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At the shiva home of Ben Zussman

Personal essay

By Mattis Goldberg

Since the war started on Oct. 7, I have spent hours at two shiva houses. 
My friend’s mother literally dropped dead. She was alive and well one minute and a minute later on the floor with no sign of life.

For the fifth night of Chanukah (Dec. 11) in Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, a separate menorah was lit for every IDF soldier who has been killed since Oct. 7. Each menorah had the name of a spe- cific IDF soldier, including Ben Zussman, the great-grandson of the late Ben and Bernice Zussman of Denver.
(Mattis Goldberg)

This happened two weeks after the massacre of Simchat Torah. My friend told me that his mother was so pained about the massacre and he was sure that she took that pain with her to the grave.

I spent hours over the course of three days in that shiva house and I observed thousands of people from all walks of life taking time out of their busy schedules to come comfort the family.

I was privileged to see how special the Jewish nation really is. There is so much love and caring among the Jewish people and we really are one big family.

Two weeks later I was confronted with the sad news that the 20-year-old daughter of a friend of mine had been alive and well one minute and a minute later she was found alone in the forest with no sign of life.

This young woman had been suffering major depression since the horrible Simchat Torah massacre. It seems like she just couldn’t take it anymore. I went to the shiva house every day and spent many hours there. There were hundreds of people who came to comfort the mourners.

What a mix of people. From the chasidic rabbis to other ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Soldiers in uniform, who were allowed out of the army for a few hours. Jews from the West Bank, Jews from Tel Aviv. There were Ashkenazim, Sephardim, religious and non-religious. Jews who had immigrated to Israel from the US, England, South Africa France, Morocco and Russia. This girl and this family were able to unite such a diverse group of people.

Am Yisrael Chai.

When we blend together as one nation, we are truly alive.

Last week I heard about the death of the Israeli soldier Ben Zussman on Dec. 3, may G-d avenge his blood. This really hit home. And when I say home, I mean my childhood home of Denver.

My mother called me late at night Denver time and early in the morning Israel time. I sensed that this was not going to be good news. My sense was correct.

I did not have the honor to know Ben Zussman, but I knew his namesake. As a child I had the privilege of spending a Shabbos meal at the home of Mr. Ben and Mrs. Bernice Zussman. What a kind and gentle couple. Their house, across the street from Sloan’s Lake, was open to everyone, just like the house of Abraham and Sarah.

I remember as a teenager attending a wedding of a distant relative in New York. I didn’t really know anyone at the wedding and I kind of felt out of place. Suddenly I saw Mrs. Zussman, who was probably close to 50 years older than I. The age didn’t matter because we were both Denverites. She greeted me warmly and took me under her wing, making me feel very comfortable. This is the family Ben Zussman came from.

There are a thousand and perhaps tens of thousands of people in Denver who have heard of the Zussman family name. This name is synonymous with charity and kindness, honesty in business, pride in their Jewish identity and their deep concern for special needs children. Not to mention their involvement in the founding of Hillel Academy, which has directly influenced and benefited thousands of Jewish children worldwide.

In reality the Zussman family is a microcosm of what the Denver Jewish community is all about and what the Jewish nation is all about.

I will digress for a minute and speak about special needs children. My grandson has spent a few weeks in the ALYN rehabilitation center in Jerusalem. One morning, as I was leaving from an overnight stay, I decided to look at the plaques hanging on the wall. These plaques were dedicated to donors of ALYN worldwide.

I was surprised to learn that there were actually many plaques honoring Denverites. I even recognized three of the names: Larry Mizel, George Gumbiner and Joyce Foster. The Jewish world is indeed a very small world.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Speaking of plaques and getting back to Ben Zussman, seven of my children were born in Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem. I believe there is a plaque dedicating the entire childbirth ward to the Bendheim family, the late Ben Zussman’s great grandparents. This is the family Ben Zussman came from. Is there any wonder where he got the strength to go immediately at the outbreak of the war and fight for his country?

