Memories of a Beautiful Jew
Rabbi Joe Kanofsky is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program, Class XI. Joe is the rabbi of Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto, Canada [www.shaareitorah.com. From 2001- 2004, he served as Poland Director of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A year after his passing, I believe the world has been diminished by the loss of Rabbi Chaskel Besser, whom I looked up to as a teacher, mentor, role model, and friend. I spoke about Rabbi Besser’s passing in my shul, wrote about him in several newspapers, but, still don’t feel as though I’ve begun to adapt to the world without this shining neshama in it. I bought a copy of the recent biography of him for our library, but even this collection of stories http://tinyurl.com/ybzgsbg doesn’t give you the sense of the person that I had, in the many hours I had the privilege to sit in his office in New York, or spend time with him in Poland, hearing his stories and asking him questions and seeing his perspective on the world.
I had the honor and delight of knowing Rabbi Besser since 1992. From the mid 1980’s until his passing earlier this year, he was the Chairman for Poland of the Ronald S Lauder Foundation. In his partnership with Ambassador Lauder, they built and inaugurated dozens of Jewish schools throughout Central Europe, brought rabbis, teachers, translators, guitar players, and other summer camp staff to thousands of Jewish kids in 16 countries seeking to discover their Jewish identities, and helped nurture a generation of Jewish leaders from those countries, from Germany to Poland to Hungary to Russia to former Yugoslavia, and everywhere in between.
Rabbi Besser was the international chairman of the Daf Yomi, the worldwide movement to study a page of Talmud every day, begun in 1928 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin, and now nearing completion of its 12th cycle. He gave a daily gemara shiur on “the daf” in his modest shul in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and a number of people I knew from graduate school who moved there to pursue careers in Law were his students. He was a featured speaker at the most recent “Siyum Hashas”, the worldwide celebration of the completion of study of the entire Talmud.
Daf Yomi itself is sponsored by Agudas Israel, an orthodox political/communal organization founded almost 100 years ago in Rabbi Besser’s native town of Katowice, Poland (it was Germany then). As a member of the Presidium of Agudah, Rabbi Besser was a confidant and friend to many roshei yeshiva and major rabbis of the 20th century, and in the many hours I spent with him, never seemed close to running out of stories, insights, recollections.
Amidst all this, he was a successful businessman and investor, and advocate in many forums for community concerns. He brought many different parties to the table in international talks about restitution of Jewish property confiscated in the Holocaust, in preserving sites of Jewish interest overseas, and many other venues.
Yet nothing of his resume, his work with NGOs or governments, his business interests, tell you enough about the man himself and what he was: a seamless blending of a person steeped in Torah learning, engaged with and appreciative of the world of culture, literature, and music; and a genuine “mentch,”—greeting and connecting with people of all backgrounds, temperaments, and religious (or non-religious!) orientations.
Rabbi Besser seemed to me fear nothing and no one, other than G-d. He was not afraid of what people might write, say, or think about him—he was completely comfortable with who he was and what he stood for such that he didn’t need to defend it or protect it from unfriendly influences—he simply stood for Judaism, for kindness, for wisdom, and for greeting each person with a smile. And a kind word.
I believe that we all need role models. It’s good to study, it’s vital to be familiar and constantly engaged with sacred texts. It’s important to know the choreography of Jewish life, the halachot, what to do, and how, and when. Yet I feel that we need someone to embody it, to lift it off the page, to make it real, to breathe life into it. He did that, with uncommon grace.
The story I told in my shul captures this quite appropriately considering what an aficionado of classical music Rabbi Besser was: It’s an explanation by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, in a lecture I heard called “Halacha as a Symphony.” Apparently, Cardozo had a neighbor in Israel who was an amateur violinist. This neighbor would constantly practice Beethoven’s violin concerto—with such dedication, if not expertise, that Rabbi Cardozo felt he knew it by heart. So when Yehudi Menuhin came to town to perform the concerto, he went to hear the performance, and was stunned: this was a completely different piece of music! The same notes, in the same order, with the same rhythm and meter—but in the hands of a virtuoso, those same notes can elevate you and transform your life.
Rabbi Besser, alav hashalom, was a virtuoso. He lived a completely Jewish life, and not only that: he made it into a beautiful symphony. He was a great rabbi, a European Gentleman, and an Ish ha-Chessed; a person of kindness. I miss him dearly, and I think I always will.