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My Machberes

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.

Rabbi Hecht being greeted by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

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.

* * * * *

Rabbi Hecht served the Syrian Jewish community for more than 50 years. After graduating from Yeshiva Tomchei Torah in 1942, Rabbi Hecht established yeshivas in Buffalo, New Haven, Newark and Worcester and also served as rabbi at the Nusach Ari Shul in Dorchester.

Rabbi Hecht surrounded by rabbis.

In the summer of 1945, Rabbi Hecht’s in-laws had a unit in Fleischman’s bungalow colony. At the colony’s shul, two distinct groups conducted their minyanim – a Sephardic minyan for Syrian Jews followed by an Ashkenazic minyan. One Shabbos afternoon, Rabbi Hecht, a Lubavitcher chassid, was asked to speak to the Sephardic minyan. His impressed listeners immediately asked him to be their rabbi. The then-Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, zt”l (1880-1950), gave his wholehearted blessing.

In October 1945, Rabbi Hecht was elected rabbi of the Beth Magen David synagogue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. From that day forward Rabbi Hecht rose in leadership within the Syrian community until he was universally acknowledged as the rabbinic leader of the Syrian Jewish communities in America.

As the Syrian Jewish community grew in size and stature, Rabbi Hecht served as the visage of its leadership to the world. He was called to be at the bris and the bar mitzvah of every child born. He performed nearly all the weddings. Virtually every community member married from 1945 to 1995 felt privileged to have had Rabbi Hecht perform his or her ceremony.

Since 1972, Rabbi Hecht has served as the president of the Igud Horabbonim. He has authored too many Torah books and articles to enumerate here. He was consulted by chief rabbis and gedolim, as well as by Israeli prime ministers and political leaders from around the world. World leaders were hosted in Rabbi Hecht’s modest home.

* * * * *

An internationally respected Torah scholar and an articulate and outspoken orator, Rabbi Hecht has for more than fifty years spoken freely to all types of audiences, in synagogues and assorted public forums.

At times Rabbi Hecht spoke forcefully, such as when he spearheaded resistance to community exploitation by sinister real estate developers who sought to get rich by destroying Jewish Flatbush. At other times Rabbi Hecht spoke prosaically, whether to the United States Congress or at the United Nations.

He used wit and cunning in speaking to the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UN, George Baroudy. Somehow swaying the Red Crescent (the Arab Red Cross) as well as the Syrian foreign ministry, Rabbi Hecht managed to save Syrian Jewry by convincing the government to allow its Jewish community to immigrate to America. Egyptian Jews were similarly delivered salvation. Leveraging the respect and admiration many American statesmen and political leaders had for him, Rabbi Hecht managed to achieve the impossible.

In 1981, Rabbi Hecht was invited to Germany to inspire thirty-one Jewish chaplains serving in the U.S. military. The assemblage of chaplains was sponsored by the U.S. government and Rabbi Hecht was eagerly sought by several governmental agencies to imbue the chaplains with his humanitarian passion.

* * * * *

After John Cardinal O’Connor died in May 2000, an interesting piece of history was revealed. Rabbi Hecht had an exceptionally warm and close friendship with the late cardinal. Most interestingly, Rabbi Hecht played a key role in the extension of the cardinal’s service in the Archdiocese. Ordinarily, cardinals in the Catholic Church are bound to a mandatory retirement at the age of 75. When Cardinal O’Connor reached that age, Rabbi Hecht wrote him a note encouraging him to continue. The cardinal responded by thanking Rabbi Hecht “for your kind words of support and for your letter to the pope asking that I remain as archbishop of New York.”

In his letter to Rabbi Hecht, dated January 30, 1995, the cardinal wrote by hand, “No letter I have received as archbishop of New York has encouraged me more. I can not begin to thank you adequately.”

Nevertheless, the cardinal forwarded a letter of resignation to the pope, as required, and waited for his response. Simultaneously, Rabbi Hecht, as president of the Rabbinical Alliance, himself wrote to the pope regarding the matter. On February 9, 1995, the pope replied to Rabbi Hecht, thanking him for his “expression of esteem for John Cardinal O’Connor’s ministry as archbishop of New York.”

History will note that John Cardinal O’Connor, who fought valiantly against anti-Semitism, served as cardinal until his passing at the age of 80. Rabbi Hecht’s intervention played an important part in the respected and well-liked cardinal’s serving an additional five years beyond his mandatory retirement age.

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