A Rebbe in the Art of Living: Rabbi Naftali HaLevi Neuberger, z”l

Hashem is referred to as Hagadol, explain the commentators, because the ambit of His concern encompasses every aspect of the created world. Not even a blade of grass grows unless one of Hashem’s emissaries strikes it and says: “Grow.” From this we learn that the measure of a person—his gadlut (greatness)—is how many others are included within his active concern, how many are encompassed within his “I.” By that measure, few in recent memory can match Rabbi Naftali (Herman) HaLevi Neuberger, z”l, who passed away last Chol HaMoed Sukkot at the age of eighty-seven.

Among the thousands who gathered on short notice for Rabbi Neuberger’s funeral, one refrain was heard on everyone’s lips: “He was like a father to me.” A father does not feel any clear demarcation between himself and his children. As Chazal tell us, “A father cannot be envious of his son.” Those who described Rabbi Neuberger as a second father attested to their confidence that there was nothing he wouldn’t do to help them, and that he rejoiced in their every success as if it were his own, without the possibility of any admixture of jealousy.

The ambit of Rabbi Neuberger’s concern was not limited to the thousands of students of Ner Israel Rabbinic College he came to know during the nearly seven decades he was at the yeshivah, first as a student and later as the executive director. It extended, as Howard Tzvi Friedman, the president of AIPAC and a long-time OU lay leader from Baltimore, put it, to “every Jew, any kind of Jew.” Rabbi Neuberger’s love of his fellow Jew was the key to his influence on those far removed from his own strict standards of religious observance.

No request for help went unanswered. And he was unsparing of his time and energy. He once sharply reprimanded someone who called him in the morning to inform him of a personal crisis for not waking him in the middle of the night. Rabbi Neuberger thought nothing of personally chauffeuring a student in the yeshivah who stuttered back and forth to his doctor’s visits.

Every night, for at least two hours, he fielded phone calls from around the country from those seeking his advice on both personal and Klal matters. Rabbi Moshe Sherer, a personal friend of Rabbi Neuberger’s from their days together as students at Ner Israel, testified that scarcely a day went by that they did not consult on some matter of concern to Klal Yisrael. Among their many common projects were AARTS, the accreditation body for yeshivot, which made it possible for yeshivot to benefit to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in federal student loans; the preservation of the Divinity student draft exemption and the rescue of the Iranian Jewish community.

Rabbi Neuberger’s concern was not limited to the Jewish world. Senators, governors and congressmen all consulted with him. Just two weeks before his passing, Governor Robert Ehrlich came to visit. Rabbi Neuberger reminded him that winter was fast approaching, and many poor people would be without heat. Rabbi Neuberger had a genuine interest in making the world a better place and single-handedly rescued the concept of tikkun olam from those who view it as an alternative to mitzvah observance. His public activities proclaimed tikkun olam to be the goal of a life of Torah and mitzvot.

The Gemara (Pesachim 49b) uses the term gedolei hador to refer to those who are great in actions. Rabbi Neuberger was one of the gedolei hador. Because his love and concern embraced so many, his passing will be felt directly by thousands. Indeed it is difficult to think of another in our generation whose passing will leave so many with a feeling of irreparable loss.

 

Avodat Hakodesh

Rabbi Neuberger’s official title was executive director, and later president, of Ner Israel Rabbinical College—titles usually associated in the public mind with fundraising. And indeed Rabbi Neuberger was a fundraiser par excellence. Within a few years of arriving at Ner Israel in 1938, as a twenty-year-old immigrant from Germany who could barely speak a word of English, he had lifted the fundraising burden from the rosh yeshivah and founder of Ner Israel, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman. It would never return. Rabbi Ruderman and his successors were nearly alone among roshei yeshivah in that they had no part in the fundraising for the yeshivah, and could concentrate their full energies on learning and teaching.

Another singular aspect of Ner Israel is that the rebbeim are always paid on time. Rabbi Neuberger even arranged it so that they would always receive a generous bonus before Pesach. Where other institutions often take forced “loans” from the staff in the form of late payments, Rabbi Neuberger always chose to accept the burden on himself and take out new bank loans instead of delaying payment to his rebbeim. He wanted every rebbe in Ner Israel to be able to devote himself exclusively to his talmidim, without ever having to worry about how he was going to feed his family.

