Rabbi Elchanan Poupko
Rabbi Elchanan PoupkoCourtesy

Sitting in a restaurant on the East Side of Manhattan for lunch with a rabbi I had never met before and did not know about until recently, I did not know that after this lunch, we would remain friends for many years to come. His name was Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth, and I had no idea how much I would come to respect and admire him.

All indications were that we would not become friends. After all, he founded the Beit Hillel progressive Orthodox group in Israel, and I was a black-hatted rabbi from New York. And yet, we remained good friends in the years to come as my respect and admiration for him kept growing.

I came to learn from him that disagreement should never mean disrespect and that there is greatness in containing vast differences in one body. After all, he was an Israeli army veteran, a navy seal, part of Israel’s high-tech world, a rabbi, community organizer, and a scholar in his own right. More than anything, I was heartbroken when I heard that he passed away at the young age of 51, on the first day of Passover 2021.

When we sat and had first reached out to him, it was as part of my work engaging Israeli Americans in Jewish life. I knew Rabbi Neuwirth did a great deal of work engaging unaffiliated Israelis and wanted to hear his thoughts on the American scene. We decided we would meet on his next visit to New York and sat down together to talk. When meeting him, I was immediately taken aback by his warmth, sincerity, and humility.

My only regret after meeting him was that I had not known him earlier. His thoughtfulness, warmth, sincerity, and ability to relate to any person inspire me to this day. In the years to come, we would remain in touch, discuss the articles we were writing and exchanged greetings in times of joy.

What inspired me most about him was his ability to both articulate and practice. It is not often, if ever, that you meet a navy seal that is also a rabbi. It is also not often that you meet someone who is able to thoughtfully articulate an idea and then immediately perfectly exemplify what they preach.

Rabbi Ronnen was an embodiment of a perfectly synchronized thought process and practice. Chief among his ideologies was his belief in and love of humanity. Rabbi Neuwirth founded his organization called Beit Hillel in response to seeing many secular Israelis feeling alienated from Judaism. Yet his ability to see the humanity and need among one population did not blind him to seeing the same humanity in another population.

In my friendship with him, and in the active role he played as a member in the Rabbinical Council of America, he was able to care and engage with Jews from across the religious and political spectrum. Everything he did was motivated by his love for the Jewish people, and he always worked to do so in the broadest way possible.

We tend to think of getting along with everyone as taking broad positions that a part of the greatest consensus possible; Rabbi Neuwirth transcended that. In his last book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge,” Rabbi Neuwirth outlined his fundamental beliefs, one of which was that rabbinic leaders have an obligation to say what they think, even if it may not be popular. He also elaborated on the obligation rabbis have to be attuned to the societies they live in, the communities they serve, and the people they seek to inspire. Only by being familiar with the people, the world, and the mindset, he said, can a rabbi properly engage with those he is seeking to serve.

Rabbi Neuwirth also believed that a key to a rabbi’s success is increasing transparency and sharing thought processes. In a generation in which he felt that too many rabbis issue blanket statements while too few publish thought-out halakhic responsa, the need for rabbis who express an opinion while sharing their thought process is greater than ever.

While there are many articles and books beautifully articulating Rabbi Neuwirth’s thoughts, the most important part is painfully lacking—his physical presence. His warmth, his smile, his understanding, his refusal to be constrained by social and religious lines, and his instance to show unconditional love and respect to everyone are what made him who he was and cannot be replaced. The same passion for his people that inspired him to be a towering star in the IDF inspired him to be a loving community rabbi and—more importantly—be a rabbi to those who did not have a community.

He was a true Mensch, and I will miss him dearly. While he is no longer with us, his legacy of reaching across lines, engaging with those we may not agree with, his belief in the power of human good and care continue to inspire me and so many others. Rest in peace, my dear brother.

Note: Rabbi Neuwirth passed away recently after a short battle with cancer. His frequent parasha articles for Arutz Sheva are sorely missed

Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He lives with his wife in New York City and is the president of EITAN - The American-Israeli Jewish Network