Naftali Neuberger, Led Famed Baltimore Seminary

By Avi Shafran

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.
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The voice on the phone several years back could have belonged only to one of two people, and I really had no reason to imagine that Henry Kissinger would be calling me. To my greater honor, the caller was Rabbi Naftali (Herman) Neuberger, president of Baltimore’s Ner Israel Rabbinical College (where I studied in the early 1970s).

Neuberger passed away at age 87 on Friday night, October 21, shortly after lighting the Sabbath candles.

He shared more with Kissinger than a deep, resonant voice and Teutonic accent. Neuberger was brilliant, a formidable negotiator who had a deep understanding of issues and people. If there were a Jewish equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, he would have been a recipient. Several times. Come to think of it, he would have been a contender, too, for the economics prize, considering his transformation of a yeshiva with a few dozen students into a thriving institution with a student body of nearly 1,000 in its high school, post-secondary yeshiva and married-student Kollel — all situated, along with faculty and Kollel housing, on a stunning, sprawling suburban campus that resembles a small, lovely city.

To be sure, the success of Ner Israel Rabbinical College is inextricable from the scholarship and reputation of its founding Rosh Yeshiva, or dean, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman — Rabbi Neuberger’s brother-in-law — and of Ruderman’s illustrious successors, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg and Rabbi Yaakov Kulefsky, all of blessed memory. And Ner Israel continues to thrive under the tutelage of the renowned Rabbi Aharon Feldman, may he enjoy a long and fruitful tenure.

But yeshiva deans are educators and inspirers. Yeshivas need builders, too — visionaries who possess the savvy, and not infrequently chutzpah, to identify potential and know what is needed to realize it. That was Rabbi Neuberger. He took out a personal loan (resulting in nervous, sleepless nights) to begin the process that culminated in Baltimore’s famed yeshiva. And he worked tirelessly to convince others to build alongside him.

And it wasn’t only Ner Israel that he built. He built bridges among Jews and between the Jewish community and others — which helps explain the presence at his funeral of Maryland’s governor and Baltimore’s mayor, and the expressions of sorrow at his passing from across the Jewish spectrum as well from such non-Jewish luminaries as Cardinal William H. Keeler, the Catholic Church’s top liaison to the American Jewish community, and Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. Neuberger worked with and served as adviser to both Keeler and Mikulski. He was known as a political powerhouse, but this wasn’t because of money or voting blocs; everyone simply knew he was a selfless leader whose word was as good as gold.

And Neuberger, assisted by the late president of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, helped build an entire community, too, moving heaven, earth and the U.S. State Department to transplant hundreds of Iranian Jews to these shores (many of whom were enrolled tuition free at Ner Israel). He was also a founder, with Sherer, of AARTS, a network of some 50 post-secondary institutions of higher Jewish learning, and served as its president for many years.

Neuberger was renowned for “being there” for individual members of the community, doing whatever he could (usually quite a bit) to help people with marriage, employment or other issues. He sought no thanks and shunned praise. In keeping with Jewish law, his burial during the week of Sukkot precluded eulogies at the funeral; he would have been pleased.

In my current life as an Agudath Israel spokesperson and media liaison, I had the occasional honor of speaking with him (as I was during that phone call). I also remember well the gracious welcome he gave me and a New York Times reporter I had in tow one spring day in 2000, when we visited Ner Israel.

After lunch and a tour of the campus, we stood outside the main study hall, where several hundred young men in pairs were animatedly arguing points or poring over texts; my guest was clearly intrigued. Neuberger and one of his five sons, Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, a member of the yeshiva faculty, invited my guest to enter the cavernous, crowded room and engage students in conversation. “Unscripted?” I wondered to myself in public relations horror. Even the reporter hesitated, not wanting to take the students from their studies. But the senior Rabbi Neuberger insisted; he knew the yeshiva he had built.

The reporter went from one pair of students to another; at each stop, the students stood up to welcome the visitor, invited him to sit down with them and happily answered his questions. A good while later he returned, pad filled with notes, eyes with wonder at the “sincerity and idealism” he had encountered. (The resultant article confirmed the positive impact left by his conversations.) Yes, Neuberger knew his yeshiva.

The image that came to mind, though, when I heard of his passing, was one that was more than 30 years old. Walking a path near the building where he had his office, I saw his silhouette on the shade of an adjoining conference room. He was seated, swaying, likely over a volume of the Talmud, doing for whatever time he could manage at the end of a long day what he had enabled thousands of students to do for millions of hours.

May his memory be a blessing.

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