The Chabad Chayil community in North Miami Beach, Fla., marked the 20th yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) last week of its founder, Rabbi Dovid Bryn, who passed away in 2002 at age 40 after suffering from Marfan syndrome, a rare disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue. Bryn’s congregation, then known as the California Club Shul—it was located in the California Club mall—has only continued to flourish, with construction now underway on a $12 million, almost 50,000-square-feet educational center, where more than 700 public-school children will attend after-school classes daily. The community, now led by Rabbi Moishe and Layah Kievman, is marking Bryn’s yahrtzeit by concluding the writing of a new Torah scroll in his honor.

The son of Holocaust survivors, Bryn grew up in Patchogue, N.Y., where his father served as a cantor in a local congregation. In 1977, when Dovid was 15, his father took up a similar position in Tampa, Fla. Dovid needed a school, and Tampa had no Orthodox one at the time. Wanting to keep the boy at home, his parents settled on a less observant school. But Dovid insisted on continuing his yeshivah education, and so he boarded at Chabad’s Landow Yeshivah in Miami Beach.

As a child, Bryn had attended Chabad’s Camp Gan Israel in Parksville, N.Y., for a summer, but Miami was his first serious foray into the Chabad world. He enjoyed his time in Miami and continued his studies at the Rabbinical College of America, in Morristown, N.J., eventually transferring to Chabad’s flagship yeshivah at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, located in the synagogue of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Bryn deeply admired the Rebbe, and became a devout chassid. “I never had the privilege of seeing the Rebbe,” his widow, Rochel Hayman, today a Chabad emissary in Phoenix, Ariz., tells “Where I got to know and feel a love for the Rebbe was through Dovid. What drove him was the most pure love for the Rebbe; he was a consummate shliach (emissary) doing what his Rebbe wanted him to do, with a singular purity of thought and desire to do so.”

After receiving his rabbinic ordination at 770, Bryn moved back to Miami, where his parents had since relocated to. He began to engage with the local Jewish community in an informal capacity: visiting hospital patients, conducting bar mitzvah classes and helping the poor and downtrodden. When his brother Usher came to visit before Passover, Bryn drafted him to help deliver holiday packages. “Dovid took me to places in North Miami Beach that I didn’t even know existed—places most people would be afraid to approach,” Usher Bryn remembered. “He went to dilapidated houses where the poorest of the poor lived.” At one ramshackle house, Usher discovered that his brother was giving bar mitzvah lessons to a young boy.

He would visit the flea markets regularly, offering Jewish vendors an opportunity to put on tefillin and giving them a kind word. He paid particular attention to the growing Israeli population, recognizing that their Jewish needs weren’t adequately being catered to. Those flea market contacts blossomed into a growing route of homes and businesses he visited every Friday.

By the late 1980s, Bryn felt the time was right to develop a more cohesive community for his vast network of acquaintances and friends. He opened a Shabbat minyan in a kosher pizza shop closed on Saturdays and slowly transitioned into a pulpit rabbi.

In celebration with congregants Ezra Cohen (left) and Alan Levy (center).
In celebration with congregants Ezra Cohen (left) and Alan Levy (center).

A Young Rabbi’s Lifework Takes Shape

As Bryn’s lifework began to take shape and flourish, with more and more families joining the congregation, his health didn’t follow. As a child, he’d been diagnosed with Marfan syndrome and undergone extensive heart surgery while studying at 770. His syndrome also affected the lenses of his eyes, which meant all of his activities necessitated hiring drivers, as he was legally blind. But for now, things seemed relatively stable and he threw himself into his calling.

The synagogue attracted a diverse crowd, some were more traditional, others had never stepped into a synagogue before. Many were Latin American Jews, and he opened a separate office to address the needs of the growing Russian population assisted by his mother Felicia, who was fluent in Russian and Polish. After the daily morning service and breakfast, Bryn set out on his expeditions connecting with people from across town. Some days, he returned only late in the evening after a full day’s work. He fundraised for his own programming, and didn’t take a salary from the congregation for 10 years.

