CHIEF RABBI, HACHAM SHAUL KASSIN 5681 – 5779 / 1921-2018

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IN HARMONY: REMEMBERING OUR CROWN JEWEL… CHIEF RABBI HACHAM SHAUL YAAKOV KASSIN, ZT”L

By: Sophia Franco



The combination of different musical notes produced simultaneously presents a glorious effect for the listener. The word we use to describe it is harmony. Chief Rabbi Shaul Kassin, zt”l, wanted one thing for this community, and I believe that was it. The different notes and tempos might rise and fall, the voices, sometimes loud, and sometimes almost silent, would sing aloft, but Hacham Shaul, like the conductor of any orchestra, continuously guided the beat and the melody, keeping everyone unified, and in tune magnificently. 

Our Chief Rabbi Hacham Shaul Yaakov Kassin, zt”l, passed away on erev Hanukah, December 1, 2018, surrounded by his beloved family, ken yirbu, at the ripe and beautiful age of 97.Because of his humility, spirituality, and pure bitahon, the pasuk“V’Rahamav al kol ma-asav,” from Tehilim, comes to mind, describing Hashem’s mercy on all creatures, people, and animals.Rabbi Shaul lived this phrase with every fiber of his being. His humility, the way he walked and talked, his pure compassion, pity, and care, reverberated with all kinds of people, at all levels of religion, and with all kinds of temperaments. He saw each of us as Gd’s children, and understood that no matter what belief one holds, we will only grow and blossom with love. He stood for sanctity, dignity, and unity. His love of Hashem, Israel, and Torah guided him. Everything he did l’shem Shamayim. It was with this mindset and attitude that he maintained the kedusha of this community, and kept us together as the strongest and greatest community on earth.

On the Cobblestones of the Old City

Hacham Shaul Kassin was born on August 24, 1921 in Yerushalayim to his parents Hacham Yaakov Kassin and Rabbanit Mazal Hedaya. Until the age of 12 he lived and studied in the Holy city of Jerusalem with the Greatest Rabbis, Gedolim, and Tzaddikim of the generation. At the famed Yeshivat Porat Yosef he was a shining star. He would often chide his grandchildren about his schooling, so much more demanding than ours today. Each week he and his young schoolmates were required to know the page of Gemara they were studying by heart. On Sunday The Great Gaon, Tzaddik, and Rosh Yeshiva Hacham Ezra Attieh, would test their acumen stringently. The Rabbi often spoke of Hacham Yaakov Ades, Hacham Shalom Hedaya (his grandfather), Hacham Ovadia Hedaya (his uncle), and many more holy Giants.

In 1932, Hacham Shaul’s father, Hacham Yaakov, left his family to visit America to raise much needed funds for the desperate children at the orphanage he grew up in. Upon his arrival in New York, the community recognized his great Torah knowledge, sterling character, and wonderful pleasant ways, and immediately requested that he stay and be their Chief Rabbi. Of course, his wife, family, and heart were back in Yerushalayim. He refused. He continued traveling to collect funds for the children, making many stops afterwards to Mexico City and other South American communities. At each stop he was received with joy and acceptance, and a plea for leadership.

Upon his return to the Holy Land, Hacham Yaakov continued to receive letters and requests to serve as Chief Rabbi. He was perplexed, and pondered the idea that this may be his calling after all. Under the advice and with the blessings of his father- in-law, Rabbi Shalom Hedaya, and all the great scholars surrounding him, he packed up his Rebbetzin and four young children, Rabbi Shaul Kassin, Charlotte Ben Haim (wife of Hacham Baruch Ben Haim, zt”l), Albert, and Isaac, and left Yerushalayim for the two-week ship voyage to New York. They were greeted with a major celebration and heartfelt welcome.

Rabbi Yaakov Kassin, zt”l, came to us in 1933, rich with ideas for a budding group of immigrants with dreams of success and potential for greatness. He expertly guided, taught, and learned with us. He was loved and revered for a century by all who met him.  When he passed away 24 years ago, his son, Hacham Shaul was charged with leading a larger, more religious-minded group. They were established and exposed, smart and savvy. This was quite a different challenge. Rabbi Yaakov dealt with the building of a new community, while Rabbi Shaul saw the fruits - but how does one deal with prosperity, in religion, business, technology, and so many other aspects?

