A Lesson In Kindness

Many years ago, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the founder and rosh yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, sought advice on kiruv. He wanted to know how to attract and retain potential ba’alei teshuva (BTs). So, on a visit to the States he made a pilgramige of sorts to a small house on a Flatbush side street near Avenue R and Kings Highway. He went to meet Rabbi Meir Michel Abehsera, a Moroccan-born, France-raised, BT. Meir, a relative of the Baba Sali, the famous Moroccan tzadik and miracle worker, had become a Lubavitcher hasid. He and his wife Claude had attracted hundreds of Jews to Orthodoxy, and had done so without money and without any institutional backing. Weinberg wanted to know how.

He sits down with Abehsera and asks him this question: How do you get these kids? How do you convince them? How do you hold them?

Abehsera’s response was immediate. He slapped Weinberg across the face*. "Stupid!" Abehsera shouted, "I don’t "get" these people. These people are my friends!" Abehsera was absolutely serious. These people, every one of them, was his friend.

Abehsera then explained to a shocked Weinberg what should be obvious to anyone but is not. Manipulation is immoral. It only works in the short term. And God does not manipulate. Neither should we.

The lesson was lost on Weinberg and his fellow kiruv professionals. It was lost on much of Chabad, as well.

Abehsera and his wife run an open house. People drop by at all hours of the day and often of the night as well. Somehow, there is always soup on the stove, always another bowl, another piece of bread. More importantly, there’s always a seat at the table. Abehsera has friends who went from being atheists 30 years ago to being Orthodox rabbis today. He also has friends who are still atheists. And everything in between.

Table talk will more likely be about music – when the Abehsera’s moved to  Jerusalem in 1994, his fixation was the Counting Crows, who he first heard while driving in Brooklyn and almost had an accident because the music so transported him he couldn’t concentrate on the road. One of the first things he said to me when I stopped by to say hello after the move was to ask if I had heard them – I had not – and then gush about the music. He was, as always in these matters, spot on.

On any given day one might meet yeshiva students and rabbis, artists, musicians, filmmakers, and Sefardic kabbalists of note, along with old family friends, neighborhood characters and just plain Jews, all hanging out, talking about just about anything.

Abehsera’s model is what Judaism should be. An open salon where Jews meet as friends, no matter their level of observance or complete lack thereof. Where ideas can be discussed or not, as the case may be. Where music, art and film have a place at the table.

As Abehsera has noted many times, God made this world by creating space for it, for us. We, too, must create space, to give people room to be themselves and to deal with their Judaism at their own pace and in their own way.

*[Did Abehsera actually slap Weinberg? I heard the story several times, including once from Abehsera himself and another from an Aish insider. The slap is in all versions. Knowing Abehsera as well as I do, I think he did (gently) slap Weinberg to shock him. If this is too difficult to believe, consider it an early version of a "bitch slap" or a "pimp slap," a figure of speech meant to convey a heightened level of irritation.]

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18 Comments

Filed under BTs, Haredim, Jewish Leadership, Modern Orthodoxy, Religion

18 responses to “A Lesson In Kindness

  1. Jerry

    I was the head of the Jewish Student Union of a Pretty big Law School on the east coast. I am orthodox. I used to have various events scheduled from time to time. One time I had scheduled someone who was supposed to be a “kiruv genious” to come speak, and I figured that since he was also an attorney, it would be an interesting speech/ presentation. We were a low budget group, and i sometimes would actualy pick up and drop off the speakers from their homes. While dropping off this “rabbi”, he asked me about a certain student who was at the event who came from a very prominent jewish family, but was not religious, I told him a little about the student. The Rabbi’s initial reaction was, “That would be such a catch, you have to get me in touch with him.”

    I was utterly disgusted. These are people we are talking about, not fresh trout and pink salmon. I would never return this “rabbi’s” call again, or have any respect for him, because the motives are just wrong. Its sad.

  2. sdasd

    >Abehsera’s response was immediate. He slapped Weinberg across the face. “Stupid!” Abehsera shouted,

    Ehrm. ?

  3. sdasd: “O you who love the Lord, hate evil.”

  4. DK

    If bts understood that even according to frummies their status is reflective of their standing in the secular world, they would not be so quick to listen to very bad charedi insistence that they should define themselves only in terms of frumkeit.

  5. Paul Freedman

    Rain King: Counting Crows

    When I think of heaven
    Deliver me in a black-winged bird
    I think of flying down into a sea of pens and feathers
    And all other instruments of faith and sex and God in the belly of a black-winged bird.
    Dont try to feed me
    Ive been here before and I deserve a little more

    I belong in the service of the queen
    I belong anywhere but in between
    Shes been crying, Ive been thinking
    And I am the rain king

    And I said mama, mama, mama, why am I so alone?
    I cant go outside
    Im scared I might not make it home
    Im alive, Im alive but Im sinking in
    If theres anyone at home at your place, darling
    Why dont you invite me in?
    Dont try to bleed me
    Cause Ive been there before and I deserve a little more

    I belong in the service of the queen
    I belong anywhere but in between
    Shes been lying, Ive been sinking
    And I am the rain king

    Hey, I only want the same as anyone
    Henderson is waiting for the sun
    Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends
    After all the dreaming I come home again…

    When I think of heaven
    Deliver me in a black-winged bird
    I think of dying
    Lay me down in a field of flame and heather
    Render up my body into the burning heart of God in the belly of a black-winged bird
    Dont try to bleed me
    Cause Ive been here before and I deserve a little more

    I belong in the service of the queen
    I belong anywhere but in between
    Shes been dying, Ive been drinking
    And I am the rain king

    —-

    be a rain king

  6. Neo-Conservaguy

    Caught them on the opening night on one of their tours a few years ago. They were so good it almost hurt. Such a nice Jewish boy singing, too, although he’s a bit out there sometimes – perhaps a bit too much time learning kabalah.

