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Friday, July 30, 2010

Baring Our Soles

There was an older man in my shul growing up. Once, when I was about fourteen, I was in a different city and ran into a cousin of this particular man. “I assume”, the cousin told me “that nothing will come of him”. I answered what I answered by the statement jarred me and stayed in my mind until today.

By what definition does something come of someone? The man in question was frum despite peer pressure and the holocaust, he made the Minyan three times a day, he lained, and he served as gabbai and president. He was a short cute old man. What were they waiting for? Did he need to cure the common cold or write volumes of response to become ‘something’?!

In parshas Eikev, the Torah reminds us to pay careful attention to the mitzvos that tend to be trampled with our Eikev - our heel. We tend to triage mitzvos and decide that certain ones are not important. We concentrate on the “Big Mitzvos” but the truth is that every single little mitzva is important. Every Mitzva plays a role in the development of our souls.

Before Moshe could speak with Hashem he was told to take off his shoes. In fact, the very first thing Hashem told Moshe to do was to take off his shoes. Shoes protect us from the small pebbles and toys that we trample but Hashem wanted Moshe to be sensitive. He was not allowed to trample on anything without noticing.

The Letters of the word Na’al (shoe) stand for Neshicha, Akitza, and Lechisha - biting, stinging and hissing. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos tells us that we need to beware of a Torah scholar because he can bite like a wolf, sting like a scorpion, and hiss like a snake. A Torah scholar can be expected to defend the Torah. We say that it is the Torah in him that is getting upset. Even so, Hashem told Moshe that he must remove his Na’al and be compassionate and sensitive.

We learn from this parsha that we need to be sensitive to everything and everybody there is no Mitzva and no person that we can just trample. We can no rely on our calluses.

The word Eikev also means that we need to investigate and get to the bottom of every Mitzva. Each Mitzva has its own special meaning and corresponds to a different part of our souls. The Zohar writes that there is a mitzvah corresponding to every one of our limbs and muscles. If we skip a Mitzvah or gloss over it we are missing an important piece of our overall structure.

Ruchama Shain tells the story of an assimilated Jew. He became engaged to a Catholic woman who insisted that he convert. He didn’t care. As he was taking off his shoes for the baptism he realized that he was taking them off as a Jew: first the left and then the right. It was possibly the only Mitzva that his mother had taught him. The man immediately tied his shoes, walked out of the church, and went to see a Rabbi. His mind and body were spiritually undeveloped but his feet were strong.

They say that there was once a grandson of the Ziditchoiver Rebbe who was becoming lax in his Yiddishkeit and decided to leave Yeshiva. His Rosh Yeshiva bid him farewell but made him to promise to keep just one family custom: In Ziditchoiv, the rebbes valued Shabbos so highly that they do not say tachanun on Friday. Accordingly, The boy promised not to say Tachanun on Friday. When the the next Friday the young man set his alarm clock to go off early. He needed to Daven if he was going to skip tachanun. As he stood and davened with his tefillin on, he began to think of the beauty of Shabbos and the impact that it must have made on his holy forbears. Before long he was back in yeshiva.

We often see people whose entire Judaism is based on one Mitzvah. We never know how any one Mitzva or any one person will affect us. We need to do every Mitzva properly and treat every person with respect.

L’iluy Nishmas Yechiel ben Ben Tzion a"h

Posted on 07/30 at 09:16 PM • Permalink
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Monday, July 19, 2010

Mourning the Kohanim - Thoughts on Kinah 10

If the Bais Hamikdash was the place that we could always depend upon to be G-dly and holy, then the Kohanim were the people whom we could always depend upon to be our steadfast role models in the service of Hashem.

The Kinah of Aicha Yashva departs from the theme of the destruction of the physical Bais Hamikdash and focuses on the Kohanim. The Kinah mirrors the first chapter of Aicha, preserving the first word of each verse in Eicha as the beginning of its respective stanza in the Kinah. The author, Reb Elazar Hakalir demonstrates a familiarity with the Kohanim that we no longer have. Many of the priestly cities that he mentions are not available to us from any other source.

Someone asked me if the Curtain in the Bais Hamikdash was removed on Tisha B’av just as it is removed in our shuls. It most certainly was not! Tisha B’av at the time of the Bais Hamikdash was (and will be ) a joyous Yom Tov. The Magen Avraham writes that those who eat large meals before Tisha B’av are mistakenly observing a minhag that has been preserved from the times of the Bais Hamikdosh. We used to eat large meals on tisha B’av and celebrate.

There were no sad days in the Bais Hamikdash.

The Kohein Gadol, who was considered a fixture of the Bais Hamikdash, was not allowed to be sad or sit Shiva. We are taught, “G-d’s soul weeps [only] in secret” and the atmosphere in the Bais Hamikdash and around the Kohein Gadol was always joyous.

The Torah writes that the Me’il of the Kohein Gadol could not be torn. It was constructed like a suit of armor with a reinforced neck. It is specifically forbidden to tear Kriah on the Me’il. The sanctity of the Me’il transcended the laws of Shiva. It was indestructible and dependable, because the Kohein Gadol’s role was to be indestructible and dependable. No matter how tough things were and how many people were tearing their clothes, we always knew that we could depend on the Kohein Gadol to stay strong. This ended on Tisha when – as our Kinah records - “V’hame’il K’nikra Pesilo” – the fabric of the Me’il was torn.

And in a later stanza: ‘Sila kol Abirai’ – He shattered all of my heroes’ – we had nobody to depend on and look up to.

Another loss was the love the Kohanim had for the Jewish people. When the Kohanim bless us they thank Hashem who commanded them “to bless the Jewish people with love”. We did not appreciate that love. The Kina tells us “Anos Amein Lo Avu” – we did not bother to answer Amen when they gave us their blessing.

Our focus was not in the right direction at all: We like to echo the words of Dovid “Esah Einai El Heharim” – ‘I will lift my eyes to the mountains’. But the Kinah records that at the time of the destruction: ‘Lo Lamarom Ayin Tzafas’ we were not looking upward/ ‘Kesef Al Cheresh Chipas’ – we were too busy putting a silver plate on earthenware jugs and pretending that everything was fine.