Ohev Shalom v’ Rodef Shalom

His son Jakie explains, “My father had real care and concern for people. He saw where they were coming from and was never prejudiced. He did not react. He would concentrate and think. He had full control of his actions and speech, always. Each word was thought out and carefully considered. He had a gift of seeing inside people, to where the goodness and pureness lay, and speak to it. He would teach us, ‘How do you eat an orange or a banana? You have to peel it first. It is the same with people. Peel away the outer layers and search for the fruit.’”

Jakie continues, “He believed in putting yourself in people’s shoes to understand them and to get them to see things your way. He’d say, ‘Ask yourself, what’s stopping them? What are they worried about? What are they thinking about? You cannot know why a person does what he does unless you can see and feel what he is seeing and feeling.’ So many of us struggle with this, but he did not. He felt their joy and pain, and he was able to recognize their plight. This was one of his greatest strengths.”

Saul A. Kassin recalls a clear example of this trait. “In the summer of 2013, one Shabbat I stayed by my parents in Deal, NJ. My grandparents, Rabbi Shaul Kassin and Rabbanit Frieda, stayed by my parents every summer. On Motzaei Shabbat, I was awake, while everyone else was sleeping. I began to hear crying and weeping. I knew all the children were sleeping, so I followed the sounds, coming from the study right outside Rabbi Shaul Kassin’s bedroom.

“From a few feet away, I saw my grandfather sitting on the floor crying and weeping, bitterly mourning the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. I stood there in awe and fear for over 30 minutes as he cried Tikkun Hasot for the loss of the Holy Shechina and our Holy Beit HaMikdash. It’s very well-known in the family that for most of his life, my grandfather comes out of bed around midnight, sits on the floor and recites Tikkun Hasot. He then goes back to sleep for a few hours, only to awake again to serve his Creator by starting his day with praying early in the morning, followed by learning Torah.”

Sari, Jakie’s wife, continues, “My strongest feeling about him was that he was never fully in this world. Everything he did he elevated to a spiritual level and purpose. Even simple things; he had very little intake of food, very few words, and he didn’t like to waste time. He never talked in synagogue during prayers and couldn’t understand how anybody dared! In the house he would not waste even a slice of cucumber. He wasn’t lazy, and brought Hashem in every way he could. With him, the mundane became spiritual.”

Barbara, Abe’s wife, continues, “He had four daughters-in-law and he treated us all as equals. We loved every minute of our time with him. So many people would come to him with problems. One time a woman came to his door. He decided she needed a doctor and proceeded to take her there in his car. He bought her medicine, food, and the things she needed. He was missing for hours. I would hide when people came, I didn’t want to see and hear all the things he dealt with. I asked him once, ‘How do you sleep at night with the weight of the world on your shoulders?’ He answered me, ‘What makes you think I do?’”

Eved Hashem

The rabbi was often compared to Moshe Rabbeinu, eved Hashem. Rabbi Saul J. Kassin, his grandson, explains, “The stories the Torah tells describing Moshe before he was great show his human side, the way he helped people, defended the defenseless, and felt pain for all of Gd’s creatures. Like many of our leaders, Moshe was a shepherd, and the last story told is of Moshe caring for and retrieving a sheep that had left the fold, carrying it on his back. It is on the heels of this venture that he comes upon the burning bush and his calling from Hashem. My grandfather, also, carried the burden of pain of others. When we would tell him about someone with a sickness, he would become visibly disturbed; he would sigh deeply, almost like he was in pain himself. He couldn’t bear it. He worried about our community like a father for a son. It was very hard for him to let things go. This quality of feeling for the people was very much his essence.”

