Rabbi Abraham Hecht – an outspoken supporter of Israel whose numerous rabbinical credits include serving as president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and a half-century stint as the rabbi of Brooklyn’s Congregation Shaare Zion, the largest Sephardic shul in the United States – passed away last motzoei Shabbat at the age of 90.
Born in New York’s Brownsville section in April of 1922, the young Abraham Hecht left the comfort of America to go to Poland in September 1939 to learn in the Yeshivah of Otvosk under the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time, Rav Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. His plans for focused Torah learning were abruptly disrupted, however, as the first rumblings of World War II began to break out across Poland only several days after his arrival. Fortunately, the budding scholar was able to leave Europe quickly; returning home, he became one of the first ten students of Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch in Brooklyn.
Eventually receiving his rabbinical ordination, Rabbi Hecht did not hesitate to travel anywhere in the country to lead Orthodox congregations. His scholarship and powerful oratorical skills led him to posts in Boston, Massachusetts; Buffalo, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and New Haven, Connecticut, where he established Yeshiva Achei T’mimim elementary schools for both boys and girls.
Rabbi Hecht ultimately found his permanent professional “home” at Congregation Shaare Zion on Ocean Parkway, where he tended to the spiritual needs of more than 3,500 Sephardic families. Although he was of Ashkenazi background, the rabbi’s in-depth Torah knowledge, leadership skills and personal warmth enabled him to maintain his position at Shaare Zion for over 50 consecutive years. Rabbi also served for many years as president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America / Igud Harabbonim, a national rabbinic organization founded in 1942.
An accomplished author, Rabbi Hecht wrote two books espousing Torah philosophies, “Spiritual Horizons” and “Spiritual Freedom,” along with an autobiography, and he was a frequent contributor to various Jewish publications in English, Hebrew and Yiddish. In his writings and public comments, Rabbi Hecht was a particularly passionate defender of total fidelity to classical Torah perspectives regarding two issues, Mihu Yehudi- Giyur K’halacha (defining ‘who is a Jew’ according to strict halachic guidelines on conversion) and Shleimus HaAretz (maintaining control over all areas of the Land of Israel in accordance with the boundaries laid out by the Torah).
Always ready to communicate his ideas to as wide an audience as possible, Rabbi Hecht promoted awareness on behalf of “traditional family values” within the Jewish community as well as in society at large, where he regularly publicized the Seven Universal Laws of Noah (Sheva Mitzvoth Bnei Noach).
While Rabbi Hecht was always known for unabashedly stating his religious opinions, he encountered more extreme controversy in 1995, when a news article quoted him as having asserted at a rabbinical gathering that Jewish law could theoretically permit the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for their proposal at Oslo to withdraw from parts of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip. On June 19, 1995, according to the article, Rabbi Hecht had told the gathered members of the International Rabbinical Coalition for Israel “that by handing over Israeli land and property, Israeli leaders are betraying Jews to non-Jews” and that, according to the Rambam, “such people should be killed before they can perform the deed.”
After Rabin was assassinated in Israel the following November 4 by Yigal Amir for signing the land-surrendering Oslo Accords, Rabbi Hecht’s statements came under intense public scrutiny, with some in the media claiming that his words had helped influence an overheated political climate in Israel that led to Rabin’s assassination. After being placed on a six-month paid leave by Shaare Zion, Rabbi Hecht was let go from his position by the shul. Additionally, along with six other American Jews, he was barred for “security” reasons by the Israeli government from entering the country.
Last March – as reported exclusively in the Jewish Voice – a group of leaders from Brooklyn’s Sephardic community gathered together with other Jewish community dignitaries at the Sephardic Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Bensonhurst, where Rabbi Hecht was then residing, to celebrate his 90th birthday and publicly request his forgiveness for having suddenly terminated him after 50 years of dedicated service.
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 Rabbi Hecht’s own family, high-profile rabbanim such as Rabbis Saul Kassin, Chanania Elbaz, and Gershon Tannenbaum, and Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.
During the emotional event, 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,” said Rabbi 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.”
Rabbi 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.
David E. Cohen, former President of Shaare Zion, attested to Rabbi Abraham 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,” Cohen 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 Rabbi 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,” Rabbi Amar declared, “we’re here for ourselves,” suggesting that it was a privilege or merit merely to be able to share Rabbi Hecht’s company.
In marked contrast to the turmoil and controversy that had led to Rabbi Hecht’s dismissal from his senior rabbinical post at Shaare Zion 17 years prior, two highly-regarded attendees at the March 2012 event, Stanley Chera and Joe Cayre, asked Rabbi Hecht’s forgiveness on behalf of their community. While their statements may not have reflected 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 Sephardic Chief Rabbi, was not lost on the others present.
“Today is an incredible day for the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht, the guest of honor’s son, noting that it was then 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].”
Lauding his father’s continued desire to forge new achievements despite his infirmity, Rabbi Yehoshua cited as an example, his father’s participation in the efforts to build a mikvah in memory of both his (Rabbi Abraham’s) wife, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s mother. The mikvah, dubbed Mikvah Chanah/Mei Leiba, was set 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 Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and 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 believed, was an acknowledgement of Rabbi Hecht’s positive contribution to Jewish life. Rabbi 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 Shaare Zion is the icing on the cake,” he added.
Rabbi Hecht’s wife Liba tragically perished in a fire nine years ago. The rabbi is survived by his children, Mrs. Nechama Kantor of Crown Heights; Mrs. Esther Kaplan of Crown Heights; Rabbi Eli Hecht of Lomita, CA; Rabbi Yossi Hecht of Nice, France; Mrs. Rochel Weinberg of Detroit, MI; Mrs. Shani Fasten of the Five Towns, NY; Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht of Norwalk, CT; Rabbi Ari Hecht of San Francisco, CA; and Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Los Angeles, CA.
Rabbi Hecht’s numerous descendants include his oldest grandson, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor (Thailand), and many grandchildren spread all over the world, including Toronto, Canada (Rabbi Mendel Kaplan); California; Florida; Pennsylvania; Connecticut; Skokie, Illinois; Montreal; and Lugano, Switzerland.
The funeral was held on Sunday morning at Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Boro Park. The procession passed Congregation Shaare Zion in tribute to Rabbi Hecht’s many years of service there.