The Consummate American Gadol

Rabbi Belsky at the bris of his son Zvi. Photos courtesy of Devorah Presby unless otherwise indicated

Rabbi Belsky at the bris of his son Zvi. Photos courtesy of Devorah Presby unless otherwise indicated

Like any boy raised on Brooklyn Dodgers turf, he loved to play ball and ping-pong and roller skate. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a diehard Yankee fan. Or an American gadol.

Rabbi Belsky, OU Kosher’s beloved senior halachic consultant, could have pursued a stellar career in the sciences, mathematics or music. Instead, he chose to dedicate his life to learning and disseminating Torah.

Rabbi Belsky saw the Torah and the magnificence of Hashem’s world as one and the same. And he used his breadth of knowledge to enrich as many lives as he could—starting with his family.

In Israel, during Sukkot, circa 1989.

In Israel, during Sukkot, circa 1989.

“I knew that whatever I asked him, in any area of life—halachah, hashkafah [Jewish philosophy] or hadrachah [life direction]—I’d get the right answer,” says Sarah Hindy Gross, the eldest of the thirteen Belsky children. “And he was always on target.”

The Belsky children grew up on stories about their illustrious ancestors, including Rabbi Binyamin Wilhelm, their father’s maternal grandfather, who was instrumental in founding Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. They also heard stories about their father’s paternal grandparents, Yisroel and Lena Belsky, who made sure their son Berel—Rabbi Belsky’s father—went to yeshivah and stayed in yeshivah, not an easy feat when the majority of Jewish American youth were assimilating rapidly.

With roshei yeshivah of Torah Vodaath; Rabbi Belsky is on the far right seated next to Rabbi Avraham Pam, zt"l, former rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaath.

With roshei yeshivah of Torah Vodaath; Rabbi Belsky is on the far right seated next to Rabbi Avraham Pam, zt”l, former rosh yeshivah of Torah Vodaath.

America’s Torah giants came to life at the Belsky Shabbat table as their “Poppy” told them about prominent activists and roshei yeshivah with whom he became close, such as the legendary Mike Tress, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rabbi Yisroel Chaim Kaplan, Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky and Rabbi Gedalia Schorr.

“I felt myself transported back fifty years,” says Rabbi Zvi Belsky, executive vice president at Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland and one of Rabbi Belsky’s sons. “We always knew he was brilliant, but the influence that his rebbeim had on him was strongly felt.”

The Belsky children were also keenly aware of their father’s untiring concern for fellow Jews. “He felt a burning passion to take care of others,” says Gross. She remembers as a young child sitting at a picnic table at Camp Agudah in the Catskills, where for forty-seven summers Rabbi Belsky served as the rav. She watched a disheveled and broken Holocaust survivor conversing with her father. As Rabbi Belsky was about to hand him a wad of money, he noticed his daughter’s gaze and quickly withdrew the money.

Reciting Kiddush.

Reciting Kiddush.

“He was so careful about protecting the man’s kavod [sense of pride],” says Gross. “He didn’t even want a child seeing this man having to accept charity. My father proceeded to pretend that he was getting change from the man.”

All kinds of Jews knew Rabbi Belsky was the address for spot-on advice and comfort.

“There would be people [coming at him] from all sides, in his office, over the phone, waiting in the dining room,” says Peretz Levin, who attended Rabbi Belsky’s minyan at Torah Vodaath. “In the middle of it all, a woman would call him with an elementary she’eilah and then continue to call every five minutes with additional ones. He would take each call, unruffled and unhurried. [He dealt with the caller] as if she were the only person he was dealing with at the time.”

At a matzah bakery in Russia.

At a matzah bakery in Russia.

In the 1970s, droves of beleaguered Russian Jewish immigrants poured out of the Former Soviet Union and discovered Shabbat at the Belsky table. “My father always gave them the greatest respect,” remembers Gross, a young girl at the time. “He wanted to encourage them, so he taught himself Russian. He sang songs with them in Russian; it made them so happy.” To ensure their children would have a solid Jewish future, he helped found Be’er Hagolah Institutes in Brooklyn.

