Last Shabbos Jerry Bechhofer was standing in shul as always – two rows in front of mine, tall and smiling. After davening he wished me a warm good Shabbos. Three days later he suddenly passed away at age 86 after a surgical procedure.
Bechhofer was a veritable stalwart of Washington Heights’s Breuer’s community (KAJ) and a tireless worker and advocate on its behalf. He was also the last living son-in-law of KAJ founder Rav Joseph Breuer, whom he helped take care of for 26 years. (After Rav Breuer’s wife passed away in 1954 he lived with his daughter and son-in-law until his own passing in 1980. As Agudath Israel head Rav Yaakov Perlow recounted during Tuesday’s eulogies, Bechhofer revered his father-in-law and always deferred his head-of-household position to him.)
Born in Furth, Germany in 1922, Bechhofer started working at 14 and practically didn’t stop until his dying day. He personified the traits of duty, integrity, hard work and community, and even in his mid-80s Bechhofer worked – both professionally and for the community – virtually seven days a week, keeping hours that many 20-year-olds find grueling.
Escaping Nazi Germany, Bechhofer arrived in America in 1939. Within a few years, though, he returned to his home country as a proud member of the invading United States military, which he joined as a volunteer in 1943. As an artillery officer he saw action in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany; was awarded a bronze star; and achieved the rank of first lieutenant by war’s end. Among his many interesting WWII experiences, Bechhofer was once assigned the unenviable task of accompanying Nazi leader Hermann Goering when the army was transferring him from one place to another.
After the war, Bechhofer returned to New York and settled in Washington Heights, sometimes teasingly called the Fourth Reich because of its high concentration of German Jews. There he married Meta Breuer, the youngest of Rav Breuer’s children, and Bechhofer embraced his wife’s family’s legacy as his own. As a guest at his Shabbos table several times in the past few years, I hardly remember Mr. Bechhofer letting a time pass without delivering a d’var Torah from Rav Shlomo Breuer (his father-in-law’s father).
In the years following WWII, Bechhofer often helped many fellow immigrants, unaccustomed to the language and culture of their new home, find jobs. In his own profession, Bechhofer was an innovator, inventing a primitive form of IBM word processing in the late 1950s. In his later years, he was the comptroller for a spice import company in New Jersey.
Above all else, however, Bechhofer was a staunchly dedicated member and leader of KAJ. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of KAJ’s parent community in Frankfurt, Germany, and his rabbinic successors constantly stressed the importance of involvement in and dedication to community – and no one treated this duty more seriously than Bechhofer. As one community member put it, “He was addicted to working for tzorchei tzibbur and devoted his life tirelessly to that end.” His commitment to KAJ’s yeshiva and its annual dinner and journal campaigns, which he spearheaded decade after decade, was particularly legendary and praised by KAJ’s Rav Yisroel Mantel in his eulogy.
Mr. Bechhofer may have left this world, but his memory is an inspiration to me and, I am sure, to so many others as well. I was shocked to hear of his passing and still can’t imagine Washington Heights without him. He belonged to the shrinking generation of older, German-born KAJ members in whom the very best virtues of German Jewry rest – virtues that helped create and continue to maintain the community and shul I belong to.
He is survived by his wife, Meta; brothers Fred and Ernest; sister Sonya; sons Samson, David, and Yaakov; and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.