“R’eh Ki Husa’arti K’aniya” - The Kinah echoes the plight of Yonah as his ship tossed and turned in the ocean. We criticize Yona for trying to run away from his problems. He tried to escape Hashem’s command but it was impossible. We need to focus on Hashem when we seek to solve our problems.

‘Mishulchancha Ta’ariach’ - The Kina ends in the hope that we will once again be guests at G-d’s table. In the laws of Brachos, the intentions of the host always trump the intentions of his guest. G-d decided that we were no longer welcome at His table and we were forced to leave. We beg Hashem to invite us back.

Posted on 07/19 at 08:49 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Is There Another Torah?! - Thoughts on Kinah 41

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was famous for being in jail. He was the last of the Tosafists and a respected leader of his generation. He was incarcerated for trying to make Aliyah and avoid Servi Camerae under Rudolph I in 1286.

If it wasn’t for the Maharam Rothenburg we might not have a Shulchan Aruch today. He was the teacher of Rabeinu Asher who is the father and teacher of Rabeinu Yaakov baal Haturim upon whose work the Shulchan Aruch is based.

Reb Meir of Rothenburg began his teaching career on Friday, June 17, 1242 at the Place de Grève in Paris.

Today, the place de Grève in Paris is the address of the City Hall and Mayor’s office. In 1242 it was the site of executions and, beginning June 17th, the site of the burning of the Talmud.

Reb Meir wrote a Kina describing his feelings as a twenty-seven year old student in Paris:  “My tears formed a river that reached to the Sinai desert and to the graves of Moshe and Aharon. Is there another Torah to replace the Torah which you have taken from us?’”

The printing Press hadn’t been invented yet and the Church had methodically collected and destroyed almost every manuscript in existence. We only have one surviving manuscript from that era. As Reb Meir watched wagonloads of scrolls go up in smoke, he realized just how Oral the Oral Law was. We could not rely on what has already been written and it was up to him to return to Germany and teach the Torah there.

It is the practice of the Norfolk community to bury worn out sefarim (books) with the deceased. Last week, at the funeral of a very special elderly woman, I was shocked to find that some of my Sefarim had gotten mixed up with the Sefarim being buried. These were volumes from a family collection that had belonged to my grandfather and, in some cases, to his father. They aren’t worth very much at an auction, but they are tangible proof that my forbears studied the same subjects I did, grappled with the same questions I do, and had a love for Torah that I can strive to emulate. As everyone else focused on the deceased, I am ashamed to say that I was focusing on the cardboard boxes. I knew that any Sefer that went down into that grave would never come out again. (I also knew that I might be headed in a similar direction if my family ever found out). My sefarim were rescued, but the experience brought the Maharam’s Kina to life.

The Maharam compared the burning of books to the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh. Both the Torah and the Beis Hamikdash (temple) unite us and ensure our existence: The Torah guides us and connects us to the generation that received it from Sinai; the Beis Hamikdash allowed us to articulate our shared connection in a physical space.

Beyond the knowledge contained in sefarim, the written word is an assurance that our tradition will be passed to future generations. The 613th Mitzvah is the writing of the Torah. It is as if the writing of the words is the capstone that will ensure the Torah’s survival.

Before Moshe’s death he wrote thirteen Sifrei Torah. Twelve of the Sifrei Torah were distributed amongst the tribes and the thirteenth was placed in the Aron Hakodesh (Ark) in the Mishkan. According to the Pesikta (32) that Thirteenth Torah is now kept in heaven and it is read from three times a week.

When the Maharam was imprisoned in 1286 he was given access to parchment and quills but not to any Sefarim. Although he knew almost everything by heart, his inability to read from the Torah on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbos frustrated him.

According to legend, the angel Gavriel visited the Maharam and presented him with the Thirteenth Torah, on loan from heaven. Generations of Tzadikim would descend from heaven and join him in his cell every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos to hear him read from their Sefer Torah.

Eventually, the Maharam copied the Heavenly Torah onto his own scroll and sealed the copy in a waterproof case which he threw out of his window and into the river Rhine. The Torah floated to the city of Worms where some Jewish fishermen discovered it and placed it prominently in their shul. The Jewish community of Worms suffered terribly during the Chmielniki massacres but the Sefer Torah survived. They read from it every Simchas Torah and Shavuos. Today the Maharam’s Torah is in the Aron Kodesh of the famous Alt-neu shul in Prague.

The facts of the above legend are anybody’s guess, but the appropriateness of the legend to the Maharam is beyond dispute. The Maharam was deeply dedicated to the written word and to the transmission of the Torah. He successfully formed the foundation for Halacha as we know it and he inspired his students to record and codify the words of his teachers. Their works form the canon of Jewish Law as we know it today. If anyone desired and deserved a Heavenly Sefer Torah, it was he. And if anyone was going to write a Torah in the most unlikely place and deliver it via a raging river to a desperate community, it was the Maharam of Rothenburg. He watched the last copies of the Talmud being burned and emerged from the flames by founded a Yeshiva and teaching the Talmud to a new generation.

The Maharam of Rothenburg died in captivity writing that “the sun shines for everyone but not for G-d and myself”. His Kina foretells a happier ending for us:

“… perhaps Hashem will remember how you followed Him into the barren desert,
... For as long as you have suffered - He will console you.
He will bring gather all captives to Jerusalem and lift them up high,
We will wear dance joyously to a beat and join together as one.

My heart will be uplifted when Hashem shines his light for you,
He will light up your night and dispel all of your darkness”

Even in his generation’s darkest moments the Maharam knew that we would survive and that the Torah would survive. He was limited in his movements but he knew that we would go far. New copies of the Talmud are printed every day, and each and every volume contains the indelible words of the Maharam’s teachers and students.

On a slightly different topic, The Zohar writes that when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed its’ bricks were scattered throughout the Diaspora. Wherever a stone landed, a future shul was built. When Moshiach comes each community will return their stone to Jerusalem and build the third Beis Hamikdash.

The Altneu shul in Prague was built with actual stones from the Beis Hamikdash. Some say that that is the “alt” in Alt-neu. Others say that the shul got its name because it was built on the condition - “al Tnai” - that when Moshiach came the stones would return to their original place in Jerusalem.

All of our shuls are only a stone’s throw from Yerushalayim. There is only one Torah and only one Beis Hamikdash. Our Torah and our tears are our shared legacy that has kept us together for thousands of years. One day we will all return to Yerushalayim and link the stones of our shuls together to form an everlasting testament to our love of Hashem and our nation of One. 

