RABBI MORDECHAI MEIR HAKOHEN BRYSKI OBM
A Devoted Chosid, Educator and Family Patriarch is Lovingly Remembered
“If I had to encapsulate the life of my father, it would probably be by saying that he exemplified the traits of his forebear, Aaron HaKohen, as a man who loved and pursued peace. Indeed, he synthesized the ideals of Tov LaMakom – endearing to G-d’ and ‘Tov Labriyos – endearing to man’ in almost prototypical fashion.”
So stated one of the nine surviving children of the venerated Chabad Chosid, educator and community activist Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski, who passed away at the age of 88 on Sunday evening, Yud-Daled Teves, January 8, 2012, after a brief illness punctuated by astounding displays of will and determination.
The news of Rabbi Bryski’s passing reverberated in Jewish communities throughout the world where hundreds of Rabbi Bryski’s former students from his 20-plus-year tenure as a melamed (Judaic studies schoolteacher) in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva now reside. It profoundly impacted the community of Crown Heights where Rabbi Bryski lived for the past forty-three years and was commissioned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to help revive and strengthen the neighborhood; the community of Boro Park where he lived for some two decades prior to his relocation to Crown Heights; and communities in the S. Fernando and Conejo Valleys, California, where his children and grandchildren serve as Chabad Shluchim and where he was highly regarded for his erudition and piety recognized during his many visits to the west coast.
Mordechai Meir (affectionately known as “Mottel”) Bryski was born in the small city of Chmielnik, Poland, in 1923, as one of six children born to Reb Chaim Elazar Hakohen, a widely respected “Chassidishe Yid” with ties to the Trisker and Aleksander dynasties, and Rochel Tzilka, daughter of the famed Rosh Yeshiva, Horav Yechiel Aaron Weinreb, also known as the Dalashitzer Rov.
When Mottel was a young child, his uncle Kalman, a celebrated Talmudic scholar who had developed ties with Chabad, and another Chabad devotee, Rabbi Yosef Goldstein, were delegated by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, to establish a Chabad Cheder (elementary school) in Chmielnik called Toras Emes. It was at that Cheder that young Mottel learned until his early teens.
When the time came for Mottel to move on to more advanced studies, various Yeshivas were given consideration until the final vote was rendered by his maternal grandmother, Chave Sarah, who declared that he should follow in the path forged by his uncle Kalman by attending the Chabad Yeshiva: Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch in Otwock, Poland. The point was also made that Mottel should opt for Chabad because it was known as a place where studies were pursued “b‘simcha”, with a joyful spirit.
Although young Mordechai would travel home periodically for the holidays, the Yeshiva in Otwock essentially became his new home, and the teachings of Chabad and his allegiance to its Rebbe his driving passion.
In September of 1939, German tanks rolled into Poland, swiftly crushing the ill-prepared Polish army and sending the country into chaos. The yeshiva disbanded as students fled Otwock for safer places. Although Mottel’s initial plan was to head back home to Chmielnik to be with his family, this was thwarted when, after waiting on line for days at the Warsaw train station, the ticket window was abruptly closed and all trains headed in that direction ceased running – a fortuitous twist of fate, as he would later learn that the Polish trains had been bombed by the Luftwaffe, the German air force.
All alone with nothing but a few zlotys, a pair of Tefilin and a small bag with meager possessions in hand, 16 year old Mordechai tearfully wandered about until a stranger approached him and instructed him that, come what may, he must make his way to Bialystok. Mordechai would later become convinced that this “stranger” was a malach, an angel, inexplicably sent from heaven to save his life.
Notwithstanding the terror and chaos erupting all around him as thousands were fleeing in different directions, Mordechai was consumed by this singular focus – to get to Bialystok. Another guiding inclination was to always move away from the Germans and head toward the Russians. Even as bombs were being dropped along his escape route, prompting others to reverse course and flee back the way they came, Mottel vigilantly – perhaps counter-intuitively – stayed his course and kept Bialystok as his targeted destination. Tragically, almost all those who did turn back did not survive.
Once in Bialystok, Mordechai hooked up with a local Yeshiva where he spent his days immersed in Torah study, even under those very physically and emotionally trying circumstances. In the months to follow, he would make his way from one Yeshiva to the next, including a very memorable extended stay at the Yeshiva of Horav Elchonon Wasserman in the city of Baranovich. Eventually, Mottel arrived in Vilna, then under control of Lithuania, where thousands of Yeshiva students had found their way, including many of his fellow alumni from Otwock with whom he was reunited in the Vilna branch of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch.
