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Still Singing

Yisroel Besser

Benzion Fishoff considers the years he’s devoted to communal activism his best investment. “It gave me back my identity,” he says, remembering the cryptic blessing he received from the Imrei Emes of Gur upon taking leave of the Rebbe before the fires consumed Europe. Seven decades later, Reb Benzion looks back at a life filled with miracles, challenges, activism, diplomacy, and above all, the fulfillment of the Rebbe’s words.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

manTime spent with Reb Yechiel Benzion Fishoff is many things: absorbing, informative, pleasant. I hadn’t anticipated that it would also be bittersweet. Our conversation left me yearning for my own grandfather.

Mr. Fishoff yblct’a embodies so much of that same refinement, even aristocracy, in the way he receives people and the courtesy with which he listens. There is also the dignity of his speech, the precise diction, the clear articulation of ideas — as well as the respect for hard work, the fluency in divrei Chazal, and the gentle humor.

It’s the sweetness of a disappearing breed: the Poilishe Yid. 

The headquarters of Metropolitan Bank, when Mr. Fishoff serves as an executive, rises overManhattan’s Park Avenue. The waiting room is tasteful, the receptionist more genteel than usual towards “Mr. Fishoff’s visitors.”

My first question, after Reb Benzion escorts us to his expansive office, is about his very public role. He has distinguished himself on the wider Jewish stage as an elder statesman of Agudath Israeland one of the most prominent balabatim within the Gerrer chassidus. How did the Klal become part of his identity, and what lessons has he learned along the way?

Before he answers, Mr. Fishoff — whose refined speech and gift for diplomacy doesn’t come at the expense of honesty — relates some history. As a child in Lodz, Yechiel Benzion learned in the local Gerrer shtiebel, as did most chassidishe boys. But, he comments, “The truth is that when I was a child, chassidus didn’t do a good job selling itself. It wasn’t as attractive as Beitar or Bnei Akiva or any of the other youth movements that enticed us children inLodz. Back then, Beitar had uniforms; which child doesn’t want a uniform?

“I sometimes think that, if not for the war, chassidus would have suffered terribly because of competing influences. The bright spot for a heimeshe child was Pirchei, the Shabbos groups sponsored by the Agudath Israel, where we heard stories and participated in some contests. My leader then, in Lodz, is my leader now as well — he is still a mentor and role model: Rav Yossel Friedenson, may he be gezunt.”

When Yechiel Benzion was 15 years old, he went to the Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, for a brachah. The Rebbe looked at the boy for a long moment and suggested that he go learn in the shtiebel in the town ofSosnowiecz.

“Maybe the Rebbe saw that I was a bit more modern than the others and I needed a change. My parents were hesitant, but when they clarified that the Rebbe had indeed suggested it, they allowed me to go.”

In the summer of 1939, along with thousands of other Gerrer chassidim, Yechiel Benzion converged on the estate of a wealthy chassid, near the town ofLudmir, to celebrate the bar mitzvah of the Rebbe’s young son, who was later known as the Pnei Menachem.

“The conditions were very poor. We slept in the stable. The Rebbe, concerned about the crowds, wanted everyone to leave on Motzaei Shabbos. For some reason, the Rebbe instructed a few bochurim to remain, among them a boy named Moshe Fastag and myself. We spent a full week there, learning with the group that stayed, seeing the Rebbe and davening with him. At the end of that week, I went to gezegen zich, to bid farewell, to the Rebbe.”

The Rebbe of tens of thousands gave the young boy a penetrating look and spoke cryptic words. “Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah. Di Eibeshter zohl helf’n zolst bleib’n a Yid. Serve Hashem in joy. The Eibeshter should help that you remain a Jew. Halevai, halevai ...”

It seemed a strange brachah for a chassidishe bochur

 

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