Remembered for a Twinkle in His Eye

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rabbi haskel besser, spiritual director of congregation b'nai israel chaim, was known throughout the upper west side jewish community as someone who always had a smile on his face.

"he would always encourage me in my work and make a point to compliment me," said rabbi shlomo kugel, a colleague of besser's who is now co-director of chabad of the west side, on west 97th street. "i was much younger than he was, and it was very good to be in his presence. he was a friend, a nice person, and he made people feel good."

besser, a hasidic rabbi, died feb. 9, just shy of his 87th birthday. he will be remembered by the community as a man who always had a "twinkle" in his eye, as his biographer, warren kozak, described it.

besser was born in katowice, poland, in 1923. he escaped with his family to palestine at the beginning of world war ii, where he met his wife, ahuva. he immigrated to the united states when the war ended. although he settled on the upper west side, he returned to poland frequently to help rebuild jewish cemeteries in the country. he always dressed in the traditional pre-holocaust styles of his parents when he was in poland, despite the fact that many jews in that country remained in hiding.

through his trips to europe, besser met the philanthropist, cosmetics magnate and then-u.s. ambassador to austria, ronald lauder. the two eventually formed a partnership to strengthen jewish life in europe.

when lauder returned to the united states, he created the ronald s. lauder foundation and gave besser the position of eastern european chairman. the foundation has opened jewish schools throughout eastern and central europe.

lauder was also the person who suggested that kozak write a biography about the rabbi. besser, though hesitant to have his life documented, agreed to the book because he hoped it would bring together jews from all walks of life.

kozak spent one morning a week for several years with besser in his study on west 84th street near riverside drive, across from congregation b'nai israel chaim. the rabbi of 84th street: the extraordinary life of haskel besser, was published in 2004.

"rabbi besser was a complete joy to be with," wrote kozak, who knew besser for 22 years. "there was not an arrogant bone in his body. he was so gracious to everyone he met. he leaves a very big void. it's hard to imagine a world without him."

in the united states, besser also helped to restart the daf yomi, the reading of a page of talmud each day, by creating pocket tracts that could be studied on the daily commute. the last celebration of the completion of the daf yomi cycle, which takes seven-and-a-half-years, filled madison square garden to capacity. besser was one of the main speakers.

"he was one who bridged the old world and the new world. he had experiences before world war ii and projected that into our time," kugel said. "it was very special for me and others to have that remnant."

besser served as agudath yisroel's first vice president and later a member of its presidium. he was also a member of the u.s. commission for the preservation of america's heritage abroad and the american president of bikur cholim hospital of jerusalem.

the rabbi was buried in the har hamenuchot cemetery in jerusalem.

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