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March 27, 2014 9:36 pm

Rabbi Avi Weiss: My Hero

avatar by Ronn Torossian

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The author with Rabbi Avi Weiss.

A few days ago, I attended a momentous event to honor Rabbi Avi Weiss and his family. It marked the first time he had ever allowed himself to be honored; for that and other reasons, it was a blessed event.

The event showed the Rabbi’s deep love for the Jewish people, decency, and all good things. People talk about “Rabbi Avi Weiss” – the icon, the firebrand; in reality, the man portrayed by the media is a small piece of who this holy man truly is. His wife Toby said it succinctly in the touching video that was presented at the dinner: “there are so many aspects of him which people don’t know.” Rabbi Avi Weiss epitomizes everything a rabbi should be.

He is a man who connects with people – a genuine, honorable leader whose deeds come from the heart for the right reasons. He is a man who genuinely loves his family, his congregants, his religion, and has such immense love for Israel and the Jewish people. Tears of joy ran down my cheeks, and tears welled up in the eyes of so many others. 700 people stood up and danced to celebrate the amazing commitment and the impact this man has made on the Jewish people.

Tens of thousands of Jews all over the world feel a special bond with our Reb Avi because he sparks and connects with us in a unique way. Undeniably, Rabbi Weiss is one of the greatest Jews of this generation. I have been blessed to have Rabbi Avi Weiss as a part of my entire life, and I wanted to share a few of my personal thoughts.

My mother, Penny Waga, of blessed memory, who was born to Holocaust survivor parents, moved with us to Riverdale in 1979 when I was five years old. We joined the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) then, because Rabbi Weiss was – as my mother said – a “right-wing Rabbi.” Ever since then, I can remember the sensitive, caring, passionate man as a part of my life. I have pictures of him at Purim dressed as a clown from when I was a kid. He knew it would help him connect to many Jews who had never met a rabbi whom they could bond with before. As his son Dov quipped at the recent dinner, he’s an “open orthodox Chassid.” Indeed in my pictures from 32 years ago, even then, non-orthodox people attended his events and his synagogue (which is affectionately called The Bayit, or The Home.)

He has built one of the most thriving synagogues in North America and one where all Jews feel comfortable and are never judged. When I was nine years old, I got hit in the face with a baseball in a Little League game and was briefly knocked out. Within a short while of my being taken home, he was there reassuring me, and more importantly, my single mother. He has always been there for so many of us, no matter what else was going on in the world, no matter where he was or what issue he was in the middle of championing on behalf of. He sees each of us as individuals, and he shares his soul with so many people during their times of need. His actions taught me from a young age to act, and simply make it happen. Action is a necessary emotion.

During the event, he talked of picking up his parents whenever they flew to New York City and said: “it was my responsibility to meet them at the airport.” Rabbi Weiss explained that his father called one time to inform him that their arrival was moved up by 24 hours. He said, “Professing my deep love for my parents, I insisted that I couldn’t change my schedule on such short notice.” “You became a hot shot Rabbi,” his father responded, “and don’t have time for your parents?” “I love you deeply,” Rabbi Weiss protested, “But it’s difficult to alter plans at the last moment.” Rabbi Weiss says often that he will never forget his father’s response: “Don’t love me so much; just pick me up at the airport!” Undoubtedly, ever since he has lived his life with this motto. Just do it.

I remember protesting for Russian Jews, and one of my early childhood memories is of Avital Sharansky crying on the steps of the synagogue. I remember asking my mother who the woman was who was crying. I remember  rejoicing a few years later when Anatoly Sharansky went free and he came to the synagogue and spoke. Rabbi Avi Weiss showed and taught so many of us the importance of feeling – and fighting – for Jews in need. And of course, through it all he was the consummate pulpit Rabbi – running an amazingly special synagogue. He taught so many of us about the importance of showing Jewish pride.  I recall dancing in the streets on Simchat Torah with Israeli flags, and learning the importance of Jewish pride.

