The Secret Life of Gershon Burd.
The hidden deeds of the man we thought we knew.
We, the members of his community in the Old City of Jerusalem, thought we knew Gershon Burd. The men at the yeshiva where he worked full time and learned Torah full time thought they knew Gershon. Batya, his wife of ten years and the mother of his five children, thought she knew Gershon.
Only after Gershon drowned in the Mediterranean on his 40th birthday, October 4, did the truth, or tantalizing glimpses of the truth, start to emerge.
On the second day of the shiva, a woman Batya knew appeared in the Burd home. As Batya recounts: “She looked at me with this look and said, ‘I’m going to tell you something you don’t know. No one in the world knows this except me and your husband.’” The woman paused, as if reluctant to divulge her secret. “For nine years, I was the front for your husband’s tzedaka [charity] fund.”
Batya was dumbfounded, “What tzedaka fund?”
The woman continued: “Your husband came to me with money every month and a list of names. I would call the people and they would come to me to pick up the money. They never knew who it came from.”
The proprietor revealed to Batya that Gershon had been paying for the helium balloons.
And then there were the helium balloons. Everyone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City knew that a certain stationery store gives a free helium balloon to every child on his or her birthday. Since most of the children here come from large, low-income families, a helium balloon is a real glee-producer. On Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, every child receives two free helium balloons. The Burd children were among those who relished this delightful prize.
No one knew who was sponsoring the free balloons. Paying a shiva call, the proprietor revealed to Batya that Gershon had been paying for the helium balloons. At the end of every month, he would slip into the store and surreptitiously pay for that month’s balloons.
Greg Burd was born in Odessa in 1973. Three years later his parents immigrated to Chicago. Proud but non-observant Jews, they were not equipped to give their only son and two daughters a Jewish education. Greg went to public school, played on his high school football team, became a lifeguard, and got a B.A. in business from the Indiana University.
Greg was 25 years old and working in his father’s insurance agency when his mother invited him to come with her to a Torah class at Rabbi Daniel Deutsch’s Chicago Torah Network. Greg loved the class, and made an appointment to speak to Rabbi Deutsch privately. He brought with him a list of one hundred questions.
Three months later, telling his parents, “I’m in preschool; I don’t know anything about Judaism,” Greg flew to Israel to learn Torah at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva. He returned to Chicago ten months later, but not for long. “I’m in kindergarten,” he told his parents. “I have to learn more.” He returned to Jerusalem. Every year his refrain was, “I’m in first grade. I have to learn more.” “I’m in second grade. I have to learn more.”
At the age of 30, Greg (now Gershon) married Batya Fefer, 28. She, too, came from a Russian family. Raised in Toronto, Batya was a lawyer working for Toronto’s top corporate tax firm when she decided that there had to be more to life. Her spiritual search took her to Nepal, where she climbed Mt. Annapurna, to India, where she met the Dalai Lama, and to a dozen other countries.
Back in Toronto, a friend told her about a free Birthright trip that would take her to Israel. Batya decided that that was a good way to get halfway back to India. Once in Israel, however, she started learning about Judaism at EYAHT, Aish HaTorah’s women’s division. She became observant, and in 2003 married Gershon Burd. They settled in the Old City.
Everyone considered Gershon a nice guy. One of his study partners recalled how Gershon would purposely choose a seat in the yeshiva across from the entrance so he could smile at people as they walked in. He was affable and gentle. In ten years of marriage, Batya heard her husband raise his voice only once—when he felt that someone was trying to rip off the yeshiva. But Gershon’s nice-guy persona was a mere front for his carefully hidden true identity.
Three years ago, Gershon approached Rabbi Nissim Tagger, the head of Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah, where Gershon was both learning and working as administrator. Gershon asked Rabbi Tagger to accept as a student a young man named David, whom Gershon intuited had tremendous potential. Rabbi Tagger had seen David, with his long, curled peyot and hippie-ish dress. “He doesn’t fit in at all with our Yeshivah,” Rabbi Tagger refused.
“He looks like that, but it’s not who he really is,” Gershon begged.
“Will he pay tuition?” Rabbi Tagger queried.
“No,” Gershon answered simply. “He has no money.”
“I have no scholarships available,” replied Rabbi Tagger.
The next day, Gershon returned to Rabbi Tagger and said, “David’s parents decided to pay for most of his tuition, and he’ll do odd jobs to pay for the rest.”
With misgivings, Rabbi Tagger decided to give David a two-week trial period.
Only after Gershon’s death did Rabbi Tagger find out that it was Gershon who paid David’s tuition.
Three years later, David is an accomplished Torah scholar at the yeshiva. Only after Gershon’s death did Rabbi Tagger find out that David’s parents had not paid a penny. It was Gershon who paid David’s tuition. “He lied to me straight to my face,” Rabbi Tagger says, holding back his tears.
