It started with a casual invitation. On a visit to Israel in January, a group of students from the Jewish Educational Center’s Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy boys’ high school met briefly with the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yonah Metzger, and one of the boys suggested he visit their school. And, right there and then, Metzger agreed.
On Friday, March 16, the genial, white-bearded rabbi, an often controversial figure in his own country, made good on his promise. On a brief visit to the United States, he came to Elizabeth for the morning encounter. He davened with the high school and middle school students and delivered a lecture. Given that it was before breakfast, he promised to keep it brief, and was true to his word.
He addressed two themes — learning and observance — beaming with evident pleasure and speaking in almost fluent English.
When it comes to material things, he said, it is possible to have everything you need. For example, he suggested, one pair of shoes for work and another for synagogue, and maybe a third pair for sport, rather than dozens of unnecessary ones. “A really wise man is the one who is happy with what he has,” he said.
When it comes to religious study, however, there is no such thing as enough. The 58-year-old rabbi — the youngest ever appointed to the role of chief rabbi of Israel — stressed that no one can ever achieve complete expertise in Torah. He said, “A man of 80 might know better than us, but his knowledge is not complete.”
Metzger, who also paid high tribute to the founder of JEC, Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, urged the boys to make the most of their chances to study. As for himself, he said, he carries books or papers with him at all times, so he can take advantage of any free moment.
Turning to observance of mitzvot, the rabbi told a story set in Eastern Europe before World War II of a child who knocked over a Shabbat candlestick, scarring his arm. As the war closed in, the boy’s parents placed him in the care of a priest.
The Nazis took away the parents, but only the father survived. He found himself after the war living in the far reaches of Siberia, where, despite the harsh conditions and the prohibition on religious observance, he established a little wooden shul, which he tended with meticulous care.
One day, a Soviet officer came by and saw the shul. He ordered the man to shut it down. The next time the officer came by, seeing that his order had been ignored, he pushed up his sleeves, preparing to hit the man. But he froze in mid-action when the man cried out, not in fear but because he saw a familiar scar on the officer’s arm. This was his long-lost son.
The students listened in rapt silence, and noticed the tears in Metzger’s eyes as he informed them that this father and son made aliya together and settled in Be’er Sheva. He uses this true story, the rabbi said, to illustrate the wonders that can stem from the observance of Shabbat, even when there was an apparent accident.
The rabbi’s visit fits a long tradition. Thanks to connections with the Teitz family in Israel, almost all of Israel’s chief rabbis have visited the school over the years.
JEC associate dean Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz smiled as he noted the response to Metzger’s talk. “He knows how to reach different audiences,” he said.
His father, Rabbi Elazar Teitz, the leader of the JEC, said later he thought that Metzger was moved to visit in part because of the school’s close link with Israel. About 90 percent of the graduates visit Israel, many serve in the army, and a significant number go on to make their permanent homes there.