Posted on 07/18 at 09:47 AM • Permalink
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Friday, July 02, 2010

Korban Credits

This week Rabbi Schwartz wrote a beautiful article about Eretz Yisroel. It wasn’t the new and beautiful concepts he mentioned that made it special, it was the fact that he is actually moving to Eretz Yisrael next week.
Similarly, when the Benos Tzlafchad’s had their conversation with Moshe they were nowhere close to land of Israel. They weren’t satisfied that their husbands and uncles and cousins would eventually have land t share with them. The Benos Tzelafchad wanted their own personal stake in Eretz yisroel. Hashem agreed.
The Gemara tells the story of Elazar Ze’ira who was walking through the streets with black straps on his sandals. He was arrested by the Jewish police and thrown into jail as a fraud. “Chashiv At L’isabulai al Yerushalyim?” – “Do you think that you are distinguished enough to be mourning for Jerusalem”? Reb Eliezer reluctantly revealed his Torah wisdom and was allowed to go free.
We have trouble mourning for Jerusalem because we don’t really have a concept of what we are missing. It has been a very long time and our collective memory is short. Our lack of appreciation for Jerusalem prevents us from yearning for it’s rebuilding and it is the attitude that led us to lose Jerusalem to begin with.
There were two Daily sacrifices in the Beis Hamikdosh. The Afternoon Tamid would atone for all sins done during the day and the Morning Tamid would atone for all sins that occurred overnight. One would thing that we were immune to punishment. How then could the Jewish people ever aggregate enough sins to deserve the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh and exile? The Leshem explains that we were exiled for only one sin: our reliance on the Tamid. Rather than use the Beis Hamikdosh as a tool for coming closer to G-d, we relied on our Korban Credits and continued to follow a path that led away from G-d.
A beggar in Jerusalem once asked me about the shuls in America. He wanted to know when we open our doors, what kind of seats we have, whether we have a mikva, and whether we serve coffee. Basically, he wanted to come to America and live in a shul. Shuls are a great place to sleep, chap a shmooze, and get kosher food, but when we think of shul we should be focusing on our relationship with Hashem. The shul is just a miniature Beis Hamikdosh.
We need to learn more about Yerushalayim and more about the Beis Hamikdosh so that, like Reb Eliezer, we can be Chashuv enough to mourn.

Posted on 07/02 at 08:33 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lessons of 17 Tammuz

The only amendment to Shemona Esrei on the 17th of Tammuz is during Mincha. The reason given is because the Tefila of Aneinu was composed by Ellijah the prophet during the time of the Mincha. The scripture tells us that Eliyahu was only answered at Mincha.

The commentaries explain that unlike Shacharis and Maariv, Mincha necessarily comes in the middle of our daily routine. The uniqueness of Mincha is the distraction and turmoil that often accompanies it. Shacharis is said before we begin our day and Maariv can be said when we are finished with our day. Davening Mincha is like opening a window for G-d to peek into our lives.

The seventeenth of Tammuz is the anniversary of the smashing of the Luchos and the burning of the Torah by Apostumous. There is obviously a connection between the two. Also on this day, at various times in our history, the walls of Jerusalem were breached, the daily sacrifice was discontinued and an idol was erected in the holy of holies.

Aside from the common denominator that we will discuss, it is important to remember Hashem’s promise to spread the punishment for the golden calf over many years. Any tragedy is connected to the golden calf.

The Medrash tells us that when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai the tablets suddenly became heavy. The holy letters, written by G-d, could not bear to enter the presence of idol worshippers. In Moshe’s greatest and most dramatic lesson to the Jewish people, he showed that holiness couldn’t exist in a place where it is unwelcome.

The Torah ends with the death of Moshe and an epitaph to his life. The very last three words of the Torah, L’eienei Kol Yisroel, reference Moshe’s bold and dramatic demonstration that Torah cannot coexist with idol worship.

Eliyahu didn’t tell the people to serve Hashem. He told the people to make up their minds: If you are for Hashem – stay with Hashem; but if you are for the Baal – stay with the Baal.

The lesson of Moshe, Eliyahu, and Mincha are all the same: Even in the most hectic times of our day and on the craziest days of our lives, we need to be sure that Hashem is welcome.

Rabbi Hirsch points out that the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh was no surprise. The only surprise was that Hashem stopped protecting and dwelling in the Beis Hamikdosh. The burning of the Torah, the breaking of the Luchos, the desecration of the Holy of Holies, the discontinuation of the Tamid and the breaching of the wall were all a result of our actions that mage the Shechina unwelcome in our midst.

May we merit to make Hashem feel welcome in our homes, our lives and our lands. May this Tisha B’av be a day of holiness and joy in the cities of Yehuda and the courtyards of Yerushalayim.

Posted on 06/30 at 03:11 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Spiritual Congestion

Traffic in Boro Park is one of the hardest things to explain. How can anybody rest on  Shabbos, speak with Hashem three times a day, give tzedaka and double park?

I was asking myself that question just before I ducked into Munkacz on Sixteenth Avenue last Wednesday. I had just spent twenty minutes attempting to single park a twelve seater van that wasn’t mine. I was very frustrated with Boro Park and very anxious to respond to the call of nature.

I was surprised to find that there was traffic inside Munkacz too. A bottleneck had formed at the stairwell and movement had come to a standstill. Unlike the traffic outside, I noticed that nobody was yelling, pushing, or even talking loudly on their cell phones. At the front of the line was a distraught man pouring out his heart to the Munkaczer Rebbe. The Rebbe was standing riveted to his spot and completely oblivious to the long and patient line of people waiting to go downstairs. This was a type of Boro Park traffic that I could appreciate.

Later on, I took my students to see the famous Shomer Shabbos shul. One minyan subtly pushed the other out as thousands of people rushed in to daven and get back to work. This happens for twenty-two hours a day. The carefully choreographed tzedaka collectors didn’t miss a beat. More Boro Park traffic.

We visited Hatzala where our gracious guide screeched into the tightest parking spot imaginable. His deluxe station wagon was decked out with a cherry light, a siren, and four car seats.

