A sense of sadness swept across Toronto this past Motzoei Shabbos as news of the petirah of Reb Yissocher Dov (Albert) Reichmann began to spread. A giant had left this world; a person whose shoes would be impossible to fill. Reb Beri, or Mr. Albert, was not only a unique individual who changed the lives of Jews across the globe, but was also a Yid fun a mohl, a remnant of the post-war era who lived with the traditions and sensitivities of pre-war Hungarian Jewry. As the number of such individuals dwindles, each loss is all the more poignant and profound.
On many occasions, it was Reb Beri’s foresight, attention to detail, and selfless dedication to the klal that ensured that community initiatives were executed in the most efficient and beneficial manner. At the same time, when working on behalf of the klal, he would do his utmost to keep his identity hidden, with many people remaining completely unaware of his involvement.
Birth and Early Years
Reb Beri was the fourth child born to Reb Shmayahu and Renee Reichmann in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. He had an older sister, Maidy, and two older brothers, Eli and Hashi. A little over a year after his birth, his brother Moshe was born, followed by yblch”t Isaac three years later. To understand a bit about Reb Beri, it is important to learn about the home in which he was raised and some of his early childhood experiences.
The Reichmann home in Vienna was a hub of chesed. Reb Shmayahu was a successful wholesale egg merchant who gave large sums to tzedokah each day. Among many other chesed activities, Mrs. Renee was a tireless advocate for Jews who would visit Vienna in search of medical treatment. She made it her business to know the city’s medical professionals and would see to it that Jews received proper care. Witnessing constant acts of chesed from a young age undoubtedly had a strong impact on Reb Beri and his siblings, who would each go on to devote themselves to the klal.
In March 1938, the bar mitzvah of Eli Reichmann, the eldest boy in the family, was scheduled to take place in Vienna. However, at the last minute, Reb Shmayahu’s father, Rav Dovid Reichman, had a stroke in Beled, Hungary, and was unable to attend. The Reichmanns decided to cancel the grand festivities in Vienna and travel with the bar mitzvah boy to Beled to celebrate with his grandparents. Reb Shmayahu and Renee took their three eldest children with them, leaving the three younger ones in Vienna in the care of an aunt.
That Shabbos, the infamous Anchluss took place, with the Nazis annexing Austria and bringing it under German control. Providentially, when the Nazis came looking for Reb Shmayahu on Motzoei Shabbos, he was not home. However, over the course of that Shabbos, young Beri witnessed an unsettling sight that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Across the street was a large shoe store owned by a Jew. Beri watched as the owner was forced to wash his normally chauffeur-driven car in front of a gloating Nazi officer.
Word of the Nazi invasion reached the Reichmanns in Beled. Reb Shmayaha flew from Prague to London while Mrs. Renee returned to Vienna to bring the rest of the children to Beled. After spending time scouting the scene in London, the Reichmanns decided to take the family to Paris. However, they soon realized that Paris was not going to remain safe for very long.
Moving from hotel to hotel and then from Paris to Bordeaux, the Reichmanns narrowly escaped the oncoming Germans. Taking a train into Spain, the Reichmanns were granted a 90-day stay in Madrid. A week later, they identified the city that would be their haven throughout the war years: Tangiers, Morocco. Only eight miles away from Spain, Tangiers was a neutral territory during WWII.
In Tangiers, Reb Shmayahu reinvented himself as a foreign currency exchange merchant and before long was able to open his own bank. Mrs. Renee got to work immediately doing everything she could to help the Jews in occupied territories. Beri watched as his home turned into a virtual post office by way of which thousands of letters traveled from free countries to occupied ones. Eventually, Mrs. Reichmann’s work shifted to sending food packages to Jews by way of the Spanish Red Cross. Young Beri would spend hours helping his mother make the packages and deliver them for shipment.
The teenage Beri watched as his parents learned of the destruction of their cities of origin and the murder of numerous family members. Although there was much sadness during the war years, there was never any room in the Reichmann home for despondency. Reb Shmayaha and Mrs. Renee continued to build, and before long, Beri joined his father as an executive at the Reichmann bank.
By the time the war ended and people were beginning to collect themselves, Beri was a young and successful bank executive in need of a shidduch. It wasn’t long before family members suggested Egosah Feldman, a girl from Tel Aviv whose family had immigrated to Israel from Satmar, Romania, before the war. Although moving to Tangiers was not the most exciting prospect for her, Egosah could see that the young man was special and well worth the sacrifice. In 1954, Beri and Egosah got married and moved to Tangiers.
