with incredible joy. During this time, she rejoiced as if her own daughter were getting married.

The rebbetzin imbued us chashivus haTorah. Her greatest nachas in life was when she heard that one of her girls married a ben Torah. When I told her, when she was already unwell, that my husband was teaching Torah, she told me: “I will sleep better tonight.”

The rebbetzin was like a mother to us, and we, her students, feel as if we have lost a parent. Her neshamah is now in Shomayim, and she has taken the clarity that she gained in this world to the highest levels of existence. May she be a melitzas yosher for all of Klal Yisroel to bring the Geulah soon.

Yehi zichrah boruch.

 

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