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With Loyalty and Love

Yisroel Besser

It was how Rav Mordechai Berg delivered his message that was different, the love for his balabatim in each word and gesture. And then he was gone

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

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OUT OF THE ORDINARY It’s astonishing what this man accomplished in eight years: not a rosh yeshivah of hundreds, not an askan serving the masses, not a millionaire able to create some kind of super-organization. An ordinary rav, in an ordinary neighborhood, in an ordinary shul. That’s the story of Rabbi Berg and his kehillah (Photos: Mordy Gilden, Family Archives)

M onsey sprawls out like the work of an unpracticed city planner; neighborhoods and streets of all different sizes and shapes stopping and starting again unexpectedly.

At nine o’clock on a summer evening, a few walkers hug the sides of the winding road in the spacious Wesley Hills neighborhood as a family of deer disinterestedly chews leaves in the underbrush. The shul appears suddenly on the right, a brightly lit building on a dark street. From the outside, Ateres Rosh looks like scores of other newly erected shuls across America.

Inside you can feel the difference.

Typical American balabatim, some in suits and dress shirts, others sitting in polo shirts and blue jeans. Even with the weariness of the long workday evident on their faces, there is the way of yeshivah bochurim about them. There is a certain focus, the square of their shoulders and purpose to their walk; how they hum as they amble over to the seforim shelf in the back.

A friend had suggested that I check out the story of Rabbi Berg, who’d just been niftar, and of his kehillah. It would consume my summer: I’d find myself drawn to the building over and over again, an uninvited observer come to feel what makes this place special.

During these weeks, just after the shloshim period, one sensed a certain stoicism in the kehillah. Sometimes the shul had the feeling of a banquet whose guest of honor had disappeared. There’s food and music and noise, but you feel the void in every corner.

Standing on the grassy lawn and listening, each casual remark became a clue: Someone did a job with these guys.

And I’m eager to understand what he did, how he did it.

He, alas, is gone, taken this spring at the young age of 66.

And what he did?

For starters, he loved them. Loved them enough to share the truth. And he loved the truth enough to be able to communicate that life without it is meaningless.

The shul — the world — of Rav Alter Mordechai Berg.

Back Home

He should have been anonymous, an ordinary necktie salesman from New York.

The biography is fairly standard: a child of the Lower East Side, where his immigrant parents had a store that sold neckties.

As the flow of immigrants from the US increased, word spread of the amazing American mechanech in Bnei Brak who always seemed to be surrounded by a crowd of talmidim

Motty Berg came alive as a teenager learning in Monsey’s Beth Shraga, where the shmuessen of Rav Mordechai Schwab touched him. And when he joined Rav Levi Krupenia’s Woodridge Yeshiva, one of the maggidei shiur, Rav Avraham Tannenbaum, would inject him with a lifelong love of learning.

Later, he learned under Rav Moshe Feinstein, from whom he earned semichah, and spent time learning in yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael, where he longed to settle; when he married Chana Goldstein, who had roots in that country, the dream was a bit more tangible. She’d left as a child, and shared the same hope of returning home.

They settled in Flatbush and he started working at his parents’ store, learning each evening with Rav Hillel David. When the tie store was held up at gunpoint and cleaned out, they took it as a sign. “It was destiny,” recalls the rebbetzin. “We both understood that it was time to fulfill the dream.” In 1976 the young Berg family — parents and one child — followed the dream and headed back to holy soil.

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