As world Jewry rebuilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Forest Hills was one of many areas that merited to continue the evolution of frumkeit. One of its most prominent yet unassuming residents, Reb Yechiel Benzion Fishoff z”l, passed away on Monday, September 20 at age 97. The man who was known the world over simply as Benny was a devoted servant of Hashem, and used his daring escape from the Nazis as a catalyst to perpetuate authentic religious Judaism in a post-war world.
Born into a family of Gerrer chasidim in Wloczewa, Poland, Reb Benny maintained his ties to the chasidic sect all his life, becoming one of its biggest benefactors. As a young man, he felt the direct impact of the Imres Emes, Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter; later of his son the Bais Yisrael, Rav Yisrael Alter; the Lev Simcha, Rav Simcha Bunim Alter; and the Pnei Menachem, Rav Pinchas Menachem Alter. Today, Fishoff’s melodious compositions remain as a remembrance throughout the worldwide Gerrer dynasty.
Reb Benny spent his many days resurrecting and innovating Jewish life in New York and throughout America as it was in prewar Europe. He was most recognized for his astute ability to deliver unmatched guidance and present consummate advice. These attributes brought him center stage with gedolei hador, roshei yeshovos, and admordim as the longtime chairman for Agudath Israel of America. As a cherished ally of its president Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt”l, Reb Benny became a legendary pioneer in the field of askanus, advancing Torah throughout America and beyond; he basically wrote the handbook on shtadlonus work in the United States. “He was the ambassador for Torah Jewry,” is how one acquaintance put it. He later assumed the role of Chairman Emeritus for the Board of Trustees, giving over his role to Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger and later to his own student, Reb Shlomo Werdiger, also of Gerrer lineage. “Reb Benny was a she’eris hapleitah yid who taught us how a yid rebuilds and lives a Torah life,” wrote Werdiger, who was mentored by Reb Benny. In March of 2013, Werdiger took on the daunting task of filling Reb Benny’s shoes and has always considered his work on behlaf of American Jewry a special honor. “Reb Benny was my rebbe in klal askanus and my dearest friend.” Werdiger explained that we find the touch and influence of Reb Benny wherever Jewish life thrives. Like Werdiger, Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz zt”l of ArtScroll also aspired to follow the example of Reb Benny. “I love Benny. When I grow up, I want to be just like him,” Rabbi Zlotowitz once kidded with Rabbi Nosson Scherman, according to Rabbi Yisroel Besser.
In 1925, the Fishoff family moved to Lodz and just fourteen years later, a young Benny traveled to live with his grandparents in Vilna at the start of WWII. As a child, he studied with Rabbi Yisrael Sabiner zt”l, the famed composer of Beis Gur. On a subsequent postwar trip to Wloczewa, he learned that his hometown was annihilated on Yom Kippur Day 1939. Benny, then a teenager, received a lifesaving visa to Japan due to the benevolence of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul to Lithuania. Reb Benny eventually made it to Shanghai along with the Mirrer Yeshiva bochurim, where he developed a connection to the Amshinover Rebbe. Reb Benny’s name appears on the last page of these visas, as it was issued just moments before the program expired. In May of 2014, Reb Benny stood with Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau and Assembly Member Dov Hikind at Temple Beth El and awarded Ambassador Sumio Kusaka, the Consulate General to Japan, a plaque for saving 2,139 Jewish souls.
The astounding particulars of Reb Benny’s survival are detailed extensively in the Artscroll works From Lublin to Shanghai and Faith Amid Flames. One is taken along the journey of students of Yeshiva Chachmai Lublin and viewed in the eye of his close friend Reb Yosef Friedenson z”l, editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort. He also penned a sefer of his own thoughts and held a keenness for collectables later in life.
