I am grateful to Rabbi Yeshayah Alexander Steinberger of Jerusalem, Israel, for inspiring me (unbeknownst to him) with this concept. When I lived in the far-flung Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Sharet, where the religious population was, shall we say, scant, I was told by a close rebbi (teacher) of mine, Rabbi Daniel Belsky, to seek out an old friend of his there, Rabbi Steinberger. Rabbi Steinberger, I was told, was the “Rav haSh’chunah,” or “Neighborhood Rabbi.” Now, in English, that just sounds like a rabbi that lives in the neighborhood, but in Israel, where cities like Jerusalem are divided into distinct neighborhoods, this title takes on a much more official connotation. Also unique is that in Jerusalem, a very “religious” city, it is unusual to find a “Neighborhood Rabbi,” considering that there are typically countless shuls in any one neighborhood, so there is no one neighborhood rabbi. But this neighborhood was different. It was very secular, right down to the anti-Haredi graffiti on the walls, and the sidewalks being mined with dog feces. (This is a common feature of secular neighborhoods, where the culture encourages raising dogs rather than large families. By contrast, in the more religious neighborhoods it is almost taboo to have a dog.)
One Shabbos morning, I roamed the streets determined to find Rabbi Steinberger’s shul (synagogue), but couldn’t find it. (I did find two Sephardic shuls, but no Ashkenazic ones.) Finally, I asked another pedestrian if he knew where Rabbi Steinberger’s shul was. He directed me to an apartment building some blocks away, where Rabbi Steinberger’s shul was apparently built into the building’s miklat (bomb shelter). Imagine! The Neighborhood Rabbi, and his synagogue was hidden inconspicuously in a bomb shelter on the outskirts of the neighborhood! (That’s how secular this neighborhood was.) Typically, a shul rabbi will deliver a “drasha” (sermon) right in the middle of the service, for 10-15 minutes, when the congregants are a captive audience. Not in this shul. Rather, at the end of the service, as the congregants stood up to leave, Rabbi Steinberger announced, in Hebrew, “Shishim sh’niyot shel Torah!” (“Sixty seconds of Torah!”) The majority of congregants continued filing out the door, but a small group moved to the front of the room and sat down near the rabbi. Rabbi Steinberger proceeded to quickly pose a question on a puzzling element of the Torah portion of the week, then offer the clever and concise solution of a famous sage, with an ethical lesson that can be derived from it. Indeed, he kept the lesson to a one-minute limit. In his wisdom, Rabbi Steinberger understood the limitations of his congregants, and met them at their level.
I became a regular congregant of Rabbi Steinberger’s shul. (I don’t even know if the shul had a name — it didn’t even have a sign!) I attended as many Shabbos mornings as I could during the year I lived in the area. I would walk Rabbi Steinberger home after the service, and had the pleasure and privilege at least once of attending his Shabbos table, where I met his son and daughter-in-law, a granddaughter of the famed Rishon l’Tziyon (Sephardic Chief Rabbi) Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. I developed a relationship with Rabbi Steinberger for which I am grateful. Incidentally, Rabbi Steinberger’s wife was also my wife’s teacher at Touro College in Israel.
Little did I know that years later, when searching for an effective format for teaching Torah to estranged Jews, I would remember Rabbi Steinberger’s “sixty seconds of Torah,” and those sixty seconds would become the platform of transmission of much Torah inspiration.