Profile: David Beck, late shammus at Beth Sholom (died 2010)

From the Beth Sholom Bulletin, Spring 2011

David Beck was a Holocaust survivor who had seen the worst of humanity, so “he wanted to focus on bringing out the good things in life,” said his son Mendy Beck about the long-time former shammus of Beth Sholom, who died October 2010 at the age of 89.

Born near Munckas, Hungary, in 1921, he had been uprooted from a yeshiva. He was incarcerated in a labour camp during the war, then spent several years in Israel. He came to Canada about 1952 and worked at many jobs, including carpentry and egg candling; he also taught Gemorah at Eitz Chaim. Beth Sholom hired him in 1961 and he served as shammus or sexton for 37 years until retiring in 1998.

He opened the synagogue doors every morning, coordinated the daily minyanim, helped mourners recite kaddish, and frequently acted as the ba’al tefillah or ba’al koreh. He prepared the morning breakfasts and the seudah shlishit on Shabbos. He made an enormous kugel on Simchas Torah and blew the shofar at the High Holidays.

Occasionally he even acted as an unofficial bridal consultant, instructing the bridal party on where to stand and how best to march down the aisle. According to son Mendy Beck, he loved weddings and other Jewish simchas, feeling that they helped to strengthen the Jewish people,

Above all, he was a role model and mentor for young people, who found his reverence and love for Torah, Judaism and Israel to be infectious. “He was an inspiration to many,” said his son, Meyer Beck. “Many people have said to me, ‘If it weren’t for your father, I might not have embraced the religion as much as I did.’”

David lost almost all of his family and many of the townsfolk he had known in the Holocaust. In Eretz Israel he fought in the Hagannah during the War of Independence. “The first time he put on his soldier’s uniform, he felt that half the burden from the Holocaust had been lifted from him because he was defending himself,” Meyer said.

David and his wife Miriam were married in Israel and came to Canada together; eventually they had three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. David was deeply proud that things in his life had seemed to come “full circle” because one of his grandchildren had made aliyah and given birth to a child — a great-grandchild for him and Miriam — in Israel.

He had a zest for living and a “happy face” for everyone he met, said his daughter, Elke Gelberger. Even when health problems required him to use a walker, he went swimming, met daily with his Talmud study group, and took buses to socialize with his friends, she said.

His many interests kept him active, even in old age. “Not too long ago he wanted to take some kind of a boating course, so he started to teach himself to make knots. My father’s most famous words were ‘I’ve never done it before.’ He always strived to do something new. This is what he lived by.”

Akiva Lazar, a 39-year-old currency trader based in Thornhill, said that David Beck “was a mentor to me. I learned from watching him for many years throughout my childhood.”

To make the young Akiva feel that his presence in the synagogue was crucially important, David made him a kitchen assistant and empowered him by giving him the key to the kitchen. “He would also allow me to prepare the havdallah every motzei Shabbos. It wasn’t a one-event situation. It was everything that he did over a variety of years.”

When Akiva encountered the retired shammus a while ago at an event in Thornhill, he gave him a hug and a kiss because “he was like a grandfather to me.”

Elizabeth Nawracaj, Beth Sholom’s in-house caterer, became friendly with David almost immediately after her arrival at the shul in 1990, and they were friends ever since. She described him as a man of great learning, spirituality and warmth. “Everyone loved him,” she said. “He would always be really cheerful and happy — he would make my day.

“He used to say, ‘I went through everything possible and I’m not afraid of anything and I’m at peace with myself and the world. If no one was in the chapel, he would sit there in the dark, praying. He used to pray by himself on Shabbos, before anyone came in.” ♦

© 2012