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.
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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.