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Here to Serve You

Whether Moish Binik is picking up the dinner tab for a group of dropouts or handing out vouchers for a family who can’t afford groceries, he’s living the maxim that people who give away everything are really the most full.

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“Y

ou’re going to throw away all those papers, right?” asks Moshe Binik, gesturing toward a reporter’s notebook with a twinkle in his brown eyes. He means: You’re not really going to publish something about me, are you?

Pirkei Avos tells us that those who run away from honor will receive it. That lesson could have been written for Moshe Binik, who is still trying to run from his many accomplishments. In an unassuming yet unceasing manner, he has dedicated himself to the needs of the community for decades, an askan when nobody talked about askanus. His chasadim range from opening his home to bikur cholim and teenage runaways, to establishing discount groceries for kollel families, to setting up lounges for at-risk boys. An early member of Hatzolah, he also founded yeshivos and kollelim.

Brooklyn is so dense that I’d never met Mr. Binik, despite the fact that I live around the corner. But I’d heard the whispers from friends: “That’s Moshe Binik’s house, my son used to sleep there when he was off the derech”; or “That’s where the Biniks live, you know, the guy who started the kollel store.” Since Moshe Binik is indeed the owner of the mammoth KRM Kollel Supermarket in Boro Park and Moisha’s Discount Supermarket in Flatbush, I’d always assumed that behind the plain façade of his brick two-family house I would find sculpted European furniture and plush carpets.

Well, gentle reader, what a surprise I had to enter and find myself in a living space more typical of a yeshivah rebbi than a prosperous balabos. There’s a well-used dining room table and crammed breakfront. “You see that couch?” says Rebbetzin Brachie Spira, one of the Binik’s four daughters, pointing to a yellow couch near the window covered in plastic. “My parents have had that couch ever since they got married.”

Living rooms speak louder than words. Moshe Binik is the kind of shrewd businessman who is able to bring in money, yes. And then he turns around and joyfully gives it away, confident in the belief it only came in for redistribution.


Humble Beginnings

Now getting older, and having suffered some health challenges, Mr. Binik has lost some of the high-octane vigor of his earlier days. But he’s clearly delighted to receive visitors, and his sense of humor bubbles to the surface with the regularity of Old Faithful. His wife Rossy and daughter Brachie sit in to fill in details.

The Biniks originally hail from the Bronx, although Moshe was sent as a boy to live with grandparents in Williamsburg in order to attend yeshivah at Torah Vodaath and later kollel at Chofetz Chaim. “I think the experience of having to live away from his parents gave him a feeling for boys who are having a hard time,” Mrs. Spira offers. “He saw how easy it is to slip.”

The East Bronx was not an especially frum neighborhood in the 1960’s when the Biniks married. They had friends who’d moved to Remsen Village (in East Flatbush), and the Biniks were impressed when they visited and saw the neighborhood park filled with children wearing yarmulkes. They moved in soon after.

Moshe was one of the early Hatzolah members during those years, but his “ambulance chasing” involved not just running after the sick, but their families as well. His house in Remsen Village was close to Brookdale Hospital where, as a sort of one-man Bikur Cholim society, he’d trawl the corridors in search of Jewish families in need of support or a meal. “Our house was like a hotel,” Mrs. Binik says. “He had cards printed up with our name and address on them. He once brought home a whole bunch of people for a three-day Yom Tov, and it was like we were playing musical beds!”

When Mrs. Binik gave birth to her youngest daughter, shortly before Shabbos, another man was simultaneously rejoicing in the birth of a baby boy at Brookdale. As was his custom for families who’d had boys Erev Shabbos, Moshe invited the man home and arranged a shalom zachar. “People didn’t understand what was going on!” he says with a broad grin. “My wife had just had a girl, but here I was inviting everyone to a shalom zachar!”

Mrs. Binik admits the constant hachnasas orchim wasn’t always easy on her. “I never knew how much food to bring in for Shabbos,” she says. “I always prepared extra portions.”

“Sometimes we ate leftovers all week!” Brachie adds with a laugh.

The Biniks enrolled their daughters in the Bnos Yisrael yeshivah in East Flatbush, and Moshe would go to the financially strapped school to help out in any way he could, taking the reins and balancing the budget — or taking out the garbage if those in charge neglected to do it. When the yeshivah honored him at their dinner, they called him their “rosh yeshivah of chesed.” He didn’t have sons, but nevertheless helped take the initiative to establish a kollel, Nachlas Haleviim, in the neighborhood, in the hopes of attracting more frum Jews to the area. “Rabbi Feivel Cohen and Rabbi Pinchas Kahn were the roshei yeshivah,” Chaim Stein, a longtime family friend, told Mishpacha. After about five years the neighborhood changed, and the yeshivah was moved to Boro Park. “But Moish used to do everything for the yeshivah.”

