By Yated Neeman
The story of Reb Leizer Wenger is a story of one man, sitting late at night with a borrowed I.B.M typewriter, tapping out page after page, creating books and pamphlets that would change the world for decades to come.
Yet at the same time, it’s of a people’s person- a man who was able to walk into a classroom and fill it with energy and chiyus, who managed to transmit his own curiosity to countless students, his own profundity and depth to listeners of all ages- from elementary children, to high school students to his mispalelim at the Oneg Shabbos shul.
A unique man, a fusion of brilliance and warmth, of impeccable middos and bearing- completely approachable even as he inspired respect.
Rav Eliezer ben Mordechai Wenger zt’l.
In a sense, his identity- a talmid chacham and lamdan as well as a varme Lubavitcher chassid- were the legacies of very distinguished ancestors.
Reb Simcha Gorodetzky was one of those that mocked the KGB, a spirited and passionate chassid in the face of danger and oppression. With true chassidishe perseverance he worked with single-minded dedication towards spreading the light of torah and yiddishkeit even as the brutal government tried to snuff our every last vestige of religion.
Eventually, this ‘wanted man’ was caught by the KGB, and exiled to Siberia.
Reb Mordechai Wenger was a talmid muvhak of Rav Aharon Kotler in Kletsk, a brilliant and diligent students to a rebbi who demanded no less. Reb Mordechai also ended up following the fateful route of mesiras nefesh yidden, Samarkand and Siberia. While in Samarkand, the young talmid chacham married the daughter of the illustrious chassid- commenting that Chaza’l instructs us that l’olam yisa adam bas talmid chacham, since is he passes away or is exiled, the children will nonetheless be talmidei chachamim.
They were words that would prove prophetic.
The couple eventually made it out of Russia and Reb Mordechai went back to learn by his rebbi, Rav Aharon, in the nascent yeshiva in Lakewood. One of the few kollel couples in the community, many of the bochurim in the yeshiva- the future roshei yeshiva of the American torah world- ate meals at the Wenger home, where they were received warmly and graciously.
The young family moved to East New York, and Reb Mordechai began to teach torah. Tragedy struck, however, and the young father was taken from this world, leaving four young children. The oldest, Eliezer, was only seven.
But the children would be talmidei chachamim, as their father had wanted- for their mother was a true bas talmid chacham.
At the bar mitzvah of Eliezer, his father’s revered rebbi, Rav Aharon, joined the seudah- an extremely rare honor.
Eliezer attended the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway, where he began his career in chinuch as a teenager. He assumed responsibility for the daily minyan, organizing, inspiring and teaching the younger children how to daven.
He excelled in his learning, and from Eastern Parkway, he went to learn at Beth Medrash Elyon in Monsey. He grew especially close to the rosh yeshiva, Rav Gedalya Schorr. At the age of twenty, he went to learn at the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Crown Heights. He married the daughter of the prominent Monsey psychiatrist, Dr. Dovid Hayes– whose opinion was valued and respected by the rebbes of Monsey-Viznitz and Skver- and established his home in Crown Heights.
That time of relative peace lasted for a short time, and then Reb Leizer and his rebbetzin set out on a journey to teach yiddishe kinderlach, teenagers and adults- a journey that filled the hours of his day and night until the very end. It was a long and exhausting road, one that went through Boston and San Francisco, Miami and Houston, Cincinnati and Ottawa and, finally, Montreal. The locales may have changed, but there were some things that were constant. One was the way he recoiled from any sort of machlokess and strife, and if ever, there was a hint of discord in an institution or community, the Wenger family could be counted on to start packing their bags; he simply would not fight.
Another constant was the extraordinary impact that he had on his students, regardless of their age or level of observance; he simply had the right words for everyone and the sense to perceive the individual needs of each.
During the shiva, letters and emails came pouring in attesting to difference he had made in the lives of so many. For some, it was his mastery of halacha and remarkable ability to clarify and simplify the rules that govern daily living. For others, it was the enthusiasm and joy that he brought the classroom. There were many that were influenced by his complete and utter simplicity and modesty, the unassuming way with which this learned and erudite man managed to connect with them, on their level.
