The Life of David Benaim
by Rabbi Jack Engel, Anshei Emuna
Throughout my career I’ve been blessed with meeting many inspiring individuals. At our Shabbat table we have hosted international statesmen and business leaders. In forty years as a pulpit rabbi, I have met Holocaust survivors with a zest for life and who remained upbeat in spite of all they lived through. But few made a greater impression upon me than my dear friend David Benaim. Sadly, on the 12th day of Kislev corresponding to December 6th, David was called to his heavenly abode.
As a rabbi, I’m not immune to the outflow of emotions and this article may reflect it. Luckily, over my career I experience far more joy than sadness but when sadness occurs it creates a roller coaster of emotions. And the deeper the connection I have with someone the greater the effect it has on me. For the past twenty-four hours tears have run freely down my face as I contemplate David’s passing and perhaps my own mortality.
David was private and humble, and I never knew what he did for a living or how he spent his day. For all I knew he was working for the Mossad as he traveled frequently to Morocco and Europe. Yet, it makes no difference what he did because in my estimation he was the embodiment of a Tzadik. I tried phoning his wife to offer my condolences, but my message was laden with tears rather than words. I mentioned David’s passing to a member of the shul and he too burst into tears.
I met him at Anshei Emuna although he didn’t attend my shul regularly. He would go to daily services at BRS in the early morning and as he lived in the Polo Club on Shabbas he would go to Chabad. He would only attend Anshei Emuna on weekday afternoons. He took a special interest in the welfare of Shimon Ashkenazi, a Holocaust survivor from Thesolanika, Greece. Regardless of his busy schedule he would drop everything to take Shimon to the doctor or care for his needs. I am still in awe of his humility, kindness and dedication to Shimon.
I use the word dear friend because I cherished his friendship. However, it was a non-conventional friendship. In fourteen years I was never at his house and he was a dinner guest at my house only one time. We never socialized with one another, nor did we regularly converse on the phone. We didn’t share the intimate details of our lives and I doubt he knew much about my family. Yet, I cherished his friendship because it didn’t conform to normative social expectations. We would often talk about how today’s Judaism was akin to a cappuccino; the essence of the strong espresso being overtaken by the meaningless fluffy froth. His Judaism wasn’t fluff and didn’t necessitate conforming to the expectations of others; he was a deep thinker with a challenging mind. His Judaism was the essence.
Often he would walk three miles on Shabbat morning to attend services at Anshei Emuna. His being in shul gave me the inspiration to be at my best. He would encourage my thought process albeit not always agreeing with my thoughts. His Torah knowledge was impressive and his out of the box thinking was what synthesized our closeness. He was devout in his observance but didn’t conform to the fanaticism of the right. His mind was his guide and what an exceptional guide it was.
We would share snippets of Torah and he would comment on my sermon and articles. He was complimentary when it was deserving but respectfully disagreed quite often. Below is a text that he sent to me the last Shabbat he was in shul.
“At the expense of being repetitive, I LOVED today’s sermon! It was original, clever, and impeccably delivered!
I didn’t agree with its logic, but I really saw — some — of the depth of your thinking and relished it. Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed it”.
I’m reminded of the lyrics from Fiddler on the roof ‘One season following another laden with happiness and tears. Indeed, I’m laden with morose and tears upon hearing the sad news but gladdened with the happiness that I was able to call David Benaim a friend.
My heart goes out to his wife Deborah and his daughter Rachel. My heart goes out to all his friends who realized his uniqueness and understood his greatness. But my heart also goes out to all those who missed out on the opportunity to know and learn from a true Tzadik, a truly righteous individual.
May his memory be a blessing to all who knew him.