In 2008, Robert Weinger was divorced, middle-aged and had ended a 23-year career as an executive in the beverage industry, when he took a trip to Israel with his synagogue that would change his life.
His tour group was standing atop Mount Bental, a dormant volcano in the Golan Heights, when a fellow tourist asked Weinger to hold the shofar he had recently purchased while he used the restroom. Weinger casually placed the horn to his lips, and to his great surprise, Israel’s ceremonial flag-raising tune came out. Around the same time, a small earthquake rattled northern Israel.
Weinger would later see it as a sign from above: “With the voice of God, the earth shall quake,” he said, paraphrasing Psalm 29 in the Hebrew Bible.
Today at 65 he is a West Bank settler and shofar aficionado, both a peddler and a player of the horn Jews sound during Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur. Weinger’s path from Northern California beverage executive to Israeli shofar maestro is a long and meandering one. It is a spiritual journey that took him from one of the highest points in California, on Mount Diablo, to the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, he likes to remark.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Weinger was a bulldog sales and marketing chief, working at companies that produced Gatorade and Monster Energy. When a business disagreement left him unemployed, he began to re-evaluate his life. A “burning bush” style encounter in the hills outside San Francisco led him to believe that he can speak directly to God. Weinger later found himself busking for shekels with his shofar on the streets of Jerusalem. Now living in an aluminum shack in the desert near the Dead Sea, he said he has been “humbled” by God. Yet his is a spirituality infused by business acumen. He is marketing the shofar as a divine tool, using his unlikely personal story as advertising copy to “call the children of Israel home.”
Seven years after that first earth-shattering blast, he sold his 3,200-square-foot ranch house in affluent Diablo, California, packed up his belongings and moved into a trailer in a settler outpost near the Dead Sea. He decided to devote his life to the shofar, which he believes is a direct conduit to God.
Weinger is a master shofar sounder, with a distinctive style of blowing two 3.9-foot-long shofars at once. (The idea came to him at midnight on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, when, he says, he heard the voice of God say “shtayim,” or “two” in Hebrew.) His company, Shofar So Great — which is still based in the United States while Weinger is in the process of becoming an Israeli citizen — sells Israeli-made shofars to Christians and Jews around the world. The goal is to outfit the “army of the Lord with the clarion sound of heaven,” according to its website.
With Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year celebration at which the shofar is sounded, fast approaching, Weinger is playing his shofar across Israel and in Jewish settlements in the West Bank. He is also doing a brisk business in shofars, selling some for as much as $3,000.
“This is my time,” he said, sitting in the shed that he calls home, where a tattered poster that reads “The Temple Mount Will Be in Our Control” hangs above the bed. “The shofar is a wakeup call. We are waking ourselves up spiritually to return to Hashem and his ways.”
Born in 1951 in Los Angeles to a stay-at-home mother and a father who worked in glass repair, Weinger was the middle child in what he calls a “first-generation post-Holocaust traditional Jewish American family.” His family was observant, and Weinger came to resent Hebrew school because it prevented him from playing sports on the Sabbath. He played the horn in middle school, but he stayed away from the shofar, which was his elder brother’s favorite instrument.
At age 23 he married his college sweetheart — they would later have a daughter together — and went on to receive a master’s degree in communications from California State University, in Sacramento. Weinger, who delights in making links between the two disparate halves of his life, believes his topic of study was preordained. The shofar’s blast is a “spiritual communication,” he said, pinching the rim of a gleaming shofar made from the horn of the greater kudu, a woodland antelope from South Africa.
Weinger’s first job was in sales at General Foods, selling the powdered drink mix Tang to grocery stores. In 1986 he began working for the Gatorade division of Quaker Oats, marketing the beverage to professional sports teams. The job came with high-end perks, like courtside seats at basketball games. Today, Weinger, still an avid sports fan, watches games using the internet connection at the Last Chance Tavern, six miles from the outpost where he lives. In the 1990s, Weinger left Gatorade and later became the vice president of sales at the Hansen Beverage Company as part of the team that helped to create Monster Energy. He declined to provide specifics about his financial status at the time, but said that “on paper” he was a millionaire.
