R’ Eliezer Berkowitz z”l

June 1, 2023

I Have Seen Bnei Aliyah and They Are Few

Tribute to R’ Eliezer Berkowitz z”l

Yecheskel Ostreicher

A few days before Shavuos, as Klal Yisrael prepared to once again accept the Torah, a young, budding sefer Torah was plucked from our midst.

Only 32 years old, R’ Eliezer Berkowitz was a true ben aliyah, a model of the madreigah of mamleches kohanim v’goy kadosh a Yid can reach.

A man among the boys…

As a bachur, Eliezer stood out for his excellence in learning, noble middos, and hecherkeit. He was the perfect blend of warmth and eidelkeit, chein, and menuchas hanefesh.

If there was one thing Eliezer hated, it was being the center of attention. As a bachur he was at the top of his class—in learning as well as in sports—but he never saw himself as above anyone else. He was the epitome of approachability, unassuming and ready to share a good laugh. And yet, he displayed a maturity beyond his years.

Soft spoken and somewhat introspective, Eliezer often expressed a depth of mind that astounded both his rebbe’im and friends. In class he stood out as the one whose sevaros and questions received acclaim, and among his peers he demonstrated a crystal clear grasp of human nature, hashkafah, and avodas Hashem.

He once remarked to a friend, “Sometimes people are nichshol and they get depressed, leaving them unable to serve Hashem. But I thought about it. What does Hashem want from him at that moment: to stop doing His ratzon, or to brush off the negative thoughts and go on?”

It was a mindset that would assist him in the valiant struggle he would later face. What does Hashem want from me now?

His depth endowed him with an appreciation of the ultimate truth, and the ability to discern falsehood from emes. His behavior was always real—the way he learned, davened, and treated his friends. His genial smile to others wasn’t a show; it was genuine warmth that radiated.

The teenage years are often fought with complexes and insecurities. Identity crises, competition, and worrying about self-image are all struggles a normal teen has. But Eliezer transcended it all. He was too real for any of that. 

The purity that he exuded was evident from the small hints he sometimes inconspicuously dropped. As a young bachur in camp, he once turned to his friend Aryeh Leib Singer shortly before Ma’ariv after a ta’anis and said, “Don’t you just love Ma’ariv after a fast? You feel so rein…”

Another time, a friend asked him what the secret was to his renewed effort to come to Shacharis on time in yeshivah. “I decided that all cheshbonos regarding waking up or sleeping in have to made at night, before I go to sleep. And if I figured then that I could wake up on time, I know that the morning sleepiness is just another excuse of the yetzer hara.”

He once told a friend that when the baal tefillah sang, he didn’t like to look into a sefer; he would concentrate on the words of the siddur and internalize them.

…together with the boys

Everyone in yeshivah knew that he was a notch above. But his pleasant demeanor made his peers feel like equals. When a new bachur came to yeshivah, Eliezer made sure to sit near him during meals, engage him in conversation, and make him feel part of the chevrah. He was always geshmak to be with, the bachur everyone felt comfortable around.

It was a cultivated balancing act, staying normal while striving for true greatness. When a few of his friends removed texting from their phones, he demurred, explaining that he didn’t want his family and friends to feel inferior.

He loved nature, and would share his observations about nifla’os haBorei before Rav Avigdor Miller’s shmuessen were in style. Later in life, he would talk to his precious children about the wonders of creation, how the beautiful blue sky, the colorful flowers, and the endless galaxies were a stunning reflection of Hashem’s greatness.

One summer, a group of friends went on a boating trip, only to end up crashing into a rock and getting stranded far from the shore. Everyone was a bundle of nerves, but for Eliezer; he started singing with his rich voice songs of chizuk, simchah, and emunah. He never lost himself, was never frazzled or despondent.  

A positive eye

Part of why R’ Eliezer was so beloved by all was because the feelings were mutual. By nature, he hated competition, both in the beis midrash and outside. His face would light up when he heard a good sevara or kashya, even if it wasn’t his. He would give his heartfelt compliment when he felt that it was emes.   

When he was younger, he loved to play basketball, but when the game got too competitive, it would lose its appeal. 

Friends recall that he simply never spoke lashon hara. It was not only because lashon hara is assur; he never dwelled on others’ faults. He chose to see their positive aspects instead.

When one of his roommates in the dorm got engaged, Eliezer told him that he had been davening for him because he saw that it was getting serious.

I don’t know how it works, but it does

R’ Eliezer did not turn out to be who he was by default. It required many years of work, toil, and shteiging. But it prepared him for the ultimate test of all as he segued into a new, challenging role, a yungerman in need of a refuah sheleimah.

In the summer of 2017, Eliezer called up a close friend with ominous news. He had been diagnosed with a terrible disease; doctors said he would need a miracle. “Please tell the oilam to daven for me.” But he had another request: He didn’t want to be viewed differently because of his situation.

It was quintessential Eliezer. He knew the gravity of his situation, he understood that he would need help in his fight. But he did not want to stand out. No extra attention, no need to smile to him just because he was sick. He didn’t even want people to visit him unless they had a reason, such as to tell him a good vort or to talk with him in learning.

He was a fresh yungerman with one daughter, with a second child on the way, and his very life was in danger. But he was serene as always. Emergency surgery was scheduled for Monday, 6 Elul.

Chavrusa tumult; Rosh Chodesh Elul morning in Bais Medrash Govoha. Eliezer’s friends and bnei chaburah were gathering around, anxiously discussing their friend’s prognosis. Suddenly, in walked Eliezer. He placed his Gemara on a shtender and started swaying, a familiar tune on his lips.

