Memories of My Giant Friend Rav Shmuel Tzvi Berkovicz zt”l

Many people have friends throughout their lifetime, some even for a long time. Usually, though, they go off and build families, move away, and become busy with their lives, and we end up losing our connections to our friends over time. But there are rare cases when one has the good fortune to have a friend that no matter how long they don’t talk, nor the geographical distance, the bond remains fresh.

This past week, after having the zechus of being his friend for 48 years, I was devastated to lose such a man.

Rav Shmuel Tzvi Berkovicz was such a giant of a friend. A giant, because the larger the shoulders a person has, the larger he must be. And my friend, lovingly known as Shmilu, had large shoulders which carried the burden of so many people.

When I came to Yeshivas Telz back in 1972 from Oak Park, Michigan, the older bochurim tended to feel above those in the lower shiurim. But Shmilu, although he was in a higher shiur, was warm and friendly. One never knows where they would have ended up if their initial yeshiva experience had been a negative one—yet my wonderful experience for the 12 years I was in Telz was largely due to the warm connection I had with Shmilu.

As time passed, I watched his focus and commitment in the bais medrash. After going into the higher shiurim, Shmilu sat the entire day and combed through hilchos shechitah and treifos with his chavrusa, Issac Shnitzer. After getting the farher on that, virtually memorizing every Shach and Taz, Shmilu went on to master melicha, bosor b’cholov, and taaruvos. You could see many other meforshim underlined as well throughout his Yoreh Deah.

When walking into the farher, conducted by three roshei yeshiva—Reb Mordechai Gifter, Reb Chaim Stein, and Reb Pesach Stein—most of us had a true pachad of Yom Hadin, but Shmilu was confident—and rightfully so. In fact, the roshei yeshiva had to tell him to stop talking at certain points as he rattled off entire shtiklech of Taz and Shach. Needless to say, Shmilu received his semicha with flying colors.

I got married first and Shmilu, with his warm heart, drove my parents to New York for the wedding from Cleveland—an eight-hour trip. Then Shmilu married his eishes chayil, Rochel Brandwein. Their marriage, until this very day, some 40 years later, was one that all married couples can learn from.

To our good fortune, Rochel became my wife’s best friend, and our families grew extremely close. We were drafted to be part of the Cleveland Chevra Kadisha, and the tasks we were sent on were not always pleasant. But leave it to Shmilu to give us chizuk to and from our missions, explaining the tremendous zechus it was to bring a Yid to a proper burial.

We were not zoche in the first years of marriage to children, and living in a kollel community in that situation was difficult, to say the least. But with encouragement and friendship we received from Shmilu and Rochel, we made it beyond the normal survival threshold for that situation. Shmilu suggested that I go for a brocha to the Skulener Rebbe, and that’s what I did.

When we had our first child after moving to Monsey, who do you think drove a multi-passenger van through the night with other friends from Cleveland to be at the bris on Sunday morning? You guessed it—Shmilu and Rochel.

And that’s how they continued to express their tremendous simcha in being able to share future simchos we were zoche to, and we shared in theirs as well. The mazel tov voicemails from Shmilu after any such simcha were so moving, I saved them for years to play back!

Every major decision in life should be done with daas Torah and Shmilu’s success throughout his life was driven by that mode of operation. So when he approached his rabbeim to decide on whether to become a rebbi in Mosdos Ohr Hatorah, they were very supportive of the idea, and he became the beloved melamed one could only dream of having on their staff. His love for each student is what they all remember well after they graduated and became parents with their own kids.

When the menahel of the Cleveland Cheder was niftar, the staff unanimously reached out to Reb Shmilu to become the next menahel—and what a perfect choice it was.

Throughout his career in chinuch and rabbonus, Reb Shmilu was successful in raising the level of all his talmidim, mispallelim, parents, and friends—because his message was always projected through the love and warmth he had for all Jews. If I had a dime for each time I heard him say, “I love him to pieces,” I’d be wealthy.

He knew each of the hundreds of talmidim by name and would greet them with his warm smile. A talmid was overheard saying to his friend, “I’m not afraid to get sent to Rabbi Berkovicz’s office, because I know he loves me.” His friend shot back, “What do you mean, Rabbi Berkovicz loves me more!” The kids would argue about who Rabbi Berkovicz loved more.

His caring and empathy for talmidim knew no bounds. The last trip the Berkoviczes made to Monsey was actually a multi-purpose trip. Not only did they honor us by coming for the annual summer get-together, but they stopped in the silver store to purchase five silver bechers. They were to be given as gifts to five talmidim who would not be having the customary large bar mitzvah, due to the coronavirus. What a menahel!

The same for his rabbonos later in Passaic. We were guests many times in the home of the Berkoviczes for Shabbos. Walking to and from shul with Shmilu, he knew almost every member of the community and in many cases helped discuss various chinuch or family issues with so many of them. After davening, his warm feelings of joy for a community simcha were such that he and his wife would walk miles before their own meal to go and say mazel tov in various shuls throughout the community.

During the hespedim for Reb Shmilu, speakers mentioned the hashgocho of sharing the same yahrtzeit with Aharon Hakohen, who was “ohev shalom v’roidef shalom.” What I would add to that is that on the daf yomi (which Reb Shmilu enjoyed learning) on the day of the levayah (139a), the Gemara states that because Aharon saw that Moshe was chosen as a leader and he was happy for him, he was zoche to wear the Choshen. Rashi comments, “Keneged libo.” The fact that Aharon Hakohen’s heart was so great that he rejoiced in another’s success as if it were his own, gave him the merit to wear the Choshen on his heart.

How appropriate that this was the daf on the day of his hesped! Reb Shmilu rejoiced in the success of all his talmidim, congregants, staff, and friends… as if it were his own success.

The final gift I received from Reb Shmilu was an ArtScroll siddur, on the occasion of our siyum of the last daf yomi cycle. What greater gift can one receive than having a siddur that will help one daven and say the Shem Hashem with proper kavonah? May all my kavanos be a zechus for his neshomah.

To paraphrase the Gemara in Bava Basra (15a), “Hakodosh Boruch Hu spoke, and Moshe wrote amid tears”, I sign off with tears as well, for the loss on both a personal and communal level of a great friend, husband, father, grandfather, menahel, and rov: Rav Shmuel Tzvi Berkovicz.

Yehi zichro boruch.