This writer recalls meeting Reb Leizer at a seminar for local mechanchim just a few months back. He was older and more experienced than the presenter, yet he sat there- already in ill health- listening closely to the innovative ideas of the speaker- perhaps he could learn something new, something that could add more color to his classroom.
But even as a man of the people, able to brighten a classroom filled with children or inspire a gathering of adults, he was also a man of the pen, and constructed new worlds on a borrowed typewriter.
That era of his life was launched with the Guide to Brochos, which he compiled by combing his bekius and his unique ability to understand practical applications. He researched obscure foods and ingredients and, working with Dayan Krause from England and his beloved brother, Rav Yoel Chonon– r’m in Yeshiva Gedola of Montreal, rov of Eitz Chaim and a chaver of the Montreal beis din- he created a masterpiece.
In time, the book became the inspiration behind the Brochos Bee and was widely distributed by Torah Umesorah as the definitive work on brochos for students. Another project was the famed Chagenu series on the yomim tovim, a fascinating and attractive compendium of halachos, insights and background.
For many years, each month, he would send out a monthly luach, consisting of the Jewish dates with their significance and halachos, the yahrzeits of various gedolim and a special feature which focused on one particular gadol each month. Later, there was the Quizzer- a fun and entertaining work for children with Jewish trivia questions, and many others. The scholarly work, Halichos Mordechai- on the halachos of travel- was recognized as an instant classic.
What made Rav Wenger’s written work’s unique was, primarily, that he wrote and published books in an era before there were frum publishing houses and distributors, before there were word processors and laptops. It was just one man, his dream and incredible determination- at a time when he worked long hours and had a growing family- yet he remained undaunted by the task and merited great siyyata dishmaya.
Another feature of his works was that, even though Rav Wenger was a Lubavitcher chassid, and had a tremendous bekius in the halachic works of the Baal Hatanya and Tzemach Tzedek, his halachic volumes and calendars managed to cross party lines and reach all yidden, highlighting the contributions of talmidei chachamim and great leaders from all segments of torah yiddishkeit.
Lastly, Reb Leizer worked without a thought for financial remuneration and even though many of those works sold tens of thousands of copies, his goal was always harbatzas torah to the masses. During the shiva, his children looked in an old ledger that detailed his expenses for the luach; he wrote that his cost was two thousand dollars, but he had recouped one thousand dollars through subscriptions.
And can one even imagine the great yield of these calendars? At a recent family get-together, an ehrliche yid entered the Wenger home and related to Reb Leizer and his family how he had lived in a remote American town, far from yidden and yiddishkeit and knew nothing about torah and mitzvos.
Somehow, his name ended up on one of Reb Leizer’s mailing lists and he began to receive the monthly luach- a monthly reminder that someone remembered his neshama, a monthly reminder that there is a torah, and that we have a rich spiritual legacy- and it was that marked the beginning of his journey home.
For the last two decades, the Wenger family lived in Montreal, and in addition to teaching in the Lubavitcher cheder and later, at the Beth Rivka for girls, Reb Leizer served as the rov of Oneg Shabbos. It was there that his warmth and empathy made him a father and best friend to his mispalelim.
He is irreplaceable. The man of learning and spirit, of the pen and the book, of compassion and warmth, an educator, rov and father, is gone and he is sorely missed.
His is survived by his choshuve rebbetzin and children. His son, Reb Mordechai, a mashpia in the Lubavitcher yeshiva, has assumed his position as the rov of Oneg Shabbos and there is no doubt that the brilliant tradition of rabbanus in the illustrious family will continue.
Yehi zichro boruch.
A memorial for Rabbi Eliezer Wenger OBM will be held today, Tuesday, 8:30pm, at Beth Rivkah Montreal – 5001 Vezina, men in lunchroom, women in auditorium (with live video feed). Light refreshments, followed by Maariv