While in Vilna, the young Yeshiva boys were shocked and anguished by the often conflicting and terrifying reports they were hearing of what was happening to Polish Jewry back home. On rare occasion, they would receive messages of guidance and inspiration from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, which served as salve for their broken hearts. When no such contact or guidance was available to them, the young Lubavitchers would often seek out the counsel of the saintly Amshinover Rebbe, who lived in Vilna at the time and who had always enjoyed a very close, mutually-respectful relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
As the dark clouds of Nazi barbarism and extermination continued to spread over Europe, it became clear to most that Lithuania was not likely to remain a safe haven much longer. While escaping into Russia was not all too appealing an option either, as it was likely to result in exile to Siberia, the students learned that if they could secure a sponsoring country willing to issue them transit visas, this would enable them to use Russia as a stop while en route to that country. But what country or consulate would issue such visas? It was then that another rescuing angel emerged to save Mordechai Meir’s life, along with thousands of others.
Chiune Sugihara, the Vice-Consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania, agreed to issue legal visas to the endangered Jewish refugees, granting them passage to Japan on condition that they choose a different ultimate destination point. While many were reluctant to take these visas and utilize this convoluted escape route, the more than 6,000 Jews who did take them were spared the tragic fate of those who stayed behind, hy”d. Among the documents issued by the Japanese Consul was “Visa #1778” granted to one “Mordka Brzyski”.
The details of Mordechai’s and his fellow refugees’ subsequent travels and travails could easily fill several volumes in and of themselves, and indeed, many books and films documenting the journeys of the so-called “Sugihara Survivors” have been published and produced over the years. After an exhausting series of trips across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway – including encounters marked by grueling searches and interrogations – Mordechai and his schoolmates eventually made it to the port of Vladivostok, Russia, where they boarded a ship headed for Kobe, Japan. The stay-over in Japan – though short in duration – turned out to be a memorable and eventful one for young Mottel.
While in Kobe, he managed to obtain dollars through the “Joint”, the American Jewish humanitarian aid organization. Knowing that his parents back home were still alive at the time, he would purchase boxes of tea to ship to his parents and hide the cash in a small tube-like item he included in the tea-box to ensure it got past the censors. He then wrote a cover note making abstruse reference to a section of the Talmud that discusses an instance of money concealed in a tube, knowing that his father would grasp the meaning of his little code. In subsequent correspondence he received back from his father, he learned that the message and support had indeed been received and had served to ward off terrible pangs of hunger and deprivation for his family back home.
In the months to follow, Mordechai would continue sending such letters and packages until the dreaded day he learned that the pipeline had been shut down completely. No more mail – received or sent. The city of Chmielnik had been made Judenrein, hy”d.
During one of his roaming walks in the city of Kobe, young Mordechai was stopped by an officer and arrested on suspicion of espionage. It took hours of interrogation and translation to convince the authorities that the innocent Polish lad in front of them did not represent a threat to the empire.
When their stay in Japan ran out its welcome, Mordechai and the other thirty-eight members of his group of Chabad students made their way to Shanghai, China, where thousands of Jews had taken up refuge and did what they could to establish Jewish community life in that far-flung corner of the earth. While nine of the original 39 Chabad students would soon obtain passage to Canada the remaining 29 students (one student would pass away from malnutrition) would remain in Shanghai for some five long years – until the end of the war.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Japanese marched into Shanghai and took control of the city, stripping it of its international status and making it, in effect, a Japanese city. One of the first initiatives to result from this change (most likely as a result of Japan’s alliance with Germany) was to turn the Jewish neighborhood into a confining ghetto. This made already excruciating conditions that much more agonizing and uncomfortable.
What happened with these young men during those five years – spiritually perhaps more so than physically – would go on to impact their lives in a deeply profound and everlasting way. They would be known ever thereafter as the “Shanchainiks”.
Unlike, for example, the Mir Yeshiva that had strong numbers and a full hierarchy of Yeshiva leadership in Shanghai, the young Lubavitchers were essentially on their own – at least physically so. Still, these young men banded together and formed a vibrant branch of their Chabad Yeshiva – right there in the midst of their adverse circumstances.
