Aish remembers founding rabbi

BY JILL KASSANDER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

There was a standing room only crowd gathered on Sunday at Aish HaTorah West – Firehouse to honor the memory of Rabbi Noah Weinberg. The international organization’s founder was suffering from lung cancer when he died on Feb. 5 at home in Jerusalem. He would have celebrated his 79th birthday on Feb. 16.

The New York-born Weinberg traveled to Israel in 1953, at the age of 23, to discuss the “looming crisis of assimilation” he saw in the United States that he felt would affect world Jewry. His willingness to assume a leadership role and take responsibility for finding a way to lead Jews back to their heritage led him to establish Aish HaTorah. Founded in 1974 with just five students, the organization is now on five continents, has a Web site with more than 250,000 visitors each month and has over 100,000 people attend its programs each year.

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The St. Louis Aish HaTorah has a very special connection to Weinberg: when he helped establish it in 1979, it was the organization’s first outreach center opened outside of Israel.

Many local rabbis and individuals in the St. Louis Jewish community had personal relationships with Weinberg and shared their thoughts on his life and legacy at the tribute.

Aish St. Louis Director Rabbi Elazar Grunberger became a part of the organization when he was at their Jerusalem center in 1977. He maintained a very close relationship with Weinberg over the years and recalled the 5 a.m. phone call he received telling him of the rabbi’s death.

“It was still dark outside and I knew intuitively that he was gone,” Grunberger said. “When a tzaddik passes away, a holy light is extinguished. There is a feeling of loss, a void, a darkness that was and is so terribly enormous.”

Grunberger elaborated on five aspects he used to describe Weinberg: student, believer, humble, leader and visionary and true Rebbe. Above all, Grunberger said, Weinberg was a student of God.

“He looked at every single word of Torah as instructions from God on how to live,” Grunberger said.

Rabbi Max Weiman studied at Aish in Jerusalem for eight years before joining the organization in St. Louis. He felt fortunate to have known Weinberg but acknowledged the man was too great to get to know all the facets of his personality. The breadth and depth of his wisdom was overwhelming, said Weiman.

“You couldn’t ask him anything he hadn’t already thought about,” Weiman said. “And he could relate to anyone and speak to them in their language: whether they were a long beard from Jerusalem or a long hair from New York.”

And a conversation with Weinberg wasn’t merely impressive, said Weiman, it was useful.

“You walked away with a gem, a diamond,” Weiman said. “Something you could use and care about.”

Charlie Deutsch is a strong supporter of the organization locally and in Jerusalem and had developed a personal relationship with Weinberg. He said he owed his deep sense of self-esteem and inner pride to his connections with Weinberg and the rabbis of Aish. Deutsch shared an insight he learned from his recent last visit to see Weinberg when he was in the hospital.

“When one’s heart is with the Jewish people, what appears to be suffering is just a simple disguise,” Deutsch said. “I realized he was just bonding more intimately with his creator.”

Dr. Joan Silber was the last person at the tribute to see Weinberg alive, when she visited him as he lay dying at his daughter’s house. She referred to the oversize photo of a smiling Weinberg on display for the tribute saying he always had that twinkle in his eye. Though he had an extreme seriousness of purpose, there was always laughter said Silber.

“He had a responsibility for every minute of his life to bring people under the wing of God,” Rabbi Pinchas Green said.

The eclectic group gathered for the tribute was exactly what he expected, said Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald. He described Weinberg as non-judgmental and said he touched Jews of all different backgrounds.

“He was a dreamer, a true visionary,” Greenwald said. “He showed you your inner core, your true worth and showed you how to reach it.”

At the end of tribute, Rabbi Yosef David encouraged participants to honor Weinberg’s memory by actualizing their experience from the evening through learning something and passing it on. He suggested starting a home study group, participating in classes or making a difference in someone’s life.

“The Rebbe had such clarity of purpose,” Grunberger said. “He defined his mission – he lived his mission. He encouraged us to care, to be proactive and to go out and know Torah in our heads and our hearts and every fiber of our being.”