There he was, a few days before a major brain surgery, the success upon which his life depended, and he was learning as if nothing else existed. Everyone was stunned.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that R’ Moshe Weinreb, a close friend, worked up the courage to ask him how he did it. “Eliezer, how did you do that? Was it bitachon?” he asked.

“I can’t explain it. It was the Torah. I don’t know how it works, but it does.”

He connected to the Torah and forgot everything else.

Always a dance

That Motza’ei Shabbos, he called his chavrusa to tell him that they would learn by phone the next day, as if he had simply caught a cold.

His father-in-law, R’ Yanky Szanto, came along for the surgery. Early Monday morning, as they waited in pre-op, he calmly stated, “I’m going in dancing, and I will come out dancing!”

It was a dance indeed. The next few years had their ups and downs, happy tones and ominous ebbs and flows. But R’ Eliezer glided through it all seamlessly.

The surgery was successful, but he would still need a super-intense round of treatments. But even then, the doctors said, a long, difficult road lay ahead. All the while, R’ Eliezer kept up his chavrusos, learning with them on the phone when he had to travel for appointments. In the winter, when it got dark early, he would take along a flashlight so that he could learn in the car with his chavrusos.

Shortly after Sukkos that year, a burst of light shone into the Berkowitz family. A baby boy was born to R’ Eliezer and his wife. Some suggested that the father should take sandeka’us for himself, as a segulah for a refuah sheleimah. But Eliezer was uncomfortable to take it for himself. He didn’t want to be different, to stand out.

A talmid of Yeshivas Novominsk, he asked the Novominsker Rebbe zt”l what he should do. The Rebbe perceived his inner desire, and told him that the greatest segulah would be to give the kibbud to someone else.

There was hardly a dry eye at the bris. The baby was named after Eliezer’s father, R’ Chaim Levi Berkowitz z”l, who passed awayshortly before Eliezer’s marriage. The name Yehoshua was added, a silent tefillah for Hashem’s salvation.

A few months later, the disease had subsided considerably, to the joy and surprise of the doctors. But he would still need to be monitored on a steady basis. Every few months, he would need to undergo an MRI, what the family referred to as another Yom HaDin. But R’ Eliezer remained serene as ever. He was always ready to learn with his chavrusos, continuing life as if nothing had changed.

Surreal serenity

His health was never a topic of discussion; he never expressed worry or complained. He didn’t want to be part of organizations for people going through illness, because everything was normal. It wasn’t easy. It was difficult for him to concentrate at times, but he didn’t give up. He toiled on and on, struggling to understand what was once easily attainable for him. It bothered him that it was so hard to learn, but he accepted it as the new role Hashem had sent him.

Before Yom Kippur this year, the machalah came back with a vengeance; doctors were ready to raise their hands in defeat. A few days later, his long-time chavrusa R’ Shimshon Dov Schwarz came to visit. Eliezer excitedly shared a pshat on a Tosafos in Sukkah. He had a difficult time walking, but his regal dance continued. He was talking in learning, his face was shining. He was in another world.

R’ Moshe Weinreb came to visit him on Sukkos, and they spoke as if everything was regular. Eliezer was happy, upbeat. After a while his friend broached the topic of his health, and R’ Eliezer spoke about it quite matter-of-factly.

“How are you managing?” R’ Moshe finally asked him. R’ Eliezer shared his greatest concerns.

“My main goal is to have yishuv hadaas. I have to focus on what Hashem wants from me now. The doctors tell me I don’t have much of a future, but I struggle to think what I can do now.” 

His stay on this world was slowly ending, and he was worried about whether he was using his last days fully.

To another friend he remarked that the words “Ha’avar ayin, ha’asid adayin, v’hahoveh k’heref ayin—The past is gone, the future still unborn, and the present is like a blink of an eye” gave him much purpose in life.

Throughout the winter, he continued learning in kollel, serving as a tutor in the morning, his physical and emotional anguish not evident.

One day R’ Eliezer’s platelet level was at astonishing low level of 4,000 (normal is 150,000–400,000), and he needed to be rushed to the hospital. He sat there waiting for Hatzolah while holding a Gemara in his hands, waiting for an opportunity to learn.

After Purim, he was rushed into another surgery, after which he faded in and out of consciousness. He could no longer speak, but would become alert whenever his chavrusos would come learn with him. When the session would be over, his eyes would once again close.

R’ Eliezer loved spending time with his family, and even managed to learn the entire Maseches Yoma with his son. The Berkowitzes spent this past Simchas Torah with his in-laws, davening in the local shul in Boro Park. During the hakafos, R’ Eliezer was honored with holding the sefer Torah, which he clutched tightly together with his only son, five-year-old Levi. Father and son danced together, a dance transmitting his eternal legacy: Torah tzivah lanu Moshe. It is available for all, in every matzav, as long as you give your heart and soul to it.

Thank you to R’ Shimon Klein, R’ Moshe Weinreb, R’ Shimshon Dov Schwartz, R’ Moshe Kaufman, and other friends and family members for sharing their memories.

Pull quotes:

It was a cultivated balancing act, staying normal while striving for true greatness

Friends recall that he simply never spoke lashon hara. It was not only because lashon hara is assur; he never dwelled on others’ faults. He chose to see their positive aspects instead

There he was, a few days before a major brain surgery, the success upon which his life depended, and he was learning as if nothing else existed

“I have to focus on what Hashem wants from me now. The doctors tell me I don’t have much of a future, but I struggle to think what I can do now”