On the third of November, 1953, two rabbis walked their children down to the Chuppah, to be united in marriage. Each of these rabbis was to have a significant impact on the future of orthodoxy in America. Each lived his life with a three-word powerful guiding principle.
Rav Shimon Schwab z”l was a uniquely influential figure who melded his heritage in the Hirschian tradition with his experience in the Eastern European yeshiva world. In a lifetime of inspiring Drashos and lectures, an experience he spoke of most frequently was the Shabbos that he spent in 1930 in the presence of the Chafetz Chaim, Rav Yisrael Meir Hakohein Kagan.
The sainted Chafetz Chaim warmly welcomed the young man, delighted and intrigued to meet a yeshiva bachur from Germany. At one point during the Shabbos he asked Rav Schwab if he was a Kohein or a Levi. When Rav Schwab responded that he was not, the Chafetz Chaim asked him why not. After receiving the obvious response, that his father was not a Kohein or Levi, the Chafetz Chaim explained his question to the young man.
“You may know that I am a Kohein, and that is because my father, grandfather and great grandfathers were Kohanim. The reason my ancestors were Kohanim and yours were not is because generations ago, when Moshe descended from Sinai and saw how the Jews had created and worshipped the Golden Calf, Moshe called out ‘Mi LaHashem Eilai’, ‘He who will stand with G-d should come and join me.’ My great grandfather responded to that call, and that is why I am a Kohein.
Young man, in every generation that call cries out, again and again: ‘Mi LaHashem Eilai’. When you hear it, remember to respond, to step forward.”
Without a doubt, this call of the Kohein Gadol of his time – the saintly Chafetz Chaim – animated and motivated Rav Schwab throughout his years of principled and inspiring leadership in developing the Torah community in this country. He told family members that he heard that call – “Mi LaHashem Eilai” – constantly echoing in his ears, every moment.
Rabbi Shlomo Alexander Rosenberg also lived this value and mission. He was in fact a Kohein, and lived his life as a Kohein, as a “Shlucha d’Rachmana”, doing G-d’s work in the world. Rabbi Rosenberg was a congregational rabbi in Yonkers, New York, at a time and a place where the strong values of tradition were unpopular and difficult to maintain and uphold. But he invariably did so, with firmness, integrity and dignity.
There are two chapters of his life’s work that stand out most prominently.
Following the conclusion of the Second World War, more than a quarter of a million survivors were housed in DP (Displaced Persons) camps in Europe, their pasts destroyed and their futures uncertain. For more than five years following the conclusion of hostilities, a number of American rabbis travelled to Europe under the auspices of the Joint Distribution Committee and the American army, to tend to the survivors and help them begin to rebuild their lives. Rabbi Rosenberg was one of those rabbis, as he transplanted himself and his young family to Europe for more than two years.
Those were defining years in his life. Many years later, he would make a point during Chol HaMoed to visit the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Boro Park and stand on a street corner watching the families walking by, pushing their baby carriages in their Yom Tov finery. He would watch them with emotion and pride, recognizing individuals and families whom he had helped bring to this country and get started on a new life.
During his time in the DP camps, a primary focus was finding a place of refuge for the survivors. Palestine’s doors were sealed and entry visas to the United States were extremely hard to come by. Rabbi Rosenberg had a unique ability to identify potentially sympathetic Jewish army officers and would approach them. The conversation would typically begin with the Rabbi asking the officer, “Would you like to go to Heaven?” The officer would immediately assume that the rabbi was there to talk him into the observance of Kashrus or Shabbos, and would respond dismissively, explaining the trials of observance in the army. Rabbi Rosenberg would say that he understood that, and would then produce a hand-written list of a dozen names. He would hand the officer the list and say:
“I need you to muster every bit of influence you have to get entry visas for these people, to get them included amongst those who can immigrate to the US. You will be saving their lives. When you die they will bring you to Heaven, and they will ask, ‘What are you doing here?!’ Pull out this piece of paper, show it to them, and say ‘I saved these people. I opened the door for them to rebuild their lives.’ This will gain you entry to Heaven.”
Invariably the officers complied.
“Mi LaHashem Eilai”. “He who will stand with G-d should come and join me.” Rabbi Rosenberg the Kohein issued this call, and they responded.