  7. joe

    By any chance did the rabbi who came to your law school have the initials B.W.

  8. Paul Freedman

    He had toured Israel, I think, and almost decided to go to rabbinical school–went off and formed a rock ‘n’ roll instead.

  9. Elizabeth

    I think that most Chabad rabbis want to be just like Rabbi Abehsera when they start out (maybe without the rock and roll), but they get so caught with the money-making and notches in the belt (for “making” bt’s) that they lose their idealism. It’s the culture they have created for themselves with their self-congratulatory banquets every year. Absolutely, there is good work being done by Chabad rabbis. Honest, sincere, hard-working rabbis and their families truly practicing ahavas yisroel. But we always hear about the negative cases, which should be addressed. But we mustn’t forget there are “real” Chabad rabbis out there, too.

  10. Jath

    >Abehsera’s response was immediate. He slapped Weinberg across the face. “Stupid!” Abehsera shouted, Ehrm. ?
    Posted by: sdasd

    may i add ahem, ahem, ahem.
    no matter what went on in his head, administering a slap on the face of another person, who happens to be older too? who happens to be a rabbi too? and calling him stupid, reporting the case to the media? is a no, no.
    to this reader, this episode is about the limits of chabad showing off if you will.
    a “legend” that probably never took place to show “chabad’s superiority” over corporate competitor aish hatora.
    funny, there is a legend that you will hear @ chabad houses, whereby the baba sali himself, compares himself to to the rebbe mame’sh. reportedly (by shluchim of course) the baba sali would have compared the rebbe mamesh to a great eagle, while humbly he would be a fly in comparison.
    if there is any truth in this tale, my preference is for the humble fly not for the eagle and his cohorts.

  11. Anonymous

    “Abehsera’s response was immediate. He slapped Weinberg across the face. “Stupid!” Abehsera shouted”

    I hope you have sources to back this up cause Ive sent him a copy of your post. If true I hope it wasnt as hard a slap as the doctor gave your parents when you were born.

  12. MP

    Jath, the ‘legend’ being told is NOT AT ALL the way you repeated it. The story goes thusly:

    Rav Ovadya Yosef said something critical about the Rebbe to Baba Sali. Baba Sali replied:
    מה לזבוב קטוף כנפיים לפני הנשר בשמים ?
    it rhymes in Hebrew, but here is a translation:
    what [business] does a fly with plucked wings [have] with an eagel in the sky?
    the ‘fly’ reference was NOT to himself, but to Rav Ovadya Yosef.

  13. Jath

    MP. You must be right.
    However I doubt this dialog either took place.
    In a 3 way comparison, “my” rebbe is R’O. Yosef .

  14. Neo-Conservaguy

    “I think that most Chabad rabbis want to be just like Rabbi Abehsera when they start out (maybe without the rock and roll), but they get so caught with the money-making and notches in the belt (for “making” bt’s) that they lose their idealism. It’s the culture they have created for themselves with their self-congratulatory banquets every year.”

    To be fair, they get “caught with the money-making” because they have to raise whatever funding required to support a family (often with many kids) and the Chabad house they run. Shuls hit you (often big-time) for membership once a year, so why shouldn’t the Chabad house hit you for donations too? It takes more than kavanah to pay the bills.

  15. Neal

    This whole story smacks of Shmaryas fantasy land.Aubhasera ‘slapped’ R’Weinberg acrossthe face and called him stupid?? Yeah, right.
    The chances that R’Weinberg bichlal came to speak with him are also probably nil.
    Shmarya:Go back to your (newly uncensored)sexual fantasies.Pathetic

  16. Schneur

    I too tend to believe that this story is a fictional account.
    I met Abehsera a number of times and he too did not lack for showmanship, – eyes focused , hat with an extra long brim, and at 1 such meeting at Columbia, some of my buddies who were ex Yeshiva guys gave him a difficult time, as his own knowledge of Judaism (texts, Talmud, Codes etc) was no that extensive. He seemed to loose his “cool” then.Michel was a devotee of Macriobiotic cooking and authored numerous books on that subject. Cauldron’s Well in the East Village was a hang out of some of his followetrs, The food was good and cheap too.
    Cleary Michel is a talented fellow, with a charasmatic personality. But not all of us are born with such personalities. So should any one with no charisma give up Kiruv ?
    It’s good to see that Meir is still alive and well even after his rebbe passed on.He got a tremendous amount of kavod from the Lubavitcher rebbe.
    Why use only Meir has a role model, lets use Shlomo Carlebach the ultimate “salon” rabbi with rap sessions , food, drink, music, Chassiduth, personal confessions, meditation, etc. And yes he attracted thousands to Judaism too.
    As far as R.Weinberg goes his chiddush is to try to get famous people involved in Judaism and through them get to many more Jews.A secondary chidush is to give everyone the title rabbi and send them out to do Kiruv work , well maybe here he copied another more powerful movement who does the same…
    It may work who knows !
    By the way the Baba Sali had tremneodus derech Eretz for Rav Ovadiah Yosef and their families intermarried at least once.So I do not believe the story mentioned about them here either.
    Rabbi Yosef is universally respected by the Sefard community as not only a posek but a manhig and Zaddik. In this sense his feling of responsibility for the world Sefardi community nd all Jews in Israel, he is the last of the old type of rabbis who are not sectarian in nature

  17. Henech

    What a load of baloney! Who, pray tell, is the source of this story? It’s not Rabbi Weinberg, obviously. Who claims to have been there and seen it?

    Rabbi Weinberg would sooner become a golf pro than go to someone like this for kiruv advice.

  18. Kosberg,

    Trust me on this one. He went.

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