We spent some time at Hatzala, trying out expensive equipment, asking questions, and hearing about September 11th. We met veteran Hatzala members an even joined the Vizhnitzer Cheder in the dispatch room for a bilingual demonstration. The kids loved every minute, but my favorite part was the way the volunteers described themselves:

 “We may be machers, yentas, kuchleffels, busybodies and nudnicks – but we do save 10,000 lives a year”.

Out-of-towners love to express disbelief that Boro Park continues to exist. We claim that they are losing their youth, lost their integrity, and won’t show up when Moshiach comes. The Leshem writes that we need to look at the world as Hashem does: with confidence in everyone and an appreciation of the special qualities that distinguish every person and every community.

(written on my Blackberry while driving down New Utrecht) .

Posted on 06/10 at 04:42 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, May 26, 2010


One hundred years ago, things didn’t look too good for Orthodox Jews on these shores. When my great-grandfather disembarked in Charleston the community was already challenged by assimilation and ignorance. Thankfully there were enough stubborn and learned people to keep the flames of Torah burning. My Elter-Zaidy tried to become an American citizen but the local officials told him that he would have to become a Mason first. And so, my Great Grandfather became a US Citizen and a Member of the Masonic Fraternity. He also remained a religious Jew.

Some time later, when Zaidy had earned enough money to bring the rest of my family over, he returned to Charleston to greet his family. Upon arrival, he was told that the ship was quarantined at Sullivan’s Island. Zaidy quickly found some Kosher food and made arrangements to have them delivered to his wife and children on board the ship. Unfortunately, the stone-faced officials were adamant in their refusal to allow strange parcels on board. They didn’t care about Kosher food. Zaidy was about to give up when he noticed an official wearing a Masonic ring. Zaidy greeted the man with a secret handshake and everything changed. The food was delivered, my Grandmother ate her first good meal in weeks, and the rest is history.

I visited Charleston this past Shabbos. As I shared the story with the congregation I could not mask the trace of pride in voice. My Great-Grandfather fought to get his family Kosher food in Charleston, and there I was, one century later, still keeping Torah and Mitzvos in a way that would make him proud.

The Charleston community has a lot to be proud of too. They are the oldest uninterrupted Ashkenazi kehilla in North America. They have faithfully survived breakaways and mergers and a couple of military attacks. In fact, they are proud to have provided an uninterrupted supply of Kosher meat and Matza to Confederate soldiers during the Civil war.

It is refreshing to remember that there were some oases of kashrus in the treife medina. Where others thought that the Torah couldn’t apply, they applied it, and lived to pray another day.

In preparation for my trip to Charleston I made it my business to learn the secret Masonic handshake. It was unnecessary. The Charleston community was very warm and hospitable and the grits were great.

As I walked out of shul Shabbos morning a middle-aged gentleman with a conspiratorial voice and a triangular ring approached me with an offer:

“Rabbi”, he said, “I am a third generation Mason. If you ever want to return to the fold, I can get you in”.

Posted on 05/26 at 05:12 AM • Permalink
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Monday, May 17, 2010

Our Google Image At Risk

It was the year that the cholent blew up. The yeshiva cholent pot was a little bit too full. The oil boiled over and dripped into the flame, causing an explosion on Friday night. The fire marshals came and didn’t like what they saw. They closed down the Yeshiva for a few months and closed down the kitchen for even longer. The Yeshiva was going to close it’s doors.

There was one guy, let’s call him Chaim, who stepped up to the plate and took over the running of the yeshiva. The elderly Roshei Yeshiva were great with learning, but not as involved in keeping the kitchen up to code. Chaim was already working for yeshiva in some capacity, but now he took full charge of the office, the kitchen and the entire building. He managed the meager finances of the Yeshiva and worked with donors to rehabilitate the building and make it legally habitable for Yeshiva Bochurim. Before we knew it , the building was safe once again, the kitchen was updated and the cholent was back on the flame. The yeshiva lived to learn another day.

Maybe I was naive, or maybe I was just out of the loop, but I just found out (years later) that Chaim was never paid. He had other jobs, and he was supporting his family responsibly, but my yeshiva had not paid him. If they had money they would have hired an administrator and the cholent might not have blown up to begin with.

The tragedy of this story is that a Google search on my Yeshiva will tell you about the condemned building, the oblivious Roshei Yeshiva, and the boys who were forced to go home. No search engine will tell you the story of Chaim, the altruistic hero who saved the Yeshiva.

More tragically, no Google search will tell you what Chaim saw in the yeshiva that made him work pro bono to rehabilitate it. You won’t find anything about the depth and diligence of the learning, the dedication and devotion of the teachers, or the decent businessmen and dayanim that the yeshiva produced.

Chaim is a real Chareidi, the type that exist off line and in real life: a regular guy, smiling, shmoozy, making a living and learning every day. Nobody asks him Halachic questions or stands up when he walks into the room. He helped the yeshiva because he loves Torah and he saw Torah suffering.

Today, every individual and group has a digital persona. Our snapshot for the world is the information that appears on the first page of a Google search. Some people manipulate their digital persona to misrepresent themselves; others are well represented online. Some innocent people let their digital persona take on a nasty life of it’s own while they don’t get within four amos of a computer screen.

Search engines can’t access a Rosh yeshiva’s Shiur Klali or his weekly Mussar Shmooze. They can’t be at a Rosh Yeshiva’s Shabbos Table or experience his Ne’ilah. They form an inaccurate digital perception of a Rosh Yeshiva based on a couple of second-hand statements quoted in the New York Times and on random weblogs.

I’m not suggesting that every Yeshiva Bochur to start a blog; I’m suggesting that every Yeshiva Google their staff and make sure that they are properly represented.

This Friday, a handwritten sign quoting Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel Shlita went up in the Mir Yeshiva. He urged his students not to attend protests. The sign was photographed, quoted and analyzed by scores of blog readers. The world out there is hungry for information and relying on inference and guesswork to get it.

What the world out there does not know (and cannot know) is that Reb Nosson Tzvi Finkel has always been against students attending protests. I am aware of two instances in which Reb Nosson Tzvi gave his eleventh hour endorsement to rallies and, even then, encouraged students to go for no more than ten minutes. They were both peaceful rallies that obtained government permits. There is no room for conjecture and hearsay when it comes to Reb Nosson Tzvi and protests.

