The children “adored” Michael Weiner, the retired rabbi related. That would be Mr. Weiner the Sunday school teacher. He was also the fellow who headed the baseball players’ union until his death from brain cancer Nov. 21, but it’s highly unlikely that many of his union members knew him as the teacher of fourth and fifth graders at the Jewish Center of Northwest Jersey in Washington, N.J.
Rabbi Ellen Lewis, who recently retired after 19 years at the temple, told me about one of Weiner’s students.
“There is a young boy coming up for bar mitzvah this year,” she wrote in an e-mail from Japan, “who considered moving his date earlier so Mr. Weiner could be there. Since each child chooses a mitzvah project during the 7th grade year, this boy chose Voices against Brain Cancer because he wanted to help Mr. Weiner.”
Voices actually became a school-wide project a year ago for its annual 5K run-walk when the organization honored Weiner. The temple had one of the largest teams, if not the largest, in this year’s event, which was held just four days before Weiner died.
Weiner, 51, taught Sunday school for 15 years, beginning when the oldest of his three daughters, Margie, started going to the school.
“We didn’t join the temple until I was in second or third grade,” she said. “He started out to help me with learning Hebrew so I could catch up.”
All of the school’s teachers are parents, Rabbi Lewis said, and Weiner eventually joined them. “He taught the whole curriculum,” Margie said, “Hebrew, basic prayers from the Friday night services, rituals and holidays and cultural components.”
Except when he was making the union’s annual tour of spring training camps, Weiner was in the classroom Sunday mornings. “His room was in the basement and he named it the dungeon,” said Jennifer Rosenblum, one of the parents. “But those kids couldn’t wait to get to class with Mr. Weiner.”
Jamie Rosenblum, Jennifer’s daughter, was especially fond of Weiner the teacher. He helped her gain a college scholarship from Coca-Cola, which awarded 1,400 scholarships to 155,000 applicants.
“Mike had written a beautiful letter of recommendation for Jamie,” Jennifer Rosenblum said. “He was her mentor. She expressed her feelings about Mike to Coke and they sent her a Lucite mentor certificate to give to Mike.”
Weiner was not a teacher by training – he was a lawyer – but in Sunday school he was a natural, teaching and inspiring his students.
“He had a curriculum in mind – life cycle, history, Hebrew, prayers,” Rabbi Lewis said, “but he also brought in current events he thought were important. He created his own curriculum and I never felt the need to look at it (except for the time that I told him he couldn’t tell the kids that God was a hypothetical proposition).”
Despite his full-time job with the union, Weiner did not brush off his teaching responsibilities. He spent a significant amount of time on his Sunday role.
“At the end of each week on Sunday night, he would send an e-mail to the parents,” said the rabbi, who has a private practice in psychoanalysis. “In it, he would tell what he had covered and what he expected the kids to practice. He was quite specific – he would name each kid and say which letters, vowels or prayers the kid needed to work on.”
Nor did the teacher brush off his students’ report cards.
“At the end of the year,” Jennifer Rosenblum said, “instead of having a report card he gave each child a handwritten letter saying their abilities, their strengths. It was not a form letter. No two sentences were the same.”
Weiner also went beyond the classroom.
“He was the m.c. and the judge of the talent show we had,” Rosenblum said. “He made a special award for every single participant. There wasn’t anybody who didn’t win. Each one had something special and unique about them after they did their talent act. Mike was writing out what each child did and made some special reference to what they had done. He always did it with a light heart and funniness.”
More than what he wrote after each act was what he did during each act. Plunging fully invested into the show, Weiner wore an elaborate costume for the show and a different team baseball cap for each performance. To honor the World Baseball Classic, in which the union is heavily involved, he wore the caps of different countries.
“He changed hats for every single skit, for every child,” Rosenblum said. “Sometimes he wore a magician’s hat, sometimes a jester’s hat. He would somehow equate it to what the child’s skit would be. He did it for the last seven, eight years.”
And Lewis added, “He even managed to do it last April when he was sick but not yet terribly compromised.”
Weiner was also creative academically, the rabbi noted.
When the school needed an opening-day-of-school program for parents and students, Lewis said, Weiner and his youngest daughter, Sally, created a scavenger hunt.
The teams, which were mixed with students of different ages, “would go to a room and be asked a question appropriate to the age of the child. If they answered correctly (the older helping the younger, another brilliant idea), they got a puzzle piece. At the end of the morning, the large puzzle pieces all fit together into a map of Israel.”
“As extraordinary as he was,” the rabbi said, “Mike was just an ordinary person around the temple. When we needed Torah readers, he became one of them. I think he studied his portion on the bus and on airplanes.”
Reading the Torah is the most difficult part of the Jewish Saturday service, and Weiner’s ability to learn it just added another dimension to his brilliance.
Teaching and reading the Torah were two aspects of Weiner’s all too brief life that set him apart from others of his position and status. He preferred jeans and high-top sneakers to suits and ties, and he lived with his wife Diane and three daughters, in the words of a friend, on “a small humble farm in a very rural, modest neighborhood” in Mansfield Township, N.J., about 20 miles east of Pennsylvania.
“The children in the community are his legacy,” Rosenblum said. “The children who have been touched by him will take that into their futures.”
On Sept. 22, two months before Weiner died, the temple gave its Hebrew school a new name: the Mike Weiner School of Jewish Learning.