While Beri continued to work for his father, Egosah founded a school together with a young architect named Samuel Toledano and began to teach the local Jewish girls. While in Tangiers, their eldest son Ephraim was born. With time, however, it became clear that Tangiers did not hold a future for a vibrant Torah community and the Reichmanns made their way to Canada. In 1959, it was Reb Beri who was the last one to leave, closing up shop in Tangiers and moving to Toronto to join his parents and two younger brothers.
In Toronto, Reb Beri joined forces with his brothers to form Olympia and York, which rose to become one of the greatest developers in North America. As the company continued to succeed and the Reichmanns were blessed with tremendous wealth, they never allowed the money to go to their heads or distract them from their ultimate purpose on this world. As Reb Beri’s son, Reb Ephraim, said at the levayah, more than the way that a person responds to adversity, it is the way that a person acts during periods of great success that really define him.
“Always Willing to Help,” and Efforts on Behalf of Soviet Jewry
A family member recalled how, even from a young age, Beri was always helping. In Tangiers, when Mrs. Renee needed something delivered quickly, Beri was often the one she’d enlist for the task. Once he learned how to drive, he was constantly giving people rides. This family member notes that Beri would do all these tasks in a natural way; it didn’t seem as if he was exerting himself beyond the norm, but rather as if he was simply doing what was expected of him.
Throughout his life, this middah persisted. If he saw he could be of assistance to someone, he would simply do it. Even after he became one of the most famous Canadian businessmen, he didn’t consider it beneath him to clean up a mess in a shul or other public place. Notions such as “it’s not my job” or “someone else will do it” did not factor into his thinking.
Every evening after supper, Reb Berry would sit near the entrance to his home at a table set up with an additional chair. People would knock on the door and be greeted by Reb Beri himself. Being unavailable to the public or having a butler answer the door were anathema to him.
When Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt zt”l and yblch”t Rabbi Zvi Tress and Rabbi Shlomo Noach Mandel approached Reb Beri to solicit funds for the newly-established Vaad L’hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel, a branch of Agudas Yisroel dedicated to assisting the refuseniks and others trapped behind the Iron Curtain, Reb Beri not only made a significant donation, but told them that if he could ever be of assistance in the future, they shouldn’t hesitate to come back to him. This led to decades of activity on behalf of Soviet Jewry, with countless trips to Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Hungary.
Towards the end of the Communist regime, the Soviets began to initiate what became known as perestroika — a policy of openness to certain forms of capitalism and free enterprise. The Soviet economy was in shambles and was desperate for a boost from Western investors. Not only did they need the capital of Western powers, but they needed the advice of Western businessmen on how to pick themselves out of the dust. Reb Beri saw an opportunity: he could leverage business opportunities with large Canadian corporations in exchange for better conditions for Soviet Jews.
Reb Beri began to make trips to the former Soviet Union, meeting with government officials and lobbying on behalf of Soviet Jews. Eventually, Reb Beri became chairman of the Canada-Russia trade commission, bringing along chairmen of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies, such as Gulf Oil and Loblaws. Reb Beri had the attention of the Russian authorities and, when meeting with them, would bring up the plight of refuseniks who were denied emigration permits.
Contrary to his regular practice of avoiding the limelight, Reb Beri knew that the more attention he would garner in the press, the more influence he would be able to have. He therefore made sure to travel in long black limousines that caught everyone’s attention. He had his picture taken with refuseniks and made sure it ended up in the papers. Additionally, although he used to wear a fedora when walking in the street, he began to wear a large, visible yarmulke; he wanted the world, and especially Russian society, to see that one need no longer hide one’s Jewish identity. His son, Reb Duddy, recalled at the levayah how a fellow who today boasts a family of shomrei Torah u’mitzvos told him that seeing his father on Russian television wearing a big yarmulke inspired him to do the same, leading to him becoming a complete baal teshuvah.
On one memorable occasion, Reb Beri brought Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to a yeshiva in Moscow that was in danger of being expelled from its premises. The Russian authorities had shut off the yeshiva’s water and electricity to convince it to leave. However, the minute that they heard that Prime Minister Mulroney was on his way there, everything was restored and the yeshiva was allowed to stay in its location in peace.
After meeting with many high-level officials, Reb Beri obtained a meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev himself, the chairman of the Communist Party. Not only was Reb Beri successful in convincing the Soviet authorities to allow the emigration of numerous high profile refuseniks like Eliyahu Shteingardt and Zev Rais, but he obtained permission from Gorbachev for Jewish schools to open, shuls to be refurbished, and mikvaos to be built and maintained. Reb Beri would dedicate years of time to establishing schools, kollelim, and shuls in the former Soviet Union and populating them with teachers, yungeleit, and rabbonim.