The memories of those five awesome years – as later recounted by Rabbi Bryski and the other members of the group – are replete with intense studies of nigleh, the revealed teachings of Torah, and Chassidus, the esoteric teachings of Torah. They are highlighted by a sense of longing to be reunited with their families and with their beloved Rebbe, as expressed at Farbrengens (intimate Chassidic gatherings) and in an entire collection of uplifting and heartwarming songs composed by members of the group – most notably, Yisroel Dovid Rosenberg – which were repeatedly sung by the group as anthems of hope and yearning.
Many of the Shanchainiks would forever cherish those songs – none more so than Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski, who never missed an opportunity at a family simcha or other milestone gathering to stand up and share the songs of Shanghai with his family and the greater community. He would also make recordings of these powerful songs so that they may be learned by his future descendents or by anyone ready to open his soul to their profound sweetness and depth of faith.
A trait he most likely inherited from his father, Chaim Elazar, Mottel Bryski was a man who always had a song on his lips – especially during his prayers and Torah studies. With his creative compilations of melodies matched to various sections of the prayers, those within earshot would often find themselves deeply moved and inspired as they eavesdropped on Mottel Bryski’s davening.
The Shanghai experience for the students of Tomchei Tmimim was nothing less than a testimonial to the faith and devotion that is the hallmark of the Jewish nation. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was known to often comment on how beloved his disciples in Shanghai were to him and was constantly working to arrange for provisions to be sent to them and to try to secure their emigration to the United States.
In spite of the emotional stresses of the war and the not knowing the plight of their loved ones back home; in spite of the hunger, heat exhaustion and debilitating illnesses they would often suffer; the morale and faith of this saintly group remain among the proudest legacies of the Chabad movement of the last century. It comes as no surprise that each of the Shanghai alumni would go on to lead lives of exemplary accomplishment – be it in the arena of education, leadership or philanthropy. Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski was certainly no exception.
As the war was winding down, arrangements went into full gear by the Rebbe’s office in New York to secure safe passage for the students from Shanghai. Due to health considerations, Mordechai Bryski was among the first to depart. He boarded a plane to San Francisco where he was met by members of the local Jewish community and stayed for a short period of time.
On Shabbos, he was asked to speak in the local synagogue. His topic of choice was the importance of the observance of Shabbos. So impressed were the listeners by his passion and conviction that one member of the audience informed him that, as a direct result of his talk, he had resolved to begin fully observing Shabbos properly from that point onward.
After a stop in Chicago, Rabbi Bryski arrived in Brooklyn New York, at the age of 23. As the only surviving member of his family, he was physically orphaned and alone, but certainly not spiritually so. He was set up with room and board near 770 Eastern Parkway and soon picked up where he left off as a student of the Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch in New York.
At his first audience with the previous Rebbe in New York – an awe-inspiring encounter he had played over in his mind countless times over the years – he immediately recited the blessing “shehecheeyonu” (benediction of gratitude for having lived to experience a milestone) – to which the Rebbe responded “Amen”. After years of terrible suffering and anguish that would leave lasting scars, he had at last reunited with his Rebbe, whom he regarded as a caring and loving father.
In 1946, Rabbi Mordechai Bryski was introduced to Ethel Eckhaus – daughter of the highly upstanding and G-d fearing Yisroel Yosef and Baila Eckhaus, operators of the renowned “Boro Park Mikvah” on 52nd Street – as a partner in marriage. After spending his first year after marriage continuing to study Torah, and following the birth of their first son, Eliezer, Rabbi Bryski was dispatched by the previous Rebbe to serve as a spiritual guidance counselor at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Montreal, Canada.
In 1948, he returned to New York to serve as a melamed at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. In a teaching career that spanned 23 years, Rabbi Bryski was deeply beloved and respected by his students. Many are those who speak to this day about the unique warmth, wisdom and sensitivity he displayed as a truly caring and devoted educator.
Throughout this period, while residing in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn, Rabbi Mordechai and Ethel Bryski continued to build their family. With the birth of each new child, the destiny and purpose of his miraculous survival of the Holocaust was realized anew.
