Recently, I lost one of my closest friends. Rabbi Chezi Zionce was an individual of such exceptional vibrancy and energy, it’s still hard to believe he is gone.
I first met Chezi when we were both in our early 20s. We immediately formed a bond, and I watched with great admiration, as he took a sleepy, sparsely attended, downtown Toronto synagogue and turned it into the hippest synagogue in town, dramatically increasing its membership in just a few years. It was a process he would repeat several times – in Charleston, S.C., Naples, Fla., and, over the last six years, back in Toronto at Beit Rayim Synagogue. With his charisma, and his infectious enthusiasm for Judaism and Israel, he could create the most extraordinary community.
Chezi’s generosity and kindness knew no bounds. I cannot tell you how many times he called me about helping a young person get on the March of the Living or Birthright, or looking for tzedakah for a family in need. And whether it was a wedding, bar/bat mitzvah, baby naming, funeral or shivah, there was no one I knew who could provide the joy or comfort that Chezi always did.
He had a unique ability to bring the “Old World” into the new, to appeal to our parents as well as to the next generation, to make Judaism relevant and meaningful to young families, and yet still stay connected to our ancient roots. He personified the Jewish value of “M’dor La’dor,” transmitting Judaism from one generation to the next, and appealing to both at the same time.
And he did it all with his inimitable charm, passion and humour.
Every conversation with Chezi inevitably included a laugh, a joke or a comic observation. The only frustrating thing about being his friend was that he literally knew every single Jewish joke. When you tried telling him one, he would respond that he’d already heard it – then proceed to tell you the correct way of telling the same joke, and, finally, tell you an even funnier joke.
When Chezi and I were on the 1994 March of the Living, he grew very close with one of the survivors, Robert Weiss, who passed away in 1996. A few years after, we were at a funeral together when I lost track of him. He had walked over to the stone of Weiss, to recite a few passages from Tehillim in his honour. It was the sort of quiet act of kindness and respect he was known for.
When Chezi returned to Toronto around 2010, he was at a very challenging point in his life. Still he managed to reinvent himself, and rebuild his life anew, helping kickstart Beit Rayim Synagogue to the point where its membership more than doubled in just a few short years.
But nothing gave him more satisfaction, pride and joy than the achievements of his three children. Every time I called him, I knew that I had to set aside the first five minutes while he praised his children. “Look,” he would say, “my father came from a tiny shtetl in Poland, without electricity or paved roads or running water – and my children! One’s graduating from Yale law, the other is going to work for the European Union, and the third has been accepted to the Berklee College of Music. Who could have believed this!” Mind you, he took no credit for this either – preferring to praise their dedicated mother and his children’s unique personalities and gifts.
Chezi was also grateful for the love and care he received from his younger sister, Robin, who did so much for Chezi ever since he returned to Toronto. Over his years in Canada and the U.S., Chezi made close friends everywhere – but Robin truly was his best friend.
Earlier this year, when Chezi asked me to help out with tzedakah for a family in need, the password for the online money transfer that Chezi chose for me was “haver” which means “friend” in Hebrew. I have been called many things in my life and given many titles. But none are as precious or as important to me as being called “haver” by Chezi.
Eli Rubenstein was a close friend of Rabbi Chezi Zionce. Donate to the Rabbi Zionce Torah Fund at Beit Rayim: https://www.beitrayim.org/form/RabbiZionceTorahFund