Already in his 30s, Bryn wanted to marry and build a family. But Marfan syndrome meant that finding his soul mate wouldn’t be easy.

It was in 1998 that he finally met her. Rochel Crockett was an Air Force veteran and nurse from Michigan and a single mother. She researched Marfan syndrome when the idea was first proposed by a matchmaker and as she got to know him, she knew that he was the one. Bryn’s health was stable; it had been eight years since his last surgery, and even his poor eyesight had improved.

Bryn treated Rochel’s daughter Devorah Sora as his own, and at last, he had the blissful family he’d dreamed of. “He had a special place for Devorah Sora in his heart and her for him,” Rochel says. Even when things were difficult, she was always on his mind. “Just to want to spend special time with her, to sit and tell her a bedtime story, was so beautiful.”

Rochel became a full partner in her husband’s community, with small strides, taking care not to upset the balance of the long-established congregation “The last thing I wanted to do was step on anyone’s toes,” she recalls. “Everyone loved him very much and at the same time was very possessive.”

Bella Itkina recalls how they helped her after her daughter gave birth to twins. “[They] helped us to organize and celebrate the birth of my daughter’s twins and the bris ceremony for my grandson,” she wrote on a memorial page for the rabbi.

Itkina also noted their efforts in integrating Soviet Jews into the community. “Rabbi Bryn, along with Mrs. Bryn, took the initiative to put together many great events for the Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union. He helped many of us adjust in the new country: giving guidance, assisting in finding work, and reintroducing us to Jewish traditions and holidays we had become unfamiliar with. We will always cherish our times with Rabbi Dovid Bryn and his family. His unconditional kindness was something truly incredible, with his work always being done directly from the heart for the good of others,” she wrote.

Bryn presides over the brit milah (circumcision) of Bella Itkina's grandson.
Bryn presides over the brit milah (circumcision) of Bella Itkina's grandson.

Marianna Tuninskaya, another congregant from the former Soviet Union, says that Bryn “put the seed of knowledge into our hungry minds.” She fondly remembers the Passover seders he arranged for Russian Jews every year, where Bryn lovingly taught them the traditions and songs of the holiday. “The thing that stands out most in my mind,” Tuninskaya wrote, “is the way the rabbi organized a bar mitzvah celebration for my brother, planning and coordinating each step so that the final ceremony seemed to have come about by itself. He held lessons for my brother on how to read aloud from the Torah, made a list of desired dishes and arranged it with the synagogue’s cook, instructed my Mom what tefillin to buy and where to buy them, decorated the shul for the occasion, and gave touching speeches praising my parents for the way they raised him.”

This care and devotion was extended to many others, attests Tuninskaya. “Each and every Russian boy that I knew had been similarly coached, helped and befriended by the rabbi in his tireless efforts to ‘make him a man.’ ”

The happy couple hadn’t been married for more than a few weeks when Bryn’s condition flared up again. Rochel discovered him to be a restless sleeper and upon evaluation, he was diagnosed with sleep apnea. He now had to sleep attached to a BiPap ventilator. But it was a few months later, when dizziness sent him to the emergency room, that they found out a more serious issue lurking. Testing for the source of some minor bleeding exposed three growing aortic aneurysms needing repair, and surgery was scheduled for two months later.

Released from hospital just before their first Passover as a couple, they were expecting 150 Russian Jews for the first night seder. They scrambled. Two rabbinical students were drafted to help as well. Bryn’s mother, Felicia, always spearheaded the annual Russian seder but on the morning of Passover eve “we hear nothing from her,” recalls Rochel. Worried, Bryn sent his brother over to her home to check on her. It turned out that she woke up with a headache and, still sleepy, reached for a painkiller. Inadvertently, she took her husband’s medication and had an allergic reaction to the codeine it contained.

