Al Besser Eulogy

6 TAMMUZ 5781 // JUNE 16, 2021

Deuteronomy 16:20:
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף
Justice, justice shall you pursue,
לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙
that you may live…

Through his long, fruitful life,
Albert Besser ever pursued
fairness, decency, equality, and justice.

He came by it honestly.

Born and raised in New Jersey,
his family were founding members of Ohev Sholom,
the synagogue where Gretchen and Al would later get married.
His parents, Fannie and Hy Besser, were strongly religious people,
deeply devoted to building up Jewish community.

His mother was ahead of her time,
becoming one of the first women lawyers in New Jersey,
while inculcating in Al the pursuit of justice from a young age.
She practiced law again into her 70s and 80s.

Two years into his bachelor’s degree at Yale,
Al pursued justice by volunteering to put his body on the line during WW2.
He ultimately served in the CIA’s precursor, the OSS,
learning Mandarin in 9 months and serving in China.

When Shanghai was liberated at the end of the war,
he entered the Jewish district of Shanghai,
feeling as though he was a victorious general.
There, he pursued one of the countless mitzvot
he would do throughout his lifetime,
connecting to a Jewish family who had fled Nazi Germany.
He would continue to send care packages
to them when he returned home.

For his service in the war,
Al recently received the highest honour
the U.S. Congress can award to a civilian:
the Congressional Gold Medal.

Bestowed on him by congressman Peter Welsch,
Welsch said at the time:
“Al throughout his life has been very generous,
active in community affairs, very modest.
He’s proud of his service, but from his perspective,
it’s just what you do.”

That day of valour, I remember Al receiving his award with humility,
deflecting praise while speaking of the many others who bravely served.
In his pursuit of justice, he was always gracious.

Even in his home life, Al was a fair and impartial man.
After falling in love with his dear Gretchen,
they raised three young boys,
James, Brian, and Neal.

He treated each of his kids the same,
lovingly playing ball, hiking, biking,
and taking them on camping trips.
He was a treasure with children.
Alison and I remember him engaging our kids
in various games after services.
He always had a trick up his sleeve.

Gretchen, you too were full of surprises for him.
He didn’t suspect for a moment that he alone that day
was going to receive that Gold Medal for his service.
He was always overjoyed at the many surprise parties
you threw for his birthdays.
And there was also the incident early on in your marriage
when you surprised him with a duckling in the bathtub.
You always shared a good belly laugh together.

Al walked hand-in-hand with you throughout your lives together.
When you turned vegetarian,
he supported you and gave up eating meat at home.
(You did eat out a lot those days).
When you went to work on your doctorate,
Al was ahead of his time, doing what was right and just,
coming home to take care of the kids,
changing diapers before it was expected of men.
He made it possible for you to follow your career,
and felt inspired rather than threatened
by your enormous accomplishments.

68 years, 5 months, and 17 days.
Those are the span of your life shared together in marriage.
Gretchen, you said, “I couldn’t have done it without Al.”
That is because your lives were intertwined, from roots to branches.
You were best friends,
the man to whom you could bear your soul.
Even in his loss of hearing,
which presented such difficulties for him and for you,
he still knew of your sweet nothings,
for he had heard them for decades prior.
You married a beautiful man, inside and out,
his neshama a force of good for you, your family, and our world.

These past months presented difficulties,
but they were also “inundated with blessings,”
as his community of friends rallied around him.
This was a miraculous period, living on borrowed time.

Al cared about a great many things throughout his life.
He loved your dalmations.
He was a fanatical skier and tennis player.
He loved his friends.
He absolutely loved riding his tractor around.
And he surely enjoyed his sweets.
Even when he begrudgingly began using his walker,
he was still the first person to the dessert table,
filling his plate at the oneg.

He was a generous man with others, though frugal with himself.
He never said anything bad about another person
because he didn’t think poorly of others.
He thought the best of people, to a fault.

He sat on the board of Ohev Sholom
and the board and finance committee of JCOGS for a long time,
remembered for his probing, thoughtful questioning.
He was not a deeply spiritual man,
though he did genuinely care about matters of the soul,
and he held a strong sense of tradition, a loyalty to the Jewish people,
and a love of the State of Israel.
He may have been too logical, reasoned, and rational to be a believer,
yet, he never stopped seeing the world as wondrous.

He had a great love for a great many things.
But most of all, you, Gretchen,
and each of his children, each of you.
He did not do things half-way.
Not least of which—his love for family and community.
And not least of which his other love—justice.

In law school, he earned his name “bulldog”
for his sharp intellect and unrelenting tenacity.
He was a powerhouse, an exceptional debater,
using theatrics and his extraordinary capacity
with language to persuade juries.
He fought hard, sparing verbally, thinking quickly.
His big booming voice helped mayors and famous people
up to the Supreme Court,
saving people from capital punishment.

Yet he also devoted innumerable hours to the voiceless,
the underdogs and disenfranchised,
having a soft spot for those suffering
under the weight of poverty and injustices,
volunteering for the Clarina Howard Nichols Center domestic violence service in our county,
pursuing justice for those without resources.

He interpreted an “eye for an eye” as limiting punishment.
Only an eye for an eye, no more.
He taught us that we should never be vindictive
in our pursuit of justice.

Sitting with him in the hospital recently,
where I found him reading a 700 page book
about a Supreme Court Justice,
Al asked me how the rabbis understood this passage.
They, too, reinterpreted it to understand that
an eye should not be literally taken, nor even a life,
but rather the monetary equivalent of the crimes committed.

Al never quite retired, because, for him, law was not a profession—
it was a way of life.
He was a man of principle.
Adamantly opposed to the death penalty,
and fighting for further gun control,
you could read his powerful editorials in the Stowe Reporter—
among other renowned publications—
as recently as weeks ago.

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live.

Preceding these words, our Torah states:
שֹׁפְטִ֣ים וְשֹֽׁטְרִ֗ים תִּֽתֶּן־לְךָ֙ בְּכל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ
⁦You shall appoint judges and officials in all the gates
that Hashem your God is giving you,
וְשָׁפְט֥וּ אֶת־הָעָ֖ם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶֽדֶק׃
that they shall govern the people with due justice.
You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality;
you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning
and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and inherit the land
that Hashem your God is giving you.

Through his epic lifetime,
of wars and love,
of law and righteousness,
of family and friendship—
he was fanatical about pursuing justice.
He lived his life as though justice
should always be emphasized, in every sentence, at least twice,
for as Al and the Torah understood,
justice is the foundation of all life.

Medieval commentator Rashi says that
“the appointment of honest judges
is sufficient merit to keep Israel in life
and to settle them in security in their land.”
Now, Albert Besser finds his final resting place
after a life of honest judgments and integrity.
May he so merit the security of the land that he journeys toward now.

This world could surely use more kind fanatics of justice like Albert Besser.
May we live into his legacy, pursuing what is upright and just,
and kind and fair in how we treat others,
as he so humbly and graciously modeled for us.

And may his memory be for a blessing.