By Michele Justic
He lived on an island but was connected to Klal Yisrael in an incredible way. He was not on speakers’ circuits or book tours, yet he influenced thousands with his humble, loving approach. The community lost a great man on Sunday, January 18, when Dovid Winiarz was killed in a car accident during an ice storm.
Reb Dovid, the self-named Facebuker Rebbe, had actually been fighting icy indifference to Yiddishkeit for many years. He was even en route to a kiruv conference when the accident occurred. While many rabbanim dismiss social media as bitul z’man (a time-waster), Dovid Winiarz took the initiative upon himself to use it as an outreach tool. He knew that online, with no social norms to conform to, is where you can have truly honest conversations with people, exposing ignorant beliefs that would not be discussed in person. Through his approach, he had a real influence on his 2,462 Facebook friends, bringing many closer to keeping Shabbos and embracing other mitzvos that secular society deems archaic.
He founded Survival Through Education, an informal kiruv program to engage the non-observant through simple but heartfelt ideas like gifts, meal invitations, and even smiling.
Reb Dovid’s focus on smiling was a notion raised by many at his levayah. On his site, he notes: “The Gemara states that a sincerely offered smile is like giving someone a glass of cold milk on a hot day. There are Jews out there who are afraid to approach a religious Jew because they have negative preconceived notions about religious Jewry. A smile can make all the difference.”
As 5TJT columnist Rabbi Yair Hoffman notes about Reb Dovid, “He was singularly dedicated to kiruv and a remarkable mensch. Well-liked by all.”
His eldest son, Shaya, recalled one train trip on which he took 100 or 200 of his “Keep Smiling” cards and he went on the train to Manhattan. He walked up and down the entire train giving everyone two cards. “Here’s a smile for you, and give one to someone else,” he would say. Shaya explained, “He just wanted to make other people happy.”
Five Towns resident Dov Herman was a close friend of Winiarz and relates, “Dovid’s passion was kiruv, and he did it by always smiling, lighting up every room and making everyone around him happy. He ‘planted seeds’ by giving out books on being Jewish and cards telling people to smile; later, many of those people wanted to learn more and became observant. He would spend his days getting grants for the Staten Island Food Pantry (which supports 96 families), Bikur Cholim of Staten Island, and his Survival Through Education.”
At the levayah, Shaya also described his father’s “seeds” philosophy. “He would say, ‘Wherever I go, I am going to plant seeds. Hopefully they’ll grow one day. It’s not my job to decide if they grow or not. That will be Hashem’s job. I just have to plant seeds.’”
He had the support of Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, who noted, “Dovid Winiarz is doing what every Jew is obligated to do . . . to reach out to Jews who are not aware of our marvelous heritage. . . . He should be helped, emulated, copied, and serve as an inspiration.”
Rabbi Chaim N. Segal, of Torah Umesorah (National Society for Hebrew Day Schools), related, “Dovid Winiarz is an outstanding model of someone who touches hundreds of lives, not because he is an expert mekarev who knows all the right things to say, but because he cares enough to reach out to his fellow Jews and share the beauty of Torah in a very easy, palatable fashion. He meets people, he makes a connection, and he gives them a free book or other Jewish resource. Who can say no? And often, that first book sets in motion a process of discovery that would have never gotten off the ground.”
These words of support and praise are echoed by many in his Staten Island community, as well as the entire tri-state area and beyond. Agudath Israel recently awarded him the Avodas HaKodesh Award at its 87th anniversary dinner.
Benzion Klatzko, a Monsey resident, radio talk show host, and founder and CEO of Shabbat.com, was close to Reb Dovid and was still trying to absorb the loss when I spoke to him. The best way he could describe Reb Dovid was that “he eternally believed in people; he was an eternal optimist.” He noted that in the world of kiruv, where everyone is doing good, it is sometimes hard to see who is truly special. Klatzko confesses he would sometimes demur at his ideas, but Dovid believed so strongly he would never give up. On Facebook, Klatzko posted, “Rabbi Winiarz always stood up for the Torah way of life, with an optimistic and hopeful smile and comforting words to thousands. Our grief knows no bounds.”
R’ Jonathan Gewirtz, a writer, remembers, “I knew Dovid Winiarz for about three years and in that time he became my best friend. Like he did to everyone else, he made me feel like I was his favorite person in the world, always complimenting and praising my abilities. I met him through Facebook and because we both spread Torah, we hit it off. When I was sitting shivah, he made the trip to see me, and that’s when we met the first time in person. In the few days since his passing, the true magnitude of what he achieved is beginning to dawn on the thousands of people whose lives he touched. Actively involved in chesed in his local community, he also used long-distance connections to help people find jobs, work together, and offer advice. He was the epitome of ‘Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha’ and was truly happiest when he was making a difference and bringing Hashem’s children home to Him. If we all tried to be just a little bit like him, just take on one of his many ways of impacting the world, it would be a different place by tomorrow.”
Over 500 of Reb Dovid’s friends and family attended Monday’s levayah. He was eulogized by Rav Reuven Feinstein, Rav Dovid Harris, Rav Moshe Meir Weiss, Rav Yaakov Lehrfeld, his sons Shaya and Eli, his son-in-law Yosef Simon, his brother Shmuel, and his mother, Mrs. Chaya Subar.
As a 49-year-old father of ten, his loss will be felt most at home. A chinuch fund has been established to help the family cover its costs. So far, $70,048 of the $250,000 goal has been raised. The beneficiary has been set up as the Winiarz Family Chinuch Fund. To make a recurring or one-time donation, please visit www.fidelipay.com/winiarzfamily. All online donations are going through Bikur Cholim of Staten Island and are tax-deductible. Checks can be made out to Bikur Cholim of Staten Island and sent to Bikur Cholim of Staten Island, 23 Niles Place, Staten Island, NY 10314. Please write “Winiarz Family” in the check memo.