Somehow, they managed to bring it all together. Seder night, “us, the two boys and 150 Russians … and we didn’t speak a word of Russian. In beautiful Dovid fashion, it turned out amazing,” Rochel remembers, adding that just about all the food she cooked for her family that whole Passover was burnt, but the two young rabbis kept telling her, “This is so beautiful, just like my mother’s food.”

How did Bryn engage with Russian and Spanish speakers? “It goes back to his core, his love,” says Rochel. “If you don’t speak someone’s language, you can still speak with a smile.”

The subsequent nine-hour aortic surgery resulted in a three-week hospital stay, departing on a Wednesday. By Shabbat, he was being rushed back to the emergency room, where doctors determined that he had the worst pancreatitis they had ever seen. Three weeks in the ICU also produced a dangerous complication: an antibiotic resistant staph infection.

“I went for a walk down a long hallway,” recalls Rochel, “I felt as though someone had kicked me in the solar plexus. I had to go back to basics in my head and heart, that if this was happening, then Hashem had already given me the strength to deal with it. I just needed to look a little harder for it that day.”

Devotion to Community and Family, Despite Illness

Over the next few years, Bryn’s life was in and out of the hospital with eight more surgeries. Rochel was trained and became proficient in almost all of his medical to avoid being tied down with nurse schedules. That didn’t stop him from devoting all his time to his community though; he began to increase his reach, and rather than wallow in his own woes, he helped others. In 1999, after the Columbine school shooting, the rabbi was distraught. “Dovid was horrified that … any adolescent could fall through the cracks like that,” his sister Helen remembers. He felt it was crucial to continue his work visiting teenagers playing in garage bands and engaging them in meaningful discussion.

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when Rochel came from taking their daughter to school, her husband broke the news. “The world is burning,” he told her. That evening, he spoke with community members at the synagogue about an idea he had. “I didn’t know what it was, but nobody wanted to do it,” remembers Rochel. The next morning, she found out. “He asked to be dropped off on the overpass of Ives Dairy Road, overlooking the oncoming traffic on the I-95.” Draped in his tallit and tefillin, Bryn blew his huge shofar with all his might. “He felt strongly that the world needed to see it,” says Rochel.

One younger congregant, Or Bertman, remembers how even while attached to an IV, Bryn gave him bar mitzvah lessons. At his first lesson, the rabbi told him to sing his favorite song. He began singing a rock song. “Yell!” instructed the rabbi, and Bertman obliged. “Sing that loud at your bar mitzvah,” Bryn smiled.

In late 2001, Bryn was hospitalized in New York. His condition was so grave that doctors told his family he’d never walk out alive. Two months later, Bryn was able to check out of the hospital. It was his niece Alexa’s bat mitzvah, and he wasn’t going to miss it. “I was getting hysterical,” says his sister-in-law, Brenda Bryn, “because I thought it might be dangerous for him. But he loved Alexa so much. He wanted to be here and he willed himself to be here.”

Though his body was shutting down, that Friday night Bryn spoke for 25 minutes, enthralling the crowd.

Three days before he passed away, David Pollack, a friend and community member, went to visit him. “He was just suffering at that point,” Pollack says. “He was on a breathing apparatus. He looked me right in the eye and mouthed, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ ”

On April 18, 2002—Iyar 6, 5762—Rabbi Dovid Bryn returned his soul to his Maker.

“It’s now 20 years since his passing, and more than that since he fell ill,” Rabbi Moishe Kievman, director of Chabad Chayil, told "Not a day goes by that his impact is not felt.”

Kievman was appointed by Bryn to lead Chabad Chayil in 2001 while Bryn was hospitalized, and never left. Under his watch, the community has flourished. “His life on this world may have been cut short, but his legacy is everlasting,” says Kievman. “Thank G‑d, the community he founded has services three times a day, weekly Shabbat meals, holiday programs and a full smorgasbord of educational options for children and adults, including daily classes for public-school children.

“We hope that Moshiach comes soon, and that Dovid will be proud of the legacy he built."