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Wednesday
Jun052019

“The Rebbe Drafted My Shlichus Contract”

Who exactly is Binyamin Katz and how did he become so devoted to the Rebbe?

Binyamin HaKohen Katz was born in Chicago on Yud-Beis Tammuz 5700 to his parents, R’ Yehuda Yosef and Mrs. Liba Rivka Katz. His father was from an established Chabad family, and it was known among them that his great-great-grandfather had been the melamed of the Tzemach Tzedek. His grandfather bore an authentic Chabad name, Shneur Zalman, and the Chabad connection that had dimmed over the years was rekindled with the arrival of the Rebbe Rayatz on a visit to Chicago in 5690. Hanging in their living room was a large picture of the Rebbe Rayatz, and every Friday night, Binyamin’s father would raise a glass of mashke, look at the Rebbe’s picture, and warmly say, “L’chaim, Rebbe, l’chaim!”

During those years, there were no Chabad educational institutions in Chicago, and young Binyamin learned in the local Talmud Torah. When he reached the age of twelve and a half, his father sent him to learn in Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in New York, located at the intersection of Bedford Avenue and Dean Street.

His father put him on the train in Chicago, and after a journey lasting several long hours with a number of transfers, he finally reached his destination at the Kingston Avenue subway station. As he left the station, he met Rabbi Chadakov, who asked R’ Yisroel Gordon to take the young boy to the yeshiva. R’ Binyamin had the privilege of learning from some of the most outstanding chassidim of the previous generation, among them Rabbi Popack, Rabbi Goldman, Rabbi Pesachovitz, Rabbi Garfinkel, Rabbi Ushpal, and Rabbi Kastel.

He spent almost a whole year in the yeshiva, and only at the end of that year, he traveled home for the summer vacation. Regrettably, during this period, his mother became seriously ill, and passed away about a month later. When he returned to yeshiva, he davened from the amud in 770, and as he was reciting the Kaddish, he began to sob uncontrollably. The emotional challenges he was dealing with at the time both refined and tempered his spirits, and he grew up to be a fine bachur filled with Ahavas Yisroel on the one hand and boundless courage on the other. Throughout his life, he used his unique qualities to help another Jew.

After three years learning for semicha in Beis Chayeinu, he moved on for a year at the Chabad yeshiva in Pittsburgh, followed by six years of intensive studies at Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Montreal. During his time there, he was considered one of the yeshiva’s leading scholars, the favorite of its rabbanim – Rabbi Chaikin, Rabbi Schwei, and Rabbi Hendel. He was the youngest bachur to receive semicha, after he followed the precise learning schedule set for him by Rabbi Chaikin.

While he was in Montreal, he often spoke with Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung. Despite his greatness as a Torah scholar, Rabbi Hirschprung was pleased to speak with the young students about their studies. The special connections formed between them during those days proved extremely helpful for many years that followed, when the Rebbe sent a group of shluchim to Eretz Yisroel and instructed them to try to receive rabbinical appointments. R’ Binyamin turned then to his long time friend, Rabbi Hirschprung, and asked him to use his influence with the then-chief rabbi of Eretz Yisroel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, on behalf of the Rebbe’s shluchim. Rabbi Hirschprung got involved personally, and his activities carried considerable weight in the appointment of numerous shluchim to rabbinical positions. One of them was R’ Binyamin’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Hecht, who was appointed as the chief rabbi of Eilat.

WHY WERE THERE DELAYS WITH THE SHIDDUCHIM?

Upon his return from his secret shlichus, R’ Binyamin traveled to study in London, where he received offers of shidduchim with girls from the local community. However, when the shadchanim learned about his secret shlichus to Russia, they asked him that before any meetings, he would sign a written commitment that after the wedding he would not travel on such a dangerous shlichus again… R’ Binyamin refused to sign, thereby delaying progress on the shidduch front…

Eventually, Rabbi Chadakov urged R’ Binyamin to return to New York, where he met his future wife, Shterna Malka, daughter of the chassid R’ Moshe Yitzchak and Mrs. Rivka Hecht. On an Erev Shabbos, after they had met three times, the Rebbe asked him if he would agree to the shidduch. When he replied in the affirmative, the Rebbe said “Mazel tov” with a firm voice that could be heard clearly in the zal of 770…

THE REBBE WRITES THE TEXT OF THE SHLICHUS CONTRACT

After several months of learning in the kollel, the Rebbe turned to R’ Binyamin and his father-in-law with a proposal. In a rare and very special answer, the Rebbe wrote to Rabbi Hecht with a suggestion that his daughter and son-in-law move to New Haven. However, if the proposal was going to succeed, he must promise to give his son-in-law complete autonomy in his work, among other conditions. The Rebbe concluded his letter as follows: “I am certain that if both the father-in-law and the son-in-law meet the aforementioned conditions as required, their partnership will succeed as required and even more. The institution will ascend higher and higher, and the merit of the institution’s founder will stand for each of them.”

