Besdin, Morris J.

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BESDIN, MORRIS J. (1913–1982), U.S. rabbi, pioneer in keruv. Besdin was born in Lithuania. His family immigrated to America when he was three years old. After completing his elementary schooling at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, he continued his studies at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he was ordained in 1936. He began his career as a pulpit rabbi in Scranton, Pa., and then as the successor to his father, who had died, on the Lower East Side. He became the rabbi of the Beis Medrash Ha Gadol in Washington Heights, a prominent congregation of first and second generation immigrants. The Beis Medrash Ha Gadol also had a tradition of scholarship which Besdin addressed with confidence. Living in the neighborhood at the time was Samuel *Belkin, the new president of riets. It was the beginning of a lifelong association.

The advent of World War ii marked Besdin as a quiet "doer." He gave up his pulpit and volunteered for military service as a chaplain in the South Pacific. In 1950, the Kew Gardens Synagogue invited Besdin to become their spiritual leader. This synagogue was the first Orthodox synagogue established and built in New York shortly after the war. The lay leadership was a group of strong, assertive German and Belgian Jews who had immigrated to the United States shortly before the beginning of World War ii, just in the nick of time. They were reconstituting on American shores a community they were forced to leave behind. They soon fell in love with their modest, Yiddish-speaking Litvishe rav. Eight years later he was to leave them for a second career in Jewish education.

In a pioneering venture into what later became known as keruv, Yeshiva University established in 1958 the James Striar School. The new school was an attempt to capture the hearts and minds of inquiring, college-age young men for Judaism. Belkin did not like boisterous people. Spotlight seekers disturbed his sense of decorum. Having followed Besdin's career, Belkin knew that Besdin was the man he needed for this new school. Even as a pulpit rabbi, Besdin had been in the forefront of Jewish education. As one of the founders of the Yeshiva Dov Revel in Forest Hills, he had made his mark. Having been trained by talmudic giants, Moses *Soloveitchik and Bernard *Revel, Besdin was very conscious of the failure of the "about" theory of Jewish education. He believed in the "it" of Jewish learning. The student had to know – and had to be proud that he knew – the original text. He did not countenance false piety, premature piety. When his newly religious students would walk around with their ẓiẓit outside their shirts, Besdin would say: "A man in a tuxedo is elegant, but if his shirt is hanging out of his pants and his hat is on the side of his head, what is he?" He would answer his own question: "A clown." He would advise: learn Hebrew, read the text well, and then decide on the externals.

[Victor Geller (2nd ed.)]