By Rabbi Shmully Hecht – Yale/New Haven
This year, my personal Gimmel Tammuz commemoration began on Thursday, Rosh Chodesh. It was 4:00 PM and my cell phone rang from an unsaved number. “Hello, Shmully, your cousin Yossi Hecht here from Eilat.” Rabbi Yosef Hecht is the Rebbe’s Shliach and Chief Rabbi of the city. He was visiting the States for Gimmel Tamuz and to speak at the Siyum Harambam Haalomi.
“Shmully, we opened a new Chabad school in our city and are confronting some challenges receiving the necessary formal recognition for the school from the Israeli government.”
Wonderful, I thought, another Chabad school! And welcome to Israeli politics… Good Luck.
He went on to say, “The current government is most likely going to fall on Sunday, replaced by a newly formed joint coalition. We have been negotiating for a year now with the Ministry of Education and after overcoming multiple hurdles at the municipal level, we believe we are primed to receive the official recognition. The government, however, has not yet signed off on the necessary paperwork and we need a miracle.”
Great, what better day for a miracle than Gimmel Tammuz which was on Sunday, I marveled. “How may I help you?” I asked.
“Well,” he continued, “After lengthy and complex deliberations first with the municipality and now with the State Government, I was asked this week by the Deputy Minister of Education if I am related to Rabbi Shmully Hecht at Yale. The Education Minister Yoav Gallant is apparently friends with you. Shmully, can you please call Yoav and get this done?” Our children desperately need this school, and we need it now.”
We then had a 45-minute conversation discussing the nuances and minutiae of the Chabad education infrastructure in Eilat, challenges at the local level, bureaucratic red tape, building dept regulations and permits, coupled with the required accreditation from the Ministry of Education. It seemed like we were facing an uphill battle and I was getting the final call in the final hour. Would Yoav Gallant in his final day as Education Minister sign off on this sacrosanct appeal?
I first met Yoav around 15 years ago when he served as the military secretary of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Prior to that appointment, Yoav spent much of his career in the Navy. I distinctly remember entering his office adjacent to the Prime Minister’s and instantly spotting a photo behind his desk. It was of a submarine submerged in the sea with only its periscope ever so slightly protruding from the water. There was an inscription on the photo that was addressed to Yoav, seemingly from one of his soldiers or comrades, saluting him and reminding him of that special day. I dare to think of where it was or what they were up to. I am simply relieved that I wasn’t fishing or swimming on the beachhead that they were “visiting” on their most likely vital expedition.
Yoav was born to Holocaust survivors both of whom arrived in Israel in 1948. His mother was a nurse, and his father was a partisan who fought the Nazis in the Ukraine and Belarus. He then fought in the 1948 War of Independence and named Yoav for a famous battle he led. Yoav has a rather eclectic background. An MBA degree, spent time as a lumberjack in Alaska (or so they want the story told…) has been a commander in the elite Shayetet Navy commando unit, served as Military Secretary, head of Southern Command, was slated for Chief of Staff (a role he deserved and was denied due to terrible politics) and has been serving as a member of Knesset for the past few years. He is a rather handsome man of muscular build, capped with an Israeli military-trademarked tight silver head of hair, (the type one only sees in Israel) and deep intimidating eyes that would petrify the most vicious of our enemies. He is brilliant, strategic, methodically calm and collective. A genuine leader and General in every sense of the word. He is now also a political leader and member of Knesset. In charge of Education!
In the early 2000s, we had hosted Yoav at Yale for a campus-wide lecture. He walked around campus with a small leather bag he would not abandon even for a moment. He had taken the train to New Haven accompanied by one quiet fellow…. The bag was clearly too large for a wallet and too small to be carrying his overnight luggage. I started to wonder if there were threats looming at Yale that even I didn’t know about. It was odd. Was he carrying? And who was the shadow…
Subsequent to that first visit he and I have worked on various projects together. We have met multiple times over the years in Israel and I seldom visit Israel without seeing him. We have been friends throughout his multiple Military and Government roles.
Whilst Rabbi Hecht and I were on the phone, I began to text and email Yoav in an attempt to schedule a call before Shabbos Beis Tammuz. I would then plead the cause for the chasidim and community of Eilat. To my pleasant surprise, I received a text back at 1130 PM Israel time to call him in the morning. It is never too late at night or early in the morning to call or text a true general. I say General in the proverbial sense. Keep your phones on.
Friday morning at 7 am we talked. After a brief exchange of pleasantries for which neither of us had much time and were not shy to dismiss, I told Yoav the story of the fall of the Second Temple. It is found in Gemara Gitin page 56 and I assume most readers on COLlive.com are familiar with it.
