Monthly Archives: October 2013

Who was Gershon according to his wife.

This is my rough draft of my submission for my late husband’s memory book, to be distributed at his shloshim (month anniversary after his passing).

Gershon’s yiras shamayim left me constantly humbled. I was married to someone, who on the inside, if he was allowed to fully express himself hashkafically, would have probably sounded a lot like Rav Ovadia Yosef zt”l ironically.

He was a charif Gadol who masked himself constantly as the fun, all-loving, understanding and accepting friend and husband because most of the world was just not playing in the same ballpark as him and so couldn’t handle the level of emmes that he was emanating. It cut like a knife when looking up from a lower angle.

His gadlus (greatness) was being able to so clearly see the emmes and do it, yet hold himself back from expressing his views to others who were not in his league and so would be hurt by his hakpada (strictness).

He lived in a duplicitous world for the sake of shalom (ultimately Hashem’s will). He revealed himself when it was avodas Hashem and masked himself when it was avodas hashem. He attained true self-mastery. When something had to be done, he just did it. He never asked himself how he felt about it, physically or emotionally. If it had to be done, he did it – period. He thought of himself and his body last, unless the mitzvah dictated otherwise.

He was a loving and giving father, a kind and sensitive husband. A constantly growing and expanding person. Outside, he was fearful to ever make a move that would give religious people, and therefore G-d, a bad name. He never cut himself any slack when it came to Torah and mitzvos and middos. But, he was always able to go into the perspective of another person, and not judge them according to his own standards. When it came to disagreements, everything was irrelevant except for what was the right thing for him to do in this situation. Life was a lesson tailored for him to grow and not to teach others how to behave towards him.

He always seems to know everything, to have all the answers and to be silent most of the time unless he was sure that his words would be heard. He never spoke unless it was relevant to the person. His pursuit of Halacha and the exacting emmes felt unprecedented. He didn’t stop until he got to the end. He used every minute, and his ambitions for Torah and personal growth grew each day. I lived in fear of him taking on another peula (function) or learning seder – we were running out of minutes. Somehow he learned to stretch his day and accommodate his ambitions, without taking away what I needed. He was always there to help when I called. He always tried to make me priority number one.

If his personality was not conducive to avodas hashem, he changed it. He thought long and hard about everything he did. He took no shortcuts. He didn’t care about what other people thought unless it was a mitzvah to do so. He calculated every step he took. He sought Rabbinical council constantly and followed. He trusted his own Torah knowledge to lead. He gave his heart and his resources to his family. He gave his soul and his body to G-d.

He was a true eved hashem. He had no agenda other than what was right. Even if the entire frum world would have thought the opposite. His inspiration and foundation for Judaism came initially from Rabbi Deutsch and Ohr Somayach respectively, and his true actualization came from receiving a mesorah and becoming a talmid of Rabbi Green, and Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah to which he dedicated his life.

My Card from Shamayim

It was the second day of shiva and I had just woken up to confront a bunch of my girlfriends all at once in my living room. Up until this point, and all the way from the time that my husband was pronounced niftar Sunday morning, I had gone into battle mode. The first call I made in that hospital room when things were final, was to my chinuch Rebbetzin who told me that I needed to be strong for my children so I could break the news to them and be there to console them (this advice was specific to me). My kids also wanted me to take them to the levaya so I had to continue to be strong for them for that. Then my in-laws came and sadly heard the news off the plane, so I wanted to continue to be strong through their initial shock phase. But finally, I woke up that second Shiva day morning feeling it was ok let go and to go into the pain.

My friend, who is very spiritual and was with me at the petirah called to check in while I was sitting. She instinctively knew that it was time for me to experience the worst. I started to go through the entire beach scene play by play with her on the phone and my friends present. It was an intense, deep, dramatic, emotional experience. We both talked it through purposefully until it was finished. And we left it on a very dramatic and unhappy note.

As I cried, I said to her, “you know, I can understand everything (in my own way) except one thing – what is the purpose of trauma? I have an image in my head from that beach that is terrifying and I just can’t get it out of my head. What is the purpose of trauma?”. And she said something shocking.

She said,

“I don’t know”.

I couldn’t believe it. Between her and me we seemed to be able to know everything (in our short-sighted way). There was no answer and a silent infinite pause.

Just then I get a tap on my shoulder from a girl I had never seen before. She drops a card into my lap. She says that she is my sister’s friend who took my three year old for a walk around the old city for a bit. They saw a group of Christian tourists for Israel singing carols so they stopped to look. Then one of the tourists told her that they love Israel. She reached into her purse and gave my three year old a card, instructing him to give it to his mommy.

My sister told me to ignore it, but I said that I needed a comic relief moment and decided to open it.

