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Branded by the OU

Yisroel Besser

Steven Weil grew up a country boy, milking cows on his family’s farm in upstate New York. But it's the newcomer in him that makes Rabbi Weil such an effective ambassador for the Orthodox Union: Jewish life is continuously vibrant and always exciting.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

From the window of his corner office, the view of the Statue of Liberty is splendid. It’s ironic that Rabbi Steven Weil looks down on the Lady with the Torch, she who beckoned immigrants to a new world, prodding them to shed the trappings of an old one. In her shadow, histories were severed, promises forgotten.

The story of the occupant of this 14th-floor office contrasts with that typical story line. His climb has taken him in the opposite direction, from the liberalism of an American childhood back toward the order of tradition; from the farms of upstateNew Yorkback to a world of books and synagogues.

To be honest, he hasn’t completely left the farm behind. Visit his home community ofTeaneckon a Sunday and you might see the executive vice president of the OU driving a jacked-up, four-wheel drive Ford F150 pick-up truck, comfortable in his well-worn cowboy boots, perhaps a cigar in his mouth. (“The Weil, Weil West,” reads the caption to a photo hanging in his office.) A childhood spent doing farm chores has given him a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy and a strong sense of responsibility.

But here, at Orthodox Union headquarters, he’s all rabbi. And as with good rabbis everywhere, the narrative he weaves is mesmerizing.

Like generations of Bavarian Jews, his grandparents raised cattle. When conditions in Germanyin the late 1930s made it impossible to remain there, they left for Americaafter a brief stop in England. They dreamed of establishing a cattle farm, the only business they knew. They worked in menial jobs, saving up money. Buffalo, New York, had a kosher butcher and a mikveh and, therefore, Lyndonville, population 720, seemed as good place as any in which to start anew.

“That number is for people,” says Rabbi Weil, “but there were more than 20,000 heads of cattle in the area.…”

The family settled there, and their children — Rabbi Weil’s parents — joined them on the farm as well. A new generation of Weil children were born and raised on the farm.

A private melamed came out twice a week to teach the Weil children how to read and write Hebrew and daven from a siddur. “When we’d fight with other kids in the school, the locals, the truth would come out — ‘dirty Jew’ or ‘kike’ — so we knew we were different.”

There was no shul or minyan on the farm, so for Rosh HaShanah the family would travel to Grossinger’s Hotel, in the Catskills, and join other Jews. On Yom Kippur, little Stevie would accompany his father and grandfather to Batavia, New York, where they took a hotel room near the shul and participated in the tefillos.

The sense of Jewishness was very strong but, he admits, it wasn’t much of a childhood in terms of Jewish observance. “When my grandparents escaped Germany, they left almost everything behind — but they took their Roedelheim siddurim and machzorim. Even though they were wealthy, those possessions were most valuable to them. My grandmother would read her techinos every day. But even if we had a strong identity, the richness of Jewish community life was missing. I had no idea what it really meant.”

Until ninth grade, when the farm boy joined his grandmother for a Memorial Day weekend trip toWest Hempstead,New York. “We davened at the Young Israel, and that Shavuos experience was an epiphany for me. I saw vitality. I saw a thriving Jewish community where everyone was normal and nice — and they all wore yarmulkes, they kept halachah, and were proudly Jewish.”


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