Today, there are over 10,000 Jewish children enrolled in Jewish day schools in the former Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of the graduates have gone on to build Torah families in the former Soviet Union, Israel, and abroad, and Rav Shlomo Noach and Reb Beri’s son Reb Ephraim continue to assist the vast network of Shema Yisroel schools that were founded over the years.
Treating Everyone with Dignity
Another middah mentioned at the levayah was Reb Beri’s penchant for treating everyone with dignity. He would never meet with someone before donning his jacket, and would always give them his full attention. After someone visited, he would make sure to walk them to the door. Rav Yaakov Michoel Hirschman, rosh kollel of Kollel Toronto, related how, after meeting with a local businessman at the fellow’s office, the man walked Rav Hirschman to the elevator. As they walked, the fellow remarked that he had learned this practice from Mr. Albert Reichmann.
Reb Beri’s son-in-law, Reb Eli Koenig, related how a friend once saw Reb Beri standing and talking to a young man. It seemed clear to Reb Eli’s friend that the fellow was not discussing anything of importance, and was, in essence, wasting Mr. Reichmann’s time. As the person continued to talk, Reb Beri nodded his head understandingly, looking the fellow in the face and offering words of encouragement. After the person left, the observer approached Reb Beri. “Mr. Reichmann,” the person said. “You have such a talent for making everyone who talks to you feel like a somebody!”
“Young man,” Reb Beri replied. “Everyone is a somebody.”
Reb Beri’s grandson, Shlomo Reichmann, related how a young man who was just getting started in kiruv came to Reb Beri’s office to solicit funds. When the man arrived, he saw Reb Beri in a large conference room with a whole group of people. When Reb Beri looked up and noticed the fellow, he left the conference room to greet him and ask how he could be of assistance. The man made his pitch and Reb Beri was impressed with the idea. On the spot, Reb Beri wrote him a $50,000 check and walked him to the elevator. The chashivus and sense of self-worth that the man walked away with that day was undoubtedly worth more than the $50,000 check.
Although the initiative to bring a kollel to Toronto was spearheaded by Reb Beri’s legendary brother Reb Moshe, Reb Beri fully embraced the kollel, davening Shacharis there each day and returning for night seder. Each Yom Tov, Reb Beri would personally deliver a case of wine to each kollel family, expressing his appreciation for the talmidei chachomim raising the level of Torah and avodas Hashem in the city.
Rav Hirschman related that it was Reb Beri who pointed out that the yungeleit would require three-bedroom apartments and initiated the purchase of 411 Lawrence Ave. In the early years, Reb Beri and Mrs. Egosah would host the kollel’s Purim parties and simchas beis hashoeivah in their home each year, often graced by the presence of Rav Yaakov Galinsky.
A few years after the kollel’s arrival, Reb Beri, together with yblch”t his brother Reb Isaac and Rabbi Zvi Tress, initiated a partnership with Daiter’s Creamery to provide the city with a constant weekly supply of cholov Yisroel milk, cheese, and yogurts. Reb Beri was the one who insisted that the products be subsidized to be the same price as the cholov stam, in order to make them available and appealing to the entire kehillah. The results of this project were astronomical — it led to an approximately 500% increase in cholov Yisroel consumption in Toronto.
The Ultimate Success
Although Reb Beri built skylines of major cities and gave enormous sums of tzedokah, his greatest sense of accomplishment came from his children, who are all people who are osek b’tzorchei tzibbur b’emunah. His son, Reb Duddy, remarked at the levayah that it always seemed like his father was traveling, but at the same time, it always seemed like he was home for supper.
Almost every maspid mentioned Reb Beri’s dedication to his wife. When she wanted his attention, everything would stop. Reb Beri’s grandson-in-law, Rav Avigdor Coleman, said that Reb Beri was the perfect example of one who is ohava k’gufo u’mechabda yoser m’gufo, as directed by Chazal. The maspidim mentioned the fact that, especially during the last number of years, when Mrs. Reichmann was very ill, Reb Beri’s dedication to her was even more apparent. Now that they are both in the olam ha’emes, they are united once again.
Reb Beri leaves behind a legacy of bein adam la’Makom, bein adam l’chaveiro, and dedication to tzorchei tzibbur. He is survived by his sons, Reb Ephraim and Reb Duddy; his daughters, Mrs. Briendy Koenig and Mrs. Libby Gross; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all committed to following in his ways.
Yehi zichro boruch.