The warmth and friendliness of Reb Benny made one feel they were the center of his world. Widely successful in business, first as an importer and exporter of electronics and later as an executive for the Metropolitan Bank in Manhattan, his associates would oftentimes take advantage of his kindheartedness. Yet, Reb Benny would not find anger or fault with these partners; rather, he would keep them on as longterm friends. Reb Benny also understood his time spent in the Far East during his exile in Shanghai had greater purpose. Reb Benny used these contacts and connections from Japan and Hong Kong to create a business network that rivaled others in his import/export field and found hashgachah pratis in his placement in this region. Reb Benny saw quick success but always maintained a faith that all he had is from Above. He formulated his life in a manner that did not allow his emotions or the allure of a gamble to cloud his professional gains, and in that vein expanded his empire sensibly and methodologically.
Through a handful of interviews with children of survivors who also established lives in Queens, the eloquence, humility, and devotion of Reb Benny became apparent. His financial achievements allowed the Fishoffs to become role models for Jewish philanthropy. Reb Benny was the quintessential definition of a mensch, whose heart knew no bounds and whose confidence in others often surpassed their own comprehension. Reb Benny never took for granted his means and always found reason to express thanks to Hashem. In his mission to rebuild Torah in a postwar world, Reb Benny undertook a large part of the construction for Yeshiva and Mesivta Ohr Yisroel, led by his close friend Rabbi Eliezer Geldzahler. Today, the yeshivah structure continues to be filled with the warmth of Torah learning. Ger chasidus has seen many efforts completed through Reb Benny’s generosity, including a famed Bais Yaakov in Brooklyn that bears the name of his first wife. (Reb Benny and his children mourned his first wife Marylin, a true eishes chayil, decades prior.) In Bnei Brak, the Maor Yisrael yeshivah was founded under Reb Benny’s watch, in addition to a Bais Yaakov guided by Minister of the Knesset Rabbi Yaakov Litzman.
Despite Reb Benny’s fiscal triumphs, he never held himself bigger than any other survivor, nor did he ever allow his fortune to change his inner nature. He was a friend to all and could level with whomever he encountered.
“The hallmark of the life of Benny Fishoff was his love for every yid notwithstanding his remarkable business success,” remarked Reb Sruly Blumenfrucht, a close family friend of the Fishoffs. “Benny never looked down on others.
Others talked of the warm and welcomed atmosphere that Reb Benny gave off when entering Ger. “He made you feel like he was your best friend,” was a comment that repeatedly emerged in conversations about his life. “Benny Fishoff was the type of person an organization or group could reach out to for help in completing a fundraising campaign,” another acquaintance mentioned.
“My father-in-law spent his entire life looking to help others in an unassuming manner that never hurt someone else’s feelings. This was his M.O.,” related Tully Gold to the Queens Jewish Link. “He was open and down-to-earth no matter the business or family issue being discussed, and he always gave of his time, expertise, and wisdom to help another, never looking to take the limelight for these efforts. He was a role model for us all.”
In Queens, Reb Benny’s pride and joy was Congregation Agudas Achim, Rabbi Leifer’s shteibl, just around the corner from the Fishoff residence. The Nadvorna chasidic dynasty forever played a lasting role in Reb Benny’s life. The Fishoffs’ family relationship with the Leifers was truly coveted. After the passing of his wife Marylin, Rebbetzin Leifer often assumed her role at Fishoff family affairs. As fate would have it, the families found unity in marriage as Rabbi Ari Schonfeld (whose grandmother was Rebbetzin Ruth Schonfeld nee Leifer) wed Esti nee Gross, a granddaughter of Reb Benny’s.
The neighborhood of Forest Hills has long known acts of generosity from leading members like the Fishoffs and Eugene and Jeanie Gluck, who were also family friends. Reb Benny also developed a lifelong friendship with the esteemed Walkin family stemming from his time spent with the Mir Yeshiva in Shanghai. This relationship evolved in Queens with Rav Moshe Walkin shlit”a of Kew Gardens and his son Rav Aharon Walkin zt”l, with whom Reb Benny shared a deep connection.
Abram and Ana Meirov were next-door neighbors with the Fishoffs for over two decades. When the Meirovs arrived, they were told of the wonderful characteristics of their neighbors but never imagined the depth of these words. “Benny was a ben adam tov,” explained Ana. “We were delighted to have such a wonderful family as neighbors and be able to converse in loshen hakodesh with one another. Each of the Fishoff children is really from the best. We most recall how Benny would give each of our grandchildren presents on Purim day. This was a self-sacrificing gesture that made a lifelong impact.”
