A source of inspiration wherever he went, Rabbi Shmuel Tzvi Berkovicz, z”l impacted countless people during his time in Cleveland, stepping up to the plate once again as he spent the final chapter of his life in Passaic. Nine months after his sudden passing, a plan is underway to have Rabbi Berkovicz’s legacy continue burning brightly in another place that was close to his heart, with the Rebbe’s shiur room being dedicated in his memory at Mesivta Sanz in Union City.
Rabbi Berkovicz’s connection with Union City’s chasidic community began with a quest to bake special seder matzos on Erev Pesach shortly after he and his family moved to Passaic. Making some inquiries, Rabbi Berkovicz discovered a matzah bakery located just 15 minutes away in Union City that would be operating on Erev Pesach, and he found himself warmly welcomed in a place that evoked warm memories of his own chasidic upbringing in Toronto. Lag B’Omer that same year saw Rabbi Berkovicz returning to Union City, with another visit on Hoshana Raba night to hear Mishna Torah.
“When he came back, he said he felt something he never felt in his whole life,” said son-in-law Rabbi Yossi Jacobowitz. “He fell in love with the place and he kept going back at every opportunity, whether it was for Tu B’Shvat, a yahrzeit seuda, a tish or any other occasion, getting himself put onto the chat to get the news texts so he wouldn’t miss a single event.”
It didn’t take long for Rabbi Berkovicz to develop a relationship with the Sanz-Zhviller Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Goldman, whose father was the oldest son-in-law of the Klausenberger Rebbe. After Rabbi Goldman’s passing in 2017, Rabbi Berkovicz forged an extremely close bond with his brother-in-law and successor, Rabbi Shaul Yehuda Prizant.
“They held each other in high esteem, and my father-in-law would call him all the time to help him out in any way possible,” recalled Rabbi Jacobowitz.
Passaic Clifton Community Kollel Head Rabbi Chaim Krause noted that visiting Union City, founded by the Klausenberger Rebbe in 1965, was like stepping into a time warp. “The entire community in Union City is built on simplicity and is very friendly,” he said. “You walk in and a dozen people will come up and say hello, and they live the way it used to be. They’re not chasing the neighbors or a dream—they’re happy and that comes from the top.”
Rabbi Berkovicz had a personal passion for chasidus, his custom of davening with a chasidic pronunciation, giving him a tangible connection to his father who passed away when he was very young. He reveled in Union City’s joy and warmth. In addition to spending time there on his own, he would take bar mitzvah boys in need of a boost to put on tefillin for the first time with the Rebbe and bring individuals going through difficult times there for guidance. As someone whose life revolved around chinuch, Rabbi Berkovicz recognized Rav Prizant’s talents as a master builder.
“The Rebbe makes people feel valued and realizes the potential they have in themselves, something that he and Rabbi Berkovicz had in common,” explained Rabbi Krause. “They were like soul brothers, with the same ideals and thoughts.”
Rabbi Berkovicz was the guest of honor at Mesivta of Sanz’s 2020 dinner, a responsibility he took on even though the event took place just hours after his son’s aufruf. Former Union City gabbai Rabbi Chaim Kurtz recalled that when COVID hit shortly thereafter, Rabbi Berkovicz kept his connection with the community strong, even during the lockdown.
“He would call or text every other day, telling us about a doctor he knew or a pharmacy that was open,” said Rabbi Kurtz. “He would ask us to let people in our community know about them and to call him if someone needed them and couldn’t get through.”
When Lag B’Omer came, Rabbi Berkovicz donned a mask and gloves to make a socially distant l’chaim with the Rebbe. Rabbi Prizant spoke on more than one occasion in Passaic, with Rabbi Berkovicz inevitably turning the shiur that was held in his home into a fundraiser for the mesivta that held such a special place in his heart.
Rabbi Berkovicz’s sudden passing last July was one whose ripple effect was felt far and wide. He was mourned by Yeshiva Ktana of Passaic, where he had served as the school’s menahel, Khal Yereim where he had been the rav, the greater Passaic community and many in Union City.
Rabbi Prizant spoke eloquently at the funeral about the bond that Rabbi Berkovicz forged between the two bastions of yiddishkeit located just nine miles apart and, within months, Mesivta Sanz decided to dedicate the room where the Rebbe says shiur in Rabbi Berkovicz’s memory, setting up a crowdfunding campaign to create Heichal Shmuel Tzvi. Speaking at Union City’s 2021 dinner, Rabbi Jacobowitz shared how his father-in-law would tell people who were sitting shiva that they still had the ability to benefit their lost loved ones by doing mitzvot in their memory.
“He would talk about how you could still ‘send them packages,’ and we feel like this is the package that he would really, really want,” said Rabbi Jacobowitz. “In addition to loving the Rebbe, this was something that he felt very much a part of. We decided that this was something that was very dear to him and that, knowing him, this is something he would have wanted us to do.”
“We want to stay with him,” added Rabbi Kurtz. “Rabbi Berkovicz was so connected to the Rebbe and to Union City, and we felt that this was the one thing we could do for him that he would most appreciate.”
To make a donation in memory of Rabbi Berkovicz, visit the campaign page online at at www.dryveup.com/unioncity/
By Sandy Eller