Rabbi Joseph Dana spent many hours and Shabbatot learning and conversing with Hacham Shaul over the last few years. As someone who looked up to the Rabbi since his childhood, he recalls, “He was the Chief Rabbi of all the Sephardic Jews in the United States and yet, still, he made time for every phone call, and every issue. A single mother called him once asking for help. He gave her a check every month personally, called her, and visited her. He would stress patience with people. ‘Give them a chance to develop,’ he’d say. ‘Embrace them, bring them closer.’”

Upholding Tradition: Mikveh

Nothing was more important to the Rabbi than family, and Taharat Hamishpaha, family sanctity, was a big part of that. In the early seventies there was no Sephardic mikveh in Brooklyn. Women used the Ashkenazic mikveh on Ave J, or the one in Deal. We were desperately in need of a clean, state-of-the-art building, but the push to build one in the neighborhood did not come without opposition. Many worried that a mikveh would bring too strong or too much religion into the community, but Hacham Shaul was adamant.

With the help of Ike Hidary, Sonny Laniado, Manny Haber, and others, in 1975 the first Sephardic mikveh on Ave. S was built. While they were building it, he was so excited, he would go there to watch the workers and even carry the buckets himself to speed the process. He and his wife also fostered the idea of educating brides and grooms on family purity before they got married. Eddie Shamah encouraged the building of another mikveh at Kings Highway to accommodate the many people and views. Tolerance, Hacham Shaul believed, was key.

The Edict

Shortly after Rabbi Yaakov Kassin settled in America, it was still wartime, and he had a vision. He saw community men making mistakes, bringing brides from overseas, and trying to convert them. In an unprecedented move, he decided to create an edict to prevent this from happening. The edict has held strong for more than 80 years, and this tremendous foresight helped make our community one of the purest in the world. Because we have the lowest incident of intermarriage and divorce throughout the world, many believe this document is the shield and protection for our people for all time. The document was reenacted again in 2006, signed by massive amounts of Rabbis, synagogues, and schools. Hacham Shaul believed that if it was necessary then, it is even more necessary today.

Both Hacham Yaakov and Hacham Shaul helped grow the many organizations in this community from seedlings, including our schools, synagogues, centers, and charitable organizations. Hacham Shaul also founded Magen Israel Society, a tax-exempt organization helping yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael that were not tax-exempt, enabling them to collect money. He and his wife worked tirelessly on a daily basis for this cause, and tens of millions of dollars passed through their hands. Hacham Shaul lived a simple, modest life, not partaking in the materialism of this world. He was so proud of the community’s growth, and encouraged every leader to take on wings and fly.

The King’s Way

Maimonides was known to always take the middle road; in Hebrew it is called “kav emtzaei.” Throughout the many years, complicated issues small and large came up, and Rabbi Shaul Kassin always related to them with wisdom, sincerity, and warmth. He would turn to the Torah for answers, first and foremost, but he would also turn to the people around him. His son Jakie explains, “Some people think, if it’s not my idea, it’s not a good idea. My father never held such notions. He respected and trusted people and often included others in his decision-making process, be it businessmen, Rabbis, or experts of certain fields.”

Barbara reflects, “He was strict in his morals and in his guidance to the community, but he had a soft way in his delivery at the same time. His outlook for the community was guidance, but he was not afraid of the consequences of saying no. Most would heed his advice. Every leader has to make judgments. You are going to make some people happy, some people not. Often his tranquility was the gift that brought everyone together.”

Zerizut

Rabbi Joseph Dana explains, “Hacham Shaul walked quickly and with purpose. When I was a teenager, I once walked with Hacham Shaul to the ocean to recite Tashlich on Rosh Hashana. I couldn’t keep up with him! This was true ‘zerizut,’ lunging at the opportunity to do mitzvot. He had zeal in his eyes, even at the end. I saw it in other parts of his life, too. He gave visitors his ear, and his time. He never saw people according to their status. He had a constant smile on his face, and greeted everyone with a certain grace. When he’d pass the children playing, he’d give them a salute. Every holiday he’d go into each store to wish them a happy holiday. People complicate life. He tried to simplify it. It is about family, mitzvot, and Torah.”