The wife of one of the students of the yeshiva had not seen her parents back in America for several years. When she received news that her mother was ill, she wanted to fly back, but she didn’t have enough money for airfare. Hearing about it, Gershon told the woman about a credit card company that was offering a fantastic deal. If she signed up for the credit card and paid just $50, she would receive enough miles to get a free round-trip ticket. Gershon even showed her the promotion on his laptop, and offered to sign her up, explaining that he too would get miles for referring her.
The woman happily gave Gershon the information to sign her up, got her ticket, and flew to America to be with her mother. She never knew that Gershon had made up the whole promotion, even devising the graphic of the ad. Gershon himself paid for her ticket.
Once Gershon decided that a struggling family in the community really needed to take their children for a fun day at “Kef-Tzuba,” an attraction with giant blow-up trampolines, castles, etc. The family lacked the funds for such an outing, so Gershon got them a free coupon. They never knew that Gershon had paid for their admission and fabricated the professional-looking coupon.
Telling this tale, Batya laughs. “Gershon was a shyster. I only know what I know because I caught him on some things.”
When Gershon became aware of couples who were experiencing marital friction, he would surreptitiously pay for therapy sessions for them, with neither the couple nor the therapist aware of who was paying.
Nine years ago, Gershon got an idea. He created “Western Wall Prayers,” and put Batya in charge of it. This is a service where people all over the world can pay to have someone go to the Kotel and pray for them for 40 consecutive days. Not only have hundreds of people had their prayers answered through this age-old custom, but also the money raised supports many families of Torah scholars in the Old City.
At the shiva, the Rosh Yeshiva disclosed that Gershon once came to him and asked if it was permissible according to Jewish law to give the “prayer agents” fake names to pray for. It was a low period for Western Wall Prayers, and Gershon was worried that the people supported could not afford to lose their regular checks. In order to maintain their dignity, he wanted to continue the funding from his own pocket by giving out fictitious names for which to pray.
Why did Gershon go to such lengths to hide his charitable acts? “He really believed,” explains Batya, “that if the giver gets something from his chesed [act of loving-kindness], it diminishes the chesed. So if someone knows what you did, it means you got something from it, recognition or whatever. The mitzvah is much more powerful if you get nothing … except in the Next World.”
The Real Mystery
The mystery, of course, is where did the money come from? The Burds were not well-to-do. They didn’t even own a car. They had no inherited wealth and Gershon’s salary as yeshiva administrator was sufficient to cover only the family’s living expenses. Sitting across from Batya at the shiva, I ask her, “Where did Gershon get the money?”
“I have no idea!” she exclaims. “I really don’t know. For years we had a crack in the sink that we couldn’t afford to repair. I have no idea where he got the money to do all this chesed that we’re hearing about now. No idea.”
Daniel Rostenne, Gershon’s best friend and study partner, solves this mystery. “Gershon spent next to nothing on himself,” he explains. “He bought his shoes used on EBay. Used shoes! He bought his suits used on EBay. He would brag to me, ‘Look at this suit. I got it for $10, plus $10 shipping!’ He got his laptop, a used MacBook Air that sells new for $1200, for just a few hundred dollars. He simply didn’t spend money on his personal needs.”
Gershon scrimped on his own needs, so he could be generous in satisfying the needs of others.
Gershon’s red carpet to the Next World is lined with helium balloons, fake coupons and an anonymous charity fund.
His final deal was an overnight getaway at Tel Aviv’s Sheraton Hotel for just him and Batya to celebrate his 40th birthday, paid for with credit card points. Gershon’s favorite recreation was swimming in the ocean. He and Batya deposited their things in their hotel room and went to the beach. Taking one look at the muddy water, Batya opted to sit on the shore. Gershon, an expert swimmer and trained lifeguard, plunged into the waves. Minutes later, a rock or large piece of debris struck him in the back of the neck. Knocked unconscious, he was under water for 15 minutes before Batya, desperately scanning the sea with her eyes, saw her husband’s body float up toward the beach.
A few hours before the funeral, Batya said to one of the yeshiva students: ‘There’s a plan, and what was supposed to happen, happened. Gershon is smiling now in his world. It’ll be hard for me and the children. But Gershon is shining.”
Gershon’s red carpet to the Next World is lined with helium balloons, fake coupons, fictional credit card promotions, an anonymous charity fund, undercover tuition payments, surreptitiously sponsored marriage counseling sessions, and how many other hidden acts of chesed that we will never know.
Hiddenness is a sacred value in Judaism. In fact, according to Jewish lore, the world is sustained in every generation by the merit of 36 hidden tzaddikim. Could a Russian-born former football player from Chicago be one of them?
To donate to the fund for Batya and her children, click here: www.bircas.org/donate