The problem is that the Mir Yeshiva doesn’t realize how many people are downloading that six word handwritten sign in the hallway. They don’t realize how many people are sincerely trying to figure out what Reb Nosson Tzvi really thinks about protests in Meah Shearim. If the yeshiva were thinking in terms of digital impact, they would have made the sign clearer. Better yet, the sign would have quoted the Rosh Yeshiva’s own words and been posted in an Internet press release. Why stay below the radar of the search engines and leave everyone assuming the worst?

It makes me think of the time I rudely interrupted a conversation in Jerusalem’s Old City. Three English tourists directly ahead of me were engrossed in an obscenely uninformed discussion about my style of dress. One of them asked a question and I, in frustration, jumped in and offered an unsolicited but accurate answer. They lectured me on my rudeness.

It was OK for them to walk in front of me and spew nonsense about my lifestyle, but it was inconceivably rude of me to insert myself (and some truth) into their conversation!

The point is that we would all be better off if people went straight to the source for information. When we, as Orthodox Jews, are an elusive source of information we are not doing ourselves any favors.

(And by the way, I’ve been informed that the alumni are getting together to buy a present for “Chaim”. If you contact me I can forward you the information – you won’t find it online)

Posted on 05/17 at 03:42 AM • Permalink
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Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Making of a Gadol

I am very proud of my family. I had this question about worms in fish and my siblings responded with reams of relevant Torah knowledge. It is always refreshing to argue with well-informed individuals.

I’ve also been re-reading “All for the Boss” by Ruchama Shain. I first read All For The Boss when I was ten years old and over the past twenty years I have been privileged to come in contact with almost every family chronicled in the book.

One of the most annoying parts of Rabbi Herman’s biography is that he is unemulateable. His actions worked for his time, but anybody who tries to copy him is crazy. Try going down to Coney Island with Sandwich boards and you’ll see what I mean. As a matter of fact, if I would ship a thirteen-year-old child to New Haven without parental consent or barge into the mayor’s office (as he did), I would probably end up in court.

I believe that the secret of R’ Yaacov Yosef’s piety and success as it could be applied to our generation is Limud Torah.

Rabbi Herman gave seven or eight Torah classes a day. He never stopped learning, even as he maintained a business and opened his home to the masses. His Torah learning was the invisible tool that made him popular with everyone from the greatest of the European sages to most coarse and unholy people in New York. When Rabbi Herman moved to Yerushalayim he was immediately accepted as a popular lecturer for the erudite community there.

More importantly, Rabbi Herman’s Torah kept him grounded. His decisions were Torah decisions, his battles were battles for Torah, and his words of rebuke were sincere. There was no fluff or self-interest in the Herman household.

When we see Torah leaders, they are often busy and important people with lines of people waiting to see them. Nobody is born that way. We need to see great people against the backdrop of the Torah they have learned.

Another great insight in All for the Boss is the frank biography of our leaders. Many of the stories about Cod Liver Oil and Podlikes are silly, but they give us a taste of the Way it Was. We can understand Torah leaders better if we have an idea of what they have experienced and accomplished in their lives.

I remember when I left Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim to avoid getting drafted into the IDF. I was crestfallen because I was learning well and didn’t want to go back to America.

I went to see Reb Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, Shlita. The Rosh Yeshiva listened to my story, gave me some advice, gave me a bracha and sent me on my way. I knew I would take his advice, but there was no comfort in it because I felt like there was simply no way for him to identify with how it felt for me to terminate my studies in Mir and return to the United States.

On my way downstairs, I noticed the “Shain” apartment and decided to pay Rebetzin Shain a surprise visit. I had always wanted to meet her and I was sure that she would enjoy receiving regards from my parents. Besides, I needed someone to talk to. She welcomed me into her house and I explained my situation. Her reaction shocked me.

“You know”, she said, “My brother-in-law Chaim (aka Reb Sheinberg) left Mir (in Poland) because the Polish army was about to draft him. He was an American, but he had had been born in Poland. They told him that he could either return to the USA immediately or remain in Poland, away from his family, until he completed his army duty”.

It turned out that Reb Sheinberg had known what I was talking about all along. He hadn’t spoken more than ten words to me, and he certainly hadn’t shared any of his feelings, but he had known exactly what was going on in my mind.

(The Israeli army eventually waived my draft for several months after receiving documentation that my learning would be negatively impacted. Needless to say, that would not have happened in the Polish Armed Forces).

I always tell my students that our goal is not to see one of thirty-six hidden tzadikim, but to be one of the thirty-six hidden tzadikim. We are the product of the Torah that we have learned and the experiences that Hashem sends our way. By listening and growing, we can become shining lights in a dark and confusing world.

Posted on 05/13 at 05:16 AM • Permalink
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Friday, April 30, 2010


As a male, I have trouble asking for directions. Yesterday, I got lost at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond. Wandering on my own, I followed a winding darkened path over a creaky bridge and into complete and total darkness. The only way out was a small crawlspace covered in barbed wire.  A dog began to bark urgently and I tried to back out and retrace my steps. That was when I saw the SS guard. He was crouching in the shadows, a full size wax image, with his rifle pointed directly at me. There was no sound but the rustling of the trees. The dog started barking again.

I was terrified. There was a depth of terror and lonesomeness that I never imagined existed. At that moment I realized how little I understood of the fear and helplessness that people lived through during those terrible years.

I forced myself to continue forward and found myself in a partisan forest encampment. I was alone and unable to retrace my steps so I sat down and waited for the rest of my group to catch up.

It occurred to me that it wasn’t only Holocaust survivors who I couldn’t relate to. Many arguments and bitter fights are the result of our inability to feel each other’s emotions.

Rabi Akiva’s students perished because they didn’t respect each other. Each person has his or her own needs and perspectives. The reality is that we will never put on our adversaries glasses or walk in their shoes. The best we can do is to respect their right to feel strongly.

Pirkei Avos writes that a man who reaches one hundred is “no longer part of this world”. A man who has lived for a century has seen and lived through experiences that we will never understand. He is a part of a different world. My artificially staged brush with the holocaust taught me just how different anither man’s world can be.

I recently visited Sam Althaus, a holocaust survivor, shortly before he passed away. I expressed an interest in his life and his family was kind enough to mail me an autographed copy of his memoirs.

