Rabbi Gershon Binyamin Burd zt”l
By Yonason Rosenblum
The release of the Pew Research Council report on American Jewry last week merely confirmed what we already knew: In the natural order of things, non-Orthodox American Jewry is on an irreversible death spiral. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is now 71%. That figure is at least thirty percentage points higher than it was forty years ago, when Rabbi Noach Weinberg first sounded the alarms about the spiritual Holocaust wiping out American Jewry.
One could be forgiven, then, for despairing of the kiruv movement, which has barely made a statistical dent in the demographic decline of American Jewry. That despair, however, would be misplaced for two reasons. The first is quantitative. In any community to which one travels in North America, outside of the New York metropolitan area and a handful of other larger cities, baalei teshuvah and geirim constitute a significant percentage, if not a majority, of the community.
But perhaps even more important is the qualitative impact that baalei teshuvah have had. The list of remarkable individuals who have left a lasting imprint on the larger Torah community is a long one. The frishkeit and idealism that these exemplars bring to their lives as Torah Jews make them role models from which every believing Jew can learn. I have the privilege of learning daily in a shiur given by a former South African baal teshuvah, who is today a senior R”M in one of Israel’s foremost yeshivos. From his shining countenance, the inner light of Torah shines through. He elevates the aspirations for spiritual growth of everyone who enters his dalet amos and provides a daily of example of how to live, not just learn, Mesilas Yesharim.
Sadly, I have too often written about some of these great Jews only after an untimely petirah. Two years ago, I wrote in these pages about two such figures: Rabbi Dovid Speyer, the longtime mashgiach at Ohr Somayach, and Rabbi Yaakov Fried, who made a siyum on kol haTorah kulo twenty-two years after entering the Ohr Somayach bais medrash, after dropping out of Harvard.
And this week I once again feel the need to introduce to the larger Torah world an amazing Jew, Rabbi Gershon Binyamin Burd zt”l, after his too early petirah. Last Erev Shabbos, Reb Gershon, executive director of Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah in the Rovah, drowned on his fortieth birthday, 30 Tishrei. A former lifeguard, he was struck by a rock while swimming off the Mediterranean coast and was under water for approximately fifteen minutes before being washed ashore. Nevertheless, he battled for another forty hours before surrendering his soul to His Maker on Sunday.
I had the good fortune to meet Reb Gershon about fifteen years ago, when he would come to our home on Shabbos from Ohr Somayach. Later, he brought his new kallah to meet us.
THIS WEEK, THE ENTIRE TORAH WORLD is plunged into mourning by the passing of Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l, a truly world-historical figure, who single-handedly changed the face of Sefardi Jewry in Eretz Yisroel and worldwide. Rav Ovadiah was a heroic figure to every Sefardi bochur who opened a Gemara, offering a real-life example of commanding gadlus baTorah to which they could aspire.
Reb Gershon was zocheh to less than half of Rav Ovadiah’s length of days. And, of course, he attained nothing like Rav Ovadiah’s encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of Torah. Who in the last two hundred years has?
He was not a household name in the Jewish world. But the sense of loss is overwhelming between the walls of Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah, the community of the Old City of Yerushalayim, and in the Chicago community, where Reb Gershon began his journey in the Chicago Torah Network headed by Rabbi Doniel Deutsch and Rabbi Moshe Katz, and to which he returned often to visit family.
Reb Gershon pushed himself in his Torah learning and everything else just as the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos instructs: “Don’t say when I have free time, I’ll study, for perhaps you will never be free.” But as a physically fit, strapping father of five children nine and younger, absorbed in his learning, and totally dedicated to every detail of running Bircas HaTorah, he was fully focused on the future ahead.
Over Chol Hamoed Sukkos, a close friend from Ohr Somayach who had not seen him in a few years ran into Reb Gershon in the Old City. Reb Gershon, as always, turned the conversation to his friend. When the friend was finally able to ask Reb Gershon what was new with him, he replied, “I’m so blessed not only to be learning, but to have been able to stay in Eretz Yisroel. I’m blessed in my marriage, to have my children learning at Zilberman’s cheder, and to have a job that I love.”
That friend described Reb Gershon as having a highly developed “af al pi muscle” - i.e., he was willing to invest in maintaining relationships even if it meant putting more effort into doing so than the other side was. Thus, he was puzzled last Friday not to receive a birthday greeting from Reb Gershon, with whom he shared a birthday.
Reb Gershon’s positive energy was something emphasized in almost every one of the many emails received at Bircas HaTorah, as news of Reb Gershon’s passing spread. “Gershon lived and loved deeply and appreciated everything and every moment in his life,” wrote one former chavrusah. Another described him as the “most positive person I have ever known. The most genuine, warm and friendly person I knew.” A bear hug was his typical greeting to acquaintances and friends, and his priority in any meeting was always to leave the other party with a good feeling.
His hakoras hatov was both boundless and never-ending. Rabbi Deutsch, in whose class on the Aseres Hadibros Reb Gershon received his first taste of Torah, received a greeting from him every year the week of Parshas Yisro (and many more times throughout the year), thanking him again. Gershon was forever sending people presents, and sent the Deutsch family a photo collage of the Burd family with the inscription, “He who saves a soul in Israel is as if he saved the entire world.”