Reb Benny, with his joy for life, was known as a uniter who sought to bring peace into the world and amongst those in dispute and believed that everyone was his friend. His impression went so far that the Fishoff family would receive inquiries on Reb Benny’s wellbeing decades after an encounter. This was true of a longtime business partner in Dubai as well as in one Paraguay, both who dealt with the import and export of Panasonic and Sony electronics in South America. He would be a listening ear for anyone suffering in life, business, or marriage. In the words of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, Reb Benny was “the malach hashalom.”
“His calm reassuring presence and brilliant smile brought out the very best in all around him,” wrote Reb Chaskel Bennett, who shared a closeness with Reb Benny though the Agudath Israel of America Board. “Klal Yisroel’s legendary Ambassador for Torah Jewry was a prince amongst princes. An irreplaceable loss.”
Prior to living in Queens, Reb Benny called Brooklyn home in the early 1960s. It was during this period that he maintained a connection with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Council Member Kalman Yeger, whose grandfather was also saved during the Holocaust through Shanghai, extolled Reb Benny as “a lifelong advocate for Klal Yisroel.”
In March 2015, at one of his final public appearances, Reb Benny, amongst three generations of family, recited kadish at the groundbreaking of The Kleinman Holocaust Education Center, a division of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn where he was a large donor. “I waited all these years to be able to tell my story so that it will be remembered not just by my own grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but by Klal Yisrael,” related Reb Benny at the time.
At the levayah, Dr. Zev Maybruch, a son-in-law, introduced Rav Doniel Lander shlit”a, chancellor of Touro College and the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim, to recite tehilim. Dr. Maybruch related how Reb Benny would act as the eyes for Rabbi Lander’s father, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Lander z”l, once he lost his eyesight.
Per Reb Benny’s request, and to further remain in humility, only his sons Dov and Avi delivered hespedim at the levayah. Dov recalled how his father cut short a vacation in Switzerland for to return to America at the behest of Rabbi Sherer, to resolve a dispute within Agudah’s factions. In another incident, Dov had traveled with his father to a Sony conference in Hawaii, and during stops in Chicago, LA, and in Hawaii, Reb Benny was absorbed in resolving a familial disagreement for friends. Dov also noted that his father began Daf Yomi when his friend Reb Chaim Hertz z”l made the suggestion for him to join a shiur. Dov also recalled the agility of his father, who never knew to rest either for simchas or international work trips.
His son Avi related that Reb Benny’s eyes would light up when he would learn a thought-provoking piece of Torah. Avi said of his father, “He could talk respectfully to a person of any age and relate to them on their level.” Avi spoke of the vast attributes that his father portrayed and his everlasting connections throughout time to Ger. Avi said of his father, “He would like to go straight onto the plane after Yom Kippur with the taste of Ger in his mind as he would close his eyes and sit on the plane replaying the nigunim.”
For the past nearly five years, Reb Benny and his beloved rebbetzin Tziporah (Sherry) have lived with under family care in Lawrence. For a large portion of this time, he had remained comatose. May his legacy of patronage to Torah beacons, his understanding that Hashem owns and controls all, and his performance of good deeds with personal involvement of loving and kindness be a paradigm for us all.
Reb Benny is survived by his sons Mr. Dov Fishoff (Brooklyn) and Mr. Avi (Avraham Menachem) Fishoff (Brooklyn), and his daughters Mrs. Regina Cukier (Five Towns), Mrs. Barbara Gold (Brooklyn), and Mrs. Meryl Maybruch (Kew Gardens Hills), who have all made noteworthy strides in their own kehilos and greatly impacted American and worldwide Jewry. His stepchildren Mark and Debbie, whom he embraced as his own, his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the Gerrer chasidus, the Agudath Israel of America, as well as every askan and do-gooder involved in bettering the lives of Jews the world over will continue the Fishoff family legacy, including the many institutions that greatly benefitted from having Reb Benny as a benefactor.
By Shabsie Saphirstein