The second prominent chapter in his life story is the period of 1950-1972 when he served as the Rabbinic Administrator of the Orthodox Union Kashrut Division. Kashrut in America in the first half of the twentieth century was synonymous with corruption, with some forty to sixty percent of the meat sold as kosher being actually and unquestionably treife. Under Rabbi Rosenberg, the OU grew dramatically into the standard bearer for Kashrut in America, with clear and strong standards of Halacha and integrity. He was dignified and principled, and absolutely incorruptible.
Rabbi Berel Wein, who succeeded Rabbi Rosenberg at the OU and considers Rabbi Rosenberg one of his primary mentors, has written and spoken about Rabbi Rosenberg extensively. He shares a particular anecdote that occurred during the Arab oil embargo in 1974. Rabbi Rosenberg had already passed away, and Rabbi Wein received a call from an executive of a company whose product included glycerin as an important ingredient. Glycerin is typically an animal byproduct – an obvious Kashrus concern – however there is a synthetic alternative, made from petroleum. At the time there were two kosher supervised producers of synthetic glycerin in the country, and this company’s supplier had just informed them that due to the petroleum shortage they had no supplies available. The company had to continue production with whatever glycerin they could find, but their labels were all imprinted with the OU. Thus they had no choice but to produce non-kosher product with an OU label! Rabbi Wein asked the executive for a bit of time to work on the issue.
Rabbi Wein proceeded to call the other supplier of kosher glycerin and explained the situation to the vice-president in charge of marketing. He asked him to sell a number of tank cars of glycerin to this company, even though it was not a regular customer. The vice-president thought it over and then agreed to sell the glycerin at the price used for regular customers. Whereupon, after a few moments of silence, he asked Rabbi Wein: “Rabbi, do you think that Rabbi Rosenberg in heaven knows what I am doing for you?”
“Mi LaHashem Eilai”. “He who will stand with G-d should come and join me.” Rabbi Rosenberg the Kohein issued this call – from Heaven – and they responded.
Yet Rabbi Rosenberg was himself guided by a different three-word principle, his motto: “Vos zogt Gott?”, “What does G-d say?”
Rabbi Wein recalls an incident where someone starting up a food business came to Rabbi Rosenberg, requesting immediate certification of his factory. Knowing that provision of such certification required many steps, usually taken over a period of months, he tried to motivate Rabbi Rosenberg to provide him with a speedy certification by offering him a five percent share in the company. Rabbi Rosenberg responded with silence, whereupon the entrepreneur raised his offer to seven, then to ten percent. After a long silence, Rabbi Rosenberg looked at him long and hard and said, “Un vos zogt Gott?” “And what would G-d say?”
Rabbi Rosenberg’s silence was intended to get the person to raise his conscience, not his price. To him the ultimate question a person needs to ask themselves is how their chosen course of action matches with the Divine will. “Am I doing the right thing?”
The gift of Torah, granted to our people on Shavuos, was the opportunity we were given to learn the answer to the question, “Vos zogt Gott?”, “What does G-d say?” The true student of Torah studies in order to know how to act, to live a life that reflects G-d’s truths and values.
In November 1953, Rabbi Schwab and Rabbi Rosenberg walked their children – Judy Schwab שתחי’ and Rabbi Yaakov Carl Rosenberg ז”ל – down to the Chuppah to be united in marriage. And now, in May 2016, Rabbi Schwab’s granddaughter Sheva (Schwab) Weiskopf, and Rabbi Rosenberg’s granddaughter, my own wife Mindi (Baumgarten) Hauer, walked their children – Aliza and Shlomo – down to the Chuppah to be united in marriage.
Our son Shlomo Alexander carries the name of his great-grandfather, Rav Shlomo Alexander Rosenberg. He also carries on his legacy. Shlomo is not an activist type, and would not be inclined to follow his grandfather’s path and build the Orthodox Union or manage a large rescue operation. But what he has dedicated himself to – in magnificent measure – is to discern and understand and then to live his life according to “Vos Gott zogt”, “What G-d says”. He is profoundly dedicated to the study of Torah, and his approach to that study is clean and direct, seeking to uncover its elegant truths in the simplest of strokes, rather than through complex, dazzling and sometimes convoluted expositions.
