Yesterday I had the great honor of touring the new headquarters of the Orthodox Union. My good friend, Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph, Executive Vice President & COO, and his Chief of Staff, Yoni Cohen, showed me around their new home. It is a remarkable balance of modernity and tradition. As I had spent my formative professional years – twenty-two of them – at the OU, it was nice to see what a terrific job my friends were doing in steering it forward.
My visit was mixed with a twinge of sadness. It was there that I learned of the passing of Rabbi Pinchas Stolper zt’l. Rabbi Stolper was the founder and visionary of the NCSY youth group, a division of the OU. I had been the International Director of NCSY for eight years, and he was literally a living legend. As a youth, Rabbi Stolper was not Orthodox or heading towards the life of a Rabbi. He was a member of the famous Zionist youth group Betar which was founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. One of the leading Rabbis of New York, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt’l who was the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, heard about a successful protest that Rabbi Stolper and his friends organized against the German Ambassador to the US. It was shortly after the Holocaust and the German Ambassador was meeting with the Mayor of New York. Rabbi Stolper and his friends were appalled and tried to stop this meeting. They waited outside city hall armed with tomatoes. You can imagine the rest….
After Rabbi Hutner read about this incident, he asked to meet with Rabbi Stolper. Rabbi Hutner told him that he clearly had tremendous potential for leadership and he would like him to study at his Yeshiva. Rabbi Stolper accepted the great Rabbi’s challenge. After he became a Rabbi himself, he looked around America seeing disenfranchised Jewish youth everywhere. Rabbi Stolper decided that just like Betar in Europe, they needed to create an American Youth Movement and NCSY was born.
Rabbi Stolper traveled far and wide spreading a love for the Almighty among teens. This was not easy in the 1960’s as so many adults and synagogues had started to wander off the Judaic path of our people. Rabbi Stolper persevered because he understood that our Nation’s success has always been determined by the passion of our children. He started Shabbatons which were weekend retreats where teens could explore their spiritual potential, eventually leading to Jewish teens spending whole summers in Israel to grow their love of our land.
Rabbi Stolper authored many books and articles on all sorts of Torah topics. Eventually, he realized that he needed powerful Judaic books written in plain text for the average teen. He enlisted the help of one of the most prolific and engaging Jewish authors of all time, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, zt’l. The first book that Rabbi Stolper asked Rabbi Kaplan to write was on tefillin. Rabbi Kaplan wrote the book in two weeks and it stands as one of the best works on tefillin ever written. Rabbi Kaplan took on every philosophical and rabbinical topic you can imagine. He was the first person to write about Kabbala in an easy format. This was all thanks to Rabbi Stolper’s vision.
I remember once speaking with Rabbi Stolper regarding how to navigate the politics and difficult pressures that the Orthodox Union is famous for. He shared with me that he was feeling very burnt out at one point in his career. He went to his teacher, Rabbi Hutner, and told him how he felt. Rabbi Hutner told him that his work was crucial and integral to the Jewish Nation. Therefore he should just go sit on a beach in Hawaii until he regained his strength. He told me with a smile that he never took the advice but the advice itself lifted his spirits.
There were so many amazing points to Rabbi Stolper’s story. Rabbi Hutner seeing the leadership potential in a young man. A young man seeing the challenges young American Jews were facing. Both of them acting out of a love and respect for the Almighty. This story is the story of the Jewish Nation. Our leaders must be activists. Our leaders must care about every Jew. Our leaders must push through adversity. Our leaders must love the Almighty. I can only imagine the beautiful reunion in heaven between Rabbi Hutner and Rabbi Stolper. May we all continue their work in strengthening and inspiring the Jewish nation.