Saving Orthodox Women
Rabbi Zechariah Shimon Wallerstein z”l was the founder of Ohr Yitzchak, Ateres Naava Seminary for Girls, and Ohr Naava Women’s Institute in Brooklyn. Ohr Naava is a unique program designed for women who are interested in furthering their Torah experience. The program started as a Wednesday evening lecture in a small classroom known as a chaburah. It brought together girls who had just returned from studying in Eretz Yisrael, college students who needed a weekly moment of inspiration, and most of all, Jews of different backgrounds with one common goal: to grow and change. The Center always stood true to its mission of providing a multitude of programs, free of charge. Ohr Naava perpetuates the legacy of a man who saw the potential in each girl, treating everyone like a daughter.
Rabbi Wallerstein passed away prior to an interview for Yaakov Langer’s Living L’Chaim platform. Instead, the host spoke to a handful of individuals who were impacted by the rabbi’s painstaking work. Visit http://YouTube.com/LivingLchaim for more. Appreciation is extended to Yechiel Kupferstein of Siyum Yomi for his assistance in compiling and transcribing this interview.
The Ultimate Father-Son Relationship
Howie Hershkovich lost his father at a young age; Rabbi Wallerstein became his father figure. Their relationship did not start very smoothly. Howie had moved to a new school in sixth grade and could not wait for eighth grade, when he would finally have the rebbe who encouraged athletics, played sports, and took his students on trips – this was Rabbi Wallerstein. However, once he reached his final year of junior high, Howie failed to connect with his rebbe until a troublesome occurrence caught Rabbi Wallerstein’s attention.
Finding the door to a person’s heart was a prized talent for the veteran m’chaneich. At first, Rabbi Wallerstein opted to ignore Howie’s antics for a few days. This was the worst punishment, as it made Howie feel irrelevant. The incident gave Howie a vital wake-up call and was the kickoff to their blossoming rebbe-talmid connection. By graduation, Howie was the sole student not registered at a yeshivah high school. Notwithstanding support from his rebbe, Howie’s mother was steadfast in her decision, even turning down an offer from Rabbi Wallerstein to cover the tuition costs.
At the graduation ceremony, Howie’s mother was nearing the end of her fight with illness. Holding onto Rabbi Wallerstein’s arm, she requested, “Please take care of my son.” Mrs. Hershkovich held a firm grip on the educator’s arm until he verbally promised to keep a close watch over Howie. Mrs. Hershkovich expired during Howie’s eleventh grade year. Howie admirably held his composure until encountering his elementary school rebbe reigniting their connection. Following his high school graduation, Howie took his rebbe’s suggestion to learn in Eretz Yisrael at Neve Tzion. Rabbi Wallerstein covered the flight and tuition and stood on as a confidant and advisor, eventually encouraging his talmid to wed the girl he had been seeing and even set up Howie with a career in real estate. To solidify their connection, Howie reached out to Rabbi Wallerstein to be a partner in a building he sought to purchase. With only half of the necessary funds, Rabbi Wallerstein agreed to finance the remaining $30,000, embracing the father figure role completely.
Howie relates the powerful impact of his rebbe to the need filled when Rabbi Wallerstein assumed the father figure role, always addressing Howie’s concerns despite his demanding life in education and outreach. As is well known, Rabbi Wallerstein and his Rebbetzin Estee only had daughters. Howie merited to fill the role of a son, reciting Kaddish for the man he viewed as both his rebbe and his father.
Saving a Jewish Neshamah
Melissa Sherman was one of Rabbi Wallerstein’s first graduating students from PCA High School. Today, the talmidah operates a successful wig business. Melissa attributes her livelihood to Rabbi Wallerstein, who had a massive impact on all the girls’ lives. After graduation, it was unheard-of for a girl not to attend college or seminary. However, these same girls typically began their high school careers from an irreligious standpoint – they desecrated Shabbos and were far from what we know as frum. Yet today, these very women have built shomer Shabbos homes for their growing families. Melissa ascribes the turnaround directly with Rabbi Wallerstein’s actions of keeping them occupied in a wholesome Torah environment after school. Rabbi Wallerstein easily assumed the role of rabbi, principal, friend, or father, as the girls sought his signature warmth. “We were each Rabbi Wallerstein’s prized child, and like any father, he did whatever he could to assist us. Despite each of us being so different, we each felt a strong connection with our m’chaneich. In every conversation, Rabbi Wallerstein made you feel that he was on your level.”
