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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.
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.
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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.
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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.Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
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