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Many people knew him as Rabbi Hecht. His brothers called him Yank. To most of us he was J.J. – the man who, year after year, we saw standing at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s side for hours, no matter the weather, at the Lag B’Omer parade.
To understand the legacy of Rabbi Jacob J. Hecht, one first needs to know the extent of the Rebbe’s dedication to chinuch (education) and to children – and how they both played such an important role in those parades.
That the Rebbe would spend so much time reviewing thousands of Jewish children marching in the Lag B’Omer parades was a phenomenon in itself. It brought to mind Moshe Rabbeinu watching the Tzivos Hashem marching in the wilderness or King David reviewing his troops or Judah Maccabee leading brave soldiers into battle against the Hellenists.
The parades were also special because most of the Rebbe’s public appearances were at farbrengens, which were geared to adults and devoted to the Rebbe’s sichos and maamarim. Thus, for the Rebbe to stand and speak to children, even if only for a few minutes, and then watch them march for hours, was something truly special.
Those of us who were lucky enough to participate in the parades and to observe the Rebbe at those times cherish the memories and images. During the parades we saw the Rebbe’s smiles, the way he waved to the children, the clear and profound enjoyment he experienced – and, though we may not have truly understood it, the deep sense of nachas he drew from those children who marched so proudly on Lag B’Omer.
The Rebbe often spoke to J.J. during the parades. He would cover the microphone and we could only see their facial expressions but we’d imagine the Rebbe telling Rabbi Hecht something along the lines of “I see your ‘Released Time’ children here” or asking “Why aren’t more of the children here?”
As they stood together watching the parade, it was easy to sense the bond that existed between them – a bond going back to the days before the Rebbe succeeded his father-in-law.
We were blessed with a leader who loved every Jew and truly personified the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings of Ahavas Yisrael, imbuing in his disciples and emissaries the principle of recognizing the true value of every Jew, reaching out to bring him or her closer to Torah, mitzvos and the Almighty. J.J. was his disciple, his true chassid. It was the Rebbe himself who remarked after J.J.’s passing that the Gematria, the numerical equivalent, of J.J.’s name – Yaakov Yehuda – was 212, the same as “rebbe.”
In addition to the parades there were the rallies at 770 Eastern Parkway where the children would gather together on Chanukah, during Chol Hamoed, and on other special occasions. Rabbi Hecht would arrange the rallies through the special programs division of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education with music, entertainment and refreshments. He would be up there on the stage leading the program, speaking to the children, singing with them, reciting the brachos with them, saying the pesukim with them.
That was J.J.’s life. That was J.J.’s spirit. That was what J.J. loved to do.
And then there were those brachos J.J. would give to the Rebbe! We all waited, holding our breath, for that climactic blessing J.J. would pronounce. This is something those of us who grew up in Crown Heights at the time will always remember – listening to J.J. bless the Rebbe at the end of the program. No one else in the world could match him. His voice would gain strength with each word. “Hashem should bless the Rebbe with gezunt [long life]” he would say before getting to the “punch line” of how the Rebbe would bring us to Mashiach; how the Rebbe would pray for the salvation of the Jewish people and for good things for all Jews, especially those children attending and participating in the rallies.
The Rebbe invariably would break into a deep understanding smile and everyone could see how much he appreciated J.J.’s leading the children in those brachos.
The Rebbe knew that here was a person whose whole being embodied the devotion of a chassid to a Rebbe, the faith a chassid has in the Rebbe, and the trust he always places in the Rebbe’s power and his love for every Jew.
When J.J. passed away, the Rebbe spoke about him during the shiva and then again at the end of the shloshim, explaining that J.J.’s life was truly and completely devoted to the Rebbe and to the mission and goals the Rebbe had set for himself and for others to bring chinuch and especially emunah – faith – to Jewish children.
* * *
Yaakov Yehuda Hecht was a member of a family that emigrated to the United States in the last decade of the 19th century. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville in which the Hechts grew up was home to a community of chassidishe Jews who had transplanted their rich, observant lifestyle from Poland, Ukraine, and Russia to America.
As the fame of Lubavitch started to spread and his older brothers began to study chassidus and draw closer to the Previous Rebbe, J.J. joined them in becoming his chassidim. When Tomchei Temimim was first established in Brooklyn, he was among the many students who transferred from other yeshivas to become talmidim there.
