Books: 'The Secret Life of Gershon Burd'

The many generous acts of Gershon Burd were only unveiled when his life ended tragically early.

Gershon Burd (photo credit: COURTESY JUDAICA PRESS)
Gershon Burd
Gershon Burd was a healthy 40-year-old the day he died as a result of a swimming accident. Despite the fact that he was an experienced swimmer and a trained lifeguard, he was hit in the back of the neck by a free-floating object. That’s the stark reality, told in spare prose, in under two pages of The Secret Life of Gershon Burd: A Master of Hidden Chessed by Yaakov Astor.
The rest of the book is about what Gershon Burd accomplished in his life, much of which was unknown until the shiva period, when people whose lives had been touched by Burd started telling their stories.
Burd was born in Ukraine to parents who were desperate to get out from under Soviet rule. When Burd was three, his parents moved to Chicago, where he studied in a Hebrew day school until the age of 12. He was a calm and self-possessed child who grew up to be a confident and unusually socially adept college student.
Judaism didn’t capture his attention until, at the age of 25, he attended an adult education class as a favor to his mother.
From that point on, his trajectory toward becoming a religious Jew living in the Old City of Jerusalem was straight and guided.
Burd exemplified the mitzva of hessed and seemingly performed deeds of kindness all day, every day. No one had any idea the extent of his kindnesses until he died. Other chapters amplify the dedication Burd had to refining his character by focusing on his commitment to expressing gratitude, speaking the truth and having faith in God.
By all accounts, Burd was an unusually likable man with charisma that was sourced in his affection for others. Astor writes, “All of his chessed extended from his genuine, unbounded love of people.”
There was a store in the Old City of Jerusalem that was known for giving a free birthday balloon to local children. In some families, a helium balloon would elicit a yawn, but in a community where there are a lot of children and not a lot of money, such a gift brings genuine joy.
No one had any clue that Burd was paying for all the “free” balloons, especially since his own children were among those who went to claim their helium balloon on their birthdays. Even his wife, Batya, wasn’t aware he was the one who had been paying for the balloons each month, until the store’s owner told her of their arrangement during a shiva visit.
Burd’s thousands of acts of kindness inspired others to form a “Secret Chessed Chaburah” comprised of people all around the world who look for opportunities to give to others in small ways. One chapter in the book takes a look at Burd’s greatest legacy – inspiring other people to look out for the many small ways they can help friends, neighbors and even strangers.
“I was shopping in a local grocery story and spotted a woman with two cranky children in tow. I felt sorry for her. The lines in this store were particularly long, but the prices were so low that many people shop there anyway. As I was exiting the store, I noticed her outside in the rain picking up something from the ground. I approached her and asked if everything was okay and if she needed any help. She said that her eggs had blown off the cart and that she was picking up the mess and throwing it in the trash.
I asked if she wanted me to go in and get her new eggs but she said no, that she would pick them up somewhere else later since she was taking her daughter to the doctor now.
I introduced myself and asked her what her name was and where she lived. After I left the store, I went to another store to finish my shopping, and I picked up some eggs and hung them on her front door.”
Was this secret egg delivery an earth-shattering act? Perhaps not. But, as the book amply illustrates, small acts of hessed, taken together, create a much more pleasant world for everyone.
Does the book qualify as hagiography? Is Burd painted as a larger-than-life figure who lived in a dimension of goodness no one else can approach? Although the author acknowledges he never met Burd, the pages are rich with excerpts from emails that he sent and stories shared by people who knew him.
Throughout, Burd is portrayed as an exceptional man who went out of his way to treat others with kindness, but the author never comes close to suggesting that he was superhuman or that what he accomplished could not be attained by others.
Some of the most touching writing in the book was penned by Burd’s young widow, Batya, who writes about how her husband’s untimely death impacted her personally.