Were it not for Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, zt"l, who passed away this past Tuesday morning, neither the English Yated Ne'eman nor the host of other weekly magazines aimed at the Torah community might have ever come into existence.
When the late Rabbi Moshe Sherer took over running Agudath Israel of America, the first concrete goal he set for himself was the creation of a Torah magazine of ideas in English through which the gedolei Yisrael could address the masses. The Jewish Observer, whose first issue appeared in 1963, was that vehicle. It was central to Rabbi Sherer's conception of an independent Orthodoxy, that would speak forcefully and proudly for itself, and no longer allow others to speak about it without fear of rebuttal.
Rabbi Wolpin was not the founding editor of the Jewish Observer; that honor belongs to another of my personal mentors, Rabbi Nachman Bulman, zt"l. But Reb Nisson almost single-handedly produced each issue from the time he took the helm in 1970 until the closing of the Jewish Observer almost four decades later.
In the end, the Jewish Observer was the victim of its own pioneering success. For more than a quarter of a century, it was virtually the only serious reading available for bnei Torah in English. As such, it played a crucial role in the development of the world of Torah learning in America.
The Jewish Observer's mixture of the "timeless" – fealty to gedolei Torah, the importance of the 1956 psak of the eleven roshei yeshiva against participation in umbrella organizations with heterodox groups, the falsification inherent in the popular description of Judaism as consisting of "three streams" – and the "timely" – contemporary issues as viewed through the lens of Torah – provided much of the ideological underpinning for a new generation of yeshivaleit coming to age in the '60s, 70s, and 80s.
Rabbi Wolpin personally and the magazine he edited helped create a Torah reading public that could appreciate good writing in English, and the Jewish Observer provided the first forum for much of writing talent that has flourished in recent decades. He was one of a triumvirate of three boyhood friends at Torah Vodaath who did much to shape today's English-language Torah literature – he at the Jewish Observer and Olemeinu, lbch't Rabbi Nosson Scherman, as general editor of Mesorah/ArtScroll Publications; and Rabbi Mendel Weinbach, zt"l, who even while guiding Ohr Somayach from its founding until his passing, would dash off four or five ghost-written or pseudonymously written columns a week for the Jewish Press.
In the end, one man, operating on a slender budget, could not compete with a host of glossy weeklies, produced by staffs in the dozens, and able to garner large advertising revenues. The only time I ever saw Rabbi Wolpin down was the day the Jewish Observer was forced to close. That closure also constituted a major blow for Agudath Israel, which lost its ideological shofar.
NISSON SUITED Rabbi Wolpin perfectly as a name: He was perpetually fresh and new. One of my favorite memories is racing him down the block to a Maariv minyan. He must have been well into his sixties and still capable of sprinting. He was an inveterate punster, but those puns rarely provoked groans so much as marvel at his sparkle. He had at the ready a quip for anyone whom he had to get around on a crowded New York subway. His door at Agudath Israel in the hall leading to the coffee room was almost always open, and few could resist the temptation of stopping to exchange a few words with Reb Nisson on their way down the hall.
Over a period of almost twenty years, the Wolpins were my ba'alei achsanya on my trips to the States. I once calculated that I must have spent well over a year in their home over that period. No matter how late I arrived, I always set the alarm clock for 5:15 a.m. the next morning so as not to miss the pleasure of walking with Rabbi Wolpin from his apartment in Kensington into Boro Park for his early morning daf hayomi shiur. There was no one whose company I enjoyed more.
I never grew tired of hearing his stories, almost all of them more than once. His Seattle childhood, spent attending coed, almost entirely gentile public schools, before leaving cross country for Torah Vodaath at age sixteen, was one favorite topic. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once publicly credited the Wolpin family with having saved his family from the European inferno. Reb Yaakov once tested Reb Nisson's oldest brother, Michoel, then ten, in Gemara 's during his half year stint as a rabbi in Seattle. When Reb Yaakov saw his proficiency in Gemara learning, he realized that it was possible to raise erliche children to be talmidei chachamim in America. As a consequence, Reb Yaakov sent for his family to join him in his next position in Toronto.