To Melissa, Ohr Naava is a place for women to grow, get together with other women, or attend classes. It is a community designed solely for women. Rabbi Wallerstein saw the Jewish community lacking this resource and made it his mission to help the struggling girls within his reach.
Family Man Changes the World
Told through the eyes of Rabbi Moshe Elefant, brother-in-law, and Duvie Zicherman, son-in-law
Rabbi Moshe Elefant related that even 45 years ago, when Rabbi Wallerstein and his sister Estee married, it was easy to determine that he was different from the rest. From the date of their marriage, Reb Zechariah treated his father-in-law like his own father, and his wife’s family similarly like his own. “Rabbi Wallerstein lived with absolute emunah, fully believing that Hashem would bring upon him success.” Whatever Reb Zechariah put his mind to, it bred success in his personal and business lives, and most importantly in his communal efforts. Rabbi Elefant contends that the rare triumphs seen in Rabbi Wallerstein’s world were due to all-inclusive trust in the word of Chazal, where he took each concept learned literally. Rabbi Wallerstein saw the mosaic of klal Yisrael where no two individuals are alike and where every human being has value. It was his mission to ensure that everyone finds his or her place amongst the Jewish nation of Hashem.
For over two decades, Duvie Zicherman has been happily married to Rabbi Wallerstein’s daughter, Malky. Rabbi Wallerstein viewed his sons-in-law as his own children and treated each alike, no matter his packed schedule. Family was foremost on his mind, and being amongst them was his greatest joy. Reb Zechariah was always helping others, but at home everything was about the family he loved dearly. With his beloved wife Estee at his side, Reb Zechariah was an ordinary father within the walls of their house; but in unison, Rabbi Wallerstein carried klal Yisrael. To have a relationship with Hashem, one must first establish a bond with the children. More importantly, one must devote time to each child.
Rabbi Wallerstein walked the streets of New York like you or me, never allowing his gadlus to take over. He had such a focus on realizing the immensity of Hashem that ultimately humbled him, even though Rabbi Wallerstein’s magnitude was technically loftier than those he encountered. When faced with a challenge, Rabbi Wallerstein always pushed forward, never stopping and overcoming any obstacle.
Rabbi Wallerstein’s faith, especially that of his confidence in Torah sages, was incredible. Rabbi Wallerstein often met talmidei chachamim just for the sake of receiving their brachah for the success of his vast array of programs and for those he was seeking to assist. He was confident that simply being in the presence of a Torah sage was a worthy and humbling experience. The widely sought orator listened intently to the words of the scholars and incorporated the concepts obtained into his own character, and ever so eloquently shared the thoughts with the klal as only he could.
The lessons of Rabbi Wallerstein are just as much the teachings of his wife Estee. She was a devoted behind-the-scenes partner in all his avodas ha’kodesh, encouraging and supporting her husband, and standing at his side for the length of the journey; they were equals. It was astounding to witness the depth of her involvement and how she understood the needs of each bas Yisrael.
Using the tremendous chinuch of his parents, Rabbi Wallerstein found ways of discovering the correct doorway into the broken neshamos of anyone who reached out, bringing them each back into the fold of a Torah lifestyle. Rabbi Wallerstein depicted his “avi mori” as both his rebbe and best friend, the same characteristics others saw in him. From his father came genuine Torah values and the notion that, when appropriate, one must never compromise. Reb Zechariah described how he once threatened to squash their relationship if he did not return from his honeymoon to daven with a minyan. Of course, Rabbi Wallerstein came back. The minyan took on added significance to Rabbi Wallerstein simply because his father held extreme importance.
There is no telling the extent of Rabbi Wallerstein’s generosity. Every effort undertaken on behalf of Rabbi Wallerstein’s neshamah keeps the connection unsevered, while lifting his spirit to the high echelons in shamayim. It is incumbent on each of us to persist in perpetuating the memory and mission of Rabbi Wallerstein to act and leave behind an accomplishment, thereby strengthening the connection and making a lasting difference.
One year later, the loss of Rabbi Wallerstein is just as painful as the day he expired. There is just so much we can learn and put to action from the greatness of Reb Zechariah. Y’hi zichro baruch.
To access more shiurim given by Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein z”l, please visit www.torahanytime.com.
By Shabsie Saphirstein