Brachie feels it’s important to highlight her mother’s contribution throughout the years: Without a wife holding down the fort at home — and accommodating those passing through — Moish’s outside activities wouldn’t have been possible. “My mother deserves the credit for taking such good care of us,” she says. Rossy was the one who managed on a shoestring while her husband diverted their funds into launching his kollel store; even when he began making more money, she never required luxuries for herself.

A Chicken in Every Pot

Moshe Binik began his professional life as a food salesman. “He worked for a company called Vitarroz, selling to Spanish groceries,” Chaim Stein says. “He’s smart. He was their top salesman! They wanted him to work full time, but he was able to accomplish the work in much less.”

Year after year, Moish would notice how food prices skyrocketed before Pesach. “It’s not fair,” he would think, knowing exactly how high the markup was. “People can’t afford it.”  Around 1982, he decided he would open up a “kollel store” on 14th Avenue between 43rd and 44th Streets for yungeleit and rebbeim, l’illui nishmas his father, Mordechai ben Yitzchak. “He had seen a grocery store created just for large families on a trip to Eretz Yisrael,” Brachi says, “and he took his inspiration from that.”

Binik called a meeting of 22 local grocers, and told them about his plan. Understandably, they were not amused. “There was a lot of opposition,” he admits. “I was proposing to sell food at cost price with just a very small markup to cover expenses. Our workers were all volunteers at the beginning, although over time we saw that we would have to pay people if we wanted them to be really reliable.”

Binik laid out a lot of his own money — “We lived very frugally during that time,” his wife emphasizes — and the store was instantly popular. The first day it opened, they had to close before 1:00 p.m. — they’d sold out all the stock! Customers were amazed they could fill a shopping cart with groceries and still walk away with change in their pockets. Binik began running sales on grocery items as well. “Grocery stores never used to put standard food items on sale,” he says. “I was the first.”

Nine years later, with the store jammed with customers and the landlord insisting on doubling the rent, Binik took a gamble: He decided to upgrade to a much bigger space and expand operations. He moved to the current space on 39th Street and 13th Avenue, renaming it KRM to stand for the kollel, rebbeim, and large mishpachos it was intended for.

His chesed extended to his employees as well. When a cashier told him she didn’t have enough money to buy necessities for her own family, he handed her a $100 bill. The store safe was once broken into, with a worker’s salary inside, and Binik reimbursed the lost money. “That was his success,” Mrs. Binik declares. “People were loyal because he was good to them.”

Elchonon (Chuni) Pitterman, a Binik friend and former Hatzolah associate, remembers another piece of the robbery story: “The safe was emptied two days before Rosh Hashanah, and when they called Moish in a panic, he just laughed and said, ‘Look! I guess Hashem is evening out the books before Rosh Hashanah!’”

KRM was so wildly successful that Binik decided to open a grocery in Flatbush as well; Moisha’s Discount opened in 1995. For Chuni and Silky Pitterman, the timing was perfect; Chuni had been hospitalized earlier that year with a serious health issue, and had since been unable to go back to work. “Moish came to him and said, ‘Whenever you want to come, you have a job,” Silky says. “At the beginning he went in only a few hours a week, and it seemed clear Moish was offering this more as tzedakah. But the real chesed was that he got Chuni out of the house and gave him back his sense of purpose.

“When Chuni was first hospitalized, a lot of friends and Hatzolah contacts came to visit, including Moish. Chuni had collapsed two days before Pesach, and after patiently listening to Chuni recount his trauma for the umpteenth time, he took me quietly aside and asked, ‘Do you have enough money?’ Then he handed me $500 in vouchers for Moisha’s Discount.”

Silky protested that she didn’t really need them, but Moish insisted. “I never used them in the end, but it made me feel so wonderfully secure to know I had them as a backup,” Silky says.

Binik always felt the pain of those who had trouble feeding their families, and became known for giving away thousands of dollars in food vouchers. “He had them made up to look like a credit card, so no one had to know they were tzedakah,” Mrs. Binik says.

Inspired by a kollel in Eretz Yisrael that was funded by a grocery, Moish decided to dedicate some of the profits into founding Bais Horaah, a halachah kollel on Avenue M headed by his son-in-law Rabbi Zvi Spira. There, rabbis are always on call to answer sh’eilos.

Nourishing Empty Souls

By the time Moisha’s Discount opened, the Biniks were living in Flatbush, and the phenomenon of “at-risk kids” was just becoming visible on the Jewish radar. There were a few valiant souls, like Yossi Yurowitz and Chaim Glancz, who used to go out into the streets to help kids who were floundering or on drugs. “One Friday night Chaim and I were on Avenue N a couple of blocks from Moish’s house, talking to some balabatim, when Moish walked by,” Yurowitz told Mishpacha. “He joined the conversation about all these kids who were off the derech. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing — and then three kids walked by, and we brought them over to talk.”

