Forty. That’s the number of days Gershon Burd spent praying. Every day, standing before the ancient stones of the Western Wall, he prayed for the same thing: to meet his bride. At the end of the 40 days, she walked into his life.
They got together for a juice in the lobby of the Dan Pearl Hotel. It was their first date, a set up, of course. And the first thing Batya Burd did was turn beet red. “Something happened to me,” she describes. “I heard a voice from the past and I knew I had met, or re-met, my soul mate.”
On their second date, they went for a walk. On the third, they travelled up to the holy city of Safed. On the fourth they had a picnic. And on the fifth date, sitting across from each other at the Kosher Asian fusion restaurant on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim, Gershon proposed.
“I realize,” he told her. “That everything in my life was for this moment.”
“It was from God,” says Batya.
It might have been from God, but still, it was not necessarily a story line Batya could have foreseen back in the days when she was Lisa Fefer, living in Toronto, hanging out with her Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters.
The daughter of secular Jewish Russian immigrants to Canada, a mathematician father and a translator mother, Lisa − ambitious, pretty and, by her own admission, something of a princess − grew up as far away from the yeshiva world of Jerusalem as can be.
After college at the University of Western Ontario, she sailed through law school at Osgoode Hall and found a job at a top corporate tax firm in town. She made good money, had long lines of suitors, and partied it up with a rather glamorous crowd. “My life was all about money, success, fame, power,” she says. “I was always chasing the top.”
Until one day she stopped. “I realized I was created for more than this. I felt the life was being sucked out of me,” she explains. So Lisa strapped on a knapsack and set out to search the world for meaning − investing as much energy in the search as she had once put into living the good life in Canada.
She tried everything: She travelled through 25 countries in Asia. She trekked around Annapurna in Nepal and swam with sharks in Thailand. She did two weeks of silent meditation. She went bungee jumping and hang-gliding. She met the Dalai Lama. She got into crystal healing and astrology, and, at the end of it all, realized she wanted to devote her life to spirituality.
And then she went on Birthright.
But at the end of the whirlwind week, which had been organized by Aish HaTorah, a Jewish Orthodox organization that is one of Birthright’s partners, she decided to stick around. “I still thought I would be returning to India,” she says. “In fact, my plan was to go to ulpan — so as to join the Hebrew Kabbalah classes with Israelis back in Dharamsala.”
But everything started “clicking” for her in Jerusalem. She felt inspired. Enlightened. At home. She changed her name to Batya. She started dressing modestly. She became observant. “Judaism just clicked,” she says. “And I also just knew that this is where I would find my soul mate.”
Born in Odessa, in the Ukraine, Gershon’s family moved to Chicago when he was two years old. His father worked in the insurance business, his mom taught piano. Like Batya, Gershon grew up completely secular. A strapping young man, Greg, as he was known back then, played linebacker on his high school football team, worked as a lifeguard during his summers and later did a little modeling alongside classes at Indiana University, where he majored in business.
He came to Israel, like Batya, on a search. “I will move back to Chicago when I am finished learning,” he told his parents when he went home for visits.
“I feel I am just in Jewish kindergarten. I need more time,” he would tell them.
“I am in first grade now,” he would say on the next visit.
Gershon started his 40-day prayer session at the Kotel, he liked to say, after going on 50 unsuccessful dates. He knew Batya would be the one, even before she walked into the Dan Pearl lobby. “He would joke that God could not let him go on more than 50 dates,” says Batya. “I was number 51.”
Six weeks after first meeting, as the rise of the new moon of the Jewish calendar leap year month of Adar Bet, Batya and Gershon were married. They kissed, there, at the wedding, for the first time. And if felt right. Adar Bet, notes Batya, is a supernatural month. It was a good sign.
The young couple, practically penniless, took out a mortgage and a loan from friends, and moved into a small apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. Within a decade they had been blessed with five children and paid off the mortgage. Gershon had become executive director of the Birkas Ha’Torah, a yeshiva for Ba’ale Tshuva − those, like Batya and Gershon, who have “returned” to embrace Judaism.
Together, the couple also started a little business that Batya ran − Western Wall Prayers, an online prayer-by-proxy service that connects those who want prayers said for them at the Kotel with rabbis and scholars living in Jerusalem who, for a donation, will do that praying for 40 consecutive days.
If it had worked for Gershon and Batya, she liked to tell clients, 40 days of prayer could work for anyone.
