Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger, zt”l, and Us
Rabbi Aharon Kotler once told his friend Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, “I only envy you one thing: Rabbi Neuberger.” Reb Aharon was referring to Rabbi Naftoli Neuberger, Ner Israel’s long-time president.
Reb Aharon’s envy is easily understood. Ner Israel’s 90-acre campus is the largest in the world, and serves nearly 1,000 students in the high school, beis medrash and kollel. The campus boasts over hundred housing units for the faculty, administrators, and kollel families. There is no parallel anywhere in the world. After a visit to the campus a few years ago, MK Yuval Steinitz told me that it reminded him of a yeshiva kibbutz.
All this was the result of Rabbi Neuberger’s breadth of vision.
Running and raising the funds for such a large institution, with an annual budget of nearly $10 million dollars, would have been a full-time job for any man. But Rabbi Neuberger’s impact extended far beyond the Ner Israel campus.
Despite his strict, uncompromising religious observance, he was a revered figure among all segments of the Baltimore Jewish community, as the extensive coverage given to his passing by the Baltimore Jewish Times and the presence at his levaya of the top leadership of the Jewish federation attests.
The Orthodox community of Baltimore is more integrated into the general communal framework than that of any major city in the United States. As a consequence, the non-Orthodox community pays greater heed to Orthodox concerns than in other cities. When it was proposed to open a suburban Jewish Community Center on Shabbos, for instance, one of the most prominent local Reform leaders wrote an impassioned letter against doing so, and the proposal was defeated. Much of the credit for this goes to Rabbi Neuberger’s insistence on maintaining ties with the communal leadership, even as that leadership understood that he could not and would not ever compromise on halachah.
Nearly every person interviewed by the Baltimore Jewish Times mentioned Rabbi Neuberger’s overwhelming love for his fellow Jews – as Howard Tzvi Friedman, the incoming president of AIPAC, put it, “every Jew, any kind of Jew.” He never failed to respond to any request for help, and if he heard that a Jew was in danger anywhere in the world, he would move heaven and earth to help him. That concern for every Jew was the key to his influence with those far removed from his own high standards of observance.
Perhaps his greatest achievement on behalf of world Jewry was the rescue of thousands of Iranian Jews after the fall of the Shah. That rescue required international diplomatic and political connections, and Rabbi Neuberger was the initiator and one of the masterminds of the operation. Over the years, over 800 Iranian students studied at Ner Israel, providing a level of rabbinical scholarship that allowed the Iranian community to reestablish itself in America on a stronger Torah footing than in Iran.
Nor was Rabbi Neuberger’s influence confined to the Jewish community. His counsel was sought by local, state and national politicians. Both the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland attended his levaya. Congressman Benjamin Cardin told the Baltimore Jewish Times, “He is truly one of the great thinkers of our community. . . . He is in a class by himself, the person you go to when you want to talk about political issues.”
Senator Barbara Milkuski credited Rabbi Neuberger with having given her the initial push she needed to run for the Senate. She once related at a Ner Israel dinner how she had turned down an invitation to dine with Vice-president Al Gore that night. “I said, “Presidents come and go. I’ve got to go with Rabbi Neuberger.”
Politicians found in his modest office at Ner Israel something they could find nowhere else: disinterested advice and the chance to escape the seemy, calculating political world for the company of a genuinely high-minded person. Two weeks before Rabbi Neuberger’s passing, Maryland Governor Robert Erlich visited Rabbi Neuberger, and the latter reminded him that winter was fast approaching and that something must be done for the many poor people who would not be able to afford heating fuel.
That remark was typical of his genuine interest in making the world a better place. Rabbi Neuberger rescued the concept of tikkun olam from the Reformers, who have kidnapped it. Far from serving as an alternative to mitzvah observance, Rabbi Neuberger’s public activities proclaimed tikkun olam to be the goal of a life of Torah and mitvos.
The only communal leader of the last fifty years who can be mentioned in the same breath with Rabbi Neuberger is Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zt”l, the president of Agudath Israel of America. The two were bochurim together at Ner Israel, and lifelong friends and partners. They shared an acute understanding of the political process and people, commanded the respect of a vast array of politicians and public officials out of all proportion to the votes they could deliver, and were able to convey an attitude of hating the sin not the sinner to every Jew they met, whether in a public or private context. Among their many major projects together were the Iranian rescue, creation of a national accreditation agency for yeshivos gedolos, which has brought tens of millions of dollars in federal funding into yeshiva coffers, and the preservation of the draft deferment for divinity students.
Contemplating the influence of figures like Rabbi Neuberger and Rabbi Sherer in America, those of us living in Israel cannot help but feel a certain envy. Who can imagine, for instance, a secular Israeli political leader visiting any chareidi leader to discuss issues of general national concern, except in the context of coalition negotiations? Those discussions would quickly get down to horsetrading over how much chareidi support would cost in terms of support for yeshivos. The context is hardly conducive to secular politicians going away with a heightened respect for the Torah.
The blame does not rest on our communal leaders. The structure of Israeli politics and society makes it much more unlikely that a Rabbi Sherer or a Rabbi Neuberger will emerge – e.g., the fact that much of the government financing of chareidi institutions comes only through supplemental budgets that must be renegotiated each year using political threats. In addition, the media consistently downplays the activities of chareidi politicians on matters of common concern, such as those of MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni on environmental issues.
But the fact remains that outside of a handful of geniuses of chesed, such as Rabbi Elimelech Firer and Rabbi Uri Lopoliansky, we have failed to convince our fellow Jews of our love and concern for them. We are widely perceived as concerned solely with maintaining the financial support of our communal institutions. And the truth is that if asked to demonstrate our concern with our fellow Jews many in our community would reply that our learning, and therefore larger budgets for our yeshivos, are the best protection for the entire society. Remarkably, however, that response has failed to convince our fellow Jews that we care about them as people.
Even as we mourn the passing of askanim of Rabbi Neuberger and Rabbi Sherer’s international stature, it behooves us to consider how we can ensure that others emerge to replace them.