By Richard Altabe
There are Gedolim who are leaders of large Yeshivas with thousands of talmidim who impact the generation and then there are the more hidden Gedolim who quietly impact thousands of neshamos. Pesach Gershon ben Yisroel Fish z”l was one such Gadol B’yisroel. His petira this past week has created a huge vacuum in our lives.
To the outside world, Perry Fish was an educated, erudite lawyer who graduated St John’s University Law School and pursued a successful legal career. To others he was a Professor of Business Law first at Yeshiva University and then at Landers College in Queens. But to the thousands of young men and women who passed through his home, he was a light of Torah and Yiddishkeit who inspired thousands of us to become committed Torah Jews.
He and his wife Debby arrived in Long Beach in 1974 to raise a family and soon after his arrival he was asked to become the Regional Director of Long Island NCSY. In those days the Regional Director was a part time role but it quickly became his life. Those of us who had the zchus to live in Long Beach made the weekly visit to the Fish home an integral part of our Shabbos experience. Shabbos at the Fish home was an exhilarating experience with lively discussions mixed with amazing zemiros and inspiring divrei Torah. For many of us, his Shabbos table became our model for the way we would build our future family. The loving way he sang eishes chayil to his wife Debbie, the way he bentched his children, Ari, Sima and Rena, the melodious kiddush he sang in his baritone voice – all of this has been etched into our hearts forever.
Learning Torah was central to Perry’s existence. He maintained several sedarim in learning each week and attended shiurim regularly. Besides learning from his chavrusa, Rabbi Mendel Goldberg and our Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankel, Perry always kept a sefer by his side and always had something to say about each week’s parsha.
For us teens growing up in the 1970’s he was the approachable role model we felt we could emulate. While we had amazing Rabbeim in school, their holiness seemed unfathomable and unreachable. Perry however was “one of us” – a normal kid from a non-frum family who lived in the secular world but managed to retain his distinctive mantle of Torah Judaism. He gave us pride in our Jewishness and taught us to be strong in expressing our Yiddishkeit even in the professional world. He regaled us with stories of his years at St John’s law, where he prevailed upon the school for the right to miss class on Shabbos and Yom Tov. It gave us the strength to do the same as we entered the secular world.
For those of us who were growing up in non religious homes and trying to become frum, he showed us the path towards mitzvah observance while also making sure we continued to practice kibbud av v’eim. He often would speak to our parents to help them understand our needs as we grew in yiddishkeit. His own conservative Jewish upbringing gave him an understanding of our parents that even we did not have. He was available to us at all hours of the day or night if and when we needed chizuk .
For Perry Fish, kiruv was not a numbers game. He knew long before research on kiruv existed that for kiruv to stick, it needs continuous nurturing. The newly frum teen needs constant support as he seeks a shidduch, builds a family and deals with the often complex issues of maintaining contact with non-frum family members. Perry was there through it all, not just for some of us but for all of us. In later years when he moved to Far Rockaway, Perry did his magic on at-risk youth. For them, Perry’s non-judgemental love and constant chizuk gave them the spark oftentimes to begin their return to yiddishkeit.
The thousands of teens who passed through the Fish home can testify that once he met you and had you at his home for Shabbos, you were a member of the family for life. He attended every simcha, was there during every tragedy and was a part of your family.
He even called us on our birthday. The only other person who consistently called on my birthday over the years besides Perry was my mom. When he became seriously ill I thought the calls would stop, yet last year on my birthday I pulled up at work and my phone rang, To my surprise it was Perry Fish calling from his residence care center as if he were back home in Long Beach. He asked about each of my children and grandchildren by name and remembered that a few days before my birthday was my wedding anniversary.
Each one of us touched by Perry Fish has his or her own unique story to tell. For some it as his unique brand of kiruv, for others it was the pure chessed of a man willing to open his home to anyone who needed a place for Shabbos, even going so far as to pick up non-frum Friday afternoon commuters on the LIRR and offering them a place at his table. No matter how we came to meet Perry, each of us internalized his love of torah and yiddishkeit and made sure that we reflected this in our own lives. Many of us have had the zechus to inspire others as our mentor Perry inspired us.
My birthday is in a few days. Sadly I will not have the zechus to hear his voice this year but the memory of what he gave to so many will continue to inspire and guide my life. The legacy of Pesach Gershon ben Yisroel Fish will live on through all who walked through the doors of his home as we work to inspire others as he inspired us.
Tehei nafsho tzerurah betzror hachaim.