The card said:

“We as believers of the Bible, we believe in the God of Israel. We came to encourage and to comfort you from Holland. Know that God will give you a double reward for all your sufferings. It is written by the prophet Isaiah 61:7.”

And I felt a huge hug from the other side. Thanks for answering my question Hashem. I still love you Gershon.

Suffering. Why?

I know we all ask this question at some point in our lives. I just wanted to give my take on it, in case it helps anyone. And, if it does, then it helps me. My healing will largely come from having an impact on others I think. Isn’t it funny how Hashem made us all perfect puzzle pieces in this Universe? My healing comes from helping others to come closer.
Is it any wonder that suffering would be my perfect medicine to inspire me to do that which will give me my true soul healing?

Too circular? Let me get to the point.

Today I met a friend who said that my situation made her realize that life is just a long tight rope we walk, never knowing at which point we may fall to the left or right.

I know it was just an impulse statement, but I really feel that I had to respond in a big way.

I do not think that G-d is out to get me and to test me at every corner just to see what I will do.

My soul was put here in a five foot six brunette named Batya, to marry the type of person I did and have the number and type of children I have, etc. so that I will learn the specific lessons that this experience has to give me because my soul still needs correction in those areas before it returns home to a much more beautiful and permanent place. I happen to incorrectly believe that this role is me, because that is part of making it real. Situations, like a death, shock me out of this facade and remind me of my greater journey as a soul in evolution, jumping from classroom to classroom in the hopes that I will truly take the lessons, overcome my tests, grow and truly become G-d-like through them. My soul once needed my husband Gershon in order to grow. Now my soul needs to experience the loss in order to grow properly.

Do I like it?

Of course not. I wish I could hit the fast-forward button on this part of the movie. It is extremely painful. But to make a choice to use this energy of pain to build, to rededicate myself to the service of God, to consciously focus on my blessings rather than my losses, is an eternal gift I will have with me if I succeed. Life is a choice. It is a good choice. If we choose well, we win forever. If we are too weak to do it, we daven for help! But the choice to choose properly is the choice to truly live forever. It is not about what comes to us, it is about who we become as a result.

I love you all. Thanks for being with me during this extremely trying time. I truly feel part of our greater whole.

Tribute To Gershon Burd zt”l, Original Idea-Founder of Western Wall Prayers


The Secret Life of Gershon Burd
The hidden deeds of the man we thought we knew.

by Sara Yoheved Rigler
(originally posted on

We, the members of his community in the Old City of Jerusalem, thought we knew Gershon Burd. The men at the yeshiva where he worked full time and learned Torah full time thought they knew Gershon. Batya, his wife of ten years and the mother of his five children, thought she knew Gershon.

Only after Gershon drowned in the Mediterranean on his 40th birthday, October 4, did the truth, or tantalizing glimpses of the truth, start to emerge.

On the second day of the shiva, a woman Batya knew appeared in the Burd home. As Batya recounts: “She looked at me with this look and said, ‘I’m going to tell you something you don’t know. No one in the world knows this except me and your husband.’” The woman paused, as if reluctant to divulge her secret. “For nine years, I was the front for your husband’s tzedaka [charity] fund.”

Batya was dumbfounded, “What tzedaka fund?”

The woman continued: “Your husband came to me with money every month and a list of names. I would call the people and they would come to me to pick up the money. They never knew who it came from.”

And then there were the helium balloons. Everyone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City knew that a certain stationery store gives a free helium balloon to every child on his or her birthday. Since most of the children here come from large, low-income families, a helium balloon is a real glee-producer. On Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, every child receives two free helium balloons. The Burd children were among those who relished this delightful prize.

No one knew who was sponsoring the free balloons. Paying a shiva call, the proprietor revealed to Batya that Gershon had been paying for the helium balloons. At the end of every month, he would slip into the store and surreptitiously pay for that month’s balloons.

100 Questions

Greg Burd was born in Odessa in 1973. Three years later his parents immigrated to Chicago. Proud but non-observant Jews, they were not equipped to give their only son and two daughters a Jewish education. Greg went to public school, played on his high school football team, became a lifeguard, and got a B.A. in business from the Indiana University.

Greg was 25 years old and working in his father’s insurance agency when his mother invited him to come with her to a Torah class at Rabbi Daniel Deutsch’s Chicago Torah Network. Greg loved the class, and made an appointment to speak to Rabbi Deutsch privately. He brought with him a list of one hundred questions.

Three months later, telling his parents, “I’m in preschool; I don’t know anything about Judaism,” Greg flew to Israel to learn Torah at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva. He returned to Chicago ten months later, but not for long. “I’m in kindergarten,” he told his parents. “I have to learn more.” He returned to Jerusalem. Every year his refrain was, “I’m in first grade. I have to learn more.” “I’m in second grade. I have to learn more.”