He left Hansen Beverage Company in 2001 when he had a “falling-out” with the CEO. With ample time on his hands, he went on frequent hikes on Mount Diablo, pondering over what to do with his life. He began thinking about what kind of legacy he would leave behind, and realized that his identity was “tied up into that title under my name on my business card.”
One day, while on a hike, Weinger, who at that time was not particularly religious, said he had a “burning bush experience.” Though there was no obstacle in his path, he felt that he had a hit a physical wall, and he fell to his knees. Weinger recalled a “sense of joy and peace and exhilaration.”
“I began to sob, I began to weep,” he said. “It was in that moment that I recognized there was a presence bigger than me, a presence other than me, that God was real.”
Weinger began to experience what he calls “Godfirmations,” or affirmations from God that he was on the correct path. When pressed for an example, he mentioned attending a San Francisco Giants game with a college friend. He predicted that famous left fielder Barry Bonds would hit a home run into their section near center field. His friend balked, but lo and behold, Bonds hit the ball straight to Weinger, he said.
“I got the ball,” Weinger said. “I was the lead story on SportsCenter.”
Weinger began exploring Judaism and started to attend his synagogue regularly. One day, he overheard some fellow congregants speaking about a trip to Israel and decided to join. “I said, ‘Gee, I haven’t had a vacation in a long time.’” He had been to the Holy Land only once, after college graduation, on a trip with his ex-wife, which he funded with his bar mitzvah money. Back then, he found the country to be a “hard place, not very comfortable,” he said.
After Weinger’s experience with the shofar on Mount Bental, he went back to the Old City and purchased two shofars, one for himself and one for a friend. While his tour group went back to California, Weinger stayed for another two weeks. He began busking in Jerusalem, and found that his shofar playing seemed to touch passersby. The sound of the shofar “resonates in the blood of a Jewish person,” he said.
Apparently, it worked with Christians, too. One day, a group of Chinese Christian pilgrims heard him playing on the street and invited him to come to their conference as a shofar vendor. He scoured Old City shops and bought 35 shofars that had decent pitch. By the end of the conference he had sold them all. The pilgrims, a group that was fond of puns, deemed Weinger’s efforts “shofar so good.”
With his background in sales and marketing, Weinger thought the moniker could be a perfect company name. He emailed his idea to a friend, who emailed him back to say that the domain name shofarsogood.com was taken. Weinger was devastated. He said he spoke to God: “I am ruined.” Then, he heard a voice in his head: “‘You are better than good. You are great. You are Shofar So Great.’”
The next day, he went to an internet cafe in downtown Jerusalem and registered shofarsogreat.com, shofarsogreat.org, shofarsogreat.biz and shofarsogreat.tv. Building the website was another “burning bush” experience, he said; it allowed him to create a rudimentary design on his own: “I had the experience of seeing my hand create it.” (He also had some technical help from GoDaddy, the internet web-hosting company.)
Before he left Israel, Weinger bought 22 shofars, making sure that each one could play five harmonic notes, which has since become his standard for all Shofar So Great horns. He brought them back to California. Eventually he sold all 22 and began going back and forth to Israel.
On one trip, he visited Christian friends who were volunteering at Beit Hogla, a tiny caravan outpost a stone’s throw from the Dead Sea in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Israeli government considers the outpost unlawful construction, even as it sanctions other settlement building. The international community, meanwhile, rejects all Israeli settlements as illegal.
Beit Hogla was founded by Erna Covos, a 68-year-old Greek immigrant to Israel. She felt a spiritual attachment to nearby Jericho, a biblical era city that is now a Palestinian vacation town. After the Oslo Accords, when the Palestinian Authority gained control of Jericho, Covos tried to stay in a Byzantine-era synagogue in the city. But at the beginning of the Second Intifada, vandals set fire to the synagogue — which the Palestinian Authority later repaired — and the Israel Defense Forces booted her out, she said.
