By Mindy Rubenstein – Chabad.org
Photos: Beth Sarafraz
At 111, Alexander Imich has been officially verified as the oldest man in America and the second oldest in the world. A resident of Manhattan who lives on the Upper West Side, he had the honor of being congratulated by the New York State Senate last year, on his 110th birthday.
But recently, he received some more attention, as well as some unexpected help—putting on tefillin for the first time in almost 100 years, getting a mezuzah for his apartment door, receiving replacements for the much-needed hearing aids he had lost, and having round-the-clock home attendants to help care for him and new people to keep him company.
All of this was the result of a recent hospital visit by Rabbi Pinny Marozov, co-director of Chabad of Coney Island in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife, Chaya. The 30-year-old rabbi found out about Imich while in Seattle seeing family. A Shabbat guest suggested that he pay the elderly man a visit, though neither of them realized at the time quite how old he was, recalled Marozov.
On his return to New York, Marozov dropped in on Imich, who was in Roosevelt Hospital being treated for a fall in his apartment. Imich celebrated his 111th birthday there, on Feb. 4. He had lost both of his hearing aids at the hospital, which made communicating difficult; nevertheless, the two men connected.
He also helped Imich wrap tefillin. Marozov said he didn’t think Imich had put on tefillin since his Bar Mitzvah—nearly 100 years ago—in Czestochowa, Poland.
The rabbi returned for another visit once Imich was back home. While there, Marozov helped Imich put on tefillin once again and also affixed a mezuzah to the door leading into Imich’s apartment, where he has lived—these days, alone—since 1965.
“He was very happy to see me,” said Marozov, adding that Imich was alert, and able to see and walk on his own. “It didn’t seem like a rabbi had ever visited him in his home or made any contact before. I know it meant a lot to him,” said the rabbi.
The rabbi said the older man simply lit up when the tefillin was wrapped and the mezuzah hung.
“It was beautiful when he recited the Shema prayer, which he knew by heart,” said Marozov. “It brought up a spark from deep inside him.”
Other sparks ignited from there. On that visit, Marozov invited Beth Sarafraz—a reporter from The Jewish Press, based in Brooklyn—to come along with him, and a full story on Imich was printed in the Feb. 28 edition. It got tremendous feedback. Readers learned of his situation and hastened to help: two days later, Imich had replacement hearing aids, home attendants to support his recovery and many new visitors.
New Friends, Worlds Apart
Born in Poland in 1903, Imich underwent his schooling there, including earning a Ph.D. in 1927. He survived two World Wars, the Holocaust and two years in a Russian labor camp near the White Sea, before leaving for the United States and starting a new life there with his wife, Wela. She passed away in 1986.
Imich spent his career as a chemist, ultimately trying to prove to other scientists that the neshama (soul) survives physical death. In 1995, at the age of 92, he edited and published a book called Incredible Tales of the Paranormal.
At this point, he said, he has outlived all of his peers. He and his wife had no children, and most of his family members perished in Nazi concentration camps. Imich and his wife survived because they were deported to a Russian labor camp instead of Auschwitz.
In a speech he gave at age 99, Imich said: “In my life, I have witnessed the development of flight, the automobile, electrification of nations, the telephone, the radio and television, atomic energy, the wonders of bio-scientific medicine, computer technology, great advances in our knowledge of the cosmos, men walking on the moon—the list could go on and on.”
Marozov and his wife are both from Montreal. They have been on shlichus in Coney Island for about a year-and-a-half, and just welcomed their first baby, a girl. His sister and brother-in-law, Rivkah and Rabbi Chaim Brikman, serve as co-directors of Chabad of Sea Gate—a private gated community at the far western end of Coney Island, at the southwestern tip of Brooklyn—and helped bring the couple there.
Marozov said he plans to visit Imich again before Passover and bring him some shmura matzah—handmade matzah made from grain that is guarded from the moment of harvesting, so that no fermentation occurs.
Regarding the meetings with his new elderly friend and the opportunity to bring some Judaism into Imich’s life, the rabbi said: “It’s very special for me to have this opportunity.”