The growing Bryski Family
By 1969, as the Bryski Family grew to eleven children, Rabbi Bryski sought the blessings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to relocate to Crown Heights and to pursue a full time career in real estate, as his earnings as a schoolteacher were not nearly sufficient to cover the large family’s expenses. The Rebbe granted his blessings on both counts – on the condition that Rabbi Bryski would always remain involved in Jewish education in one form or another – which he did.
In his career as a real estate broker expediting sales of homes in Boro Park, Rabbi Bryski developed a reputation for conducting transactions with the utmost of patience, honesty and integrity. As he continued to hone his skills, he was offered a position by the Board of Education for the City of New York to negotiate leases on its school buildings. To support his family, he worked at the Board of Education during the day and at the Boro Park real estate office at night. His very presence in the city offices, where he was loved and respected by Jew and gentile alike, served as a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name). In 1987, Rabbi Bryski would be formally recognized and commended by the city of New York for his exemplary dedication and conscientiousness as an outstanding civil servant.
In the 1970s, as more and more Jewish families began leaving Crown Heights in favor of safer, more homogenous, neighborhoods, the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched a campaign encouraging families to stay – and moreover, to recruit families living outside of Crown Heights to move into the neighborhood. Central to this campaign was his call for programs to make home ownership in Crown Heights as accessible as possible to Jewish families.
With his reputation in this arena well established, Rabbi Bryski was asked to play an integral role in this effort. With an uncanny ability to seek out non-Jewish homeowners willing to sell and to negotiate favorable prices for Jewish buyers, Rabbi Bryski facilitated scores upon scores of home sales to new Jewish owners.
Those familiar with the inner workings of those days can well appreciate how Rabbi Bryski’s actions in response to the Rebbe’s mandate during that critical transitional period was absolutely instrumental to saving the social fabric of Crown Heights, ultimately leading to its reemergence as the flourishing and highly desirable Jewish neighborhood it is today.
For all of these achievements, however, Rabbi Bryski’s truest legacy of all is that he was a sweet, down-to-earth, practical and approachable man with eyes of wisdom, a smile of warmth and a heart of gold. Despite living a life of great hardship, he never faltered in his love for G-d and his acceptance with equanimity of His grand designs, nor in his love and respect for his fellow man.
Right up there with those legacies is his unstinting devotion to his family. Each of his children speak glowingly of how they felt as though they were the center of his universe and that there was nothing he would not do to better their lots – be it realm of their physical or spiritual needs.
One son recalls how when he was a young teenager struggling with his studies while staying in a Yeshiva dormitory in Boro Park, his father would come to the Yeshiva after finishing his work at the office at nine or ten o’clock in the evening to tutor him in Chumash and Talmud.
As his children and grandchildren grew up, several of them moved out to California to become Shluchim, emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or active participants in the spiritual growth of their communities. During his numerous and frequent visits to the west coast, Rabbi Mordechai Meir Bryski had a tremendous impact on the communities in which his children reside, especially in the Conejo Valley where he would spend extended periods of time.
Ground Breaking Ceremony for Chabad of Conejo's New Center
Whether it was during Shabbat services at Chabad of Agoura Hills, at intimate gatherings at his son Rabbi Moshe Bryski’s home, or at the High Holiday services attended by more than a thousand participants at the Hyatt Westlake Hotel, the elder Rabbi Bryski’s inspiring talks – spiced with profound stories and witticisms – always delivered in his inimitably humble style, made lasting impressions on his audiences who loved and revered him, and kept asking for more.
In the latter years of his life – and perhaps even more so in the final days of his life – the true piousness of Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski came all the more readily apparent to those around him. Even as his health was failing him, and his feet could barely carry him, he doggedly continued to make his way to his shul down the block in Crown Heights every morning – singing his melodies and opening his heart to the Almighty. The “eavesdroppers” continued to derive spiritual bliss from his uplifting prayers. He continued to go to the office in Boro Park to remain active and productive, continued to do the shopping for his wife and continued to be a source of encouragement and inspiration to others.
In September of 2011, despite his weakened condition, Rabbi Bryski mustered the strength to fly out to Southern California to be on hand for the Grand Opening of Chabad of the Conejo’s new Center for Jewish Life. During the ceremonies, he delivered a rousing address, recited the Shehecheeyonu blessing and then affixed the mezuzah upon the front doorpost of the beautiful new edifice of Jewish outreach and education. The event was described by many as Rabbi Bryski’s ultimate revenge against the Nazis.