The stories of his youth were interesting and terrifying but what struck me most were his memories on reaching the United States. He didn’t spend time getting angry with President Roosevelt. He was just happy to be in a country that would let him live and prosper as a Jew.

Mr. Althaus describes his arrival at the Boston docks:

“I must have had a worried, sad look on my face, because the Customs agent, who knew we had been concentration camp prisoners, took one look at me and called an interpreter.

“I was a stranger in a strange land but the first words I heard in America made me feel wonderful ... and welcome.

“This is America.” he said. “You don’t have to worry now because you are among friends.”

“Those words will stay with me until my dying day.”

The Docents at the Virginia Holocaust Museum made feeble and disturbing attempts to compare the holocaust to the strict immigration laws in Arizona. There is, of course, no parallel. We live in a fair and just country. Or, as Sam concludes his memoirs “with all of our problems, we have the greatest country in the world”.

There is no land I love more than Eretz Yisroel and there is no doubt that I would prefer to live under an administration that is more supportive of Israel. Still, I will never forward the daily complaints and incriminations of the government that fill my in-box. I am a proud American and even my limited and cushioned understanding of history makes me grateful and appreciative of the land in which I live.

We need to go beyond our short-term personal feelings. We need to acknowledge the reality of history and the valuable perspective of those who survived it. 

In our personal lives we need to respect and acknowledge every human being’s right to have emotions that run as deep as our own. May Hashem give us the opportunity to see the impact of our actions through the eyes of our friends.

Posted on 04/30 at 06:39 AM • Permalink
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Friday, April 02, 2010

The Hardest Chometz to Remove (and What to do When it is Gone)

1986 was the year of the Great Matza Shortage (I think). Two key Matza bakeries burned down and people had to scramble to get three large, round, hand-baked Matzos for each Seder. I remember my father driving two hours to Toronto on Erev Pesach just to get Matzos, because all of ours were broken.

A few months earlier, in that same year, an Israeli family came to the United States to find medical help for their young daughter. One man acted as their guide and translator. After doing some research, he was able to set up a meeting between the family and a well know neurological surgeon. The surgeon diagnosed the girl and explained that he would need to perform a delicate surgery to save her life. The translator thanked the surgeon but discreetly informed him that the family had no money and no insurance in the United States. Would he be willing to perform the surgery without being paid?

The doctor, who clearly wasn’t Jewish, thought for a moment before giving his answer: He would be willing to perform the surgery to save the girls life, but he would very much appreciate if someone could get him a few of those big, round, flat, crackers that the Jews eat. He had them once but was unable to find them in regular supermarkets.

The translator agreed eagerly and promised to bring the crackers as soon as they came into season.

The Doctor performed the surgery and the girl’s life was saved.

Some months later, on Erev Pesach, the translator suddenly remembered his promise to the generous doctor. He looked around for Matzos but couldn’t find any. Nobody was willing to relinquish their three or six whole matzos for a doctor who happened to like large crackers.

Finally the translator dipped into his own minimal supply of Matzos and brought them to the hungry doctor.

A Torah scholar could probably write a responsa on the allocation of matzos to Surgeon vs. Seder, but the truth was that there was no question. This surgeon had saved the girl’s life. She would have died. How could we not give him the Matza?

Despite the beauty of the story, the fact remains that there is much more to a Matza than a large, round, cracker. Matzos are the symbol of our freedom and they represent the beginning of who we are as Jews. The fact that we are Alive is worthy of celebrating, but it does not come close to the true meaning and significance of Matza.

The Sefer Hachinuch explains that on the first day of Pesach we concentrate solely on our freedom. We thank Hashem that we are alive and no longer enslaved in Egypt. But that is only for one day. By the time the second day of Pesach comes we need to really thinking about the Matza. There is more to Matza than Life and Freedom. What is the point of being alive and free if we do not use that life and freedom to come closer to Hashem?

On the second day of Pesach we dedicate ourselves to the re-acceptance of The Torah. We count the Sefiras Ha’omer for forty-nine days and celebrate our true raison d’etre on Shavuos.

The Talmud tells us that when Rav Aleksandri would complete his Shemona Esrei, before taking three steps back, he would say a short prayer:

“Master of the world, our desire is to fulfill your desire. The only thing standing in our way is some sourdough and the [Roman] government”

What is this Sourdough, this Chometz that obstructs us from doing Mitzvos?

The Chassidic Sefarim explain that the Chometz refers to haughtiness and pride. When we are puffed up and full of hot air, they are Chometzdik. Our ego gets in the way of their service to Hasehm.

The Mussar greats explained that Chometz is the result of laziness and a lackadaisical attitude toward life. When we leave the dough for too long it becomes Chometz; and when we are spiritually lethargic we have a hard time doing the will of Hashem.

The Nesivos Shalom understands Chometz as a simple chemical process of fermentation. Unfortunately some of us are a little rotten inside. Everything that we do or say is laced with a cynicism or anger. This too stands between us and perfection.

It is clear from Reb Aleksandri’s prayer that there is more to Chometz than breadcrumbs. As we remove the Chometz from our houses and our diets, we need to remove the chometz from our Neshamos as well. In fact, the Chometz inside of us is the hardest to remove: we can’t vacuum it, blowtorch it, bleach it, or sell it. We need to work on ourselves to excise the bad character traits that become a part of our lives.

The Matza is more than the bread of our freedom. It is the beginning of our existence as Jews. We spent the first day of Pesach celebrating our newfound alacrity, humility, and purity. Now we need to begin our forty-nine day trek toward Kabolas Hatorah. We need to grow step by step by step and use the platform of our Chometz-free personalities to become the very best people Hashem intended us to be.

Posted on 04/02 at 05:45 PM • Permalink
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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making Kadesh Last

“The conquest will not be through strength or power; it will be with my spirit”. – G-d (to Zecharia in 4:6)

The land of Israel was blessed with two types of holiness.

When Zecharia’s generation regained Israel after the Babylonian exile, the conquest was from the outside in. We gained (partial) control militarily and strategically in order to built a second sanctuary for Hashem.

The future conquest of Jerusalem will be from the inside out. We will conquer Jerusalem with a holiness that will then overflow to encompass the entire land of Israel.

What will be the source of this holiness?