At the age of 30, Greg (now Gershon) married Batya Fefer, 28. She, too, came from a Russian family. Raised in Toronto, Batya was a lawyer working for Toronto’s top corporate tax firm when she decided that there had to be more to life. Her spiritual search took her to Nepal, where she climbed Mt. Annapurna, to India, where she met the Dalai Lama, and to a dozen other countries.

Back in Toronto, a friend told her about a free Birthright trip that would take her to Israel. Batya decided that that was a good way to get halfway back to India. Once in Israel, however, she started learning about Judaism at EYAHT, Aish HaTorah’s women’s division. She became observant, and in 2003 married Gershon Burd. They settled in the Old City.

Elaborate Ruses

Everyone considered Gershon a nice guy. One of his study partners recalled how Gershon would purposely choose a seat in the yeshiva across from the entrance so he could smile at people as they walked in. He was affable and gentle. In ten years of marriage, Batya heard her husband raise his voice only once—when he felt that someone was trying to rip off the yeshiva. But Gershon’s nice-guy persona was a mere front for his carefully hidden true identity.

Three years ago, Gershon approached Rabbi Nissim Tagger, the head of Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah, where Gershon was both learning and working as administrator. Gershon asked Rabbi Tagger to accept as a student a young man named David, whom Gershon intuited had tremendous potential. Rabbi Tagger had seen David, with his long, curled peyot and hippie-ish dress. “He doesn’t fit in at all with our Yeshivah,” Rabbi Tagger refused.

“He looks like that, but it’s not who he really is,” Gershon begged.

“Will he pay tuition?” Rabbi Tagger queried.

“No,” Gershon answered simply. “He has no money.”

“I have no scholarships available,” replied Rabbi Tagger.

The next day, Gershon returned to Rabbi Tagger and said, “David’s parents decided to pay for most of his tuition, and he’ll do odd jobs to pay for the rest.”

With misgivings, Rabbi Tagger decided to give David a two-week trial period.

Three years later, David is an accomplished Torah scholar at the yeshiva. Only after Gershon’s death did Rabbi Tagger find out that David’s parents had not paid a penny. It was Gershon who paid David’s tuition. “He lied to me straight to my face,” Rabbi Tagger says, holding back his tears.

The wife of one of the students of the yeshiva had not seen her parents back in America for several years. When she received news that her mother was ill, she wanted to fly back, but she didn’t have enough money for airfare. Hearing about it, Gershon told the woman about a credit card company that was offering a fantastic deal. If she signed up for the credit card and paid just $50, she would receive enough miles to get a free round-trip ticket. Gershon even showed her the promotion on his laptop, and offered to sign her up, explaining that he too would get miles for referring her.

The woman happily gave Gershon the information to sign her up, got her ticket, and flew to America to be with her mother. She never knew that Gershon had made up the whole promotion, even devising the graphic of the ad. Gershon himself paid for her ticket.

Once Gershon decided that a struggling family in the community really needed to take their children for a fun day at “Kef-Tzuba,” an attraction with giant blow-up trampolines, castles, etc. The family lacked the funds for such an outing, so Gershon got them a free coupon. They never knew that Gershon had paid for their admission and fabricated the professional-looking coupon.

Telling this tale, Batya laughs. “Gershon was a shyster. I only know what I know because I caught him on some things.”

When Gershon became aware of couples who were experiencing marital friction, he would surreptitiously pay for therapy sessions for them, with neither the couple nor the therapist aware of who was paying.

Nine years ago, Gershon got an idea. He created “Western Wall Prayers,” and put Batya in charge of it. This is a service where people all over the world can pay to have someone go to the Kotel and pray for them for 40 consecutive days. Not only have hundreds of people had their prayers answered through this age-old custom, but also the money raised supports many families of Torah scholars in the Old City.

At the shiva, the Rosh Yeshiva disclosed that Gershon once came to him and asked if it was permissible according to Jewish law to give the “prayer agents” fake names to pray for. It was a low period for Western Wall Prayers, and Gershon was worried that the people supported could not afford to lose their regular checks. In order to maintain their dignity, he wanted to continue the funding from his own pocket by giving out fictitious names for which to pray.

Why did Gershon go to such lengths to hide his charitable acts? “He really believed,” explains Batya, “that if the giver gets something from his chesed [act of loving-kindness], it diminishes the chesed. So if someone knows what you did, it means you got something from it, recognition or whatever. The mitzvah is much more powerful if you get nothing … except in the Next World.”