In addition, the Rebbe wrote a reply to R’ Binyamin, in which he describes him as someone fit to be “devoted and given over” to the Rebbe’s will:

a] 1) Since the institution in … belongs to my holy and revered teacher and father-in-law, the Rebbe;

2) and it needs workers devoted and given over to the Rebbe’s will;

3) and in particular that now is the suitable time to expand, etc.;

b) since neither he nor his wife, tichye, have managed at present, and the school year is now beginning and only inadequate positions are (generally) still available – it would be appropriate for them to consider the suggestion…, but it must be made clear:

1) what their jobs will be; 2) no one should interfere with their jobs (unless if they personally ask for it); 3) also on the matter of salary; 4) this is only on a trial basis for one year, and afterwards it will all be considered as on a completely new slate; 5) they will live on their own (and not in the home of his father-in-law – her father, sheyichye) – and the merit of the institution’s founder will stand for each of them.

DEDICATION ON BEHALF OF THE COMMUNITY

Rabbi Hecht and his son-in-law fully accepted the Rebbe’s proposal, and R’ Binyamin soon began working in New Haven in the field of education. He taught at three learning institutions – the “Jewish day school”, the Jewish secondary school, and a branch of “Beis Chana” for girls. With the overall knowledge he had acquired during his youth and his unique talents, he managed to find a way to reach all his students of all ages, instilling within them the sweetness and pleasantness of the Jewish world and a life of Torah and mitzvos.

Once there was an incident that cast a heavy shadow over the Chabad community in New Haven, when it became known that a wealthy donor had approached the parents and promised to cover all their children’s tuition expenses – on the condition that they transfer them from the Chabad school to another school run by the Litvishe community.

Although it was already the month of Nissan, at a time when the Rebbe usually didn’t accept people for yechidus, R’ Binyamin decided to travel to New York and “try his luck.” He tried to join tour groups passing by the Rebbe, but to no avail. Eventually, he concealed himself in “Gan Eden HaTachton”, and when the hallway was completely vacant, he approached the door to the Rebbe’s room and knocked gently. The Rebbe opened the door, but he said that there are no private audiences now. R’ Binyamin quickly told the Rebbe about the main issue at hand, and then to his surprise, the Rebbe asked him to go over it again more slowly and with all the details. After hearing everything on the recent developments, the Rebbe instructed R’ Binyamin to make an urgent appointment with the Rashag, Rabbi Mentlik, Rabbi Raskin, and Rabbi Tennenbaum from the Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim administration. Naturally, the yeshiva administration met that night, and with G-d’s help, they succeeded in putting together a plan of action to solve the problem.

R’ Binyamin’s daughter notes that her father was very sorry that he had to disturb the Rebbe’s rest in such an unconventional manner. However, he also justified the unusual action by saying that he did not do it for his own personal good, rather for the good of the community. In fact, such was R’ Binyamin – passing up on any private benefits for the betterment of everyone.

A similar incident occurred when a Jew from the local New Haven community informed him that his brother was extremely ill, and the doctors didn’t give him much hope of surviving. R’ Binyamin traveled with this Jew to Crown Heights to receive the Rebbe’s blessing. While private audiences with the Rebbe were not held during this period, nevertheless, R’ Binyamin waited for a moment when the Rebbe was going out to his car to travel to the Ohel, and he urged this Jew to run towards the Rebbe and plead before him with the utmost sincerity. While the Rebbe’s secretary did not look favorably upon this, R’ Binyamin couldn’t stand to see this Jew suffer, and he felt that he must do everything he possibly could to receive the Rebbe’s bracha.

A MAN OF KINDNESS IN NEW HAVEN

During his free time, R’ Binyamin would visit the Yale New Haven Hospital, where he tried to encourage and cheer up the seriously ill Jewish patients and those being treated in the hospital wards without any family members to support them. Once, he discovered that one of the patients was a first-born son who never had a pidyon ha’ben done for him. R’ Binyamin didn’t waste a moment, and that same day he organized a pidyon ha’ben ceremony for this ailing Jew.