Even during the war years, when building materials were in short supply, Rabbi Neuberger financed and oversaw Ner Israel’s move to a new, and much larger, site on Garrison Boulevard. Later he purchased a large cornfield outside of Baltimore, which scoffers labeled “Neuberger’s folly.” Today the ninety-acre Ner Israel campus is by far the largest yeshivah campus in the United States, and perhaps the world. It houses nearly one thousand students, from high school through kollel, and provides housing units for the families of more than one hundred kolleleit, administrators and rebbeim.

Rabbi Neuberger saw nothing demeaning about raising funds for the yeshivah or for any other worthy cause, and he taught others that there could be no greater honor than to solicit funds on behalf of Torah. He was fond of quoting Rabbi Ruderman’s observation that the avodah of the Kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash looked disgusting to an ignorant boor—like just sloshing around in blood and guts.

There was never any question in Rabbi Neuberger’s mind that he was engaged in avodat hakodesh. He possessed an unshakable emunah in the power of Torah and in the belief that Klal Yisrael’s entire existence depends on its dedication to Torah learning. Though the worldliest of men, he consistently refused to permit any private real estate development of the land owned by the yeshivah, lest anything shatter the pristine Torah environment he had created.

 

Rebbe

Yet, Rabbi Neuberger was not just, or even primarily, a fundraiser. He was an important spiritual influence on hundreds of Ner Israel graduates. For many, he was the most enduring link to the yeshivah, and the person with whom talmidim kept up regular contact even decades after having left the yeshivah.

What other executive director was called “rebbe” by hundreds of current and former talmidim? He was their rebbe in the art of living, and they consulted with him about every type of problem. They knew that he was simply the smartest, most knowledgeable and most sophisticated person they knew. No matter what the area of the inquiry, they were always astounded to find that Rabbi Neuberger knew more about the subject than they.

Talmidim were constantly astounded by the way Rabbi Neuberger analyzed all aspects of a problem in a flash. A certain student was devastated by his poor performance on a graduate school entrance exam and fled the yeshivah. Two of his friends were eager to travel out of state in the hope of persuading him to return. One of them called Rabbi Neuberger to ask his opinion, and he responded with an irrelevant inquiry about the health of the questioner’s parents. A second question elicited a similar non-response. Reasoning that Rabbi Neuberger had not forbidden them to go, they drove to their friend’s home. The next day, one of Rabbi Neuberger’s sons told them how proud his father was of them for doing so. So why had he not told them to go? Because he knew that they would have a more powerful emotional effect on their friend if he felt that they came as friends on their own initiative, and not because Rabbi Neuberger sent them.

Whether Ner Israel talmidim went on to careers as klei kodesh, professionals or businessman, Rabbi Neuberger maintained a keen interest in them and their families. One former talmid’s new business was off to a faltering start. Rabbi Neuberger visited the business site many times during the lean beginnings to try to discern where the problems lay. On a more recent visit, he was so delighted to see the place humming with activity that he literally had tears of joy running down his cheeks.

Rabbi Aharon Feldman, the current rosh yeshivah of Ner Israel, pointed out in a hesped (eulogy) for Rabbi Neuberger that his spiritual influence permeates every area of Ner Israel. Because he did everything with mesirut nefesh (self sacrifice), everyone who works for Ner Israel, down to the kitchen staff, does his job with mesirut nefesh, as a kind of holy undertaking.

 

Instilling a Sense of Achrayut

Rabbi Neuberger was incapable of speaking more than a few moments without mentioning the word achrayut (responsibility). His constant refrain was that those who are privileged to live in a country that permits Jewish citizens to observe their religion without hindrance have an enormous responsibility to use that opportunity to spread Torah.

And Ner Israel bears Rabbi Neuberger’s stamp in this regard. Ner Israel students have always been disproportionately represented in the ranks of those who go into day school teaching or rabbanut. In the early days of Torah Umesorah’s SEED program, Ner Israel talmidim and kollel couples constituted the bulk of those who participated in going to smaller communities, far from the Jewish mainstream, to be teachers. It is no accident that the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals has its headquarters in Baltimore, and that its ranks are filled with Ner Israel graduates.

Hundreds of out-of-town rebbeim, principles and rabbis turned to Rabbi Neuberger regularly for advice on running their institutions. It would be hard to find an Orthodox community in America where his influence was not felt.

