Rabbi Daniel Beller ... charismatic
Rabbi Daniel Beller, the much-loved and greatly respected rabbi of Kehillat Shivtei Yisrael in Raanana, died April 22, Erev Pesach, aged 53. Born in London, Rabbi Beller graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in history. After seven years studying at Yeshivat HarEtzion, he was ordained as a rabbi. In 1992 he went to South Africa with his wife Arny and two young children, and served as a rabbi in Johannesburg until 1997, when he returned to Israel to take up the position in ShivteiYisrael.
Rabbi Beller wanted, he said, “to make an impact in Israel.” It is no exaggeration to say that he made a positive impact on thousands of lives. His great gift was an ability to communicate easily and immediately with every single person he met – whether young or old, religious or non-religious. His intelligence, sincerity, warmth and kindness were immediately apparent and meant that he was highly respected as a rabbi and greatly valued as a dear friend to every member of the community. It was a rare combination, and neither one detracted from the other.
It is a terrible loss for his family, for Kehillat ShivteiYisrael, and for the wider community. He will be loved and missed always.
Rabbi Beller is survived by Arny, their children, Hadassah, Yehuda, Yitzi, Noam, Ashira and Yair, his father Marcel, his brother Jonathan and sister Nicole.
Jackie and David Shulman knew Rabbi Beller as a young boy in London. They share their memories of him.
It is now over 45 years since we first met Marcel and Ruth Beller, together with their three young children – two mischievous-looking schoolboys, Daniel and Jonathan, and their pretty little sister, Nicole. We had just moved to Bushey, a small Hertfordshire town to the north of London, and had joined the recently established synagogue, which held services in a quaint building in Police Station Lane. Who would have thought that Daniel would grow into the totally adored and highly respected rabbi of our community in Israel?
We became close friends with Marcel and Ruth and, to this day, continue to cherish our friendship with Marcel, Ruth z"l having sadly passed away a few years ago, shortly after they made aliya.
We well remember Daniel's barmitzvah on March 6, 1976, when we were privileged to hear him read the sedra, maftir and haftorah with great confidence, to the absolute delight of his family and a packed synagogue. Bushey was a fledgling community in those days, and Daniel's barmitzvah was only the eighth to take place in the shul. The occasion was obviously of deep significance to him in his life and, many years later, we witnessed him helping and guiding so many young boys (both religious and non-religious) through this special time, making the day a memorable one for each and every boy and their respective families.
While studying for his matriculation exams, Daniel was always happy to come and babysit for our three young children, saying that he was pleased to have a quiet house in which to study. We remember that on one particular occasion his peace was obviously disturbed, when the children woke up and we returned home to find our babysitter entertaining them with amazing antics and impersonations.
Some two decades later, the by now esteemed Rabbi Daniel Beller was standing with us under the chuppa at the wedding of our daughter, and he would subsequently also officiate at the weddings of both our sons. In fact, family members from abroad who decided to marry in Israel also wanted him to officiate, having been so moved by his genuine warmth and charisma.
An irreplaceable bright shining light has been extinguished from the lives of all who knew him, but we know that his legacy of tolerance and understanding will be perpetuated through the years.
Rabbi Beller was the initiator and driving force behind the “Ba’kehilla” initiative, which has been running with the backing of the Raanana municipality since September 2004, and has become an established part of the educational system and wider society in the city.
Barbara Grant describes how the initiative started.
Rabbi Beller was an extraordinarily gifted teacher. From the first moment of a class, he captivated and engaged his audience. His unique blend of charisma, drama and humor, together with his wide and profound Jewish and secular knowledge, meant that the only time anyone looked at their watch in one of his classes was at the end, in disbelief that the class had already ended.
I didn’t know any of this when, in September 2003, I joined Rabbi Biller’s Wednesday evening Torah class. But very quickly Wednesday evenings became sacrosanct. It had to be something really exceptional to induce me to miss that hour of intellectually challenging thought, stimulating discussion and, always, wit, drama and humor.