“It was Shabbos, but the kids were smoking,” Mrs. Binik recalls. “The men told Moish, ‘These are the children of rabbis in our community!’$$separate quotes$$”

The following Sunday morning, Yurowitz relates, Moish announced he was on board, ready to donate time and money. “Let’s build a place for the kids,” he proposed. “On the street, they’re in their own territory. Let’s put them into our territory.”

He consulted a rosh yeshivah about his idea to open a drop-in center for kids at risk. “He told me, ‘If you’re going to do it, make it nice,’$$separate quotes$$” Moish says. “So we bought four fancy pool tables at $2,500 apiece, and served hot food every night so they’d get a good meal. The first night we opened, they all came.”

Our Place, on Avenue M, developed into a professionally staffed haven servicing close to 1,000 teens annually, a place to hang out that also serves as a springboard for getting help. It has since grown offshoots such as a girls’ center and The Living Room, a center for kids who have come clean from substance abuse and are starting new lives. “There are hundreds of kids who are now clean,” says Yurowitz, who continues to work with Our Place. “We recently made a ten-year anniversary event, and it’s wonderful to see these kids moving ahead, some getting married and starting families, even some in kollel. There are a lot of kids who would be dead today, if not for Moish — and now we’re seeing the next generation being born.”

Binik, who had managed to earn a master’s degree in guidance and counseling “somewhere along the way,” had been involved informally with helping other people with their problems for years. Even before Our Place, he had a reputation for having a gift for talking to struggling couples and teens. “He had this warm, yet tough way of dealing with the boys, hugging them around the shoulders in a way they really responded to,” says neighbor Yossi Scheinberg. Kids on the street with nowhere to go knew they could crash in Moish Binik’s basement if they needed to. “I know a kid whose father kicked him out of the house,” Yurowitz says. “He put his stuff into two suitcases, and came to Moish. He lived there for a long time, no questions asked.”

Rossy Binik remembers a boy who came to the door years ago “looking like a combination of Bozo the Clown and Elvis Presley, in tight white pants and a shirt unbuttoned to the waist. He was the grandson of a rosh yeshivah,” she says. “My husband put time and koach into him, and sent him to Eretz Yisrael to learn.

“One summer day a few years later, we heard a knock on the door, and there was a boy in a beketshe, with peyos and a beard, stopping in on his way to Maariv — it was the same boy! Today he’s in kollel with a wife and children.”

Then there was a boy from out of town who came from a troubled home, and lived in the Biniks’ basement for some time. At one point the boy told the Biniks his brother was coming to stay for a short time. “But don’t say anything about religion,” he warned them, “because my brother’s a staunch atheist.”

“This brother stayed with us for a while, and Moish treated him royally,” Rossy recounts. “He was a brilliant boy, and after some time he landed a great job interview at the World Trade Center — scheduled for 9:00 a.m., September 11, 2001.

“Well, by a miracle his alarm never went off, and that saved his life. Moish looked at him and said, ‘Who saved you? When was the last time your alarm didn’t go off? Never!’ Moish pointed to the heavens and said, ‘Hashem loves you!’

Shortly afterward, the professed atheist asked to borrow Moish’s tefillin. He continued to grow, and eventually Moish sent him to Eretz Yisrael to learn.

Yurowitz relates that he once ran to the Biniks’ at midnight on a desperate errand: a teen had been arrested — a high-profile case — and if he didn’t come up with $12,000 in bail immediately the boy would disappear into the jail system (“Once they’re in, it’s hard to get them out,” he explains). When Yurowitz got there, Moish opened the door just a crack — but enough for Yurowitz to see he’d been deep in conversation counseling a couple (“People I knew!” he exclaims). Binik reached into his pocket and passed him an envelope with the money. “Don’t tell Rossy,” he whispered.

Binik’s counseling activities weren’t limited to Brooklyn. “If my parents went on vacation to Florida, he’d still be on the phone constantly with people at all hours,” Brachi says. Moish and Rossy bought a simple apartment in Jerusalem and began spending summers there — but never alone. Moish would go to Ohr Somayach and work with troubled boys there; their Shabbos table regularly filled with large groups of boys. “Ohr Somayach wanted to give him an official office,” Mrs. Binik says. “They’d send him the hardest cases, like a chassidic boy who’d lost his mother and been thrown out by his father.

“The boy had cut off his peyos, and Moish spent a lot of time working with him and counseling him. Eventually he told him, ‘When you get married, I’ll make your chasunah.’ In the end this boy married a Sephardi girl, and made up with his father; Moish made him a simple wedding. Moish gave him his neshamah back.”