When it came to helping his fellow Jews, his work was never done. Over three decades later, barely a year after he was hospitalized with an illness that nearly took his life, he joined a mission to Azerbaijan and Georgia to reach out to the Jews who remain there. Levin accompanied him on the trip where they met with a group of women who observed Shabbat and taharat hamishpachah, but their husbands weren’t yet on board. The women lamented that they desperately needed a rav. “As we left them, Rabbi Belsky was almost crying,” says Levin. “He said, ‘Can you imagine, they need a rav and I cannot stay there with them? We have to help them.’”

Born to Teach
Rabbi Belsky knew the power of encouragement and he used it often.

Once, in the middle of teaching his talmidim the laws of shechitah, he received an urgent phone call from the OU. A she’eilah had come up in a slaughterhouse—one of the knives used for shechitah had a pegimah (nick) a few millimeters above the sharp edge. The pesak could affect thousands of chickens. Seizing a perfect opportunity for his talmidim to apply a sugyah they had just learned to a real-life situation, he turned to his students and asked, “Nu? What do you guys think?”

With Torah Vodaath students at a Purim seudah, circa 1985.

With Torah Vodaath students at a Purim seudah, circa 1985.

Students never forget the teachers who saw greatness in them. “Rabbi Belsky and I were in the hallway of Torah Vodaath when it was in Williamsburg,” says Rabbi Avrohom Braun, dean of Ohr Somayach in Monsey, New York. “We were about to close one of our numerous personal conversations and he said, ‘Avrohom, you’re going to go far.’ It was almost fifty years ago, but those words and his belief in me still ring in my ears.”

For close to three decades, Rabbi Belsky also conducted a Monday night shiur for Torah Vodaath alumni and other ba’alei batim. “He loved Torah so much,” says Levin. “When we would finish an inyan [topic] in a shiur, he would ask, ‘What do you want to learn next? We could learn this or that; I love
every topic!’”

He also loved every talmid.

“Rabbi Belsky once told me the secret to chinuch,’” says Rabbi Mordechai Karfiol, a former Torah Vodaath talmid. “He said, ‘Never talk down to anyone. Find his ma’alot, love him, believe in him, but most importantly, empower him to show him you really believe in him.’ Rabbi Belsky said ‘I never had a talmid whom I didn’t love.’ Is it a wonder than that we loved him back?”

brenner belsky pull quote1“I remember him telling us, ‘I feel like making a Birkat Ha’ilanot [blessing for fruit trees] on you bachurim,’” says Rabbi Avrohom Krohn, maggid shiur and rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury in Connecticut and a former talmid of Rabbi Belsky. “‘Why do we say the berachah when we see only buds?’ Rabbi Belsky would ask. ‘A bud shows promise; we know it’s going to blossom into a ripe, delicious fruit from which everyone is going to derive pleasure. Looking at you [bachurim], I know that Klal Yisrael has a bright future.’”

Camp Agudah
Every summer, Rabbi Belsky took his love of chinuch and nature to the Catskills. As Camp Agudah’s rav for decades, he gave shiurim, answered she’eilot, joined the boys on hikes and made himself available to thousands of campers, no matter the need or hour.

 “You never knew what you were going to find in his office,” says Rabbi Dovid Frischman, who has run the camp’s Masmidim Program for the past nineteen years. “Chickens, shechitah knives or a camper’s tefillin waiting to be fixed.”

On Friday nights, the camp waiters typically rushed through their Shabbat meals so that they would be available to serve the rest of the camp. This bothered Rabbi Belsky.

“Right after davening, Rabbi Belsky would go quickly to join the waiters,” says Rabbi Frischman. “He sat down with them, sang zemiros and gave a devar Torah.”

brenner belsky pull quote2Rabbi Frischman remembers when the camp lifeguards approached Rabbi Belsky, concerned about the huge responsibility they had, watching so many children at the pool. They asked if he would write a special tefillah for them that they could say before starting work. “He spent hours writing that tefillah,” says Rabbi Frischman. “It still hangs by the pool.”