Covos established Beit Hogla in order to be close Jericho, eventually hooking up the shacks there to water and electricity and planting olive, date, fig and pomegranate trees. With a sweeping view of Mount Nebo, the Jordanian range from which Moses supposedly first spied the Promised Land, Beit Hogla is home to six families and 180 pigeons. Covos is raising the birds to be used as an animal sacrifice for a restored Jewish temple in Jerusalem, a messianic vision that she hopes will come true in her lifetime.
Beit Hogla’s proximity to Jericho also struck a chord with Weinger. In the Old Testament, the Israelite army caused the walls of Jericho to fall by blowing seven shofars. Weinger said he heard God speaking to him at Beit Hogla, telling him he had “authority” over the land and that he should use it as a base from which to “call the Children of Israel home.” (In actuality, the authority of the land is in question. According to Hagit Ofran, the director of Peace Now’s settlement watch program, Israel has deemed it state land. Palestinians, on the other hand, claim it as part of their future state.)
Hearing God’s voice, Weinger began to weep. Though he doesn’t carry a handkerchief, he said he miraculously discovered one in his pocket. Covos saw him crying, he said, and told him she wanted him to build a “shofar spiritual center” on the property. Covos remembers it differently, saying that Weinger was the one who approached her with the idea.
Weinger knew he wanted to immigrate to Israel, but he was daunted by the logistics of leaving his comfortable life in Diablo behind. Then, while in Israel, he got a call from his house sitter that a pipe broke in the bathroom and had flooded the house. When he returned to California — on the day of the Torah portion about Noah and the ark, he noted — he saw that the damage was much worse than he thought. His home was filled with mildew. Weinger decided to upgrade his home in the cleaning process, and boxed up his belongings. Suddenly it didn’t seem so difficult to relocate to Israel. The flood was another “Godfirmation,” he said.
Weinger worked on the Diablo house for a year and became close with his contractor, George Cohen, a Jew from Transylvania. Weinger invited Cohen to move to Beit Hogla with him, and now the two are roommates. They are just friends, Weinger relayed, unsolicited. “I know many, many American Jews think gay is okay,” Weinger said. “Not to me. I think it is an abomination.”
Now Weinger is in the process of becoming an Israeli citizen, he said. He goes back to the U.S. regularly, in part to visit his daughter, who lives in Georgia with her husband and their two young children.
Meanwhile, Weinger has helped to build up Beit Hogla, paying for an asphalt road on the property to make it easier for tour buses to pass through. A few times a month he goes to the synagogue in Jericho with Covos, under IDF protection, and blows his shofar there. He has never met his Palestinian neighbors in Jericho, believing they want to kill him.
When tourists come, he sets up a shofar display with the horns that he has had specially decorated by an artist in Rishon LeZion. One has a lion’s face in silver with sequin eyes. Another one is painted with an Israeli flag melding into an American flag. He said that he plans to get this one into the hands of Donald Trump, but he won’t say how. “I would tell you, but I would have to shoot you,” he joked. “There will be a divine connection.”
Weinger won’t say if he is a Trump supporter, but he believes that Trump will be elected president. “It is written in Scripture that God is going to send a yahoo who will offend a lot of people and he will be like Cyrus.” (Cyrus the Great was the founder of the First Persian Empire, which lasted from 550 BCE to 330 BCE. Weinger believes that Trump’s ascendance is predicted in Isaiah 45 and 1 Kings 19.)
In the meantime, Weinger is preparing for Rosh Hashanah by visiting shofar factories in Tel Aviv and Rishon LeZion to stock up on his inventory. He is also giving shofar lessons to tour groups that come to Israel from abroad.
“When people look to Rosh Hashanah they look to the shofar,” he said. And if Weinger has it his way, they will look to Shofar So Great, too.
Contact Naomi Zeveloff at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @naomizeveloff
Naomi Zeveloff is the Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.