But the joy he took in his life, family, and learning did not leave him complacent. Just the opposite, it pushed him to seek more and more. He was a living demonstration, said Rabbi Asher Baruch Wegbrot in his hesped, of the rule, “If you are eager to grow and prepared to work at it, you’ll blossom.” His determination was not of this world. As a new baal teshuvah, working in a suburb of Chicago with virtually no religious Jews, he decided to make a Minchah minyan and succeeded. He took a course on how to minimize sleep and slept little more than two or three hours a night so that he could maintain two, and often three, sedarim a day, while carrying the responsibility for the yeshiva’s payroll and other expenses.
Both the rosh yeshiva of Bircas HaTorah, Rabbi Nissim Tagger, and the mashgiach, Rabbi Wegbrot, let Reb Gershon be “maspid himself” largely from the emails that he sent them in the days immediately preceding his petirah. (For efficiency sake, Reb Gershon conducted almost all business, including fundraising, by email. It was almost impossible to reach him by phone at any time, though he made an exception for relatives: He called his grandmother in Chicago every day to tell her how much he loved her, and three times a day when she was not well. Not surprisingly, every member of his Russian-speaking family, but one, became Torah observant through him.)
The emails quoted by Rabbi Tagger and Rabbi Wegbrot reveal a Jew constantly thinking about how to improve and grow in learning, to be a better father, and a better Jew. Less than twenty-four hours prior to his tragic drowning, he emailed the rosh yeshiva asking whether he had received the teshuvah of Rav Avigdor Nebenzhal, the rov of the Rovah, Reb Gershon had sent him concerning whether one may be mekabel pnei rabo b’regel by telephone. Rabbi Tagger added that the teshuvah undercut the shiur klali he had given on Erev Yom Kippur and offered the fifth different approach to the sugya that Reb Gershon had sent him since the shiur was given nearly three weeks earlier.
In the same email, Reb Gershon added that he had been “more warm and fuzzy with the kids” of late, and that his beloved wife Batya had noticed the improvement.
In another recent email to the rosh yeshiva, Reb Gershon expressed his need to rededicate himself to learning. He recognized that the formula for growth in learning was no secret - hard work and intense davening for Hashem’s help - but wanted to know if the rosh yeshiva had any other advice for him.
“Who after fifteen years straight of learning and knowing so much writes his rosh yeshiva for advice in further Torah growth?” Rabbi Tagger asked.
Rabbi Webgrot read an email Reb Gershon wrote him less than an hour prior to the drowning in which he expressed his eagerness for the new mussar vaad starting Sunday, on the first day of winter zeman. In it, Reb Gershon described his intention of using Rabbeinu Yonah’s advice to break old habits by going to the opposite extreme. But he also noted that everything is so complicated: Doing more chessed doesn’t mean just inviting more Shabbos guests; sometimes it means having fewer Shabbos guests. Then Reb Gershon quoted the famous statement of the Vilna Gaon that a human being lives only to repair his faulty middos. And if he doesn’t do so, why is he alive?
Reb Gershon’s dedication to Bircas HaTorah was total. I sit next to Reb Reuvan Loewenstein, the internal administrator and comptroller of Bircas HaTorah, in the aforementioned morning shiur. Three years ago, Reb Gershon asked Reb Reuvan to return to the yeshiva to take over the internal administration, so that he could go back to two full sedarim of learning.
My friend described to me what it was like to work for someone whose eye missed absolutely nothing connected to the yeshiva, even a burned out light bulb. He would get emails that read, “Reb Reuvan, there were two stains in one of the Shabbos tablecloths.” Reb Gershon had a rule that nothing remain on the yeshiva bulletin board every two days so that the bochurim and avreichim would always feel that there was something fresh to read, and he would take down any notice that had outlived its time.
He was driven to ensure that anyone who walked into the yeshiva at any time of the day or night would feel, “This is a place where I want to learn.” One of the tasks Reb Reuvan assigned one of his assistants was to wipe down the counter in the coffee room every hour so that Reb Gershon would never find the room in disarray.
Despite his dedication to his learning, Reb Gershon still managed to be the first one to greet anyone walking into Bircas HaTorah for the first time. The memory of his “warmth, sincerity, and humility” was one of the keys to his success in fundraising for the yeshiva. One old friend in the yeshiva wrote, after Reb Gershon’s petirah, how all those feelings of his warmth flooded over him every time he saw Reb Gershon’s name - Gershon Binyamin Burd - whether it was on a mass email or a personal note.
A few weeks ago, Rabbi Tagger asked Reb Gershon to accompany him to Toronto on a trip to develop new friends for the yeshiva. He felt that he lacked the ease with people for the job. Reb Gershon replied, “I’m more than happy to do anything the rosh yeshiva wants - period,” though he added that as a personal matter he would prefer not to be away from his learning and family, and offered his opinion that as the leader of a tzibbur, the rosh yeshiva would be zocheh to a special siyata diShmaya and that his love of Torah would have a bigger impact than anything that Reb Gershon could add.
Rebbetzin Batya Burd (who administers the popular website www.WesternWallPrayers.org, arranging for avreichim to daven for someone forty straight days at the Kosel) was told by the doctors that Reb Gershon had died during the fifteen minutes under water and had somehow been revivified. She asked Rabbi Tagger to tell the mourners that the forty hours during which Reb Gershon battled to be able to spend more time with his precious wife and children, more time bent over his beloved Gemara, and more time developing Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah were not wasted. All their prayers, all the kabbolos made on his behalf by Jews, were preparing a lichtige greeting for him in Gan Eden and unifying Jews around the world at the same time.
May Reb Gershon’s memory be an example and a mechayev to all of us of how much a Jew committed to growth and willing to think seriously about how to do so can achieve in a relatively few years, even starting in his mid-twenties.