The answer lies in the table of contents that we sing at the Seder. According to the Kabbalists, we name each step of the seder because it represents a spiritual undercurrent. The seder is not just a mimicry of the Greek symposium; it is a yearly process of freedom, liberation and closeness to G-d.

We begin the Seder with Kadesh Urchatz: we sanctify ourselves and wash our hands. Common sense would dictate that we wash our hands as a first step in sanctification, but the Hagada tells us otherwise.We sanctify first and wash our hands second.

The Shpoiler Zaide (of Dancing Bear fame) explains that it is not we who are sanctifying ourselves at the seder, but G-d who is sanctifying us. Every Pesach (and, on smaller scale, every shabbos) we receive a gift of free sanctification from Hashem. Sometimes that holiness is allowed dissipate and get lost, but if we are alert we can ride that holiness and follow it with our own purification, making it last forever.

The Bais Yisroel of Gur had a unique perspective on the “Baal Teshuva movement”. He used to tell his Chassidim that a spirit of Teshuva had descended upom the entire world, unfortunately it was only the irreligious who took advantage and became inspired. His point was that every person at every stage in life is given freebies from G-d. We can ignore them and let them fade away, but if we are smart we will grab them.

Zecharia taught us that one jump start of Kedusha can fuel the conquest of the entire land of Israel. One spark, properly cultivated, can bring redemption to the entire world.

Post Script:

This is the third essay in a trilogy on holiness. The Targum on Isaiah, quoted in our daily Tefilla, writes that the three-fold Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, refers to three types of Holiness. There is Holiness in Heaven, Holiness on Earth, and Holiness that Lasts Forever.

Uploads on the Hagada (prepared for my students).

Hilchos Haseder (43 pages)

Hagada Companion (58 pages)

More posts on Pesach:

The Double Dip

The Call of the Turtledove

Bongo Without a Cause (on Unity)

Bottle It

Chag Kasher Vesame’ach!

Posted on 03/24 at 05:40 PM • Permalink
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Friday, March 19, 2010

More on Kedusha

“You are Holy, and Your name is Holy, and Holy ones will praise you daily”

Besides for being a popular Israeli song, these words are part of the Shemona Esrei that we recite three times each day.

The strange thing is that we only mention the idea of “praising G-d Daily” when it comes to holiness. We don’t praise G-d for daily wisdom, daily health, or daily forgiveness. What is the connection between Holiness and the fact that Holy beings offer their praise daily?

It seems to me that Holiness is intrinsically connected to consistency. Only by doing something regularly can we be considered holy.

Consistently is not the same as Constantly. Rashi writes clearly that the word Tamid (usually translated as always) means regular. The Menorah was not always lit, but it was lit every day. The sacrifices were not constantly being brought, but the Korban Tamid was brought every day.

The component that separates the Men from the Boys, the Women from the Girls, and the Holy from the Unholy, is consistency. It is easy to quit smoking twelve times. Truly holy people are able (if they so desire) to quit smoking once and stick to it.

I once asked Reb Nota Greenblatt why he didn’t ask potential converts if they would be willing to sacrifice their lives for Judaism. After all, we are supposed to examine converts on the easiest and the hardest Mitzvos. Kiddush Hashem, it would seem, is the most difficult of Mitzvos. Rabbi Greenblatt explained to me that dying for G-d is an easy mitzvah. It is living in a G-dly way that is a challenge. He preferred to verify that potential Jews would live as Jews and was willing to assume that, given their sincerity, they would be willing to die as Jews as well.

I once shared this thought on Kedusha with Rabbi Mordechai Dolinsky of Jerusalem. He agreed with me wholeheartedly and pulled a Mesillas Yesharim out of his briefcase. He turned to the chapter on holiness and showed me that he had underlined each of the many times that theRamchal mentions Consistency and regularity in conjunction with Holiness.

Inspired people do something once; Holy people do it again and again and again.

I recently received a phone call from a relative of someone who had passed away here in Virginia. “I’ve been davening for that man”, the relative said, “for forty-two years”. I hope that one day I can say that I have done something consistently for forty-two years.

This is the second of my thoughts during Kedusha. The first is here.

Posted on 03/19 at 06:05 PM • Permalink
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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Some Thoughts During Kedusha

This morning, as my cousin led the congregation in Kedusha, I couldn’t help but think of our great-grandfather Yehoshua Binyamin Yudin, Zichrono l’vracha.

My great-grandfather passed away while his children were still very young. Two years later, exactly eighty years ago today, my widowed great-grandmother returned to the cemetery to bury her son Avigdor.

I am sure that it was a very dark and bleak day for my great-grandmother.  Surrounded as they were by assimilation, poverty, and sorrow, there was no way that anyone could have foreseen the beautiful generations of pious Jews that would come forth from the surviving children.

At lunch, I spoke in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Michael and Isaac (“Mike & Ike”) Brooke, fourth generation Norfolkians. I shared with them the sentiment of most Bar Mitzvah boys who believe that life will be an upwardly mobile adventure toward uninterrupted success and holiness.

I told them that, unfortunately, this simply will not be the case. In Ezekiel’s vision, when he saw the Merkava, he beheld that the angels were dashing back and forth. Rashi explains that the angels run eagerly toward G-d’s presence, only to be thrown back because the holiness is too awesome for them to handle. The angels approach G-d again and again but each time they recoil in awe.

The Reishis Chochma explains that this is the reason behind the custom that we have to rise on our toes as we say “Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh”. We are mimicking the angels who repeatedly approach and recede from Hashem’s glory as they cry out “ Kadosh”.

How do the angels do it? How can they deal with the constant cycle of growths and setbacks without becoming weary and giving up?

I believe that the answer to this question also lies in Kedusha. The prophet Isaiah observed that before approaching G-d, the angels call out to one another. They cooperate and work together to praise G-d. Rashi explains that if they angels were not unified, they would not be able to rise toward G-d’s presence for even a fleeting moment.

Even an angel experiences setbacks, and even an angel cannot rise up from those setbacks on his own. Humans experience growths and setbacks, but by working together we can rise up to grow another day.

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got was before I left home for Yeshiva. I was leaving Australia for the United States and I was prepared for a new, perfect life in which I would never do anything wrong. My rebbe at the time (R’ Kaddish Rubinfeld) reminded me of one inevitable fact: my Yetzer Hora would be joining me on the trip to America. He recommended that I find myself some good friends, because who we are is largely a result of the friends that we have and the people that surround us.

