In the winter of 1980, as a then young (22) Jewish educator involved in formal and informal Jewish education, I was approached by Bobby Hill the then organizer of Jewish Youth Study Groups to be a lecturer at Winter School in Bexhill-on-sea, Sussex.
It was a bold move on Bobby’s part since prior to this, most “lecturers” at Study Groups were older either rabbinic or academic types. The Study Groups schools were run by the va’ad, comprising of a national body of high-school students, who in turn would vote in the officers, including chairman, treasurer, etc.
My prior experience did not prepare me for my first SG school. I was used to a madrich-type approach that demanded of us to use strength of personality, charisma, intellect, singing, etc., to try to inspire the chanichim to reach higher levels of identity with their Jewish roots and observance. The SG approach was that in the mornings there were compulsory “lectures” by a group of lecturers, who the rest of the day were present, but had no official role other than to give these shiurim — and I was officially one of them. This style demanded a total realignment of expectations and a need to contract my usual need to lead and get involved. It was a humbling experience indeed.
This was my first experience with real peer empowerment. The va’ad ran the show. The litmus test for leadership at Study Groups, were the meal-time announcements. The way it usually worked was that the various members of the va’ad would at certain times during the meal, stand on a chair to make announcements regarding the schedule and other related topics. These announcements were open season for heckling, mild abuse, mocking and teasing. This was not a job for the faint-of-heart or over-sensitive. This was when I first met Danny Beller. He was the “chair” of that winter school. He made it look like that the only purpose for a chair to be ever created was for him, Danny Beller, to stand on it. He immediately commanded the attention and respect of everyone in the room. It was sight to behold. Pure presence of personality. I was awestruck. He represented to me the best of this new experience that I was just starting to come to terms with.
These were young, bright, and gifted individuals who were leading their contemporaries, and in so doing, searching for avenues towards their own personal growth. I loved those years of my involvement with JYSG. They were critical in shaping who I became as a Jewish educator. I came into contact with some amazing people, some of whom, I am still in contact with. Through my kesher with James, Avi, Obi, Charles, Jonathan, Ruth, Adam (Z”L), Anna, Jonathan (Beller), Suzanne, Jeremy, Ashley and many others, my life was enriched no end, certainly more that I succeeded in enriching theirs. I only spent one SG school; my first, his last, with Danny, but it left such a lasting impression on me.
Our on-going relationship continued while he was in BMT, Manchester, and then when he was back in Israel coming to visit Michal and me in Ramat Eshkol. It was clear that he was going places. His personality was a stunning tapestry of different character traits: He was passionate about what he did, about what he believed in, about the Jewish people. He was extremely funny. He could be poignantly cynical. He could act and mimic. He was “normal”. By that I mean the following: Over the years, I have witnessed how many young people who become frum go over the deep end. They feel the need to live a life of extreme piety typified by many charedi communities – often to compensate for their perceived inadequacies and “wrong” behavior prior to becoming frum. Not so Danny. He learned fast and quickly learned to feel an equal amongst equals. By normal I mean that and he totally got it that the Torah is for real humans living in a real society.
It was so clear to us that these and other traits, coupled with the facts that he was so clever, that he learned constantly, and that was a master teacher, Danny Beller was going to be a true leader in Israel. And so it was.
We weren’t really in touch much since his return to Israel. Every-so-often, we would meet at the occasional wedding, or other life-cycle event. The first such occasion, I will never forget. We were at a wedding of a daughter of one of our friends and neighbors. She was marrying a boy of South African extraction from Ra’anana, who were members of Danny’s shul, and Danny was the officiating rabbi. He was so good; getting the atmosphere just right, saying just the right things to inspire the couple and the invited guests. I schepped such nachat from watching Danny perform the chuppah ceremony. Not from a superior, patronizing perspective, but from the perspective of a member of the Jewish people who is proud that we have been blessed with such an individual in our midst. As the crowd danced the young couple from the chuppah to the yichud room, Danny was dancing too. I was on the side, innocently clapping when our eyes met and he immediately dived out of the procession and on to me and gave me the warmest genuine hug ever. What a treat!
Just over five years ago, when we sitting shiva for my late brother Mordechai in Yerushalayim. Danny came and spent a whole day with us. He told us that during his years as a rabbi in South Africa, he was mentored by Mordechai z”l. He said that he learned everything he knows about being a successful rabbi from him. Last summer, we were once again sitting shiva, this time for my late father. Once again, Danny arrived and stayed for the better part of a full day. He said that since the Fachler family had such an impact on him, he feels the need sit with us and pay homage the head of the family.
Though we didn’t see each other a lot, every time we did meet, the years would peel away and we would continue where we left off.
I recently met Danny’s brother Jonathan Beller in our shul in Baka. I could see on his face what he was going through. I told him that I could totally identify with someone who has an amazing older brother, accomplished rabbi and teacher, loved by his family and kehilla, who has cancer and is going through cancer treatment. I told him that I prayed that his will be a happier ending than the parallel story I and my siblings went through.
Alas, that wasn’t to be the case. A couple of weeks later I received the devastating news that the great larger-than-life, yet totally human Danny Beller had left us. Like so many, we were devastated. The sense of deja-vous was extreme. The best – really the best, taken away in their prime. He joins countless others, like my late brother Mordechai, my late brother-in-law Boaz, to name but a few.
As I wrote to a friend the day he died: “While it’s true we are all going to go sometime, the timing of some people’s departure remains a mystery. Go figure. ” I certainly have no answers. All I know is that their legacy lives on. It lives in their families, in their congregants, in their students, and in the hundreds and thousands of lives that have been touched by their awesome soul. While it doesn’t fill the void, as the years go by we realize more and more that this is what we leave behind.
I leave with the image I have of Danny now in Olam Ha’emet, probably standing on chair, inspiring, wowing and teaching the select few who have the zchut of being in his presence.
יהי זכרו ברוך
חול המועד פסח, תשע”ו