The narrow hallway of the second floor in the shul was silent, until word came through: the weekly cholent delivery had arrived. As the scent of fresh meat and potatoes permeated the air, girls rushed out of their respective classrooms and headed for the lunchroom. It was Friday, and they had been waiting for this moment all day.
Standing in the doorway was a man clad in a simple suit, with rumpled hair, a wide grin on his face, and laughter in his eyes. In one hand he balanced two hot trays of homemade cholent. In the other, he held a bouquet of fresh roses.
As the girls clamored to fill plastic bowls with food, the man proceeded to greet each girl individually, warmly wishing them a good Shabbos, and handing each one an individually wrapped rose, handpicked earlier at the florist.
Individuals unfamiliar with the scene would never guess that this was a high school teacher interacting with his students – those same students branded uneducable and intolerable by most institutions. To the newcomer’s eye, this man was a father greeting his daughters and blessing them with an abundance of good wishes, emphasizing just how much he loved them.
The girls were students at Bnot Chaya Academy. The man was their mentor, teacher, and friend: Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein, of blessed memory.
* * *
On Monday, May 2, at approximately 5:00 in the morning, Rabbi Wallerstein passed away peacefully in his home following a protracted illness. He was 64 years old.
As the news spread, hundreds of Jews around the world reacted in shock, grieving at the sudden loss of a leader who transformed the fields of women’s Torah study and chinuch.
The diverse crowd in the packed halls of the Ohr Naava building – only one of the many projects Rabbi Wallerstein pioneered – served as a testament to just how many lives he touched. Teens with hair dye and nose rings wept alongside long-sleeved seminary girls, yeshiva bachurim, and chassidishe yungerman, all who were mourning the death of a leader who had touched their lives in some manner.
* * *
An ordinary man who led an extraordinary life, Rabbi Wallerstein was never one who chased the limelight or enjoyed the trappings of fame. Born in Boro Park and raised in Monsey, New York, he studied in the Yeshiva of Spring Valley and later enrolled as a student in Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn.
At 20 years of age he married his wife Estee and moved to the Midwood neighborhood in Brooklyn, where he began working as a teacher: first at Yeshiva Torah V’Yirah in the Bronx, and later in the Mill Basin Yeshiva Academy on Avenue U.
Upon hearing of his success working in these schools, the principal of a girl’s school reached out and asked if Rabbi Wallerstein would teach a hashkafa class. At first, he resisted, but eventually accepted and quickly built a rapport with the students, using the knowledge he gained from raising his own five daughters.
It was here in this school that Rabbi Wallerstein learned of the dearth of opportunities for Torah study and guidance available to young women. He recognized the great need that existed and immediately set the wheels in motion for Ohr Naava, a center for learning and guidance for Jewish women that offered weekly classes, Shabbatons, and other growth-oriented experiences.
Decades later, Ohr Naava operates as an international organization that has created numerous other programs which address pressing needs in the Jewish community. These include seminary programs for girls who could not travel to Israel but sought personal and religious growth (Ateres Naava); an alternative high school program for teens at risk who grappled with issues such as mental illness, eating disorders, substance addiction, and religious struggles (Bnot Chaya Academy); a rehabilitation center replete with equine therapy and kosher food for individuals who grappled with addiction and mental illness (Ranch at Bethel); an organized system that provided support, networking, and matchmaking services for single girls (Ohr Naava Shidduch Initiative); and a groundbreaking hotline staffed by certified professionals from a variety of organizations hired to help women navigate any crisis, from domestic abuse to halachic queries (Yutta Zicherman Crisis Center for Intervention).
In addition to founding these much-needed organizations, Rabbi Wallerstein became a world-renowned speaker, sought out by yeshivas and shuls from a wide variety of communities and religious backgrounds. Having dedicated his life to the betterment of Klal Yisrael, he will always be remembered for the way he fiercely advocated for every person that reached out to him, no matter their religiosity, sexuality, age, or background.
His mantra was oft repeated in many of his lectures and has shaped and influenced the way many of his students and staff alike approach the world: “Believe in others more than you believe in yourself.” To Rabbi Wallerstein, no person was deemed unworthy of attention, time, or love. It didn’t matter if a student vehemently proclaimed their disownment of G-d – he made it his mission to prove that G-d loved the student. It didn’t matter if a student loudly declared boredom with class or failed to appear – he made it his mission to create content that was appealing until the student was engaged.
His love for his students was evident in the smallest gestures, from ensuring that each girl received a blessing and a rose on erev Shabbos, to welcoming students that were homeless into his own home, treating them as he would his own daughters.
His memory will live on in the thousands of lectures and classes he delivered over the decades.
His memory will live on in the lives of those who almost didn’t make it – but today are thriving, healthy, and happy parents, professionals, and Jews.
His memory will live on in the hearts and souls of the thousands of lives that he touched, the hearts he inspired, and the souls that he embraced so freely whatever their background.
May his neshama have an aliyah.