Yurowitz remembers visiting the Biniks in Israel and accompanying Moish on Motzaei Shabbos to “Crack Square,” the area on Ben Yehuda Street where the American druggies hang out and party. “We saw kids we knew from Brooklyn,” he says. “Moish told them, ‘I’m taking everyone out to dinner on Thursday!’ He booked a steak house and told the management, ‘Don’t stop bringing the food. I want these kids to get one good meal.’ Well, all the kids showed up that Thursday; Moish kept yelling at the waiters, ‘Bring more food! Bring more!’$$separate quotes$$”

Many of the boys still feel deep hakaras hatov. For example, when Our Place first opened, a group of about 15 boys came to the Biniks’ for Shabbos, dressed in sloppy jeans. The following Shabbos, one of the boys, impressed by Moish and wishing to please, showed up in an expensive suit and white shirt. This boy developed a close relationship with Moish, went back to yeshivah and later to college; several years later, he wrote Moish a moving, three-page letter calling him “my father” and declaring he’d saved his life. “When my husband read that letter, his eyes filled with tears,” Rossy says. The Biniks have other treasured letters from young men thanking them for helping them get back on their feet spiritually and physically. When Moish suffered his first stroke, 60 religiously lapsed boys undertook to put on tefillin every morning as a zechus for his refuah.

When asked what parenting advice he has to offer, Binik’s formula is simple: “Love your children, be there for them. Give them time, ask how they’re doing. Many of the kids who fall off the derech do so because of abuse from parents or teachers.”

Not His for the Taking

The Biniks have an endless fount of stories of the people who have passed through the doors of their modest home, many leaving transformed or given a transfusion of money to restart life after a bad break. Then there are the other projects: building mikvaos, setting up a mentoring program for boys in Lakewood to keep them from slipping through the cracks, donating a sefer Torah, underwriting chasunahs, opening kollelim.

How did Moish become Moish? A lot of us do a little chesed here, give a little tzedakah there; when duty calls, we try to rise to the occasion gracefully. But how many of us throw the better part of our time, energy, and money chasing after opportunities to help others? What drives him? “He did have a grandfather who was known to be a baal chesed, a very caring person,” Rossy ventures. “And his mother always stressed the importance of Torah learning.”

Binik was always giving away money even when he didn’t have much. Rossy, who occasionally worked as a bookkeeper, admits she’d sometimes get frustrated. “He’d give money to help other people, more than what we had!” she says. “He’d lend money to people, and then they wouldn’t pay him back, sometimes even after they’d become successful. People still owe him fortunes of money.” Both she and her daughter look mystified when asked where Moish gets this inner emunah to believe he can give endlessly and Hashem will unfailingly come through for him as well.

It does help that the Biniks aren’t people who aspire to luxury. “The thing about Moish Binik,” Yossi Yurowitz says, “is that even after he became successful, he never changed his lifestyle.” Chaim Stein remembers him wearing old jackets and never buying fancy cars, even as he’d offer to take struggling teens shopping to buy them new clothes. “He never needed fancy,” Brachie says. “He never felt peer pressure to keep up with anyone.”

Didn’t anybody ever try to take advantage? “There have been a few cases,” Rossy admits. “Once a man moved in with us with his entire family after a fire in his house, and Moish gave him food vouchers, but after a while it was pretty evident he was abusing Moish’s goodwill. At that point we drew some limits.”

Yossi Yurowitz remembers an evening he went to Moish to go over the budget for Our Place. “We were still working on funding it; we didn’t have a handle on it yet,” he recounts. “Moish kept pushing off getting into the numbers. Finally he just threw his checkbook at me and said, ‘Take my checkbook and just straighten it all out!’

“Well, I opened the checkbook to enter some checks, and I couldn’t believe what I saw! There were names and names of people he’d given money to — and not negligible amounts! There were tons of people I knew! It seemed everyone under the sun had received a check. ‘You must be out of your mind!’ I told him.”

But Moish Binik is a person who lives to give, a walking example of the maxim that those who give the most feel the most filled up. “Some people write checks, some people deliver them, some volunteer,” Yossi Yurowitz says. “Moish does all of it.”

Although much younger than Binik, Yurowitz is proud to call him a close friend. But hundreds of others feel exactly the same way. For those in the depths, he lifts them up; for those who aren’t, he teaches them the true meaning of caring for one other.

There are a lot of kids who would be dead today, if not for Moish — and now we’re seeing the next generation being born

“He’d give money to help other people, more than what we had!”

“It was Shabbos, but the kids were smoking. One of the men told Moish, “These are the children of rabbis in our community!”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 517)

 

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