When I heard about the tragic news I called former Denverite Dr. Eli Prenzlau, now of Jerusalem. He mentioned to me that Ben’s Hebrew name was Binyomin the son of Tzvi, just as his great-grandfather’s name was Binyomin the son of Tzvi.

I called former Denverite Rabbi Mordechai Adelman, also of Jerusalem, and he told me that as soon as he heard on the news the name Ben Zussman, he knew it must be connected to the Denver Zussman family.

He attended the funeral on Mount Herzl.

Although I did not know Ben and I do not know Ben’s parents, Tzvi and Sarit Zussman, I knew I had to go to the shiva house in Jerusalem. As a Goldberg, as a Denverite, as an Israeli and as a Jew.

I went with my wife and as we entered the shiva house I immediately spotted Denverite Jonathan Teitlebaum. He and I both live in Ramat Bet Shemesh and I actually study in his building once a week, but I haven’t seen him since the war started. One of the reasons is because he hasn’t been in Ramat Bet Shemesh a lot recently. For weeks he was driving down to southern Israel to deliver anything and everything that the soldiers needed.

We sat down and I immediately was struck by the three lights burning on the Chanukah menorah. Here we are at a house of mourning for a heroic Jewish soldier who gave up his life for the Jewish people and in the same house there is a symbol of Israel’s constant battles for survival and G-d’s constant miracles.

While we sat there, a couple who had lost their own child on the battlefield was there comforting the Zussmans. This couple did not know the Zussmans previously, but they felt the need to come comfort them. The truth is that they were the only ones who really understand what the Zussmans are going through.

Ben’s grandmother Edna Zussman told me that he had written a will that began, “If you are reading this, the news is not good.”

Can you imagine a 22-year-old having to write such words?

(My sister Tehilla tearfully read to me the entire text of Ben’s last communication with his family. It is beyond my comprehension how such a young man could write such a powerful statement. His neshamah (soul) was clearly on an entirely higher plane.

Ben’s grandfather Aver Zussman was explaining to his son who I was and my relationship to the IJN. His son Tzvi, who never lived in Denver, seemed to pick up on the connection right away.

Aver then proceeded to tell me that he still follows my grandmother Miriam Goldberg’s tradition of dipping the artichoke leaves in a special sauce. He then shocked me by revealing that he knew the secret sauce that my grandmother used. Mind you, I thought that this was a closely guarded secret, almost as secret as the recipe for Coke.

How did he find out? He once followed my grandmother into the kitchen to see how she made the sauce. There was Aver, just like his mother Bernice many years ago, trying to make me feel comfortable at the shiva house of his own grandson.

When it was time to leave, Aver got up and gave me a big hug. I approached his son Tzvi, father of the holy soldier, Ben Zussman, and I gave him a big hug. I told him that I felt like I had lost a brother.

I am not a big hugger, but when it comes to family, you act differently, the emotions are different.

Following the shiva house visit, I was off to a job. I needed to photograph a Chanukah party in a Sephardi synagogue in a different neighborhood in Jerusalem. Presiding over this party was Rabbi Moshe Tzadka, the rosh yeshiva (dean) of the famous Porat Yosef Yeshiva. Throughout the evening Rabbi Tzadka kept on reciting Psalms for the merit of the soldiers and the captives. He broke down crying several times throughout the evening.

Throughout the last two months I have seen and felt the tremendous unity amongst the Jewish people. The barriers have come down. We are united. There is tremendous camaraderie amongst Jews from all walks of life. It is our job to continue this unity. This is what Ben fought for, this is what all of the soldiers are fighting for. This is the true meaning of Am Yisrael Chai. A united nation will remain alive. If we remain truly united, respecting one another, no one will be able to destroy us

Let me explain the current situation with a real life parable.

Many years ago, the Denver Broncos were actually a great football team. In the late 1990s the Broncos won two Super Bowls. There were many Denverites living in Israel at the time who wanted to watch the Super Bowl.