The Real Mystery

The mystery, of course, is where did the money come from? The Burds were not well-to-do. They didn’t even own a car. They had no inherited wealth and Gershon’s salary as yeshiva administrator was sufficient to cover only the family’s living expenses. Sitting across from Batya at the shiva, I ask her, “Where did Gershon get the money?”

“I have no idea!” she exclaims. “I really don’t know. For years we had a crack in the sink that we couldn’t afford to repair. I have no idea where he got the money to do all this chesed that we’re hearing about now. No idea.”

Daniel Rostenne, Gershon’s best friend and study partner, solves this mystery. “Gershon spent next to nothing on himself,” he explains. “He bought his shoes used on EBay. Used shoes! He bought his suits used on EBay. He would brag to me, ‘Look at this suit. I got it for $10, plus $10 shipping!’ He got his laptop, a used MacBook Air that sells new for $1200, for just a few hundred dollars. He simply didn’t spend money on his personal needs.”

Gershon scrimped on his own needs, so he could be generous in satisfying the needs of others.

His final deal was an overnight getaway at Tel Aviv’s Sheraton Hotel for just him and Batya to celebrate his 40th birthday, paid for with credit card points. Gershon’s favorite recreation was swimming in the ocean. He and Batya deposited their things in their hotel room and went to the beach. Taking one look at the muddy water, Batya opted to sit on the shore. Gershon, an expert swimmer and trained lifeguard, plunged into the waves. Minutes later, a rock or large piece of debris struck him in the back of the neck. Knocked unconscious, he was under water for 15 minutes before Batya, desperately scanning the sea with her eyes, saw her husband’s body float up toward the beach.

A few hours before the funeral, Batya said to one of the yeshiva students: ‘There’s a plan, and what was supposed to happen, happened. Gershon is smiling now in his world. It’ll be hard for me and the children. But Gershon is shining.”

Gershon’s red carpet to the Next World is lined with helium balloons, fake coupons, fictional credit card promotions, an anonymous charity fund, undercover tuition payments, surreptitiously sponsored marriage counseling sessions, and how many other hidden acts of chesed that we will never know.

Hiddenness is a sacred value in Judaism. In fact, according to Jewish lore, the world is sustained in every generation by the merit of 36 hidden tzaddikim. Could a Russian-born former football player from Chicago be one of them?

To donate to the fund for Batya and her children, click here:

A special tribute pamphlet is being published, including stories about Gershon’s chesed (acts of kindness) and other special things he did and people that he affected. If you are one of them, please email with what you have to share. This will be his children’s legacy.

State of Affairs in Mourning

People seem to be interested in how I am doing, so I think I will start to use this blog as a forum.

Again, I can’t start before thanking all of you for your outpouring of support and for the incredible changes you are all making in your lives. I have never been more proud to be alive and to be a person. Look at what we can do! Look at how we can fly!

I have so much to give now that I am just trying to find a place or person or thing to put it in. A friend of mine just had her husband promoted to a job title that my husband formerly assumed. I pleaded with her to listen to me as to how to inspire and direct him. What to do to be successful. She said ‘look at you doing chessed for me, I should be doing for you’. I said my husband died – not me. If I shut off the giving valve, I will also die. Of course I am so much in need – love, attention, to be told that I look beautiful, a loving father who will wrestle and throw the kids around, who will listen to my petty complaints and put me back straight in line with avodas Hashem. A shoulder to lean on. My friends and community have filled in many of these holes, but let’s face it, no one is Aba and ever will be.
That lack will always remain and eventually be filled with more wisdom, and a deep yearning and closeness to my Maker which will push me closer to Him. Isn’t that what it is all about? To leave ourselves behind and bask in the glow of the Almighty. What could be more beautiful?

With blessings from Jerusalem,

Broken-hearted and whole,

Gershon Burd, founder, Baruch Dayan HaEmes

If you haven’t already heard, I am saddened to tell you that my husband and founder of Western Wall Prayers drowned in the Mediterranean last week on his 40th birthday. According to the Torah, when a person dies on their birthday, it is a sign that they have completed their work in the world. This article about his life gives more details about his greatness. I plan to write much more in the coming months. I plan to continue in his ways. I pledge to do more and to give more to others around me. I am told we have extra siyata dishmaya (heavenly assistance) now to help you. May you be blessed that all of our prayers for you are now answered…

– Batya

Thousands gather to pray for recovery of HaRav Chaim Ovadia Yosef

Tens of thousands of people were crowded at the Kotel Sunday night in an organized prayer session for Rav Chaim Ovadia Yosef, one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time (especially prominent in the Sefardic community) who is hospitalized in serious condition. Reports estimated there were 30,000 people present! Many great leaders came to join in the prayers, and the heart-rending wails and cries of those praying could be heard throughout the Kotel plaza. Here is a picture of the men’s side (as originally posted on Yeshiva World News).