Rabbi Weiss comes alive singing Jewish songs, and often Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s tunes. He urges each of us to connect with aspects of Judaism on levels that appeal to each individual. And as I got older, and joined the Betar movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, I protested with Reb Avi all around the world. He always spoke of the importance of raising a voice of moral consciousness to do the right thing. He taught me not to fear making decisions that other people might not agree with, as long as it was right. The media that cover his protests – and the people who write of him – don’t know the fact that he attends hospitals and Shiva houses more often then he attends protests. That is who the man is – passionate and caring.

A classic lesson I remember is him telling me how to listen to criticism. If someone criticizes you, ask yourself, “Do they care about you?” – “Do you respect them?” If the answer to both of those questions is no, then don’t pay so much attention. He never minded being the first one to speak out on an issue – as long as it was doing the right thing. In another first, Rabbi Weiss has been on the forefront of involving women in leadership issues. How I remember my mother being so passionate about the woman’s tefillah group in the 1980’s and how my sister, Karin, celebrated her bat mitzvah reading from the Torah. He understands the importance of inclusion; and it was not the first time he stepped up.

He built a friendly shul for people with disabilities many years before anyone ever thought of the Americans with Disabilities Act. I recall him encouraging Jewish education, continually teaching and inviting those of us in public school to come to his home for Shabbat. I remember my bar mitzvah and wedding, both of which Rabbi Weiss officiated at. I vividly remember telling him that Betar members largely were not religious, and how he always insisted that I was a deeply religious Jew. He would explain that one who wears a kippa may not necessarily be religious, and that not everyone who is religious is ritually observant. It is notable how Rabbi Avi Weiss’ sits among the congregants, and greets every single person in The Bayit. He stands by the door to make every single person feel special and welcome. How much warmer would synagogues be if every rabbi observed his rule: “Don’t sit on the bima – it’s not where the Jews are” –  as a Rabbi Weiss’ protégé, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Congregation Bnai David-Judea recently wrote.

There are so many values that Rabbi Avi Weiss has taught us for life. When my mother died last year in the middle of the night, he sat with me and my sister and explained the process of death, burial, and mourning to us as we were crying. He described it so we were prepared for the funeral – as much as one can ever be for a parent’s funeral. He then insisted on staying with me for a few hours, and then of course, he came to the funeral, and waited in the parking lot because he is a Cohen and is not permitted among the dead. Rabbi Avi Weiss was simply there. He just listened. He came for Shiva every day, and people remarked in surprise “Is that Rabbi Avi Weiss?” “How is he always here, he’s so busy?” Yet, he does that for so many people.

As I write this with my eyes filled with tears from missing my mother, I recall the morning Shiva ended as I walked back in from morning prayers. Rabbi Weiss was waiting for me in my building lobby. As it was the first day that I would return to work – he insisted on staying with me and my family as I readied myself. He told me that I had to re-enter the world, but that the world would always be different. He insisted on walking me to the gym where I began my morning routine, and he connected with the person who handles the gym’s check-in, remarking on his name – Daniel. Daniel, who I see every day and had never said more than hello to, connected with Rabbi Avi Weiss as they discussed the origins of the name Daniel, as a Hebrew prophet. As Reb Avi taught us, “don’t love me so much; just pick me up at the airport.” He is omni-present for the Jewish people, and for so many of us as people, and for our entire community.

Rabbi Avi Weiss is simply wired differently. As his beloved wife of 50 years, Toby Weiss, quoted him saying: “I can’t believe I get paid for doing what I do.” And when she asks him “What did you do today?” He quips: “I went to two Shiva visits, went to a hospital, and I taught a class.”

That is what the man was meant to do. While there is so much more to write, the man is simply a great and special Jew. Rabbi Avi Weiss is my hero. Thank you Rabbi Avi Weiss – I love you.

You have taught me – and an entire generation of Jewish people – so many important values for Judaism, for life, as people, as parents, as individuals.

As Rabbi Weiss signs his  letters, so I sign this: With Love of Torah and Zion, Ronn Torossian.

P.S. Two touching pieces I recently came across on him that I thought are worth sharing can be found here and here.

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