“We had an otherworldly love,” says Batya. “Sure we had struggles. Our personalities were so different, how could we not? But a soul mate does not mean everything is smooth. Our glue was our commitment. Gershon’s prayers had come true.”
Forty. That’s the birthday that Gershon was celebrating two weeks ago when he and Batya farmed out the five kids to friends and hopped on a minibus to Tel Aviv for a rare romantic weekend away. Through credit card points, he had managed to book them a suite at the Sheraton Hotel, overlooking the water. The manager sent up champagne and cake.
Batya placed the wrapped gift she had bought Gershon in the room, to open later, and the two got bikes and cycled down to the beach, past the Tel Aviv port. The waves were strong and dirty, Batya recalls, and the sea looked angry. She decided to stay by the shore, playing in the sand. Gershon went in for a swim.
By the time he was pulled out of the water, about 20 minutes later, he was foaming at the mouth and nose and was unconscious. Hit by a rock or piece of debris in the head, the former lifeguard had not stood a chance.
“I was screaming to the heavens. It was horrific,” remembers Batya.
As the ambulance rushed her husband to Ichilov hospital, she got on the phone, calling friends and rabbis − asking them to pray for Gershon, and to hold her children tight.
Forty. That’s the number of hours Gershon held on, teetering between life and death. All through the Shabbat, Batya, still in sandals and beach clothes, sat in the hospital hallway, praying. “I forgave him for everything and I asked for his forgiveness. I offered to do anything to get him back,” she says.
On Saturday night, Batya called a friend, a healer, and asked him to go into the world of spirits and ask Gershon, if he was there, to return to her. “He is not coming back,” the healer told her, sorrowfully. “It’s over.”
At the shiva, a woman Batya did not know came to pay her respects. “I’m going to tell you something you don’t know,” the stranger told Batya. “For nine years I was the front for your husband’s tzedaka [charity] fund.”
Sara Rigler, a friend and neighbor, says Batya was “dumbfounded” by the news. “What tzedaka fund?” she asked.
Gershon barely had seemed to have money to spare for himself or his family. They did not own a car. They rarely bought new clothes. They could not even afford to fix the crack above the sink.
But the stories soon began pouring in: tales of anonymous acts of kindness and generosity that almost no one, until Gershon’s death, had ever known about. Somehow, it turned out, he had found money, here and there, for others.
There was the ruse he concocted to help a woman travel home to the U.S. to see her sick mother, pretending a credit card company was giving out “free” tickets. There was another ruse he came up with that had a struggling family believing they were able to take their children to the amusement park thanks to a “free” coupon. There were the yeshiva students who discovered they could continue classes because of “scholarship money,” and there were “free” therapy sessions Gershon directed couples having relationship problems toward.
There were the fictitious prayer requests that Gershon came up with, when his Western Wall Prayers company was having a slow period, so as to continue providing the prayer agents with funding. And there were the “free” helium balloons given out to every child in the Jewish Quarter on his or her birthday, a treat everyone assumed was a gift from the toy store.
Rigler, the neighbor, who is also an author and journalist, decided to write a short article for the Aish website about Gershon and his good deeds. “Giving anonymously is a sacred value in Judaism,” Rigler explains. “In fact, according to Jewish lore, the world is sustained in every generation by the merit of 36 hidden tzaddikim. Could a Russian-born former football player from Chicago be one of them?”
Perhaps because of the hint that a tzaddik, a righteous one, had been found, Rigler’s article took on a life of its own, going viral and reaching tens of thousands of people around the world. Batya began getting emails and calls from strangers around the world, asking what they could do to help and sending in, sometimes anonymously, money. The article was translated into French, and then into Spanish. More and more people began contacting Batya.
The reaction to Rigler’s post, says Batya, “transported” her to a higher place, above herself. “The love and relationship I thought would last forever was, it turns out, just first grade. It was a classroom for what will come next. I became more than a wife. I became a soul going through life’s lessons and helping others,” she says.
“I don’t want to feel sorry for myself,” says Batya. “And I don’t. I am suffering. I am in pain, but I know that this has all happened for a reason.”
No, she does not know the reason, she admits. But she does know the story is not over.
“When Gershon died,” Batya concludes, knowingly echoing the words he spoke to her a very long time ago, back on the day he asked her to be his wife, “I realized that everything in my life ... was for this moment.”