All of Klal Yisrael is still reeling from the loss of Rav Mendel Weinbach zt”l. Below we present you with personal reflections from Rabbi Avraham Edelstein, international director of Ner LeElef, and consulting editor of NLE Resources as well as David Olesker, director, Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training. May Rav Weinbach’s memory serve as a maylitz yoshor for all of us!
Rabbi Avraham Edelstein
While there are numerous outstanding Talmidei Chachamim left from the original dor that founded the kiruv movement (most notably Rav Mendel’s life-long shutaf, Rav Nota Schiller, SHLITA), one can’t help feeling that the passing of Rav Mendel is the passing of a generation. That first generation of leaders of the kiruv movement were so head and shoulders above our current generation, that there it is difficult to talk of a generational handing over. It feels more like the handing over of one era to the next!.
How does one capture Rav Mendel WeinbachZATZAL – Ish HaEshkolos. One can just marvel that he had chosen to grace the kiruv world as his life-long mission. Here was a brilliant talmid chacham, a multi-talented iliuy, a holy and simultaneously delicious man who had the whole world before him. He decided to become Rosh Yeshiva of Ohr Somayach and that is where he came to every day. There was no bein hazemanim by Rav Mendel – life does not have benin hazemanims. He sat in his simple, unadorned office, making notes on scraps of paper, acting as a source of wisdom and chizuk to people all around the world. Rav Mendel understood us all – he could talk to the heart of a secular college kid as much as he could a Yid from Meah Shearim. He advised heads of mosdos, helped people to dream to their dreams, gave encouragement to all who walked passed his doors. He was a brilliant writer and an even more brilliant darshen. He churned out mekoros on all sorts of things. But none of these things defined him. They were just some aspects of his enormous versetality. Over time, he gave shiurim on virtually every subject to every level of the yeshiva. And yet, there was no attempt to make Ohr Somayach in his mold. He kept on bringing in the biggest people he could find to stand at the helm of the learning. Rav Dov Schwartzman and Nachman Bulman Zatzal, Yibadel LeChaim Rav Aaron Feldman, Moshe Shaprio and Naftalie Kaplan – all were either Rosh Beis Midrash or gave top shuirim in the yeshiva. Just as Rav Mendel never held onto the kavod of being the Rosh Yeshiva, so he never held onto bochrim. His greatest pride was when someone outshteiged Ohr Somayach and went onto the Mir. Yet, when these bochrim got married, there would be Rav Mendel – during chasuna season he would go to one or more chasunas every night, he had so many talmidim.
For all his brilliance, Rav Mendel never condescended to anyone. The very opposite – he try to make everyone feel like a king. His best eitzas were short and to the point. “Reb Avraham,” he told me when I started working there, “Kiruv is a sugya like any sugya. Learn it up well and you will do well.” I found myself drawing on his bits of wisdom throughout my life; wisdom that was always said with Rav Mendel’s classic twinkle of the eye. I often didn’t realize how wise was the advice I was being given at the time – until I got to validate it with first hand experience.
There was always a tone of optimism and cheerfulness in his voice. It wasn’t that he did not tell it straight, whether the prognosis was good or bad. But he said it in such a way that one felt, “Oh ok, let’s gird our loins and go and get it.” When I say him towards the end of his life, I said, “Rav Mendel, we are all dovening for you.” He looked up, and said cheerfully, “Keep on dovening!” One felt that even on that last stretch, he was the one who was encouraging everybody else.
The Jewish people has lost one of its truly great people. The sadness and the pain is ours!
Rabbi David Olesker
As Rav Edelstein would testify, it’s very hard to write meaningfully about Rav Mendel; all the best stories could never be published! Here’s my attempt. What are the defining memories I have of Rav Weinbach?
Well, he was a profoundly compassionate man who could speak softly, just as he could thunder when the need arose.
He was one of the funniest people I knew, with a dry humor that would have done an Englishman proud. He had that eye for seeing the absurdity of certain people and institutions that comes not from cheap cynicism but from deep insight.
I’m getting closer to what I think was his real gift when I say he was a man of insight. When starting to teach a public speaking course in the Yeshivah I asked him for any tips I should include for the guys (he was a superb speaker). He surprised me by coining an adage, “to be a good speaker you have to be a good listener”, i.e. you must always listen analytically to every other speaker to learn from their successes ans errors. On reflection (like most really brilliant observations) it was obvious… but it hadn’t been before he said it.
It was this quality of insight that, I think, defined him for me. “Man of the world” is not the epithet you expect to hear applied to a Torah leader, but it’s the one that springs to my mind when I think of what we have lost with the passing of Rav Weinbach. Others are better placed than me to describe his lommdus (although I consulted him on halachic and hashkofah issues repeatedly, you really need to be a lamban yourself to “get” how much he knew).
What I could appreciate was the way in which his iron clad commitment to Torah and mitzvos was applied with a shrewd understanding of human nature and society. It would have been wrong to call him cynical — I’ve seldom met anyone more on fire with idealism — but he saw through pretense and artifice in the frum world and beyond. That ability allowed him to realize his idealism in practice. He knew when to take a stand and when to make a tactical withdrawal. It was he who first acquainted me with the adage, “not everything that you think should you say, not everything you say should you write and not everything that you write should you publish”. Whether dealing with the anti-religious Israeli media or the machinations of the “Tammany Hall” politics of the Religious parties, he faced them with that combination of righteousness and (I dare to use the word) wiliness that is the hallmark of a successful leader.
He was a man of shitas. His best known one was that the best way to introduce someone to Yiddishkeit was through real learning. He had another shita, less well known. As one of the heads of an innovative institution that made thinking out of the box the norm, he was often approached by people with great (and often not so great!) ideas. His response was often, “Don’t give me an idea, give me a man!”. Ideas are cheap, people who can turn them into reality are dear. His management style was to find people who could get things done that needed to be done, and then to turn them loose with his support behind them.
Rav Mendel was a man in that sense; someone with ideas and the drive — and syata d’shamaiah — to make them real.