“In short, Yoav,” I began, “After the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, a contentious civil dispute erupted between the radical die-hards, the biryonim who preferred to battle the Romans to the end, and the Chachamim that anticipated the ultimate fall of Jerusalem and chose to negotiate. Upon the suggestion of his nephew, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai hid in a coffin, was carried out of Jerusalem and met with the Roman legion commander Espisyanos. Jerusalem would fall. They both knew it.
The unspoken truth Yoav and I anticipated was that on Sunday the government of Benjamin Netanyahu was coming to an end. Yoav would no longer be Minister of Education. The reference to the story was clear despite the slight variations of protagonists and their roles.
“The first of the three requests Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai made of Espisyanos (Vespasian), was Ten Li Yavneh Vichachameah. I beseech you to Spare the city and the sages of Yavneh. The preservation of Am Yisroel in a post-Temple era would be largely dependent on the strength of our education and led by the sages. We know the end of the story. Espisyanos became Cesar as prophesized by Rav Yochanan Ben Zakai. Yesh Tikvah. There is hope, Yoav, I said.
On this ominous day marked permanently on our calendars and engraved in our souls, twenty-seven years ago on the third of Tammuz, the Rebbe departed this physical world. But as clarified at length in Tanya, and elaborated on by the Rebbeim, the righteous live on eternally. Due to being stripped of their corporeal constraints, they are actually magnified in their spiritual state. Literally so. Our generation is distinct in this manner. For we are the first, in the sense that all of Lubavitch was handed to the current global village of Yavneh vichachameah. Lubavitch, its sages and its disciples, emissaries, representatives, educators, agents and community leaders. After the inimitable tragedy that has befallen us in the seventh generation of the Chabad dynasty, we chasidim, limited mortals yet infinitely powerful in our spirt, were tasked with the privilege and responsibility of perpetuating, fostering and growing all that the Rebbeim planted for us. We are the definitive village of Yavneh and its wise ones. And only we, midgets on the shoulders of giants will welcome Moshiach.
Yoav is not a religiously observant man, by no means a Talmudic Scholar and wouldn’t count himself among the sages of Am Yisroel. He is a military general and strategist. Yet he bellowed across the phone. “Ken Shmulik, Yadua, Yadua, ten li Yavne Vichachameah.” Indeed, it is well known, this historical adage “Spare the City of Yavne and its sages.”
We spoke for 15 minutes, and I reminded him that Chabadniks are the global soldiers of Am Yisroel who tend to the physical and spiritual wellbeing of Jews around the globe. I emphasized how the Rebbe taught us to care and worry about every Jew in Israel and the diaspora, the way the IDF does for the denizens of Eretz Yisroel. I explained that Rabbi Yossi Hecht was raised in New Haven and that I am only at Yale because his father Reb Moshe Yitzchok Hecht was sent here by the Frierdiker Rebbe.
Lastly and unapologetically, I begged him to sign off on the accreditation of the Chabad school in Eilat, for it would groom the next generation of the Rebbe’s Shluchim. That when he entered the next world after 120 years, he would have three passes to Heaven. He served in the military protecting the Jews, He served as minister of education enlightening the Jews, and acharon acharon chaviv in his final hours of his tenure he perpetuated Judaism through the ages, by building one more Chabad school. As Mordechai communicated to Esther, “Perhaps for this one great task you have been designated to your position of influence.”
Yoav listened intently. Wise men always do. And then he said to me in no uncertain terms, “you have done your job. I will do mine. I love Chabad and have helped Chabad throughout Israel and the world. But as an American citizen, you are cognizant of the rule of law and that we cannot break them.”
From our conversation, it was becoming all too apparent that from the bureaucracy’s perspective the Chabad school needed some more tweaking to pass the muster. To his credit, Yoav was fairly open and transparent that though the objectives were achievable, it would take some time to attain them. In his revelatory wishful thinking, he even said “let’s see what happens Sunday.” He was hoping as were many, that his tenure at the Ministry of Education would be prolonged.
After I hung up, I reminded him through a text message about a visit to Israel with Norman Bender when Yoav took us on a tour of the Gaza border, its military installations, and transport station where all goods flow in and out of Gaza. I was so exhausted from the desert that day that I ended up in the hospital In Jerusalem for 8 hours that evening hooked up to an intravenous to save me from dehydration that almost took my life. I am forever grateful to Norman who stood there all night and to the doctors and nurses that kept me alive. Upon returning from that trip, Norman pledged and ultimately paid for the building of our Chabad House at Yale. His mother’s name graces the building. It doesn’t say he who saves one life saves the generation. It doesn’t have to.
“Yoav,” I wrote, “One visit to Israel. One Jew Norman. The Chabad House at Yale is in your zchut. Many more will be built by approving the school in Eilat.”