A few years later, when R’ Binyamin traveled to the Far East as part of his work as a kashrus supervisor, he learned that the factory manager was a relative of that Jew who had the pidyon ha’ben. R’ Binyamin saw this as the closing of a circle and worked to bring him closer to Yiddishkeit as well. Regrettably, the manager passed away not long afterwards, however, thanks to R’ Binyamin, the man had by then developed a connection with the local Jewish community and received a proper Jewish burial.

R’ Binyamin’s daughter relates that her father always looked for people in need of a word of encouragement and a little positive attention. He would bring them to his home and serve them his wife’s famous chocolate cake. These people enduring their daily hardships were regular guests at R’ Binyamin’s Shabbos table, and his children welcomed them with their natural warmth.

Even the yeshiva students benefited from R’ Binyamin’s goodhearted nature. When he noticed signs of pain on a bachur’s face, he made the necessary inquiries and learned that the bachur was suffering from problems with his legs. Not wasting a moment, R’ Binyamin took the bachur to a shoe store and bought him a specific brand of exercise shoes that relieved the bachur’s discomfort. When he saw a bachur wearing the same clothes every day, he realized that his parents were unable to buy him a new suit. That very same day, he bought the bachur a suit and a new pair of shoes.

During the summer months, R’ Binyamin served as the rav of Camp Pardes Chana, and generations of campers loved his Torah classes and his unique way of communicating with his students. During the shiva, many people offering their condolences told about certain camp moments that represented a turning point in their lives. One woman spoke about how her father had passed away when she was in her youth, and she had written to the Rebbe that her father had always given her direction in life, asking what she should do now? The Rebbe replied that she should seek the advice of the camp administration.

She spoke with R’ Binyamin and greatly appreciated his counsel. Another woman said that her birthday came during the summer, and R’ Binyamin gave her detailed guidance on how to write to the Rebbe and request his bracha. One former camper recalled an episode that gave testimony on his gentle character. Once she spoke in the middle of a class, and R’ Binyamin, who didn’t want to embarrass her, said: “There’s someone here talking, and I don’t want to embarrass her… Therefore, I’ll just say her grandfather’s initials in the hope that she’ll get the hint and stop talking.” Naturally, she identified her grandfather’s initials and saved herself the embarrassment…

A LEARNED MAN OF PEACE

R’ Binyamin’s children and grandchildren remember him as a learned father and grandfather always with a seifer or two alongside him. They knew that when they had an assignment in Torah subjects, they could always call R’ Binyamin and get a precise answer with numerous sources for additional information. After a few days, he would call to ask whether they had succeeded in their assignment and what grade they had received…

His unique memory, which became known mainly due to his secret mission to the Soviet Union, continued to serve him well throughout his life. He had expert knowledge in hundreds of Mishnayos and several tractates of Gemara. When he would see his grandchildren, he inquired about what they were studying. He was always able to quote by heart the Mishna or Gemara they had been learning and speak about Torah study with great excitement.

His love for Torah texts combined well with the Rebbe’s instructions on “a house filled with sefarim.” Anyone who visited his house saw shelves filled with sefarim in every room and hallway! His daughter tells how once they were in Yerushalayim on an Erev Shabbos, getting ready to travel up north for a family simcha, when everyone suddenly noticed that R’ Binyamin had disappeared. They figured that he had probably found a bookstore and lost himself in there…and sure enough, they were right…

R’ Binyamin’s children learned from him how to fulfill the mitzvah of “kibud av.” His father lived in Florida for many years, and R’ Binyamin regularly took the whole family down to visit him. Even though the journey took well over twenty-four hours, he would make the trip happily. When his father would come to stay at his house, R’ Binyamin would honor him like a king and fulfill his every request.

As a kohen, R’ Binyamin was a true man of peace. He knew how to forgive people easily – and not to bear grudges. When he heard about people with shalom bayis problems, he did everything he could to help the two sides reach an equitable understanding. He simply looked at everyone favorably and looked for the best in them all.

Rabbi Binyamin Katz passed away on Tuesday, the eighteenth of Nissan, at the age of seventy-eight. He is survived by his wife, Shterna Malka, and his children, Shneur Katz – New Haven, CT; Detty Leverton – Crown Heights; Shulamis Tenenbaum – N. Miami Beach, FL; Shmaya Katz – New York; Sholom Ber Katz – New Haven, CT; Mendel Katz – New Haven, CT; Alie Katz – New Haven, CT; Sara Leah Fridman – Crown Heights; Bassie Srugo – Buenos Aires, Argentina; Deena Lehr – Monsey, NY; Dovid Katz – Crown Heights; Yehudis Cohen – Kingston, PA; Yerucham Katz – Crown Heights; Brocha Lerman – Crown Heights; Chaviva New – Crown Heights; Sruly Katz – New Haven; as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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