A Life of Mesiras Nefesh

By Hershel Rosenbluh for Anash.org

Born in Nevel in 5668/1908 to Reb Peretz and Chana Frieda Devora, Reb Berke Chein was an example of true chassidishe mesiras nefesh, coupled with incredible Ahavas Yisroel. He passed away on 4 Sivan 5750/1990.

His Youth in Communist Russia

As a child, he spent lots of time with his zeide Reb Meir Simcha Chein, who was a great chossid, as well as a wealthy man who an open home where guests would come to stay. Young Berke loved to spend time there and hear divrei Torah and Chassidic stories from the guests.

Once, in yechidus, the Frierdiker Rebbe told Reb Berke: “du zolst lernen vayl du darfst lernen,” you should learn because you need to learn.

Reb Berke studied in the underground yeshivos and made sure that his brothers did as well, hiding their whereabouts from their parents so that they could not get in trouble from the authorities, who would try to force the information out of them. The Soviet authorities persecuted the family and ultimately banished them from Nevel and confiscated all their belongings and holdings, leaving them penniless.

Marriage and Illness

In 5693/1933, Reb Berke married Faiga Kalmenson, daughter of Reb Schneur Zalman Kalmenson of Vitebsk, and the couple moved to Leningrad. A while after his wedding, Reb Berke became sick with tuberculosis, and the doctors all gave up hope. It was at that time, that the name Chaim was added to his name. The many tefillos said for him ultimately helped and he was soon well enough to get up and around. Reb Berke would often say how owes his wife a great debt of gratitude for her devotion to him at the time of his sickness. Though he never fully recovered from that illness.

Upon getting up from bed, the doctors ordered him to recuperate in the woods of Yalta, in the Crimea, where the climate would be good for him. That period, which lasted some eight months saw an awakening in Berke’s life. He began to learn nigleh and chassidus with great diligence and thus began a new period of since avodas Hashem.

Upon returning to Leningrad Berke was a new and changed person. He began to learn chassidus with new vigor and daven at great length. He also began to teach Torah to young children at great personal self-sacrifice.

During World War II, Reb Berke and his wife Faiga managed to escape from Leningrad and the siege only by great miracles. They lost all their belongings and whatever food they had quickly was gone. The family barely managed to survive more terrifying situations along the way, until they reached a small collective farm called Bortiyuk, where they spent the next two years with other Lubavitcher families completely cut off from society.. After that, they got word of the chassidishe “settlement” in Uzbekistan and they soon managed to get together the necessary funds to get to Samarkand.

Imprisonment and “Escape”

At the end of the war, Reb Berke learned about the plan to leave the Soviet Union using false passports, and he managed to get the precious papers for himself and his family, but Hashem had other plans for him. He was arrested before he could leave, and he was arrested and tortured. (Though some of his children did manage to leave the country.)

The authorities tried to find out who arranged the mass exodus, but he would not talk. For his refusal to cooperate, he was sentenced to death! But his sentence was soon commuted to 18 and then 10 years of hard labor. His wife Feige managed to bribe whom she needed to and Reb Berke was “released” after 3 years, but he was considered an escaped convict since the release was unofficial. Thus began years of being on the run and hiding from authorities.

Finding a kosher parnosoh that could avoid chilul shabbos was hard enough for any man in that time, but for Reb Berke, it was exponentially more difficult. One trade that made it easy was photography; passport pictures and similar pictures necessary for documents. Reb Berke learned that trade and made a decent living.

The Rebbe’s Chossid

After Yud Shvat 5710/1950 he became a strong mekushar to the Rebbe and would write panim to the Rebbe through acquaintances and family in Eretz Yisroel. It wasn’t easy and answers would take a long time in coming. he would also put panim in a sefer Tanya that he had. Soon he had to head east and travel all the way back to Samarkand, where the watchful eye of the KGB was a little less watchful.

One year, a heavenly hoiro’oh came from the Rebbe to Reb Berke: He should request exit visas for him and his whole family!

What happened was that his son Mottel, who had been learning in 770 at that time, asked the Rebbe if his mother should ask for an exit visa by herself, since Reb Berke was in hiding and would be arrested if he asked to leave. The Rebbe’s replied that Reb Berke should ask for his entire family and that the Hashem will help them. About Reb Berke the Rebbe added that “zei vellen nit chappen!” they won’t realize that he’s wanted. Sure enough, he went himself and filled out the whole questionnaire. A year and a half later he was notified that his request was accepted and that he was to come to pick up his documents!

A few hours later they were on their way to Moscow. From there Reb Berke, Faiga, and their daughter Chana – who was born after the War – flew to Vienna. The next stop was Tel-Aviv, Eretz Yisroel, where a very emotional reunion took place with family members whom he had not seen in some 14 years.

In Eretz Yisroel

Reb Berke and his family settled in Kfar Chabad, where he began to work as a melamed. He loved his talmidim and the feeling was reciprocated by his talmidim. He was a true example of a chossid. For example, when teaching the children how to properly bow by shmonei esrei he would get up on a chair and from there on a table and personally show them how to do it correctly. His davening was like a flamm feier.

A few months after arriving in Eretz Yisroel Reb Berke was zoche to travel to the Rebbe, where he merited a long yechidus. Two years later he traveled again, and from then he was makpid to travel to the Rebbe every year at least once – if not twice. He was careful not to miss a single event – tefillah, farbrengen or otherwise, where the Rebbe was present. The Rebbe showed him special attention and asked that Reb Berke join him on the bimah during tekios on Rosh Hashonoh.

New Appointments

In Elul 5728/1968, after the passing of Reb Avrohom Paris, who was in charge of collecting ma’amad money and other collections for the Rebbe in Eretz Yisroel, Reb Berke appointed by the Rebbe to be in charge of those collections.

In his first years after arriving in Eretz Yisroel, he would travel to kibbutzim at least once a week to bring Yidden closer to Yiddishkeit. When he would be a chance to speak he would usually tell the assembled how difficult life was for him and his family in Russia, especially with regards to Torah and Mitzvos. He would usually finish his speech by calling out: “You here in Eretz Yisroel don’t have these difficulties, therefore, you should all keep Shabbos and kashrus and put on tefillin, etc.”

He also would go out to the bus and train stations in Tel Aviv to put tefillin on the passersby. Any person, no matter how secular, found it difficult to say no to a distinguished looking zeide like Reb Berke, complete with his Russian kasket and broken Hebrew.

You would be hard-pressed to find any Chabad gathering or farbrengen or other occasions where Reb Berke was not asked to speak and share his experiences and thoughts. Even when attending such gatherings came at great personal expense he would not refrain from doing since he saw this as fulfilling the rebbe’s ratzon.

His Passing

In his final months, he suffered from illness and was in great pain. On the Shabbos before Shavuos he was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors informed him that unfortunately, his time had come. The morning he was niftar he still managed to put on tefillin, and all day his lips were murmuring perokim of Tanya and kapitlech tehillim. In the afternoon the doctors decided that maybe they could still operate on him, but while preparing for the operation he passed away, on 4 Sivan 5750/1990, at the age of 82.

The levaya took place on the night of Erev Shavuos. Hundreds participated from Kfar Chabad. The procession then traveled to Yerushalayim, and he was interred in the Chabad section on Har Hazeisim.

His dedicated wife Faiga, passed away fourteen years later, on 12 Cheshvan 5764/2003.

Sources: אבני חן, אוצר החסידים, Shturem
Photos Courtesy: Schneur Friedman

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