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Yisroel Besser

A real rav, a real shul, are forever

Wednesday, February 06, 2019




few weeks ago, Mishpacha held several days of meetings at its Boro Park headquarters. The marathon meetings were perhaps my hardest assignment to date. 
I would arrive each morning and look for parking in a neighborhood where instead of names, the streets have numbers — like seats on an airplane — and where you’re always blocking someone’s driveway by a bit. 
Then I would try to find a place to daven. One morning, I ended up in a relatively small shul on a street corner near the office. It’s a one-room shul with a cloud of authenticity hanging over the old benches, a huge hot water urn, and an open jar of instant coffee with grains of sugar mixed in by double-dippers, like all shuls used to have before the fancy ones merged with Starbucks. 
Along with the regulars, the mispallelim included several special-needs adults, their educators encouraging them along.
“This Shabbos we say chazak,” one of these young men announced, nearly trembling with excitement, “finally.”
A regular, his tallis still over his shoulder waiting to be spread, tilted his head to the side. “Where will you be davening on Shabbos?” he asked the young man. “I think I’d like to hear you scream chazak.”
The young man’s face flushed with pleasure, and he jumped up so suddenly the table nearly fell over. The tallis-on-shoulder man took out a blue Bic pen and wrote down the address of the shul.
I don’t know if he went or not, but I do know that it’s the type of shul where you can hear a conversation like that.
Later in the day, I snuck out of an editorial meeting to get some food. The reason I did so wasn’t because they didn’t order lunch. They did. Lots of it. Just the people who ordered the food and most of the ones eating the food were women, people who are happy to have a salad with stuff in it and another salad with different stuff in it and avocado whatever and arancini and nothing that looked anything like danishes or doughnuts, which was what I wanted. I went to the grocery store on the corner and chatted with the proprietor. 
Somehow, the shul directly across the street from the store came up, and I learned that it was nearly the first yahrtzeit of the rebbe of that shul, Rav Nuchem Meir Paneth, and the shul was called Zichron Moshe, Dezj. The proprietor of the store is the Dezjer Rebbe’s son.
And along with the danishes (and a Kif-Kef bar and bag of Bissli) he told me its secret, one he’d only learned at the shivah for his father. The young men who came to daven and learn there each day live in a nearby group home for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They like davening in Dezj because when it comes to sensing truth and authenticity, they aren’t delayed, but advanced. 
Years ago, when the young men first “discovered” Dezj, the administrator of the home visited the Rebbe with the good news that since he’d welcomed these delayed adults, his shul was now eligible for government funds.
The shul, as is readily evident, could have used the extra funds. But the Rebbe smiled and waved away the offer, stating emphatically that the zechus of having these precious young men daven in his shul was priceless. He wouldn’t sell it for money, thank you very much.
The administrator nodded. A few weeks later he approached the Rebbe with a stack of papers. “Rebbe, I did the paperwork, we’re all set. Now the Rebbe just has to sign and the funds will be transferred to his account. All the hassle is behind us.”
The Rebbe looked him in the eye. “The zechus or having them here is worth too much to sell for money, I’m sorry.”
On a freezing day, I stood on a Boro Park street corner, the small grocery behind me, the small shul across from me, and exhaled, vapor visible for just a moment before it rose heavenward.
Then I went back to the office and talked about stories and scoops and the details you can touch but not see, the story of the shul and its Rebbe safe in my heart, keeping me warm.
A Real Rabbi
On the subject of rabbis and shuls with a special atmosphere:
At the Republican National Convention in 2016, I had the good fortune of circulating backstage, where the highest-level politicians and their handlers hang out. I hadn’t won an all-access pass, but something better: the company of Rabbi Nate Segal, a man whose confidence, connections, and personal appeal seem to open doors, the sort of person to whom security officers doff their caps and say, “Good evening, rabbi.”
As the rabbi led me through a web of corridors, we saw A-list media personalities reporting live or waiting to catch speakers on the way off stage. There was a large crowd surrounding one reporter. The head of the microphone he waved was covered by a puppet, an open-mouthed puppy, and his brand of interview was a mix of comedy and insult. 
We approached. I marveled at the fact that powerful, respected legislators were stopping to get interviewed, willingly turning themselves into punch lines for that little bit of extra exposure. 
Rabbi Segal, with eyes trained to see such things, called out, “You’re a Yid!”
The comedian lowered the mic, suddenly bashful. “Yes,” he conceded.
“Do you go to the synagogue?”
The comedian admitted that he only went on Yom Kippur. “Look, the rabbi isn’t the real thing, the whole synagogue is just a business. It’s not a real shul.”
He used that word — shul. 
He was quiet for a moment, then he said, “When I was a child, we went to a real shul with a real rabbi.”
It was a shtibel, he explained, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“Rabbi Besser was real,” he said.
I told him that that very real rabbi was my grandfather, Rav Chaskel Besser. 
His eyes opened wide, in disbelief. “No way!”
Moments later, his aides broke in to point out a prominent senator walking by, and he shrugged in apology and got back to work.
A few weeks later, I emailed him that the shul was still there, and my father, the current rav, would be happy to welcome him for a visit.
He came, the comedian, and, in the small room where the d?cor and furnishings haven’t much changed since he was a child, he bowed humbly and said Kaddish for his father. 
Then he went back to his life, his career, his ratings and awards.
I write these words on the yahrtzeit of my zeide, who spoke with wisdom and kindness, the sort of language that the canned laughter of a studio audience can never drown out. 
A real rav, a real shul, are forever.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 747. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at

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