Rabbi Bryski at Grand Opening Ceremony of Chabad of Conejo's Community Campus
In his final weeks, as his condition forced him to finally surrender his car and remain at home, he took the time to meet with each of his children and grandchildren and to convey his wishes and blessings to them.
On the Shabbos of Parshas Vayigash, December 31, 2011, Rabbi Mordechai Meir was informed that his newest great grandson had been born. The baby’s father, grandson Yossi Bryski, expressed to his Zaidy that he would like him to have the honor of sandek (the individual who holds the baby during the circumcision) at his son’s Bris taking place the following Shabbos. Though very weak and barely able to speak, Reb Mordechai insisted that he would be there. Each day of the following week – the week of Parshas Vayechi – saw a rapid deterioration in his medical condition. His children from California flew in to be at his side.
Toward the end of the week he lost his power of speech completely, but would motion for water for negel vasser (the ritual washing of the hands) to be brought to his bed, for his Tallis and Tefillin to be wrapped around him and for help in writing out checks to charity and to certain individuals to whom he wished to show his gratitude. He would also constantly inquire as to the day of the week and time of the day, and about the status of the upcoming Bris.
During this time, the recordings Rabbi Bryski had made of the songs composed in Shanghai, as well as other meditative and lively melodies, were constantly played at his bedside. He would nod his head, move his eyes and lift his hands to and fro to the motion of the songs.
When the doctor came to see Rabbi Bryski one night that week, he advised the family that it may not be possible for him to attend the Bris celebration, which being held on Shabbat would not even allow for him to go by motorized vehicle. The following Friday night, the family held Shabbos services at the house during which Rabbi Bryski mouthed the prayers and motioned along with the singing. Later that same night, the doctor – a Chabad Chosid and resident of Crown Heights – paid another visit. Once again, the family inquired about the Bris to be held the next day. The doctor said that if, by some miracle, he rallies and regains some strength, then, by all means, let the non-Jewish attendant wheel him to the Bris.
That night, Reb Mordechai slept more peacefully than he had on any night in prior weeks. When he awoke in the morning, he looked well rested and was dressed in his Shabbos best in anticipation of the morning minyan being held at the house. With the quorum being made up mostly of Kohanim, he was able to receive the “Chazak” aliyah – the final reading of the Book of Genesis – which describes how Yosef lived to hold his great grandchildren on his lap. It is upon this section of the Torah which the commentaries extrapolate the great spiritual merit that being a sandek at a great-grandson’s Bris brings to ones soul – especially in the afterlife.
When asked whether he wished to be wheeled to the Bris, Reb Mordechai nodded vehemently and enthusiastically in the affirmative. A doctor on hand confirmed that he should be allowed to go. Positioned in a wheelchair complete with oxygen and an IV hookup, Reb Mordechai was wheeled to the home where the Bris was to be held several blocks away. Along the way, his grandchildren marched alongside and sang.
Upon arriving at the Bris, Rabbi Bryski looked at each guest and nodded a “Good Shabbos”. He held the child on his lap as sandek. After the baby was given the name Menachem Mendel, the room erupted in euphoric singing and dancing. Rabbi Mordechai vigorously nodded his head to the singing and motioned with his arms for the joy to continue with even greater intensity. Beckoning toward his children and grandchildren, he was clearly in full and lucid recognition of all that was going on around him.
Rabbi Mordechai was wheeled back home. The next morning he fell into unconsciousness and, hours later, with his wife and children at his side, the saintly soul of Reb Mordechai Meir Ben Reb Chaim Elazar HaKohen ascended on high.
Rabbi Mordechai Meir Hakohen Bryski is survived by his wife, Rebbetzin Etel Nechama, and his children: Eliezer Uri, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, Yitzchok, Rabbi Aaron Yaakov, Mrs. Rochel Tzilka Kohn, Rebbetzin Chave Sarah Einbinder, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, Rabbi Moshe Dovid and Rebbetzin Rivkah Leah Katz, yibadlu l’chaim tovim aruchim. With more than 100 descendants, Rabbi Bryski’s miracles of survival will continue to illuminate the hearts and souls of many until the coming of Moshiach – may it be speedily in our days.