When mussar was called for, Rabbi Belsky would try to get the message across in a gentle way.

Rabbi Frischman recalls an incident when Rabbi Belsky walked by the bunk houses wearing his tallit and tefillin and noticed a boy exiting his bunk, considerably late for Shacharit. Rabbi Belsky wrapped himself up in his tallit as he passed by so as not to embarrass the boy.

On a hike with his beloved campers in Camp Agudah, circa 1980.

On a hike with his beloved campers in Camp Agudah, circa 1980.

Wanting every camper to experience the wonders of Hashem’s world, he didn’t hesitate taking a boy in a wheelchair on an overnight trip to Niagara Falls. The trek involved an elevator ride 175 feet down into the Niagara Gorge, where visitors stand on observation decks a mere twenty feet from the Falls. Unfortunately, the observation decks weren’t wheelchair accessible and it was necessary to climb many steps after exiting the elevator. The group was told that the boy who was in a wheelchair wouldn’t be able to go. Rav Belsky instructed the others to go ahead, and said that he would stay behind with the crestfallen camper. Just then, he observed a man with a young child sitting atop his shoulders heading for the elevator. He asked if he would be allowed to physically carry the camper to the site. He was told he could. He carried the boy on his back to and from the Falls.

Rabbi Yossi Aszknazy, a close talmid of Rav Belsky’s, said, “The gadlus of Rabbi Belsky was not only the chesed he did for this child, but that [despite his exhaustion from the unusual exercise he had that day], he got up at four o’clock the next morning to learn.”

Rabbi Frischman regards Rabbi Belsky as the “most unlazy person” he has had the privilege to know. “He pushed himself to do more and more. You can’t imagine all the phone calls that came into his office [at the camp] and the people coming to speak with him. Motzaei Shabbos there were often ten to fifteen people waiting at his door.”

Some years back, the camp faced serious financial difficulties. One Shabbat, it could only afford one watermelon for the entire camp. “They had to slice the watermelon into 144 pieces,” says Rabbi Frischman. “Rabbi Belsky told me, ‘Many times I feel like that watermelon.’”

OU Kosher’s Dedicated Posek

Giving a shiur, May 1999.

Giving a shiur, May 1999.

Every Thursday afternoon, for close to thirty years, Rabbi Belsky would come to OU Kosher headquarters in Manhattan to review and discuss various kashrut questions and issues with OU rabbinic coordinators. A frequent statement heard in the office these days is, “What would Rabbi Belsky have said about this?”

“He delved into the depths of an issue until he understood it. Only then did he give a pesak,” says Rabbi Menachem Genack CEO, OU Kosher.

Rabbi Belsky never took political correctness into account, recalls Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO, OU Kosher. He was lenient or strict because that was what the halachah required of the particular situation. “[He was an anomaly] in a world where everyone looks over their shoulders before they make a decision, taking into account what others say or think,” says Rabbi Elefant. “His approach was ‘What’s the emes? Let the chips fall where they may.’”

Some rabbis suggested using video cameras rather than on-site supervision to ensure that milk products would be chalav Yisrael. Instead of being on-site, someone would observe the milking of the cows remotely, via video monitors. Rabbi Belsky disapproved. “He said, ‘The halachah states that you need to have a mashgiach. A camera is not a mashgiach,’” recalls Rabbi Elefant.

He enjoyed a close relationship with all of the OU Kosher rabbis. Despite his busy schedule, he made a point to attend their family semachot.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO, OU Kosher, eulogizing Rabbi Belsky.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO, OU Kosher, eulogizing Rabbi Belsky. Photo: Shulim Goldring

Rabbi Belsky frequently brought talmidim on his Thursday visits to OU headquarters to experience what he called “the living Shulchan Aruch.”

“He felt very much part of our OU family and important to our mission,” says Rabbi Elefant. “At all hours of the night, people would call him about issues.”

He left behind thousands of halachic rulings for OU Kosher rabbis to refer to (stored on the OU Kosher she’eilot and teshuvot database). But Thursdays at the OU will never be the same.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

This article was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Action.