Dismissed Hecht From Rabbinical Post
A Tuesday morning event featuring a veritable who’s who of local rabbis, philanthropists, and even Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel Shlomo Amar, marked the 90th birthday of Rabbi Avraham Berl Hecht at Brooklyn’s Sephardic Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Rabbi Hecht is widely considered one of America’s most articulate Orthodox rabbanim. Well known for his oratorical prowess, Hecht is also the author of three books, one of them being an autobiography. A Lubavitcher Chasid, former Chabad shaliach, and President of the Igud HaRabanim (Rabbinical Alliance of America), Rabbi Hecht is perhaps best known for the substantial role he played in helping establish Brooklyn’s Sephardic Jewish community. In the first half of the 20th century, when Brooklyn’s Syrian Jews were still forming their first congregation, Rabbi Hecht was sought out because of his keen intellect, Torah wisdom, and political acumen. Brooklyn’s Shaarei Zion, the synagogue which he helped build, and served for more than half a century, continues to flourish as the largest Sephardic Congregation in North America.
In light of his many accomplishments, it comes as no surprise that Rabbi Hecht has made friends in some very high places. The birthday celebration was organized by prominent community leader Jack Avital. Attendees included such pillars of the local Jewish community as real estate moguls Stanley Chera, Morris Bailey, and Joe Cayre, former presidents of Congregation Shaarei Zion David Cohen and Morris “Mersh” Franco, members of Hecht’s own family, high-profile rabbanim such as Rabbi Saul Kassin, Chanania Elbaz, and Gershon Tannenbaum, and of course the illustrious Rabbi Shlomo Amar.
Rabbi Elbaz, spiritual leader of Brooklyn’s Congregation Ahi Ezer reflected on Rabbi Hecht’s contributions to Jewish life in Brooklyn. Speaking to the Jewish Voice he explained that, working side by side with Rabbi Yaakov Kassin (zt”l), and now with his son Rabbi Saul Kassin, he elevated the spiritual standards of his congregation. “Rabbi Hecht drew upon his spiritual discipline and oratorical skills to put [the Brooklyn Sephardic] community on the map,” says Elbaz. “In 1946, when the Syrian community was young, we needed a spiritual leader with a strong command of English and connections to the political arena. Rabbi Hecht filled this vacuum.”
Elbaz went on to describe how Rabbi Hecht, despite coming from a non-Sephardic background, managed nonetheless to endear himself to his congregants, “participat[ing] in all their smahot (joyous occasions).” Rabbi Saul Kassin confirmed this, pointing out that, with his father, Rabbi Hecht attended as many as 3,000 weddings in the local community. Kassin praised the eloquence of Hecht’s weekly divrei Torah. He went on to wish Rabbi Hecht long life, health, and happiness.
David E. Cohen, former President of Shaarei Zion, attested to Rabbi Avraham Hecht’s hands-on involvement in the running of the synagogue, noting that Rabbi Hecht was “instrumental in helping us with the synagogue’s construction.”
“Nothing was ever done where Rabbi Hecht was not involved every step of the way,” he added.
Addressing those gathered, Israeli Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar spoke of Rabbi Hecht in similarly glowing terms, invoking G-d’s blessings upon the “world-famous Rabbi Hecht.”
Rabbi Amar also blessed Michael New (Executive Director of the Sephardic Home), Rabbi Avraham Amar (the nursing home’s chaplain), Rabbi Kassin, Rabbi Hecht’s extended family, rabbanim, public officials, and all the prominent individuals who came to show their respect.
The Chief Rabbi explained that when he was told that there was to be a gathering to mark Hecht’s 90th birthday, “I wanted to be a part of the celebration.” Amar went on to speak about a continuous devotion to the Creator as the sole purpose of the Jew’s existence, and extolled Rabbi Hecht as a paragon of this devotion.
“We’re not here for Rabbi Hecht,” Amar declared, “we’re here for ourselves,” suggesting that it is a privilege or merit merely to be able to share Rabbi Hecht’s company.
These words of praise offer a stark contrast from 17 years ago, when Rabbi Hecht found himself embroiled in a political controversy that ultimately led to him being ignominiously stripped of his senior rabbinical post at Shaarei Zion, and ostracized by his community. At a gathering of rabbis, Hecht asserted that “by handing over Israeli land and property, Israeli leaders are betraying Jews to non-Jews” and that it was permissible according to Jewish law to kill such a person. This comment was picked up by the media, stripped from its original context, and expanded upon by journalists, with one article in New York Magazine dubbing Hecht the rabbi who had “sentenced” Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin to death. One month later, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir for signing the Oslo Accords.
In the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination, Hecht was barred from entering Israel for “security” reasons, and under mounting political pressure the executive board of Shaarei Zion relieved Rabbi Hecht of his duties.
But at Tuesday’s event, two highly-regarded attendees, Stanley Chera and Joe Cayre asked Rabbi Hecht’s forgiveness on behalf of their community. While their statements may not reflect the feelings of every member of Brooklyn’s Jewish community in general, or its Sephardim specifically, the significance of such a plea being made publicly, and in the presence of Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, was not lost on the others present.
“Today is an incredible day for the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht, Rabbi Avraham’s son, noting that we are currently in the month of Nissan, which is a time of miracles. The younger Rabbi Hecht extolled his father’s many accomplishments, including the “saving of so many of Egyptian Jewry … and the remnant of the Syrian Jewish community,” noting that his “lasting imprint” on the Syrian Jewish community was “gigantic.” He also credited the last two Lubavitcher Rebbes, Yosef Yitzchak and Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, whose Chassidic teachings instilled within his father “a fiery love of the Jewish people, and his congregants [in particular].”
He also noted that, while his father’s impact spans several generations, he nonetheless is not content to rest on his laurels, and is still “looking to achieve.”
Rabbi Yehoshua cited as an example, his father’s participation in the efforts to build a mikvah in memory of of both his (Rabbi Avraham’s) wife, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother. The mikvah, dubbed Mikvah Chanah/Mei Leiba, is to be constructed at Beth Israel of Westport/Norwalk, Connecticut, of which Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht is the spiritual leader. Rabbi Yehoshua expressed his hope that the community would extend their support to this project, describing it as being “very dear to [his] father’s heart.”
“This was a most gratifying event,” Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, a long time columnist for the Jewish Press, told the Jewish Voice. “It was a vindication of Rabbi Hecht” vis-à-vis Israel.
The “apology of the Syrian community,” Rabbi Tannenbaum believes, was an acknowledgement of Rabbi Hecht’s positive contribution to Jewish life.
Tannenbaum even went so far as to say that the apologies attested to “the validity of his declarations.”
“The celebration of his 90th birthday by the Chief Rabbi of Israel, the chief rabbi of the local Sephardic community, and board members of Shaarei Zion is the icing on the cake,” he added.