The 30-year impact of a heartfelt lesson about Jewish marriage | By By Bruria Efune | Chabad.org
When Chaya Wolff was struggling with a new language in order to teach her seventh-grade students at FJC’s Or Avner Day School in Kherson, Ukraine, 27 years ago, she could not possibly have known that someday—in the middle of a crisis that would ravage the city and the nation—her lessons would connect right back to one of her first students and to her own family as well in a profoundly meaningful way.
“It was the early days of our school,” recalls Wolff, who eventually moved with her husband, Rabbi Avrohom Wolff, from Kherson to Odessa, where today they are co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Odessa. “We had students who were 10, 11, 12, when they first came to our school. Some didn’t know until then that they were Jewish, and few had any idea of what it meant.” Wolff had a limited time with the children each day and had to focus on what she felt was the most important issue: Jewish continuity.
“The truth is, my Russian language was very weak back then. I wasn’t even sure if they understood what I was saying. We would read Russian translations from the text when learning Torah because it was the only way I could ensure they understood the lesson. But I needed the girls to know how important it is to marry Jewish.” As often as she could, Wolff would veer from the text, and in her broken Russian, talk about the importance of finding a Jewish spouse and having a Jewish wedding.
Twelve years later, one of Wolff’s first students, Ina Weinman, was a young woman living in Hanover, Germany. While she hadn’t stayed connected with the Jewish community, she made sure only to date Jewish men, and was now engaged and planning her wedding. Weimann explained to her fiancé, Igor, that they needed to get married under a chuppah. He didn’t quite understand why and she couldn’t fully explain, but he saw that it was important to her, and so he agreed.
“I always remembered Rebbetzin Wolff speaking about the Jewish lifecycle, and I really connected to the concept of a chuppah,” Ina Weinmann tells Chabad.org. “I knew I had to find a rabbi to help us.”
Young Couple Arrives at Hanover Chabad
That brought the engaged couple to the Hanover Chabad House, where they met the directors of Chabad of Hanover, Rabbi Binyamin and Shterna Wolff, who they soon learned were the sister and brother of both Ina Weinmann’s former teacher in Kherson, Chaya Wolff, and her husband, Rabbi Avrohom Wolff. Binyamin and Shterna Wolff guided the Weinmanns through a Jewish wedding with a kosher chuppah, and from there, an ongoing relationship began to sprout.
Ina began attending Jewish classes and bringing her husband along to Jewish events. When the couple had a baby boy, despite objections from some family members, they gave the baby a brit milah and a Jewish name—Daniel.
As Ina grew more and more connected to the Chabad House community, her husband confided in Rabbi Wolff. “I need you to help me love Judaism,” he asked. “I see my wife doing so many Jewish things and she enjoys it, so I do it, too, because it’s important to her. But I also want to enjoy it.”
Rabbi Benny, as the community called him, responded with a warm smile and genuine care. After that conversation, Igor began attending the rabbi’s classes and soon he also began to find the same enjoyment in Jewish life as his wife did. The young family became close with the Wolffs and regulars at the Chabad community events. When their second child was born, a girl, they celebrated at the Chabad House, where they named her Ariella.
When the Weinmanns wanted to put mezuzahs up in their home, the Wolffs came over to help install them. Ina showed Shterna Wolff two special books she had on her shelf—a Chumash and Chitas. These had been gifts from her teachers in Or Avner Day School, back in Kherson. Ina had left most of her belongings behind in Kherson, but these books were special memories.
“Jewish education is so important from a young age,” says Shterna Wolff. “I meet many adults and even the elderly who love to remember back to the Jewish songs they learned in summer camp or that their mother sang to them at bedtime. Their favorite Jewish memories are specifically from childhood; it’s when education has the strongest influence.”
“We have a Hebrew school on Sundays, it’s very influential on the children and their whole family. It’s what gives them a Jewish identity. Sometimes, I think the children didn’t catch anything, but they come back years later, and we see it.”
Ina and Igor Weinmann were among many Jewish community members who came to admire Rabbi Benny and Shterna Wolff. The passionate and dynamic couple transformed Jewish life in Hanover, affecting the lives of countless individuals. Their Chabad House served the 5,000 local Jews, a community of mostly Jews from the former Soviet Union, along with local German Jews and Israelis. They also helped many Jewish medical tourists who were in need of support and kosher food during their treatment at the renowned International Neuroscience Institute of Hanover.
A Tragic Loss
In April of 2020, during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, Rabbi Binyamin Wolff became ill with pneumonia. In a shock to the entire community, he suddenly passed away, leaving behind his wife and eight children.
Despite the immense challenges ahead, Rebbetzin Shterna Wolff immediately announced that she and her children would be staying. Not only would the community continue; it would expand significantly.
Thousands of friends and supporters from Germany and around the world rallied around the Wolff family, and contributed funds to purchase and renovate a much-needed building for the Chabad Center in Rabbi Benny’s memory.
“Benny’s influence on the community was always very strong,” says Rebbetzin Wolff. “But, of course, it hit hard after he passed away; everyone had felt like a close friend and brother to him.”
A Special Naming
A year after Rabbi Benny’s passing, Inna and Igor Weinmann had a baby boy. It only felt natural for them to name the baby “David Binyamin” after their beloved Rabbi. The baby naming came out of a deep gratitude for everything Rabbi Benny had done for them and also an admiration for a person so special that they hoped their children would also look up to, and learn from his fine character.
They weren’t the only ones, five other babies in Hanover were named after Rabbi Benny, and 10 more worldwide.
“Today, many people’s lives have been shaped by the influence he had on them,” says Shterna Wolff. “It’s really moving just to hear how people talk about Benny; they begin to tear up like it was just yesterday that he passed away. It’s been two-and-a-half years, and everyone is still living with him and his influence. And for each person, it’s something else; for some, it’s in their relationship he guided them with; some their personal life struggles; some he helped in their time of financial need.”
Wolff continues to lead the Chabad House, now with the help of her daughter and son-in-law. They host regular prayers, Jewish holiday and lifecycle events; Shabbat meals; Jewish classes; and run a Sunday school, among many other activities.
“I want to say thank you to everyone who contributed to the big campaign for Benny,” Shterna Wolff told Chabad.org. “Truthfully, in their merit, we were able to buy this Chabad House that brought us huge growth. We appreciate the continued moral support and donations, and the people who send us encouraging words, follow us on Instagram, celebrate our achievements and support us. It’s so appreciated.”
Last week, the community celebrated the bar mitzvah of Daniel Weinmann. As the family posed for photos while receiving wishes of mazal tov, Shterna Wolff remembered what first brought them through the Chabad House doors. What had started as a talk about the Jewish lifecycle in her sister’s seventh-grade classroom now led to a beautiful Jewish family of five. They had marked each moment of the Jewish lifecycle together; a chuppah, brit milah, bar mitzvah and a child named after their beloved rabbi.