Hacham Shaul had one purpose in life, to lead his people, but first and foremost he was a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great grandfather.

Back in Time…

Hacham Shaul’s son, Isaac Kassin, recalls, “My father was the best father in the history of mankind. He gave us our middot, our knowledge, and our success. We owe him everything. I remember in the early days I was about nine years old and he would wake us up for Selihot at 4:30 in the morning. He would pick up Rabbi Halfon Safdieh and teach us what shul was. He was very particular to teach us to answer ‘amen’ and even gave us three coins to give tzedaka. He wanted to show us every custom and how to do it. He would take us on outings and show us the greatness of all Hashem’s creations from the trees to the animals in the zoo. He would show us which animals were kosher, so that everything we did was a lesson.

Shabbat and holidays were so special, and he would prepare for each with diligence. He would cry tears on Sukkot and Pesach, describing the happiness we should all feel. He would put the sukkah up himself, even way into his 80s. He always wanted to make the mitzvah. We were very happy as children, although financially we had nothing. I remember he would take us to the bakery on Saturday nights to buy the frozen cakes, as on Friday we did not have the means to buy them, and we would have an exciting cake party Saturday night. He made us feel special, and that we were lacking nothing. He would make it a point to teach us every day. I remember at 10 years of age on Friday before Shabbat he would teach us Navi Yeshayahu. I could not wait for the hour to pass, as I’d hear all the other kids playing outside. What I would give to have that hour back.”

Gladys Haddad, Jakie Kassin’s daughter, recalls beautiful images of her grandfather. “He adored his wife and showered her with love and respect.  He held her hand, and would not eat without her. They did everything together. He loved hearing that one of us was expecting, and would be the first to run to the house or hospital to bless our babies. We grew up with all the generations in our house, and Papa was involved in every detail of raising us to love and learn Torah.  He prepared each grandchild for his bar mitzvah, assembled the sukkah and picked the lulav for each family. He bought us presents for Hanukah, took us to the matzah factory to pick the very best pieces of matzah for Pesach, and gave us his special flavor for each holiday. Family was his life.”

Jakie recalls, “My father had so much respect for women, and would do anything for my mother. They were together always, caring for each other tenderly. He would come home from shul, she would kiss his hand and he’d bless her. He was always concerned for her. He would explain that had it not been for the women we would not have a community. He would tell us about the women of the Torah in Egypt taking such good care of themselves. They would make themselves beautiful for their husbands, even after extremely hard workdays. It is said they had six babies at a time. They came to Egypt with 70 people and 210 years later, left with 3 million. He would say…the women did that.”

The Next Generation

While his own marriage was a successful and powerful shidduch, when it came to marrying off his children, with respect, he allowed them to choose. As in all things, he was tolerant, patient, and trusting. All four daughters-in-law loved him like their own father.

Sari remembers, “When I got married, of course it was intimidating, but we all fell in love with him right away. He was extremely intelligent, smart and witty, excellent in English and mathematics, and he even wrote beautifully. The best years of our lives were when we were living with him, watching him.

On Fridays he would wash and cut all the vegetables himself. Sometimes I would ask him halachic questions, saying, ‘Are we allowed to do this?’ He would always answer lightly. ‘Better not to, if you can think of another way.’ He was sometimes lenient for the community but was very strict for himself and his family.”

She continues, “He was immaculate, and many would say that at all times he looked like he just stepped out of the mikveh. The second Shabbat was over he’d go get his tzizit and white shirt and wash it himself in the sink, hanging it to dry. The love we had for him was unusual. We loved serving him and catering to him when he let us, making him a dish or a chiffon cake that he liked. We always wanted to please him. He loved feeding the kids. In Deal he would wake them up and prepare breakfast and teach them Torah. Most of the time he gave us direction without having to speak. From watching, we learned.”

The rabbi’s daughter-in-law, Barbara, Abe’s wife, also recalls so many happy years living together with her father-in-law. “We had such a good relationship. He very loving and wise. He was my go-to for advice and he was the teacher for my children. He would remind me to be close to my children but never to show favoritism. He taught me how to put shalom bayit above all, and he could, because he had it! Even though he was so involved with the community he was also involved with our kids, their schooling, and their progress. He carried the babies, shoveled snow, and cleared the dishes… He would say it was his honor and his privilege to do it. He was anav, humble, and so loveable. He had a contagious laugh we adored. I loved him truly.”

“Whatever was happening in our lives, we knew we could go to Papa,” explains Rabbi Saul. “It was a comfort zone for us. You could talk to him, or get a blessing. His hands brought about miracles, so many times. He worried about us daily, and spent countless hours dealing with crises and pressures in the community at the same time. He also had a hearty laugh, and we loved to watch him in those moments. He wore a lot of his emotions on his sleeve. We are fortunate because our grandfather was genuine.”

Sari Kassin, Jakie’s wife, continues, “He was in awe of nature, and could stare out into the ocean for hours. He loved animals, and would get a thrill out of feeding the ducks and birds. He appreciated the beauty of trees and flowers, and would make a blessing on the fragrance of a rose or a gardenia.”

All of the grandchildren recall, “The way he lived, the way he carried himself, humble, and modest, was like a malaach. He always carried a sefer with him, even at the zoo, or wherever we were. He thought that children are like angels, and he’d say Hashem loves to hear them sing and play. He went to all of our weddings. He was the sandak at our brits. He taught us all for bar mitzvah and prepared us for our weddings. He cried from happiness at the holidays and made us feel the joy, too.”

Our Light, Our Shield

Hacham Shaul knew that the Torah is an ocean of information. Once you begin asking questions you cannot help but realize there’s always more to learn; it’s infinite. “The more you learn, the less you know,”is how he explained it. “It is like going up in an airplane. The higher you go, the more and more you can see beneath you.” He had a great attachment to the laws and wanted something the people could grasp on to, so he wrote them in English in a book called “The Light of the Law.” Like the Hanukah candles, no matter how far away we are or how dark it is, the light will always guide us.

Hacham Shaul Kassin, zt”l, always walked with his head down, facing the floor. He never looked for kavod, accolades, or credit. He never grandstanded about his accomplishments and never boasted; he just wanted the community to be happy, unified, and close to Hashem. For his family, he was their whole world, their protection, and their shield.

His grandson, Rabbi Saul explains, “He served Hashem wholeheartedly and with every fiber of his being. When we were with him, we felt like we were in the presence of KadoshBaruch Hu. He dedicated every ounce of his being to Hashem and mitzvot, and did it faster than anyone else. We are the greatest community anywhere. This is because of the patience, guidance, and teaching of my grandfather and great grandfather.”

Hacham Shaul, with his pure white skin and long snowy beard, was identical in form and beautiful spirit to his father. Both were the guiding lights of this community, instilling their people with tremendous character and middot, and they did so by example. They showed us how to live, learn, act, and behave.

Hacham Shaul cared little for what was in this world. He only worried about Olam Haba and the glories that awaited him as he neared the Kiseh of Kadosh Baruch Hu. Each family member confirms that he waited patiently, every day for the mashiah to come. He had a new suit ready to go in his closet, and he really believed it would be in his lifetime.

The last Shabbat the family stood around his bed singing Eshet hayil, and welcoming Shabbat. The parasha was read to him, and the Kiddush. He was calm; he looked like an angel. Right after Shabbat all his grandchildren came, Nanny held his hand, and his neshama left him. After 73 years together, he left this world with her by his side.

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My condolences to Hacham Shaul’s family, Tenahamu min hashamayim…Thank you especially to Jacob and Sari Kassin, Barbara and Abe Kassin, Isaac Kassin, Rabbi Saul J. Kassin, Saul Abe Kassin, Rabbi Joseph Dana, Gladys Haddad, and Frieda Haber and all who helped with the writing of this article. Let us all do our best to follow in his Holy ways and“catch” some of the kedusha that he spread through our lives on a daily basis. As a community and as people, we are blessed to have known him.