Latest update: December 10th, 2012
He was a beautiful Jew.
Anyone – Jew or non-Jew, religious or secular, chassidic or yeshivish, man or woman – who encountered or exchanged words with Rabbi Chaskel Besser came away with a smile, feeling a little more pleasantly disposed about the topic at hand or the world at large.
Rabbi Besser had a way with words and a way with people that made you feel you were the only person in the world he wanted to talk with at that moment. I was privileged to know him for almost 20 years, from the time I began my association with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in 1992.
Rabbi Besser had joined forces with Ambassador Lauder in the mid-1980s and in the first few years of their association had already launched schools in Hungary, Poland and Vienna, as well as youth centers, summer camps, community education programs, and a host of other ventures aimed at building Jewish life in Central Europe.
Rabbi Besser knew this territory well, as it had been his home. His family, the Koschitzkys, had already become successful businesspeople in Poland and Germany by the time Rabbi Besser was born in Katowice, Poland in 1923. Much of the world he knew as a child had vanished. But there were still a few Jews scattered throughout this part of the world, and Rabbi Besser and Mr. Lauder laboured to give them a chance at Jewish life and Jewish hope after the catastrophes of the Holocaust and Communism.
Rabbi Besser had numerous callings or careers before this one, as a businessman and investor in his own right, rabbi of a modest synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (he is the subject of a delightful biography, The Rabbi of 84th Street), Presidium member of Agudath Israel, and international chairman of Daf Yomi. He was a confidant and friend of chassidic rebbes, roshei yeshiva, and Jewish community leaders.
As the Lauder Foundation’s director for Poland (though his influence extended far beyond projects in that country alone), Rabbi Besser seemed to be in his element, juggling phone calls, correspondence, and meetings with community officials and staff in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, German, and English – his desk teemed with newspapers and faxes in all those languages.
Rabbi Besser’s concern and care for each child in the Lauder Foundation’s numerous Jewish day schools, for the anxieties of their parents, for the programs of the summer camps, and for the hiring and retention of qualified staff were as broad as they were deep.
In the hours I was privileged to sit in his office high above central Manhattan or at his Shabbat table on Riverside Drive, or the times I was privileged to carry his suitcase as he checked in to the Bristol Hotel in Warsaw as he arrived to help facilitate another multilateral conference on restitution of Jewish property seized during the war, I never saw him waver from his standard operating procedure: thoughtful, engaged, a crinkle of a smile playing around his mouth, ready with a wry witticism, a sparkle of kindness and delight in his eyes – and throughout, a true European gentleman.
Most significantly for me, I never saw him show fear of what others might say or think or write about him. He felt no need to defend his traditional Jewish beliefs or practices. He never evinced hesitation about joining forces with Jews and non-Jews-some who shared his way of life and others who did not – to build a better future for others.
There will always be those who divide up the Jewish world into “us” and “them,” and write, speak, or think of “them” as wholly other. One of the most valuable gifts I received from Rabbi Besser was the living example of how truly to look at every Jew as one of the family.
Rabbi Besser impressed me as a complete Jew, fully engaged in the world. To those who say one must either give up much of one’s particularistic Jewish lifestyle to have an influence in the world as well as those who question whether a deeply pious and strictly Orthodox person can connect meaningfully with the larger world without losing his bearings, I can only offer the following story (he related it to others as well, but when he told it to me he made me feel as if I were the first one to hear it):
In January1989, Rabbi Besser was in Washington as Agudah’s representative at the inauguration of the first President Bush. As he sat on the dais reserved for dignitaries, quietly studying his small volume of Talmud, he was approached by two cardinals from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who greeted him cordially.
When he returned their blessings, the cardinals asked if they might ask the rabbi a question. He quickly turned his eyes heavenward. “Please, Lord, help me with this one,” Rabbi Besser implored the Master of the Universe.
“What is that you are studying, rabbi?” the cardinals asked.
“The Talmud,” he replied.
“We thought so. Tell us, it is said that the Talmud contains everything in the human experience, is that so?”
Again, a quickly uttered plea for divine intervention. “Yes, that’s so,” said the rabbi.
“If so, does the Talmud discuss today’s inauguration?” they queried, with a note of triumph.
Rabbi Besser’s prayers were answered. “Well, I am in the midst of studying the tractate Rosh Hashanah right now,” he said. “It discusses four beginnings of the year – and one of those is Tu B’Shevat, the new year for trees. So you see, your eminences, if the Jewish people observe a holiday for trees, surely that includes Bushes, too!”
Rabbi Chaskel Besser – mentor, role model, teacher, unparalleled storyteller, friend – passed away a few days short of his 87th birthday. I miss him dearly, and I think I always will.
About the Author: Rabbi Yossel Kanofsky is the spiritual leader of Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto.
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