Wolpin family lore was another favorite topic. Reb Nisson's father, Rabbi Ephraim Benzion Wolpin, was the fifteenth child born to his parents in Russia. Thirteen died in epidemics before he was born; only an older married sister survived. Reb Ephraim's mother, Dina, said on her death bed, "One Dina is leaving the world, but many more will enter." She proved right: Dina's proliferate among the many hundreds of descendants of Reb Nissan and his three brothers.
For decades, Reb Nisson taught in a course on the seminal figures in modern Jewish history at the Bais Yaakov post-high school seminary in Boro Park. I suspect that he harbored the ambition of one day turning his tattered notes into a book. He was personally a rich repository of stories of the gedolei Yisroel who laid the foundations of the contemporary American Torah world: Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rabbi Yitzchok Yaakov Ruderman, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, his own rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, zt"l, and others.
He served for over a year as the senior dorm counselor at Torah Vodaath, when Reb Yaakov was the Rosh Yeshiva. Each of the stories of how Reb Yaakov dealt with a particular bochur recorded in Reb Yaakov, he once told me, was accurate as far as it went. But I would have gained an entirely new dimension if I had heard what Reb Yaakov said after the bochur in question left the room.
FOR ME, Reb Nisson will always remain the shining proof of how greeting everyone with a ready smile and a good word does not detract in any way from one's fundamental seriousness. Indeed it only enhances it. For there is no doubting that for Reb Nisson and his Rebbetzin, the only thing that ever counted was Torah and mitzvos.
Most of the greater Wolpin family possess an abundance of the two qualities we most associate with the acquisition of wealth: superior intelligence and boundless charm. But they lack the crucial ingredient – the slightest interest in money. And as a consequence, they never manage to acquire any. The only thing that counts is Torah. Reb Nisson's sons and sons-in-laws are all marbitzei Torah – roshei yeshiva, roshei kollel, mechabrei seforim, maggidei shiur. And the Wolpin daughters are almost all teachers of Torah themselves.
Down to the third generation of married grandchildren, almost every one that I know of Reb Nisson's and, lbch"l, his wife Devorah's descendants is involved in full-time Torah learning or married to someone who is. When the Wolpin sons gather around the table, the only topic is Torah, and anyone who is not fluent throughout Shas and poskim would be well-advised to just fasten his seat belt and hold on for the ride.
Though Reb Nisson was never able to learn in kollel after marriage – Beis Medrash Elyon had only ten places and a long waiting list -- his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are emulating the example they saw in his home. Early every morning, Reb Nisson was at Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz's daf hayomi shiur in the 16th Avenue Telshe minyan or at Dushinsky's after moving to Eretz Yisrael; every night, he was seated at the dining room table over his Gemara, learning on the phone (with a long extension cord from the kitchen wall) with his chavrusah Reb Nachum Dick; every Shabbos meal had its own learning seder; and before going to bed every evening there was a seder in Chafetz Chaimwith his wife.
During the years that I was frequently in the Wolpin home, they always had at least one boarder, and often two – granddaughters and great-nieces attending Rebbetzin Kirzner's Seminary, or others whose circumstances placed them in need of a warm home. Several Wolpin children live across from Ohr Somayach, and the Wolpins became surrogate parents for many single and married ba'alei teshuva when they returned to the States. Their Shabbos table always filled, including some regular guests. Yet they opened their home in such a matter-of-fact way and so without fuss that it seemed the most natural thing in the world. It never occurred to guests like myself that they had to ask before reaching into the cookie jar for one of Mrs. Wolpin's oatmeal or ginger cookies.
Reb Nisson's influence will be continue to be felt ad bias HaGoel by all those who knew and loved him, and by the many who were not privileged to know him personally but whose thinking was shaped by the power of his pen.