Rabbi Beller usually came to the class on foot (his wife needed the car on Wednesdays), and I often gave him a lift home. He would talk about his occasional teaching sessions in schools, especially the non-religious schools, which he enjoyed very much. His teaching sessions took place on an ad hoc basis, usually before festivals, at the request of the head or one of the teachers. His engaging personality and ability to connect to kids of all backgrounds made him a natural choice and a very popular figure with pupils, parents and teachers.
Many of the kids he taught had very little formal Jewish education and most had never seen the inside of a synagogue but all were interested in knowing more about their Jewish and Zionist heritage. He enjoyed their curiosity and challenging questions and found great satisfaction in connecting with young people whose background was not the same as that of most of the members of his synagogue.
From these conversations, in the car and on other occasions, was born the idea of developing some sort of framework within which Israeli Jews could unite around their common Jewish heritage. Israel is in many ways a fragmented and divided society, and Rabbi Beller was visionary about breaking down barriers and creating opportunities for people to communicate with each other - without requiring them to be anything other than what they were.
The idea that developed, after many conversations and deliberations, was that of a community program. There were and are a number of excellent institutions and organizations which attempt to break down barriers and create opportunities for dialogue and mutual understanding. None of them however worked at the community level. In fact, the idea of community, so important to Diaspora Jewry, in some ways hardly exists in Israel.
The key guiding principles of the community program were that it should be grassroots and demand-led. Rabbi Beller was adamant that we were not creating a “project” to be imposed on people. The idea was to provide opportunities for as wide a spectrum of people as possible to learn and experience their Judaism and Zionism in a natural non-threatening and inspiring manner.
The educational system of the town provides a natural starting point for a community program. Schools and kindergartens were viewed not as stand-alone institutions but as places which contain an extended family of students, parents and teachers.
Rabbi Beller, in his inimitable way, approached and engaged people across the educational community. The municipality, schools, inspectors, coordinators and kindergartens – all were inspired with his vision and eager to turn it into a reality.
This was the genesis of “Ba’kehilla” – “In the community”, which started running, with the backing of the Raanana municipality, in September 2004. Its range and variety makes it very hard to summarize. Perhaps the best way is to list a tiny selection of the activities that took place over the next several years:
- “The Meaning of Bar and Batmitzvah” combined with “The Magical Mystery Shul Tour” –for 7th grade pupils at junior high schools
- Chanukah activities for teachers and children from different kindergartens
- “Jewish and Israeli identity in the State of Israel” – program developed, together with their leaders, for scouts (10th graders)
- “Chesed and the Jewish concept of love” – a series of discussion and workshop sessions for all pupils in a junior high school
- “Erev Limmud” (evening of Jewish learning) for teachers
- “Yom Tanach” (Bible day) for 8th graders, designed and presented in partnership with Matan (women’s study institute) and Bet Berl (teacher training institute)
- “Mesibat Chumash” (celebration of the Bible) for 2nd graders and their parents
- After-school Beth Midrash (Jewish learning event) for pupils, parents and teachers
Since those early years, “Ba’kehilla” has grown and developed and has become an integral part of life in Raanana. It has touched the lives of many thousands of people of all ages and from all points on the religious spectrum. Until Rabbi Biller’s sad and untimely death, it was set to continue flourishing while always staying true to his vision – nothing imposed from the outside, everything developed in partnership and according to the needs and wishes of the participants.
In Rabbi Beller’s own words: “Community education creates personal, rather than institutionalized contact between people, and is a natural conduit for learning and increased identity. When people are connected to each other they will become connected to their heritage.”
Now that Rabbi Beller is so tragically no longer with us, I hope and pray we can rise to the challenge of perpetuating his legacy by ensuring that this unique initiative continues and flourishes.
Daniel at his barmitzvah celebrations in March 1976