Seventeen Years Later, Syrian Community Asks Forgiveness From Rabbi Abraham Hecht
A truly emotional and inspirational event took place on Tuesday morning, March 27, at Brooklyn’s Sephardic Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center.
Officials of the Sephardic National Alliance gathered with other respected members of the community, a number of prominent rabbis, and several Hecht family members to celebrate the 90th birthday of Rabbi Abraham B. Hecht, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America (Igud Horabbonim) and a leading rabbi in the Syrian Jewish community for more than fifty years.
Several of the communal leaders in attendance also publicly asked Rabbi Hecht’s forgiveness for the way he was treated in the aftermath of the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Amar, made a special trip to New York. He told those gathered that he, together with everyone there and all of Sephardic Jewry, was privileged to celebrate Rabbi Hecht’s birthday as well as his accomplishments on behalf of the Sephardic community and Torah Jews everywhere.
Rabbi Hecht entered the Sephardic Home’s ballroom to the sounds of enthusiastic singing, led by Chazzan Meir Levy of the Achi Ezer Congregation. The singing inspired nearly everyone there to dance around Rabbi Hecht, who raised his arms high above his head in acknowledgement.
Rabbi Hecht embraced everyone individually and had something special to say to each person. Finally seated on the dais, Rabbi Hecht was flanked by, among other dignitaries, Rabbi Saul Kassin, chief rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community; Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Hercshel Kurzrock, Igud rosh bet din; and Rabbi Hecht’s son Rabbi Yehoshua S. Hecht, rav of the Beth Israel Synagogue of Westport-Norwalk.
Also on the dais were several of the Sephardic community’s most important leaders, including the event’s sponsor, Jack Avital, an internationally renowned community activist and a close family friend of Rabbi Hecht; Morris Bailey, celebrated philanthropist and prominent leader of the Syrian Jewish community; Morris “Mersh” Franco, president of the Shaare Zion Congregation; Joe Cayre, prominent member of the Syrian Jewish community; Stanley Chera, Sephardic community leader; and David Cohen, former president of Shaare Zion Congregation.
Rabbinic leaders on hand included Rabbi Avraham Amar, rav of the Sephardic Home; Rabbi Noach Bernstein, Igud vice president; Rabbi Shlomo Braun of the Aleh Foundation; Rabbi Hanania Elbaz, rav of the Achiezer Congregation; Rabbi Eli Elbaz, rav of the Sephardic Lebanese Congregation; Rabbi Mattis Kantor, noted author and lecturer; Rabbi Yaakov Klass, Torah editor of The Jewish Press and rav of Khal Bnei Matisyahu; Rabbi Yehoshua Y. Lustig, Igud dayan; Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik; Rabbi Levi Stone of the Schneersohn Center, and this writer in his capacity as Igud director.
One of the emotional highlights of the event came when several community leaders asked Rabbi Hecht’s forgiveness for the community’s not having supported him as he endured a deluge of undeserved criticism that eventually forced him from his pulpit.
As the notables spoke, tears flowed freely. Describing the great things Rabbi Hecht had achieved for the Sephardic and Syrian communities, they spoke of their deep love for him as well as their regret that they had not stood together with him seventeen years ago.
In 1995, Rabbi Hecht, speaking to a group of rabbis, had discussed the Oslo Agreement that obligated Israel to conceded territory to an enemy entity that had effectively committed itself to nothing. Rabbi Hecht, along with many other Jews in Israel and around the world, understood the agreement to be worse than folly. The concession of land, in effect Israel’s buffer zones, would translate into Jews being killed. Rabbi Hecht, quoting the Rambam’s Code of Jewish Law, criticized then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin for entering into such an irresponsible treaty. Rabbi Hecht stated that Rabin might be the cause of Jews being murdered and that one who causes Jewish blood to be shed is defined as a “rodeph” – someone who in the times of the Jewish Kingdoms was subject to execution.
The secular media ignored the Rambam quote – theoretical in modern times – and reported that Rabbi Hecht issued a “fatwa,” not even a fiction in the Jewish religion, against Rabin. Seriously, when was the last time one heard of a rabbi sentencing anyone to death? Colossally misunderstood, Rabbi Hecht had a personal apology hand delivered to Rabin.
Rabin was assassinated shortly thereafter. Remembering the so-called fatwa, the secular media here and in Israel pounced on Rabbi Hecht. Under pressure, the Shaare Zion Congregation compelled Rabbi Hecht to resign his pulpit. The Israeli government barred Rabbi Hecht from entering Israel.
Eventually realizing the absurdity of blaming Rabbi Hecht, the Israeli government rescinded the ban. Sadly, however, the congregation did not return Rabbi Hecht to his rightful position of honor.