By Rabbi Shmully Hecht – Shabtai at Yale
I couldn’t believe the news this morning as I called my brother in law Rabbi Schneur Zalman Kaplan in Fort Lauderdale. He and I had studied together for Smicha 20 years ago in Melbourne, Australia.
“Shnay, did you hear about Chaim New?”
“Shnay, I can’t believe it…”
Silence… A deep breath and then a whisper.
“Shmuel, do you remember the Cardhu?”
“That’s so funny,” I replied, “Because I’m reminiscing of the glass of Benedictine and Vodka swimming in ice at his Shabbos table …”
One would think we were having an Alcoholics Anonymous telephone meeting. No pun intended.
But this was so much more than that.
Our Dearest Chaim,
It has been twenty years since we were last in your home in Melbourne, Australia, but for the alumni of the inaugural class of the Melbourne Smicha program and thousands of others that you inspired over the years, you will never die.
You were simply real. You said what you meant, you meant what you said, and you did what you said you were going to do. You cared deeply about your family, the community and Lubavitch, but most importantly about others. While you managed the family business affairs, your brothers seamlessly relocated to North America to start communities, demonstrating the ideal partnership of Yissachar and Zevulun.
I suspect that as much as you were inspired by their outreach in Atlanta, Montreal and Florida, it was actually your energy that inspired them. You were not only keeping the shop and running the local Mosdos, but your deep appreciation of spirituality was the driving force in your family’s life.
Shnay reminded me of an evening I came over to your place where we talked for hours. During that intense discussion about the purpose of life and our collective mission to change the world I really got to know you. You had an amazingly deep love for Chasidus. A crystal-clear reading of the Rebbe’s work. A love for a nigun. A love for a mitzvah. A love for another Jew. A passion to help a stranger. An inability to say no.
Like so many great men, you were one of few words, had a penetrating stare, and a capacity to think deeply about a topic before commenting. We are taught that a pnimi, a sincere Chasid, is defined as one who is totally immersed in the particular place or task in which he is involved. Chaim, you were the embodiment of a pnimi. You showed us what the maamorim could only tell us. You personified what Chasidus is. Not only should we focus on how we pray, study, eat, drink and even sleep, but we must always pursue a soul penetrating and conscious oneness with G-d.
How ironic that Shney and I both reminisced of the alcoholic beverages we consumed freely in your home in Melbourne over 20 years ago. A rather superficial memory of someone you respect and love. It was, however, at those farbrengins in your home that we became men. It was there that we were truly ordained. It was then that we comprehended Chasidus. It was at your table with your lovely wife Sheiny and your blessed children that it all became real. For that, and so much more we will always love you Chaim. You made it all come alive. I can see you deeply immersed in a nigun, a melody of no words. Music of the soul.
Ten of us young aspiring Rabbis taking a break from the intense week of Talmudic learning and Rabbinical training to experience spiritual ecstasy, singing and dancing around your Shabos table. You kept the vodka flowing while demanding of us over and over again to be true to ourselves, to be true Chasidim.
In your cynical tone you would challenge us on being honest businessmen, true friends, and good neighbors. When sharing a thought of the Rebbe, it was always followed by a practical lesson that would actually change our behavior. The alternative was a meaningless exchange and futile exercise. In some ways you were a paradox, for despite being an intellectual, you had no tolerance for a pure theory or idea. Despite your introverted and shy nature, you were a man of profound action. Your mind was as deep as your gaze and perhaps as real as your motorcycle.
Oh the motorcycle!
I screamed and howled into the wind,
“Chaim stop, please I beg you stop Chaim,” but you wouldn’t stop. I closed my eyes and kept my grip around your waist as instructed, and held on for dear life. I thought of how tragic it would be to die in a crash, racing 180 kmh through the suburbs of Melbourne. What a shame on both of us, should they find our bodies lying on the asphalt in some small town outside of Melbourne. Would my parents ever forgive me?
Chaim, you needed to test your limits. And you needed to test ours. You pushed all your friends and colleagues to where no one had pressed before. You knew there was always another plain that one could reach, another round to be checked, another challenge to be had. If we had learned chitas you would inquire about Rambam, and if that was done you would start a sicha, if we had read the sicha you would dare us to delve deeper.
You saw life as a concentric circle of trials and experiments. Our sacred mission was to embrace them, overcome them and transform them. Everyone in Melbourne knew that you were the go-to person for business advice, spiritual consultation, a personal eitza, a loan, a meal or just about anything essential. Strangers would knock on your door knowing you and Sheiny would help. Always.
I tried not to cry about your passing Chaim. I know you would tell me there was no point in my tears and I should move on and get with the program. You would tell me that we don’t understand the Lord and that instead of tears I should do something productive.
My heart raced today as it did the night we rode your bike, my soul flew as it did at your Shasbos table, my mind thumped back and forth as it did when we argued in your living room over the sacred texts. My legs shake as I type, thinking about how intense a man you really were. You lived every moment to the fullest. Nothing was supposed to be easy. We weren’t going to understand most things. Life had more questions than answers. Honesty and integrity were virtues that required effort yet these were values you would never compromise on in the slightest. You loved your friends so deeply. Despite the impression of being rather tough, you were really so very soft and kind. You were so loving to everyone. Sheiny, your children, your parents and siblings and we the bochurim who constantly freeload at your home will miss you so dearly.
I can hear you singing a nigun at your Shabos table whilst waving your hands higher and higher. As Yudi Cohen and Shney Kaplan propelled the melody along, Mendy Levitin, Aryeh Citron and Moshe Garelick were on your wings flying higher and higher. Yossi Greenberg and I on the tail end of the table realizing this was our moment of truth. Dov Drizin holding it all together. Eyes closed in absolute concentration, swaying back and forth in deep rumination, to sing a nigun with you Chaim was like being in Lubavitch with the Rabbeim . We stopped, you sipped on your whiskey and urged us all to never be afraid, complacent, or arrogant. It was a vivid moment of reflection, for you were the real Chosid, the definitive pnimi. Our hearts are broken to have lost you in this world . I must deny your wish and I cry.
But not for long. We want you to know that when the College students, Yeshiva Bochurim, Baalei batim, Shluchim and strangers come to our homes we sing those same nigunim and say Lchaim in your memory. All of us from that first kvutzah will forever hold each other accountable to the ideals you espoused and continue to farbreng in our collective homes and towns the way only you could, Chaim New.
And though I only ride on four wheels I often ski black diamonds with my children and share your passion with them.
“Faster, Faster,” I tell my kids.
“Have no fear, you can do it, have faith in yourself for G-d has faith in you. You can do more, you can do better you can go faster…”
I can see you at the farbrengin Chaim, I see you immersed in the Sicha, I feel the leather of your motorcycle jacket against my cheek and the glitter of your helmet reflecting the light of the traffic light as we take another corner at infinite speed. I close my eyes hoping we survive the turn. I pray that you will stop but no, there is another and then another…
But then you finally slowed down and pulled over, took off your helmet, unbuckled mine, and confirmed that I was OK. You broke out in that timeless Chaim New Smile and said rather affirmatively but no less lovingly, “that was just the beginning my little bochurel, Shmully Hecht. Now hold on tight for the next round. As long as you hold on to me Shmully you will be fine.”
With our helmets back on our heads our eyes locked before revving up the bike, I told you that I would not let go. Today with the utmost conviction I say to you my dear friend, my rock, that I won’t and can’t let go of you ever, for today so many hold on to me.