By Dovid Zaklikowski
Photos: Lubavitch Archives
Rabbi Bentzion Schaffran was an unabashed activist and orator who followed his convictions entirely. Originating from Chicago, Rabbi Schaffran was one of the first students to join Chabad in the early 1950s. This Shabbos, the 25th of Adar, marks his 20th Yahrtzeit.
Born in 1937, he was the only child of Sidney and Ruth. From an early age, he took interest in Judaism. Once, referring to his frum neighbors, he told his mother, “I’m going to be Jewish like them.”
Gifted with a brilliant mind, he was accepted to the University of Chicago at the young age of 14. However, his parents chose to keep him in high school with students his age. It was around that time that he decided to begin a new chapter in his life.
For much of his childhood, he attended classes at the Lubavitch Hebrew School headed by Rabbi Herschel Shusterman. The Chabad community in Chicago greatly influenced the young prodigy, and by the age of 15 he had decided to study at the Lubavitch Yeshivah in Brooklyn. His parents were wary, still hopeful that their only child would pursue a higher education at university. At times, they showed hostility to the path he’d pursued, but at the behest of the Rebbe, Bentzion made every effort to keep them involved in his life.
“Lubavitch is the place for me,” he wrote to his parents. “The sincerity and earnestness of the students and the rabbis have convinced me of this.”
His parents, in turn, slowly appreciated their son’s new pursuits. Bentzion greatly valued his parent’s support. In one letter to them, he wrote: “I hope someday, quite soon with G-d’s help, I shall be able to repay you with Yiddishe Nachas for all that you have done for me.”
Rabbi Schaffran wrote his parents hundreds of letters, asking them for advice on numerous matters. Among mundane topics, the letters are scattered with a treasure trove of Chabad history and warm Chassidishe sentiments.
“You ask me about my thoughts,” he wrote to his parents in a September 1955 letter. “One of the primary teachings of Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidus is that inward sincerity is far more important than outward [emotions]. That to do a thing simply with feeling is far better than to do it in grand manner… G-d wants the heart of Jews to do His commandments as well as his body.”
At the instruction of the Rebbe, he studied public speaking. During the early 1960s he became a sought-after lecturer at Chabad Houses and events on college campuses.
Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky recalls that once he and Rabbi Schaffran gave back-to-back lectures on a college campus. During the Q&A period, one person asked, “Rabbi, what is your opinion on the Immaculate Conception?”
Rabbi Bogomilsky turned to Bentzion and said, “This is for you.”
“Sir, I have no opinion,” Rabbi Schaffran answered. “My question is, if your daughter came and told you such a story, what would be your opinion?”
In 1969, he married Tzipora Heshkowitz, may she be well, who was a teacher in Beis Rivkah at the time. Over the years, with the encouragement and support of his wife, he took on many innovative projects on behalf of Lubavitch Youth Organization.
With deep concern for the Crown Heights community, he spearheaded programs to create job opportunities and increase financial support to the schools and camps.
“He does not minister only to the spiritual needs of his neighbors,” Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman stated in 1974, “but has taken an active role in working on alleviating many of the urban problems besetting the Crown Heights community.”
In the 1970s, he headed a group of local community leaders to open dialogue between the African American and Jewish communities.
Throughout his life, he advocated for what he felt was right, never standing by idly. He was unafraid of confronting difficult topics that others might have shunned. “He would not sweep things under the carpet,” a friend recalled.
The Schaffran home was always open to many guests. Rabbi Schaffran was a skilled chef and would take part in preparing Shabbos meals. “It was always a pleasure to be invited to their Shabbos table,” says Rabbi Noach Fox. “When we were young, they were our ‘in-town’ parents who always hosted us.”
Rabbi Schaffran’s son Ezzie recalls how his father would bring his mother flowers before Shabbos “even if he had to collect wild flowers from the side of the road.”
He was known for his sense of humor.
By Tishrei of 1996, Rabbi Schaffran was hospitalized, gravely ill. It was his desire to celebrate Simchas Torah joyously. He arranged to be transferred to Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center for the holiday. His fellow Shul-goers at Empire Shtiebel made that Simchas Torah very special in his honor.
During his illness, Dr. Rosen – a Crown Heights community physician – went beyond the call of duty in caring for his beloved patient.
On the 25th of Adar, 1996, Rabbi Schaffran passed away at the young age of 59. Today, his children and grandchildren follow in his footsteps, bringing him much Nachas on high.
May his memory be a blessing.
Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected]
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