Rabbi Neuberger’s burning sense of responsibility manifested itself most clearly to the broader public through his efforts on behalf of the Iranian Jewish community. In 1975, the Shah of Iran announced a ban on all parochial schooling in an effort to expedite Iran’s Westernization. Rabbi Yosef Leib Shuchetowitz, a relative of Rabbi Neuberger’s who headed Otzar HaTorah, an organization dedicated to the spiritual needs of Sephardic Jewry, called Rabbi Neuberger for advice.

Rabbi Neuberger immediately flew to Tehran to get a firsthand look at the situation. While there, he came up with the idea of bringing a group of promising young Iranian Jewish teenagers to Ner Israel, where they would study and receive semichah before returning to Iran. Thus began Ner Israel’s intense involvement with Iranian Jewry.

Two groups of Iranian Jewish students arrived at Ner Israel prior to Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 overthrow of the Shah. Suddenly, the situation for Iranian Jews went from spiritually perilous to life threatening. Together with his friend Rabbi Sherer, Rabbi Neuberger worked the corridors of power in Washington, DC, to persuade the United States to grant refugee status to Iranian Jews who managed to escape. Later, he pressured Turkey, through New York Congressman Stephen Solarz, chairman of a crucial subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, not to repatriate Iranian Jews who succeeded in fleeing to Turkey.

Once the pipelines were opened, Rabbi Neuberger turned his attention once again to the spiritual state of the refugees. He insisted on creating an entire Iranian program at Ner Israel. Most of the Iranian students had little formal religious training or background in Talmud. Notoriously careful when it came to the mammon kodesh (holy money) of the yeshivah—he used to go through the dormitories switching off unnecessary lights—Rabbi Neuberger spared no expense of behalf of the newcomers. If three boys needed a private class, a teacher was provided. In addition, he insisted that the Iranian students preserve their own religious traditions, and created a separate Shabbat minyan for them. As a Levi, he would come to the minyan to wash the hands of the Kohanim as they went up to duchan (according to the Persian custom).

More than 800 Iranian Jews studied, or are currently studying, at Ner Israel, providing a level of rabbinical scholarship that has allowed the Persian community to reestablish itself in America on a far stronger basis than in Iran prior to the overthrow of the Shah.

 

Circles of Influence

The levels of Rabbi Neuberger’s influence are best conceived as a series of concentric circles radiating outward from the core. In Baltimore today there are nearly thirty Orthodox shuls. Rabbi Neuberger was involved in the establishment of most of them, down to the smallest details. And it is in large part due to his influence that those shuls coexist in a remarkable spirit of amity. In Rabbi Neuberger’s book on the art of living, the word vatranut (not insisting on one’s rights) played a large role. Compromise, he taught, in word and deed, is almost always better than machloket (strife).

A young rabbi once called Rabbi Neuberger and asked him how to deal with a particular ba’alebos who was threatening to tear the local community apart. Rabbi Neuberger flew a thousand miles to meet with the rabbi at the airport. He listened for a few minutes as the rabbi explained the situation. Then he told him that the individual in question just needed a little kavod (honor). Give him this and this, Rabbi Neuberger counseled, and your problems will be over. And so it was.

Rabbi Neuberger was a revered figure among all segments of Baltimore Jewry, as evidenced by the extensive coverage given his passing by the Baltimore Jewish Times and the presence at his levayah of the entire top leadership of the local Jewish federation.

The Orthodox Jewish community of Baltimore is more integrated into the general communal framework than that of any major city in the United States. The local federation funds Torah education more generously than federations of other cities, and pays greater heed to Orthodox concerns than other federations do. When it was proposed to open a suburban Jewish community center on Shabbat, for instance, one of the most prominent local Reform leaders wrote an impassioned letter against the proposal, which was then defeated. Baltimore thus remains one of the few cities in which Jewish community centers are not open on Shabbat. Much of the credit goes to Rabbi Neuberger’s insistence on maintaining close ties with the communal leadership, even as that leadership understood that he would never compromise one iota on halachah.

A Ner Israel student once opened a volume in Rabbi Neuberger’s home entitled The Torah World, which bore an inscription inside from Rabbi Sherer: “The Torah World—to the one who built it.” Rabbi Neuberger never limited himself to the concerns of his own institution. There was scarcely a yeshivah in the United States that did not consult him, at one time or another, about how to deal with some crisis.