There were a few obstacles. Due to the time change, the game started at 1 a.m. Israel time, but that wasn’t such a challenge for a big Bronco fan. The bigger challenge was having the right cable station that actually carried the game. This was before the internet and NFL Game Pass and the like. Even If you did have cable TV, how many people could actually sit in a small room watching the game on a small TV screen. (There were no huge 50 inch screens in those days).

There was one couple, Aver and Edna Zussman, who enjoyed the Broncos and loved their fellow Denverites. They overcame all of the obstacles. They rented (or owned) a projector and a super big screen (the ones that you used to fold down from top to bottom). They invited everyone into their home and set up the big screen and many chairs in their living room. There was beer, drinks, chips and kosher hot dogs.

There was no entrance fee. You just had to either have grown up or lived in Denver, or be friendly or related to a Denverite. It didn’t matter if you were a rabbi or a doctor.

(True story. There was a rabbi who had grown up in Denver and moved to Jerusalem. He didn’t follow sports, but he was friends with the Zussman’s. He loved the Denver camaraderie and he decided to attend the Super Bowl gathering at the Zussmans. Unbeknownst to him, the son of his next door neighbor, a teenager who was related to a different Denverite, snuck out of his parents’ house in the middle of the night and made his way to the Zussmans’ house. When this teenager saw his neighbor the rabbi, he was mortified. He approached the rabbi and said, “Please don’t tell my father you saw me here.” The rabbi told his neighbor, “I won’t tell your father that I saw you here, if you promise me that you won’t tell your father that you saw me here.”)

It didn’t matter whether you were a yeshiva student or a university student, Orthodox or non-Orthodox. As long as you had a connection to Denver you were warmly accepted.

I attended those Super Bowls at the Zussmans along with approximately 100 others. The unity on display at the Zussman home is seared into my memory. Rarely have I felt such true, real unity as I did during those two nights.

This in a nutshell is what the Jewish people are all about. We love each other because we are all Jewish. We accept each other because we all come from the same place. We are really family and we are all rooting for the same team. We might dress differently, we might think differently, but we are all “Denverites.”

We pray daily in the morning Shemoneh Esrei, “Bless us, our Father, all as one, with the light of Your countenance, for with the light of your countenance You gave us, Hashem, our G-d, the Torah of life and love of kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life and peace.”

Wow.

What a blessing.

Who doesn’t want Torah, kindness, righteousness, blessing, compassion, life and peace?

We receive this directly from G-d, “with the light of Your countenance.” But how do we merit to receive the light of His countenance?

If we are kulanu ke-echad, “all as one!”

When we are united all of the blessings are showered on us from Above.

May G-d comfort the entire Zussman family amongst the gates of Zion in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Mattis Goldberg lives in Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel.




One thought on “At the shiva home of Ben Zussman

  1. Anonymous

    bs”d Wow. Tragic. I was thinking the same about that greeting, ‘Happy Chanukah’. It seems so out of place. But we did it anyhow this year, because of respect for the holiday… maybe it will bring better times. What a loss. And, sadly, we know that every loss, whether from IDF or civilians, is creating a comparable similar effect in that person’s social circles. Yet I have seen that no loss is in vain, even though resulting, subsequent victories may be hidden. I truly believe that the survivors will see that every loss will power many victories, not just in the physical opportunity for there to be a safe place for our people, that is truly home, but, spiritual victories. The Chanukah miracles were not achieved without tragic losses. Hakitzu v’yeranenu shochnei afar. We strive to be worthy to see our lost loved ones again, in a future that we cannot in our human limitations imagine, but until then, the living must take it to heart, how much we can learn from the courage and mesiras nefesh of those who did not hold back, for the sake of Am Yisroel, and the possibility of a Torah existence, in the homeland that we were granted, since the beginning of time, al pi Torah. (Not my words. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, said that, after losing the Rebbetzin.)

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