I reminded the Brooke Brothers that, while being a twin is challenging, they had the constant advantage of a permanent good friend. By working together they would be able to constantly grow to overcome challenges and to rise higher and higher in holiness.

Getting back to my great-grandmother, Henna Rivka Yudin, I wish I could go back in time to comfort her and her children as they sat shiva for their son and siblings. I wish I could show them the dozens of frum families that they would produce (three branches of whom live right here in Norfolk!) and the Torah that would be studied and taught by their descendants. The Yudin clan experienced an irrevocably tragic setback with the death of my great-uncle, but that shouldn’t (and didn’t) stop them from continuing to raise generations of Jews that would cherish, preserve, and respect the Torah that they sacrificed so much to learn and keep.

When Reb Michoel Ber Weissmandel emerged from the holocaust, he had lost his wife and five children. He remarried, and he and his wife Leah bore five more children. They named each of their American-born sons after one of the sons who had perished in the war. At the Bris of the fifth (or actually tenth) child Rabbi Weissmandel tearfully referenced the first words of Kedusha: Nekadeish es Shimcha ba’olam… We will sanctify G-d’s name in this world, just as His name is being sanctified in the upper worlds.

By saying and spreading Kedusha here on earth, we have the ability to emulate, generate and recreate the holiness cherished and desired by those who are in heaven.

We need to work together to emulate the angels as they eagerly rise up again and again striving toward higher and higher goals. We may experience setbacks now, but if we hold out to the end we will witness nachas, fulfillment, and a sense of holiness that never fades away.

Posted on 03/14 at 08:20 AM • Permalink
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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What is a Shul?

"Any location that is populated by ten Jews is obligated to appropriate a house where they can congregate for prayer whenever it is time to pray. This place is called a Beis Hakneses.” (Rambam, Mishna Torah, Laws of Prayer, Chapter 12)

Residents may force each other to build a shul and (according to the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) fine them if they do not help make the Minyan.

The main criteria for Beis Hakneses is community involvement.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Each Jew needed to donate at least half a Shekel to the building of the Mishkan, and these half-shekels were melted down to create the Adanim – the Base of the Mishkan. The strength of the Beis hamikdash came from it’s status as Tel Piyos – The Mountain toward which everyone prayed, and the daily Tamid needed to be financed by the Jewish people as a group. If a city was late in submitting it’s share of the Machazis Hashekel, the Bais Hamikdosh would put out money. The show could not go on without them.

To be sure many special men (and women) have single-handedly built shuls. Some of the most beautiful minyanim I have attended have been in private homes. Many Tzadikim daven at minyanim in their homes and today’s Kiruv movement is all about one community building a shul for another. But those shuls need to be sure that they have the cooperation and “$18” support of all of their congregants too – otherwise they are just a Minyan and not a “Beis Haknesses”. (Mishna Berura in OC 687)

Reb Yehuda Hanasi, author of the Mishna, had a yeshiva with hundreds of students. When Purim came he would close his Yeshiva and direct all of his students to the local shul where they could hear the Megilla. In Geonic times when many people would gather a Minyan in their homes on Purim and read the Megila for their friends and family, the Hagahos Ashri cited Rebi’s practice: If Reb Yehuda Hanasi left his Yeshiva to go to shul, we should certainly leave the coziness of our homes to hear the Megila in a Beis Hakneses.

I love walking into Shuls that were built during the Depression. Where did they find the money to build those buildings? And what about the immigrants from Europe after World War II - How did they manage to put up those shuls that we pass every day? To paraphrase Rabbi Berel Wein, they understood that they needed a Beis Haknesses and not a Base-ment.

“Any location that is populated by ten Jews is obligated to prepare a house where they can congregate for prayer whenever it is time to pray. This place is called a Beis Hakneses.”

(Note: I have been to several shuls lately. They were all great. With the exception of one gathering of snowed-in tzadikim on a Friday night , they were all bona fide Batei Knesios, Kein Yirbu)

More on Teruma

Posted on 02/17 at 09:11 PM • Permalink
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Meet Rabbi Sender Haber

Rabbi Sender Haber is the Rabbi of the B'nai Israel Congregation in Norfolk, VA. He is well known throughout Hampton Roads, having arrived over twelve years ago as one of the original four members of the Norfolk Area Community Kollel. In that capacity, Rabbi Haber was involved in community wide programming, teaching, and outreach. He has inspired many Jews to expand their Jewish identity and increase their love of Torah and commitment to its observance. Everyone who knows Rabbi Haber is touched by his breadth of Torah knowledge and his ability to convey the wisdom of the ages in such a way as to make those esoteric writings accessible to persons of all levels of experience and a variety of backgrounds.

Rabbi Haber has served in a number of capacities during his years in Norfolk. Since 2003 Rabbi Haber has been a teacher of Jewish Studies at Toras Chaim Day School in Portsmouth, teaching boys and girls of all ages, with a focus on Gemara, Halacha, and Chumash. He has also taught at Yeshivas Aish Kodesh and Bina High School in Norfolk, and served as Assistant Rabbi of B’nai Israel for 6 years. He also serves as the Rabbi of the “Lost Tribe,” Tidewater’s Jewish Motorcycle group! While handling all of these responsibilities, he has continued to participate in numerous Chavrusos (one-on-one learning partnerships) covering a wide range of topics and writings.

Rabbi Haber and his wife Chamie have been married for thirteen years. They have four children, Minna (9), Moshe (6), Ely (4), and Akiva Meir, born in August of 2012. They both come from rabbinic families steeped in Torah, Kiruv and Chesed. Rabbi Haber received his Rabbinic Ordination (Yoreh Yoreh) from Rabbi Sender Rosenbloom and Rabbi Mordechai Freidlander of the Jerusalem Beth Din. He was awarded a Teaching Certificate by Torah Umesorah Association for Jewish Day Schools in 2004 and again in 2009. In addition, Rabbi Haber has spent over a decade studying Talmud, Jewish Law, and ethics in some of the world’s most prestigious Yeshivos including Beth Medrash Gavoha in Lakewood, NJ and Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Haber can be contacted through the Synagogue office at 757-627-7358, or through e-mail at