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The Trailblazer

Machla Abramowitz

Before kiruv was a household term, Rebbetzin Phyllis Weinberg a”h was busy drawing countless people closer to Yiddishkeit. Programs that are now in vogue, she was establishing in the 1960s and 1970s — a shmiras halashon organization, a taharas hamishpachah educational initiative, a frum shidduch network, to name just a few. Her life motto was simple: “Never let the opportunity to do a mitzvah go by.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

path in snowThe Rebbetzin and her husband — Rabbi Shnayer Weinberg, principal ofToronto’s Yeshivas Eitz Chaim for close to four decades — would open up their home to people of all ages and walks of life. The children never knew who would show up at their house and when.

Philip, fromNew York, was a case in point. Two hours before Shabbos, this young man in tattered jeans and a dirty T-shirt, with long, disheveled hair, appeared on their doorstep. Within moments he was invited inside, offered a shower, had his hair cut, and was dressed in a borrowed suit and white shirt. He later accompanied Rabbi Weinberg and his son Moshe to shul.

Then there was Noam, a 22-year-old Israeli elite paratrooper from an affluent, staunchly anti-frum, secular Israeli home. He was so taken with Rebbetzin Weinberg’s passion and enthusiasm that he became yet another honorary member of the household. Before long, he put on black pants and a yarmulke, and began learning. The children keep up with him till this day, as they do with all the others.

“One of my greatest memories is coming home from school and counting the cars parked in our driveway, wondering which exciting people were now visiting with our mother,” Sori says.

Igor, a former refusenik, was one such person. One of the first Jews given permission to leave theSoviet Unionwhen Mikhail Gorbachev became leader, he too was directed to the Weinberg home.

“Rebbetzin Weinberg looked after me as if I was her son,” he recalls. “Despite our language barrier, she assigned me a room, found me a doctor, and advocated for me at the Jewish Immigrant Aid Service. She told the officials I was an important person and that they must do everything possible to get me permanent resident status.”

She also invited him to sheva brachos. “What did I know of sheva brachos?” he says. “I had to dress up — hat and jacket — and arrive late at night. I was absolutely amazed. I had never seen so many Jewish people gathered together in one place. Men were sitting in one area, women in another. I couldn’t understand why they were doing that. Soon I began to understand. Rebbetzin Weinberg filled my plate with food, and we all drank many l’chayims. She thought it was important for me, having been inCanada only two weeks, to integrate into Jewish life. It is something I will never forget. I was amazed at how she managed to devote her life to so many people. I never saw anything like that before or after.” 

Chavi cannot forget the day she found three men living in their basement. These were the same three who regularly stood outside the local butcher shop, begging for tzedakah. “This was before doing kiruv was popular,” Sori points out. “People used to look at us and wonder, How do you let such people into your house?”

Yet doing this came naturally to Rebbetzin Weinberg. Her parents, Rabbi and Mrs. Yechiel Efraim Fishel and Esther Erster, were renowned for their hachnassas orchim both in their hometown ofLodz,Poland, and later inChattanooga,Tennessee, a small community with few religious Jews, where the family had moved in 1934. 

Phyllis, who developed a trademark Southern drawl, was one of the first graduates of Rabbi Boruch and Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan’s seminary inNew York City. After marrying Rabbi Weinberg, a Telshe Yeshivah graduate, the young couple settled inDetroit, where they raised their son and two daughters. (Their fourth child, Chavi, would later be born inToronto.)

It didn’t take long for the blonde, blue-eyed Phyllis to distinguish herself there. In addition to mothering her own children, she mentored close to 100 girls who were part of the Detroit Bnos Youth Groups she founded, as well as involved herself in a variety of charities. For these efforts, she received AgudathIsraelofAmerica’s prestigious “Agudah Mother of the Year Award” at the age of 27.

In Detroit, and later in Toronto, the house was always full of Shabbos guests, many of whom were talmidim of Rabbi Weinberg, who was a rebbi at Yeshivas Bais Yehudah at the time.

Yossel was one of their more frequent visitors. For many bochurim like himself, spending Shabbos with their rebbi was their only opportunity to participate in singing zmiros and hearing divrei Torah. Over the years, Yossel continued to keep in touch with the Weinbergs. “Our relationship flourished no matter what kind of changes I was going through. Throughout it all, Rebbetzin Weinberg always made me feel comfortable. She was one of the reasons I could never step out of Yiddishkeit.”


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