Rabbi Rosenberg taught his values to his family. I recall distinctly how while sitting shiva for his wife Naomi z”l, the daughter of Rabbi Rosenberg, my father-in-law Rabbi Dr. Joseph Baumgarten z”l shared with me the inscription he had just composed for her Matzeivah (monument). It was an elegant acrostic, written poetically in lines whose opening letter spelled out her name, and described with beauty and love her many qualities.
In the remaining fifteen months of his life, my father-in-law – Shlomo’s grandfather – wrote one more epitaph, his own. This one was not poetic but simple, in the plain and humble manner of its author, and contained a few short lines describing his life’s work. One of those lines reads as follows: “Hey-ir eynei rabbim la’Emet She-b’Torah“, “He enlightened the eyes of many to the truth of the Torah.”
A simple statement of values; a life’s work and passion. Shlomo’s grandfather Rabbi Baumgarten continued the heritage of his own father-in-law, Rabbi Rosenberg, to pursue and to share the truth of Torah, to be most concerned with the accuracy and integrity of his values and actions, and to ensure that his life reflected the ongoing pursuit of “Vos zogt Gott.” And this legacy continues in his grandson, Shlomo Alexander, bearer of both the name and the passion of Rabbi Rosenberg to discern and to live by G-d’s word.
Shlomo had the privilege to learn from and to develop a beautiful relationship with one of the great Torah scholars of our time, Rav Asher Arieli of Yeshivas Mir in Yerushalayim. Rav Asher’s Torah knowledge is broad and deep, and his daily advanced Talmud class is the largest in the world, delivered to more than seven hundred students who absorb an hour of his crystal clear analysis of the Talmud, delivered in his soft-spoken and simple eloquence. Rav Asher is not only a Torah scholar; he is what is referred to as a “living Sefer Torah“, a beautiful person whose character, humility, kindness and sensitivity reflect everything magnificent that the Torah teaches us and stands for.
Our son Shlomo shared with us a story that Rav Asher has told of his own experience following the Six Day War, when his family – along with Jews from all across Israel and the world – flocked to pray at the newly liberated Western Wall. When they arrived at the Kosel, Rav Asher – then ten years old – and his young brothers asked their father what they should be praying for at this momentous time. Their father Rav Chaim Yaakov suggested that they say “Ahava Rabba”, the blessing we recite each morning before the Shema. Its central request reads as follows:
“Our Father, compassionate Father, have compassion on us and instill in our hearts the desire to understand and discern, to listen, learn and teach, to observe, perform and fulfill all the teachings of your Torah with love. Enlighten our eyes with Your Torah and let our hearts cling to Your commandments….”
Anyone who has encountered Rav Asher knows that those prayers really worked. Their power lay of course in their genuineness, offered sincerely to G-d at His holy place, after almost decades of G-d’s thirsting for such prayer from that site. But their power lay as well in the value system implanted in the children who were guided to recite that particular prayer at that particular moment.
Any prayer is meant to be the expression of one’s deepest desire, certainly a first prayer offered at this holy site! Rav Chaim Yaakov Arieli taught his young children that the greatest desire one can have and carry though life is the wish to truly know “Vos zogt Gott?”, “What does G-d say?”, and to be enlightened and inspired by His word.
When Shlomo was about to become engaged, he told me with great excitement how one of his favorite teachers had shared with his students Torah thoughts from Rabbi Schwab’s classic, Maayan Beis Hashoeivah. Shlomo recalled with pride that the teacher commented that he never saw in that work any insight that veered from the plain truth of Torah.
Thus, the principled integrity that is Shlomo’s heritage and that he values so much, he has been blessed to find in Aliza, who derives those same values from her magnificent heritage. We pray that with G-d’s help they build a life together that truly reflects G-d’s will; that they discover His truth and live His mission; that they live lives that respond to the call of “Mi LaHashem Eilai” and that engage in the fruitful pursuit of “Vos zogt Gott”, reflecting both the call of the Kohein and the life of the Kohein, as messengers of G-d, responding to His call and dedicated to the mission of preserving His truth.
That is precisely how the final prophet, Malachi (2:6-7), described the Kohein who safeguarded the truth of the Torah: “The lips of the Kohein preserve wisdom, such that they seek Torah from his mouth, for he is a messenger of the G-d of Hosts.”
We can only imagine the richly deserved Nachas of the great Mechutanim, Rabbi Schwab and Rabbi Rosenberg, as they watch their joint legacy continue to unfold.