Known for a disarming smile and a dignified love of all people, Rabbi Chaskel Besser, who worked to spur a revival of Jewish life in his native Poland, passed away this week at the age of 87. Having made it out of Europe shortly before World War II, he eventually settled in the United States, where he maintained close contact with heads of state, as well as the “regular people” who, despite never having met him, regularly called him for advice.

Born in Katowice, Besser lived in Europe until the war began in September 1939, and made his way to what was then Palestine, enduring firsthand the anti-Jewish cruelties of the era. His biographer, Warren Kozak, asserted that his survival could only be described as having “come from G‑d.”

Instead of becoming depressed from the loss of many of his family members during the war, a warm home and the mentors from his youth, Besser chose to make a difference in the world with a charismatic way of looking at things in a positive light.

“He was very realistic,” said Kozak. “He understood better than anyone that there was evil in the world, yet he chose to help Jews and he chose to see the positive side of life.”

Besser shunned titles, money and honor. According to those close to him, most of what he did will never be known to the wider public, because he didn’t boast about his achievements. From his desk and his pulpit, he worked to repay a debt he felt he owed the Almighty for allowing him to live.

In 1954, he accepted the presidency of the Bnei Yisroel Shtiebel, a small synagogue in New York City. And in 1964, he ascended to its pulpit on two conditions: He didn’t want remuneration for his services, and, since he didn’t want to inconvenience his congregants, he told them to not wait for him to complete his prayers.

As with his synagogue duties, Besser did not accept commissions for any of his communal positions, and was adamant to pay for his official trips and expenses. Among his responsibilities over the years, he served on the boards of Agudath Israel of America, and at the behest of four U.S. presidents beginning with President Ronald Reagan, on the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of American Heritage Abroad.

“He didn’t carry himself with an air of importance,” said Sander Gerber, a longtime synagogue member and CEO of Hudson Bay Capital Management LP. “He wanted to be a regular fellow.

“He was someone who had a lineage going back to great rabbis, yet he never was one to ever think that this made him something special,” added Gerber. “He truly believed that every individual should be respected, no matter who they are.”

Rabbi Chaskel Besser during one of his many interactions with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Rabbi Chaskel Besser during one of his many interactions with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Trips to Europe

Besser travelled extensively to Poland to rebuild and preserve Jewish cemeteries in a country from which his family was forced to flee. Although he was uncomfortable in returning, he would do so proudly, dressed in the traditional styles of his parents and grandparents during the pre-Holocaust days.

At the U.S. preservation commission, backing from the State Department gave greater fruition to Besser’s efforts on behalf of sites holy to Jews.

His mere presence in Poland also spurred many Jews who since the Holocaust had kept their identities hidden, to reemerge in public life. Many such individuals called Besser to ask to meet him, and the rabbi listened to their stories in a hotel lobby. At times, he could be found there at the wee hours of the morning still in deep conversation with people who had no formal Jewish community.

Kozak, in The Rabbi of 84th Street, records that one day, Besser’s wife went to Brooklyn, N.Y., to talk to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Besser shared a close relationship with the Rebbe, whom he described as having “an extraordinary brilliance, and in that sense, he was beyond [normal] human abilities.”

“When it was finally her turn to have a word with him,” Kozak writes about Besser’s wife’s meeting, “the Rebbe, noticing she was alone, asked where her husband was.”

She told the Rebbe that her husband was working on bet hachaim, using a traditional Hebrew term referring to a cemetery as a “house of the living.”

“Tell your husband,” answered the Rebbe, “he should also remember the chaim,” the living, “not just the bet hachaim.”

“Although his work with Polish cemeteries was important,” interpreted Kozak, the Rebbe said that “he should also focus his attention on Polish Jews who are still alive.”

Besser got the message, and immediately began to revitalize Jewish life in Poland, bringing kosher food to the country and giving lectures for its residents.

“What the Lubavitcher Rebbe said was the push for Rabbi Besser to start getting involved not only with the Jewish cemeteries in Poland, but also with the living,” said Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich.

His efforts reached a new level when he formed a partnership with the philanthropist Ronald Lauder. At the time, Lauder was taking an interest in strengthening Jewish life after meeting a young Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, Rabbi Yaakov Biderman. Biderman had just opened a small school in Vienna, Austria, where Lauder served as U.S. ambassador.

Rabbi Chaskel Besser holds a new Torah scroll during its dedication ceremony at his New York City synagogue.
Rabbi Chaskel Besser holds a new Torah scroll during its dedication ceremony at his New York City synagogue.

Revival of Jewish Life in Poland

At the American Embassy in Vienna, Besser told an ambassadorial aide how difficult it was to bring kosher food into Poland. The aide arranged a meeting between the two men, who quickly resolved to work together.

When Lauder returned to the United States, he created the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and gave the position of Poland Chairman to Besser.

“It was the perfect partnership,” said Kozak. “Together, they developed this extraordinary partnership.”

“He’s changed my life,” Lauder once told the biographer, “and he’s changed the lives of countless Jewish children in Eastern Europe.”

“Rabbi Besser was the spiritual father of the Jews in Poland,” said Schudrich. “He was the first Jewish person to really come to Poland who came and said, ‘Hello. What could I do for living Jews?’ ”

Rabbi Yossel Konofsky, director of the Lauder Foundation in Poland from 2001 to 2004, agreed.

“Jewish people in Poland, when you talk to them about Rabbi Besser, their faces light up. They feel a connection to him like to their own fathers,” said Konofsky. In turn, “he cared very deeply about the Jews in Poland. Everybody felt good around him, old and young. He related to people from where they were, and always made them feel good about their Judaism.”

“His greatness in my opinion,” added Gerber, “was his ability to make everyone understand that we all have our place in the world.”

In many ways, explained Schudrich, the Rebbe and Besser shared the same approach to life.

Besser “empowered every person with his outpouring of live,” said Schudrich. “He showed such great interest in the people, that the people took great interest in what he had to say, and wanted to be a part of it.”

Schudrich noted that on Feb. 9, a short time before Besser’s passing, a Jewish boy was born in Katowice, the only recorded Jewish birth in that city since the Holocaust.

“Rabbi Besser,” posited Schudrich, “did not want to leave the world without leaving some memory.”

Rabbi Chaskel Besser was buried Wednesday evening at the Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem.