Perhaps best remembered in the Syrian-Sephardic community for his eloquent speeches at Congregation Shaare Zion,
the lifetime accomplishments of Rabbi Abraham Dov Ber Hecht, z.s.l., extended far beyond the large Brooklyn-based kiness (synagogue) at which he served for nearly fi ve decades. Rabbi Hecht held numerous important positions throughout his illustrious career of community service, including Vice President of the Sephardic Rabbinical Council, President of the Rabbinical Council for Syrian Jewry in North America, and President of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He delivered benedictions at the opening sessions of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and was even invited to be the permanent rabbi of Congress. A gifted orator and critical thinker, he authored many scholarly articles, and published several volumes of his sermons.
Growing Up in a Hub of Hesed
The second of six boys, Rabbi Hecht was born in 1922 to Yehoshua (Sam) and Sorah Hecht in Brooklyn, N.Y. He studied at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin elementary and in Metivta Torah Vodaath, where he was one of the fi rst students of Rav Avraham Pam z.s.l.. The young student was imbued by his parents with a genuine love of Judaism and Jewish scholarship. “The American soil resisted their efforts at every turn [to maintain Jewish tradition],” Hecht said of his parents’ struggles, “but their roots were only strengthened by the adverse conditions.”
Their home served as a focal point for assisting others, and was a center for many charitable endeavors. Rabbis from Europe and the Holy Land would often make the Hecht home their base during visits to New York. His father, a successful Lower East Side businessman, would personally prepare the room where the guests would sleep, Hecht said, even though he and his siblings were ready to do it themselves. “He never considered it a burden; [he] felt honored to service his righteous guests.” Hecht once recalled that on Shabbat “my father used to insist on giving up his own seat at the head of the table in deference to a rabbinical guest.”
One of his most profound memories from childhood was being awakened one night by the sound of his maternal grandfather, Shialeh Auster, crying in deep prayer. “I was awakened by the sounds of heart-wrenching sobs. His broken cries tore at my heart.”
His paternal grandfather, Tzvi Elimelech Hecht, who immigrated to New York from Galicia (Ukraine) in 1885, was heavily involved in the construction of a mikveh and synagogue in Brooklyn. Tragically, he was murdered during a robbery by an intruder who was after the sedaka (charity) money he had been collecting to help European Jews escape the Nazis.
While studying at the Torah Vodaath school, Rabbi Hecht and his siblings became greatly infl uenced by Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, one of the original pioneers of Chabad-Lubavitch in the United States. The brothers joined gatherings at the Jacobson home, where they would hear profound discourses on life, sing Hassidic melodies and listen to inspiring stories. But perhaps most of all, Rabbi Hecht recalled, “With an unusual amount of patience and understanding, Rabbi Jacobson resolved their problems and cleared up their confusion.”
Off to Poland
In the summer of 1939, Hecht and fi ve other students decided to head off to the yeshiva in Otwock, Poland. There they could be close to their spiritual leader, the sixth Chabad rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn z.s.l., and would be able to hear his scholarly discourses in Jewish philosophy, about which they had heard so much from Rabbi Jacobson.
With the blessing of his parents, young Rabbi Hecht set off for Poland in early August on the Ile de France. At the harbor, many disciples broke into spontaneous dance. They never believed that “spoiled” American students would fi nd the willpower to go to impoverished Poland to study Judaism and acclimate themselves to the rigorous curriculum of yeshivah students there.
Along the way they stopped in Paris, France, where they met Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s son-in-law and future leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Upon his arrival in Otwock, he recalled a sight that astonished the Americans – 400 students swaying diligently over their Gemaras and engaged in intense discussions of scholarly Talmudic subjects. “The air was soaked with an intense concentration coupled with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and true love of Torah [study],” he wrote.
But their time in Poland was short-lived, as the country came under German attack soon after their arrival, marking the outbreak of World War II. With the help of a courageous representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, they made their way to Riga, Latvia, from there to Sweden and then back to the United States.
Building a Torah Infrastructure
On March 19, 1940, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson reached the shores of New York. Even as he tirelessly campaigned on behalf of European Jewry, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak also set forth a plan to build Jewish observance in the United States. Young Rabbi Hecht was an active participant in these efforts, joining nine other students in the first Chabad school in the basement of the Oneg Shabbos synagogue in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn.
After graduating in 1942, he embarked on an enterprise that was at that time considered revolutionary – establishing Jewish day
schools. He built schools in Worcester, Massachusetts, New Haven and Buffalo, and served for six months as the director of the Jewish School in Newark.
In April 1943 he married Liba Greenhut a.h., who had arrived in the US from Hungary in 1939, together with her parents, Baruch and Miriam. The couple then moved to Dorchester, Massachusetts, to establish a Jewish day school in the city. But after several doors were slammed in his face, Rabbi Hecht realized how diffi cult it would be to open a Jewish day school in that city.
He wrote a painful letter to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak saying how embarrassed he was by the ordeal. “This is no job for a rabbi unaccepted in an out-of town city,” he wrote, expressing his feelings of depression and humiliation. Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak wrote back to him that the feeling of shame and sorrow came from a place of haughtiness and misplaced pride.
Rabbi Hecht says the letter gave him a new perspective on being a Jewish leader. “My entire disposition [underwent] a quick transformation. Why did I imagine that the praiseworthy endeavor of establishing a [Jewish school] would proceed smoothly and [on an] express track? Every goal worth attaining was preceded by a path strewn with obstacles and hardships.”
Reinvigorated by his new perspective on his sacred mission, Rabbi Hecht went to work opening the school. After 12 months of hard work, the school had enrolled 120 students in fi ve grades.
A Rabbi in Foreign Territory
A newly arrived immigrant without her family, Mrs. Hecht felt isolated in the small Jewish community, and so during the school’s summer vacation the couple headed off to the Fleischmanns bungalow colony in the Catskills, the famed Jewish vacation area in New York State.
Many Jews of Sephardic descent also spent their vacation time at the bungalow colony, where they lived separate from, but harmoniously with, their Ashkenazic brethren. They used the synagogue at different times, and for the most part kept apart from each other. “One bright, sunny afternoon,” recalled Rabbi Hecht, “several members of the Sephardic community approached me with an odd request.”
They asked him if he spoke English, and if so, whether he could deliver the Shabbat afternoon lecture. He agreed, and spoke at length to the 50 men and women who were gathered. Feeling that his words were resonating with the crowd, he went on for a while with his spirited speech. The group congratulated him on his speech, and soon offered him a position in the Syrian Jewish community.
In October he accepted the position of youth rabbi at the Young Magen David kinees – established by Mr. Charlie Serouya a.h.– in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn, and taught in the school. He immediately set out to work on improving the day school and engaging the youth in the Jewish community. Soon, there were more than 400 youth group members praying in a designated room at the kinees.
Rabbi Hecht gradually became acquainted with the Sephardic customs and community, and even developed a fl uency in Arabic,
which made it possible to forge relationships with the older Sephardic community members and with new immigrants.
He later became a rabbi at Congregation Shaare Zion, under Chief Rabbi Hacham Yaakob Kassin z.s.l. The kinees soon grew to serve thousands of families, and Rabbi Hecht’s eloquent Shabbat sermons became a main attraction in the community. For nearly half a century, Rabbi Hecht was a fixture at community weddings, berit milahs and bar mitzvahs, where his articulate words and genial smile brought joy and meaning to community celebrations. In diffi cult times, too, the community came to rely on his settled presence and soothing words to comfort and console mourners.
“Although there wasn’t a trace of Sephardic ancestry in the roots of my extended family tree,” he would later write, “I feel an inexplicable affi nity with the community I had learned to lead and understand.”
The Jews of Syria
Rabbi Hecht said that upon returning to the United States after his brief stay in Europe, he “blissfully breathed the air of freedom and safety, promising myself that I would never again take the blessing for granted.” And thus when he learned of the severe persecutions that Jews in Syria were enduring after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, Hecht felt he had no choice but to spring into action, to help others gain the taste of freedom that he had come to appreciate.
He made an appointment to meet George Baroudy, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United Nations, who in turn gathered delegates of Arabic countries to meet with Hecht. In fl uent Arabic, Hecht requested that those who attended should urge their governments to place the Jewish population in Syria under the protection of the Red Crescent, and that those Jews who wanted to emigrate should be allowed to do so immediately.
While not all the community’s requests were granted, Syrian Jews reported that shortly after their meeting the Syrian president issued a strict warning against attacking any Jew or Jewish home.
Over the years he continued to use all the political weight he could to pressure Middle Eastern countries to protect the Jews in their lands. He also arranged for Jewish ritual items to be shipped to Middle Eastern nations, including much needed prayer books and other Jewish books in Arabic.
By 1998, years of effort by Rabbi Hecht and many others paid off, and the Jewish population of Syria was permitted to leave the country. “It had taken many decades of work,” he wrote, “but we had finally been privileged to welcome our suffering Syrian brethren to an existence virtually untainted by anti-Semitism and crime.”
Rabbi of the House
“Rabbi Hecht has worked tirelessly and with boundless energy on many worthy projects,” former U.S. Congressman Stephen J. Solarz told the House of Representatives in 1975, “most notably to secure emigration rights for Syrian Jews. Rabbi Hecht has exhibited noble leadership in his organizing endeavors tempered with a humanistic dedication… his inspiration of courage and humanity.” Describing Rabbi Hecht’s educational projects, the Congressman said, “In setting up educational centers, classes, lecture series, and numerous scholarly endeavors, he has demonstrated his ability to organize and implement educational programs of the highest caliber.”
A Talmudic scholar and distinguished rabbinic fi gure, Rabbi Hecht accepted many positions with substantial rabbinic duties and little compensation. “They required boundless amounts of energy and attention for many long years,” he wrote about his many rabbinic duties. “Strung together on the chains of time, these diffi culties and achievements formed an awesome string of valuable gems.”
“He was involved in many Jewish activities and rabbinical duties in all areas of Judaism,” says Rabbi Herschel Kurzrock, dean of the rabbinical court of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. “Yet he cohesively worked all of them.” He adds that Rabbi Hecht’s greatest virtue was that he not only accomplished so much himself, but also “was able to infl uence people to accomplish on behalf of Judaism.”
Rabbi Hecht also authored many scholarly articles, and published several volumes of his sermons. At the behest of the Rebbe, he encouraged his rabbinical colleagues to publish their scholarly writings. The Rabbinical Alliance published many scholarly volumes under his leadership.
On several occasions, Rabbi Hecht delivered brief benedictions at the opening sessions of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Solarz once wrote to him that “it was really good to have you with us here in Washington a short while ago. I’ve gotten so many favorable comments from my colleagues on your prayer that I think we could elect you, if you’re interested, as the permanent Rabbi of the House when we convene next year.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe requested that Hecht speak about the importance of the nations of the world adhering to the Seven Noahide Laws, and even speak about the topic in the United Nations, if possible. “Ruler of the universe,” he said in one prayer in the House of Representatives, “we express our deep gratitude to you for the miracle of the civilization we call America. The ideals of liberty, equality and personal freedom, the bedrocks of our society, serve today to millions throughout the world as the most desirable virtues of government.”
“Rabbi Hecht was a leading factor in helping build our great community,” says Morris Bailey, a prominent member of the Syrian Jewish community. “He was our intellectual leader, and the force behind our community’s need to move forward. He had an understanding of how Judaism must be part of our modern society. He reached out to our community lovingly, creating a society of love and inclusivity.”
Rabbi Hecht is survived by many children and grandchildren who serve as Jewish leaders, educators and Jewish representatives across the globe. “It is my hope and prayer,” he once wrote, “that the younger generation will continue to practice, to teach and inspire countless hundreds of thousands in their important positions in their respective communities, as they serve the Creator…”
Portions of this article have been excerpted from an article by Dovid Zaklikowski.