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Rabbi Abraham B. Hecht, ZT”L
At 9:12 p.m. on Motzaei Shabbos Shemos – 24 Teves, December 5, 2013 – the incredibly intense Torah life of Rabbi Abraham B. Hecht came to a close. His passing occurred at almost the same time, to the hour, as the passing 200 years ago in Ukraine of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, zt”l, founder of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and author of Tanya.
An Amazing Personality
Every so often a person comes along who amazes everyone he meets. Talking with Rabbi Hecht gave one clarity and insight. Rabbi Hecht intrigued people by drawing them into high places, giving them an inkling about what was happening in meetings of great Torah scholars, national and international boardrooms, and high-level government conference rooms.
Rabbi Hecht was an unusually engaging personality. He served as the leading rabbi of the American Syrian community for more than 50 years. After being invited to speak to a group of Syrian Jews vacationing at a Catskills summer resort in 1945, Rabbi Hecht was asked to lead their Brooklyn community. Appointed rabbi of the Syrian congregation Bnei Magen David of Brooklyn in October 1945, Rabbi Hecht rose in leadership within the Syrian community until he was widely acknowledged as the rabbinic leader of the Syrian Jewish communities in America.
As president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud Horabbonim, Rabbi Hecht was a true beacon of Torah. He was elected in 1972 and served until the end of his life. His pronouncements were taken into consideration by U.S. presidents, Israeli prime ministers and other world leaders.
Family In America Since 1885
Rabbi Hecht’s paternal grandfather, R’ Zvi (Hirsh) Meilich Hecht, zt”l (1850-1938), was granted permission (rare in those days) to move to America from Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam, zt”l (1811-1899), revered Shiniva Rebbe and author of Divrei Yechezkel. R’ Hirsh Meilich arrived in the U.S. with his family in 1885. Shortly thereafter he brought his elderly father to the United States.
R’ Hersh Meilich’s son R’ Shia Hecht, zt”l (1896-1952), had six notable sons. Born in 1922, Abraham was the third. He was enrolled in the elementary school of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, which was co-founded by R’ Hirsh Meilich in the then-Jewish Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn. R’ Hirsh Meilich was also the founder of the Rayin Ahuvim Shul. Abraham later was a student at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, where he was influenced by a young Rabbi Avrohom Pam, zt”l (1913-2001), a future Torah Vodaath rosh yeshiva.
The Orbit of Lubavitch
The Hecht family’s Lubavitch connection had its roots in the visit of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe to the U.S. in 1929. R’ Hirsh Meilich had built and maintained his own not-for-profit mikveh. When the Rebbe came to New York, he used Hersh Meilich’s mikveh. Hirsh Meilich refused any money from the Rebbe in payment, declaring that he gave money to chassidishe rebbes but did not accept it from them. In response the Rebbe blessed Hirsh Meilich and imparted that the Hecht progeny would become devout Lubavitcher chassidim.
In August 1939, Rabbi Hecht traveled to Poland to begin his studies at the Lubavitcher yeshiva in Otwock. There he befriended a young Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zt”l (1902-1994), son-in-law of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, zt”l (1880-1950), sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Menachem Mendel later became the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. But World War II erupted a few weeks later and the young Rabbi Hecht, who had studied under the personal direction of the then-Lubavitcher Rebbe, miraculously made his way back to America.
After studying at Torah Vodaath and Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim, Rabbi Hecht ventured out in 1942 and established religious institutions in Worcester, Massachusetts, New Haven, Connecticut, and Newark, New Jersey. In New Haven, Yeshiva Achei Temimim elementary school for boys and girls continues to flourish.
A Life of Accomplishment
Rabbi Hecht married Lieba Greenhut, a”h (1922-2004) in June 1944. She was the daughter of Rabbi Baruch Greenhut, zt”l, Tzelemer shochet. The following summer, Rabbi Hecht was drafted into the rabbinate in service of the Syrian community.
Among his numerous accomplishments, Rabbi Hecht led the crusade to preserve Flatbush as an observant Jewish community. Sometimes risking his life, he faced down powerful real-estate brokers and malevolent city developers who sought to exploit and divide Flatbush. Never blinking, Rabbi Hecht fought on until these so-called blockbusters retreated in defeat.
Rabbi Hecht battled for increased Shabbos observance both within his congregation and in Flatbush and Brooklyn at large. The struggle to improve kashrus standards within his community required gut-wrenching stamina as well as true bravery. Many consider Rabbi Hecht to have been the general in the war waged for Yiddishkeit in the earlier years of increasing Shabbos and kashrus observance.
