Rabbi Chaskel Besser

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Rabbi Chaskel Besser, a true leader of the Jewish people, has been fighting to recover from a long illness.  He was recently re-admitted to the hospital.

Our prayers are what got him through the last time – he said it himself. Our prayers are needed again now.

Please pray for a complete recovery for CHASKEL BEN FRUMET.

May God hear your prayers, and answer all of them.

The following article is reprinted from “The Jewish Daily – Forward“, published: November 12, 2004.

“The Rabbi of 84th Street: The Extraordinary Life of Haskel Besser  by Warren Kozak – Saul Austerlitz

(…) Haskel Besser was born in Katowice, Poland, in 1923, to a family of modern Hasidim. His father, Naftali, was a banker, and a close advisor to the leader of one of the great Hasidic dynasties — Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowitz, the Radomsker Rebbe. Following Kristallnacht, Naftali and the rest of the Besser family fled to Palestine, leaving behind Haskel to manage the remainder of their business affairs. Making a number of close escapes from the ever-present Nazis, Haskel arrived at the boat that would take him to the Holy Land, giving away his last dollar for a bribe as he stepped aboard. The date was September 1, 1939.

Life in Palestine was a 180-degree turn from that of Poland. The family settled in Tel Aviv, where Haskel was encouraged to marry. One candidate, the daughter of a wealthy family, was intrigued, but only on condition that he cease wearing his shtreimel, the traditional fur hat worn by Hasidim that she found entirely unsuitable to Tel Aviv’s desert climate. Haskell’s desire to maintain tradition, though, overrode any interest, material or otherwise: “She had a point… it was uncomfortable. But I dressed that way then and now because my father and his father did the same.” He ended up marrying Liba, his wife of more than 50 years. Following the war, they moved to New York. Besser went into commercial real estate with a partner, and became something of an oracle to Jews in need of good advice as spiritual leader of a small shul on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He also partnered with billionaire Ronald Lauder on a project seeking to bring Jewish education to the children of Eastern Europe — a mission that has consumed Besser for the past 20 years. With news reports appearing regularly in the past few years about tensions between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, one wonders how Lauder and Besser, a Reform philanthropist and a Hasidic rabbi, respectively, manage to work together so fruitfully, but this is a subject “The Rabbi of 84th Street” avoids assiduously.

The joy of the Hasidic story was always partially located in its embrace of the non sequitur, and once Kozak throws his hands up and lets the book run its own course, we hear Besser’s funny, world-weary voice at its best. Funniest is a story about Gabriel Reiner, a friend of the rabbi’s who accompanied an American chess champion on a trip to the Soviet Union. While there, the chess player and his entourage were invited to an embassy party, where they were surprised at the arrival of Nikita Khrushchev. Reiner was the only one daring enough to summon the courage to talk to Khrushchev, and after being decimated in a vodka-drinking competition (Khrushchev downed 27 shots!), he petitioned the Soviet leader to allow freer travel to his country for American tourists, as a means of encouraging dialogue between American and Soviet citizens. Khrushchev agreed and gave Reiner sole control over the arranging of tourist visas.

For those looking for a straightforward accounting of Besser’s life, and of the milieu that formed him, your hopes will be dashed by the cavalcade of unrelated stories that come hurtling out of “The Rabbi of 84th Street.” For those willing to suspend disbelief, and who understand that these stories say much about how the Hasidic mind works in its love of faith over scientific logic, “The Rabbi of 84th Street” has much to offer.

The Jews of New York – Hasidic Rabbi Haskel Besser



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