Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a leading figure in the American Jewish community, passed away on Thursday, March 21, at the age of 95. Among his litany of accomplishments, Rabbi Schacter held senior positions at Yeshiva University and in the Orthodox Union. Rabbi Jacob Schacter, the son of Reb Herschel, said his father died from natural causes at a hospice residence in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
His funeral was held on Friday morning, March 22 at the Riverdale Jewish Center.
Born in Brooklyn, Rabbi Schacter was a disciple of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, who is considered one of the founders of Modern Orthodoxy, a movement within Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Schacter is said to have been the first person to receive formal semichah (rabbinical ordination) from him.
According to Rabbi Yehuda Krinksy, a Chabad-Lubavitch leader, Rabbi Schacter maintained very close ties to Rabbi Soloveitchik and as such was a witness to, and played a role in, many of Judaism’s critical events during the second half of the twentieth century.
During World War II, Rabbi Schacter was a chaplain in the Third Army’s VIII Corps. He was the first U.S. Army chaplain to enter the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945 where he found the little boy who grew up to be Israel’s Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau hiding behind a heap of trash. He provided opportunities to put on tefillin for the long lines of Jewish survivors in the camp who yearned to have a few minutes wearing phylacteries after years of torment and then arranged religious services for Holocaust survivors in the first days and weeks after liberation.
He later aided in the resettlement of displaced persons and led a UNRRA Kindertransport from Buchenwald to Switzerland after World War II. In 1956, he was a member of the first rabbinic delegation to the Former Soviet Union and escorted a transport of Hungarian refugees from Austria to the United States.
Prior to World War II, Rabbi Schacter attended Yeshiva University until 1938 and Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchonon until 1941.
Yeshiva University honored Rabbi Schacter, who “served as Rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish Center for more than half a century, was president of the Conference of Presidents from 1967 to 1969, was president of Mizrachi-Hapoel Hamizrachi, founding chairman of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry and chairman of the Chaplaincy Commission of the Jewish Welfare Board. He was Director of Rabbinic Services at Yeshiva University, on the OU Board for decades and served as chair of the OU’s Communal Relations Committee from 1970 to 1982.”
As rabbi of the Moshulu Jewish Center in the Bronx, Rabbi Schacter served the religious and physical needs of the scores of newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Europe who arrived in New York City after World War II. It was then that they founded the iconic shul. Seventy-two years later, its few remaining members dispensed with its memories, and in 1999 the shul closed. According to a report on Matzav.com it was one of the last vestiges of the old Jewish Bronx, as the shul on Hull Avenue in Norwood outlived nearly all of its neighbors such as the shuls that once dotted the east Bronx and Grand Concourse neighborhoods, along with the kosher butchers and the Yiddish libraries.
Taking over the mantle of leadership of the Moshulu Jewish Center in 1947, a year before his marriage, Rabbi Schacter was recognized for his stubborn devotion in ensuring the survival of the synagogue. Even as the synagogue’s membership plummeted from thousands to hundreds, and from hundreds to mere handfuls, Rabbi Schacter continued to raise money from outside sources and consistently delivered the same riveting sermons week after week. Unfortunately, the shul was unable to survive the migration of Jews from the Bronx and the membership of 3500 began dwindling in 1974.
At one time, the shul was both a social nexus and a center of moral and spiritual gravity. As Rabbi Schacter gained national prominence, he shared his insights in his speeches.
From his pulpit in the Bronx, Rabbi Schacter assumed the chairmanship of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. He also met with world leaders including the late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and met every US president from Kennedy on. He was especially close to Richard Nixon; becoming his confidant and emissary to Russia.
Rabbi Schacter said that when people asked him why he did not move to a larger, more famous shul, he replied that Mosholu gave him ”the freedom to find fulfillment outside.” But in reality, he made the shul his life’s work.
“Rabbi Schacter was a Renaissance man. He had a spiritual presence and was a man of the world,” one of his congregants once said about him.
Rabbi Schacter is survived by his wife, Mrs. Penina Schacter, whom he was married to for 65 years; his two children, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, and Miriam Schacter, a psychotherapist; as well as four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.