As Igud president and emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Hecht confronted the infamous Saudi Arabian UN Ambassador George Baroudy and his minions. Rabbi Hecht’s uncanny affectation of a Syrian accent had them all believing he’d been born in Syria. Somehow swaying the Red Crescent (the Arab Red Cross) as well as the Syrian foreign ministry, Rabbi Hecht managed to save the Jews of Syria as the government unexpectedly allowed them to emigrate to America.
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
And Rabbi Hecht was at the forefront of the who-is-a-Jew controversy that continues to this day. As a representative of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and as Igud president, Rabbi Hecht had to fight even religiously observant politicians in the Israeli government who resisted, and continue to resist, changes in who-is-a-Jew legislation.
Controversy – and Vindication
In 1995, Rabbi Hecht, speaking to a group of rabbis, had discussed the Oslo Agreement that obligated Israel to concede 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” against Rabin. Colossally misunderstood, Rabbi Hecht had a personal apology hand-delivered to Rabin.
Rabin was assassinated shortly thereafter. The secular media here and in Israel pounced on Rabbi Hecht. Under pressure, Brooklyn’s 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.
In March 2012, however, the congregation celebrated Rabbi Hecht’s 90th birthday in a gala event arranged by Jack Avital, a leading Syrian community activist. They were joined by Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel, and Rabbi Shaul Kassin, chief rabbi of the Syrian community. The congregation’s leaders utilized the occasion to sorrowfully declare their remorse and begged Rabbi Hecht for forgiveness.
* * * * *
In addition to his decades of communal activism, Rabbi Hecht was a towering Torah scholar. He authored three books – Spiritual Horizons; Spiritual Freedom; and My Spiritual Journey – in addition to hundreds of Torah articles published in scholarly books and journals. His halachic correspondence has been published in the books of leading Torah scholars of the past 70 years.
Rabbi Hecht’s saddest day was when his dear wife died in a fire that engulfed their home in January 2004. A granddaughter and a baby great-granddaughter were saved. Rabbi Hecht fought neighbors who held him back from running into the burning home in an effort to save his wife.
Rabbi Hecht’s funeral began on Sunday at Shomrei Hadaas Chapels on 14th Avenue in Boro Park. In accordance with Lubavitch custom, no hespeidim (eulogies) were made. Five chapters of Tehillim were recited aloud by this writer as Igud menahel; by Rabbi Mattis Kantor, son-in-law of Rabbi Hecht and noted author and lecturer; by Rabbi Nochum Kaplan, son-in-law of Rabbi Hecht and director of Merkos Linyonei Chinuch; by Rabbi Avrohom Weinberg, son-in-law of Rabbi Hecht of Oak Park, Michigan; and by Rabbi Herschel Kurzrock, Igud rosh beis din.
The procession stopped at Congregation Shaare Zion, Rabbi Hecht’s home for more than 50 years. On the plaza of the shul, at the very place where Rabbi Yaakov Kassin, zt”l (1900-1994), chief rabbi of Syrian Jewry, was eulogized, Rabbi Shaul Kassin, the present chief rabbi of the Syrian community, delivered a heartfelt hesped.
Rabbi Yehoshua S. Hecht, son of Rabbi Hecht as well as rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue of Westport-Norwalk and president of the Rabbinical Council of New England, spoke of the reverence the Syrian community in particular and the Jewish world in general had for his father The son, flanked by his brothers, mournfully vocalized his loss and the loss of Klal Yisrael.
The procession then passed the location of Rabbi Hecht’s home on its way to Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, where a large crowd of Lubavitcher chassidim tearfully bid Rabbi Hecht farewell.
At Montefiore Cemetery in Cambria Heights, Queens, Rabbi Hecht was interred in the Hecht family plot, not far from the gravesite of the sixth and seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes. At graveside, Rabbi Naftoli Fasten, son-in-law of Rabbi Hecht, led the recital of Tehillim.
Rabbi Hecht is survived by his children: Rebbetzin Nechama Kantor of Crown Heights; Rebbetzin Esther Kaplan of Crown Heights; Rabbi Eli Hecht, rabbi of Chabad in Lomita, CA; Rabbi Yossi Hecht, rabbi of Chabad in Nice, France; Rebbetzin Rochel Weinberg of Detroit; Rebbetzin Shani Fasten of the Five Towns, NY; Rabbi Shea Hecht of Norwalk, CT; Rabbi Ari Hecht, rabbi of Chabad in San Francisco; and Rabbi Yisroel Hecht, rabbi of Chabad in Los Angeles. Rabbi Hecht is also survived by his youngest brother, Rabbi Sholom Hecht.
Shiva is at 866 Eastern Parkway, apartment 3-E, at the corner of Albany Avenue. Shacharis is at 7:15, 8:30, and 9 a.m., Minchah at the appropriate time.
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