Politicians at all levels of government, and across the political spectrum, turned to Rabbi Neuberger for advice. Both the liberal Democratic mayor of Baltimore and the conservative Republican governor of Maryland attended his levayah. Senator Barbara Mikulski credited Rabbi Neuberger with having convinced her to run for Senate. She once related at a Ner Israel dinner how she had turned down a dinner invitation from Vice President Al Gore for that same night: “Presidents come and go. I’ve got to go with Rabbi Neuberger.”

Politicians found in Rabbi Neuberger’s modest office at Ner Israel something they could find nowhere else: disinterested, intelligent advice and the chance to escape, at least for the duration of the visit, the calculating, back-stabbing world of politics for the company of a genuinely high-minded person. Rabbi Neuberger demonstrated, as Rabbi Aharon Feldman once said, that it is possible to move almost anyone by appealing directly to his sense of decency.

 

The Source of His Power

Rabbi Neuberger was not eloquent. He was no more successful in shedding his Teutonic accent than was Henry Kissinger. His speech was direct, unvarnished, even gruff. And it was the same with whomever he spoke. So why did so many different types of people listen to him in a way that they listened to no one else?

He won people over because he spoke with a sense of urgency. He conveyed the conviction that what was important to him was somehow important to the entire fate of the world. Above all, his words drew on his own deep reservoirs of emunah.

An Ivy League student from a marginally religious home decided to spend a semester learning at Ner Israel. During the time that he was at the yeshivah, Rabbi Neuberger frequently invited him over for Shabbat meals, as he was wont to do with anyone whose background was different from the norm and whom he felt might need an extra measure of solicitude. As the young man was about to leave the yeshivah to return to university, he received a message that Rabbi Neuberger wanted to speak to him.

As soon he sat down, Rabbi Neuberger informed him, “We have thought about your case, and we have decided that we are not going to allow you to leave.” Taken aback, the young man asked whether he was being kidnapped. Rabbi Neuberger just repeated what he had said before, adding only that he would personally speak to the young man’s father. The young man stayed, and today lives in Jerusalem where he passes on what he learned in Ner Israel to his own students in a yeshivah for post-high school Americans.

The son of two non-religious Holocaust survivors came to study at Ner Israel. Around the time of his wedding, his parents came to visit the yeshivah, causing their son to panic about what his parents, particularly his mother, would say. The dreaded “showdown” took place in the Neuberger home on Shabbat. The mother marched in to give Rabbi Neuberger a piece of her mind. She explained how hard it was for her and her husband to have had their son away from home for so many years and how they now looked forward to him finally coming home to go to college, like a “normaleh mensch.”

All the while, Rabbi Neuberger just listened. Then he answered in one Yiddish sentence: “The issue is not what is good for the mamma; the issue is what is good for the kind (child).” To the amazement of all who were sitting there, the woman became absolutely speechless. Today her son is the principal of an out-of-town day school.

But at no time did the source of Rabbi Neuberger’s power become clearer than at the shivah house for Reuven Fishman, a”h. Fishman was the scion of a prominent family in the Washington, DC area, who was already in medical school when he came to learn at Ner Israel. He immersed himself in his studies, and eventually went to Eretz Yisrael to continue his learning there. Not long after arriving in Israel, he was killed when a terrorist planted a bomb on a bus in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Neuberger took a group of talmidim who had been close friends of Reuven’s to be menachem avel. When Rabbi Neuberger introduced himself, the hostility on Reuven’s father’s face was evident. He announced, “If my son had not gone to yeshivah, this would not have happened.” The friends who had come along squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, but Rabbi Neuberger did not flinch in the face of the accusation. In a calm, sensitive manner, he proceeded to briefly outline the basics of Jewish belief. He explained that Hashem runs the world and nothing happens without a purpose, but that purpose is frequently beyond our discernment. And he spoke of the merit of Eretz Yisrael and of giving one’s life al Kiddush Hashem. He did not talk for long, but when he got up to leave, the bereaved father told him, “Rabbi, now I understand. You have comforted me.”

May we too be comforted from the loss of this great Jew.

 

Mr. Rosenblum, a resident of Jerusalem, is the director of Am Echad, a coalition of Jews from across the spectrum of Orthodoxy committed to genuine Jewish unity and continuity. He is the author of several biographies and writes a weekly column for The Jerusalem Post; he also writes for Maariv.

 

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This article was featured in the Summer 2006 issue of Jewish Action.
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