It was during the 1940s, when the Rebbe began working on various projects initiated by his father-in-law, that J.J. became attached to the Rebbe and started to work closely with him. After a while it was decided a separate organization should be formed to oversee the operation of the Released Time program which was then becoming very popular in the New York area.
J.J. was a natural leader. His ability to relate to children was truly unique. Every child was precious and special to him. His ability to tell a story was unmatched. He was one of the writers whose stories were published in the early years of the popular children’s series Talks N’ Tales. In addition to overseeing the Released Time program, he was charged by the Rebbe to lead the Mesibos Shabbos program, for children from public schools and yeshivas all over the city. It was during those years that he also began to work with the Rebbe on special rallies and parades.
For many years Rabbi Hecht was the rav, the mara de’asra, of the largest Orthodox shul in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. The children of that community remember Rabbi Hecht as someone very special.
Every child who would come into shul felt a special air of excitement. Rabbi Hecht always wanted the children to come over and to talk to him. And every child who came to him was greeted with the biggest smile, the warmest Shalom Aleichem, and a loving look. And of course there were candies in his shtender, which he quickly reached for and presented to the child.
Every child felt special when he or she walked over to Rabbi Hecht. It was the same sense of special relationship he showed his own grandchildren when they visited him at his home or office. He always had time for them, putting everything else aside even when he was busy.
His children remember when they were small and Rabbi Hecht would return home from shul on Friday nights. He would immediately begin singing – and before long he would be lifting up one or two of the children, dancing in a circle and celebrating Shabbos in the truest form of simcha and oneg. That joy in Torah and mitzvos – in life itself – was something J.J. exemplified throughout his life.
It was the same joy he exhibited when he sang with the children in Camp Emunah. Camp Emunah for Rabbi Hecht was Kodesh Hakodoshim. This was the Rebbe’s camp for Jewish girls – the place the Rebbe visited, twice, speaking to the campers and counselors and “inspecting” the camp grounds.
This was the place where Jewish children were cared for and nurtured and taught and given the best possible summer vacation. To Rabbi Hecht, every aspect of the camp was holy. He used to walk around picking up pieces of paper, making sure everything was clean and beautiful – the way he saw it, this was the biggest mitzvah he could do.
But the most telling aspect of J.J.’s operation of Camp Emunah was how he made a special effort to relate to the children. He was always ready to teach a shiur to the young counselors on Shabbos afternoon. He always had a gripping story to tell at the campfires. That probably was the reason he often wore strange caps – sometimes a colored Fedora, sometimes a cowboy’s hat, sometimes a fireman’s, sometimes a captain’s. Rabbi Hecht, the head of the camp, the father of the camp, enjoyed the spirit of summer camping as if he too were a camper in Emunah.
But the true highlight of Rabbi Hecht’s influence in Emunah – something that has never been forgotten by thousands of girls who spent their summers in Emunah – was the way he sang zmiros with them at the Shabbos table.
There were many special Hecht songs. When he sang “Atzabeihem Kesef V’Zohov” and screamed out “Och in vei, iz tzu zei!” every child in camp knew what it meant, because there was so much feeling and meaning in the way he sang those words. When he said, “Raglayim loheim v’lo yelechu,” every child knew how foolish avoda zara was. There were dozens more special songs J.J. sang with the Emunah campers, infusing their lives with joy and Jewish zeal.
This year we observe Rabbi J.J.’s 20th yahrzeit. Can it be that so many years have passed? Can it be that there are children in Emunah or at the rallies or parades who never saw Rabbi Hecht? Can it be that there are children in Crown Heights or Greenfield Park who never knew him?
Rabbi Hecht may not be here physically, but his deeds and his life and his spirit will continue to teach, inspire and celebrate Yiddishkeit. In a sense, every Lag B’Omer Parade and every rally and every day in Camp Emunah is a living tribute to the Rebbe and to his chassid J.J.
His legacy will give us the motivation and strength to keep marching on Lag B’Omer, and all through the year, to greet Mashiach.
Rabbi Hecht’s yahrzeit will be marked by special programs and Torah learning on Shabbos, Sunday and Monday at Camp Emunah. The official yahrzeit observance will be held at the visitor’s tent adjacent to Montefiore Cemetery, 226-20 Francis Lewis Boulevard, Cambria Heights, New York, on 15 Menachem Av, Monday, July 26, at 6:30 p.m. The program will include siyum mesechta, seudas yahrzeit and divrei Torah.
To attend the seuda, please r.s.v.p. Lena@ncfje.org.
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