Sunday came and Sunday went. The school was not approved. As of now, no sign of any miracle. No return calls. The line is dead. The changing of the guards has been officially declared and signed into law. Yoav is no longer in the cabinet and his successor will need to complete the task. Despite the year of Rabbi Hecht’s efforts, and the final tears and emotional pleadings, the school will be delayed. In the final minutes and days preceding Gimel Tammuz, I failed.
I am reminded of a tale that circulated when we were bochurim. Though I heard it this way, it should be verified. Allegedly, Yossel Mochkin would tell stories to campers in Gan Yisroel about Jewish innkeepers and serfs often illegally detained in Poland and Ukraine by the local feudal landowners. Despite their heartfelt prayers and desperate pleas to the Polish nobles and intense prayers to G-d, coupled with the communal efforts to rescue them, many did not survive. In a suggestive and rather dark humorous manner, Yossel would end the morbid story by saying that many of them are still incarcerated in the dungeons or have died. Though the Yossel Mochkin story invokes a gallows humor underserving of a laugh, it wasn’t a joke. And I doubt Yossel meant it that way.
Too often, the anticipated sensational wonders simply don’t occur at the time of and place of our choosing. We have done our part. G-d will do his. Loi Machshivosai Machshivoisechem. Our assumptions don’t always align with the Lord’s. Yet we believe. Chabad was not and is not about mofsim. Our ethos was never about miracles. Chagas Chasidim may hold on to the coattails of their Rebbeim in hopes of supernatural salvation. Chabad Rebbeim let us loose and demand mochin and avodah. We are defined not by our supernatural or paranormal abilities but by the strength and stamina of our contemplation and service. Our service that is, to the Lord and others.
But we shall not break. The school will be built. Alas, some endeavors take more time and way more effort than we prefer. Such are the ultimate tests and tribulations of life. No miracle, Rabbi Hecht. Time to go back to the drawing board and keep working.
It was now 8 o’clock on Friday morning. The day before, I went through a medical procedure performed on my back and was in intense pain with stitches running under my shoulder blade. They removed a cist the size of a golf ball in my upper back (thank G-d, not cancerous or dangerous) that left a gaping hole near my spine held together by stitches. With that, and with my prearranged RV being canceled and no reservation for a bed, I thought of spending Shabbos in New Haven.
I downed painkillers and called my brother Rabbi Asher Hecht. Ashy is a no-nonsense Shliach in McAllen, Texas. When his son Schneur Chaim was born this past year during Covid, the Jewish population of McAllen grew from 299 to 300. Those are not exaggerated numbers. And yes, I’ve included women and children. A good percentage of them attended the bris on the lawn of his Chabad House and mikveh, then under construction. McAllen ranks as one of the lowest per capita cities with Jewish populations. The US national Jewish population is roughly 2 percent. McAllen is at .25 at best. There are more Yids in one dormitory at Yale than in the entire city of 140,000 in McAllen. And we are talking Texan Jews… When I once visited and took my nephews and nieces to Walmart to buy them gifts, I was struck by the tattoos displayed over most of the cashier’s visible skin. He simultaneously ogled at my yarmulka, undoubtedly examining it for my missing horns. I think we were both about to ask each other, what are you looking at… it would not have ended well. I checked out politely and took the kids home.
Yet, In the midst of this spiritual mayhem, a few blocks from Trump’s Wall, 70 miles from the gulf of Mexico and thousands from 770, my four-year-old niece Devorah Leah slipped a Barbie doll off the Walmart shelf in pursuit of her gift of choice. Then, she softly whispered, “Uncle Shmully, we cant buy this – she’s not tznius.” You can share that one with the feminists…
When we returned to my brother’s home, I inquired from the children about the whereabouts of their school in McAllen. Intrigued that I had even posed the question and amidst a gleeful expression, they pointed in unison to their computer and proclaimed, “Uncle Shmully, there’s our school.”
Among the multiple minyanim of Jews in attendance at the bris (despite Covid) were a handful that drove over 80 miles through the Rio Grande Valley, evidencing their love for their Rabbi Ashy and his wife Nechama Dinah. True Chasidim and Shluchim, among the many.
Ashy reminded me of the chasidim that came to Rebbe with severe maladies and left healed. We then both interrupted each other reiterating the lengthy and extraordinary story in Likutei Diburim of the Chasidim that came to the Alter Rebbe during a notorious blizzard. They arrived half-dead for hakafos and left totally rejuvenated, sparking another mass entry of new Chasidism to the fold. We reminded each other of the myriads of healing miracles that occurred in our history. “What’s 10 thick stitches on your back, Shmully? It’s Gimmel Tammuz. You’ll find a bed.”
In the 1990s, I studied in Lubavitcher Yeshiva on Ocean parkway. On Thursday evenings, Rabbi Berel Lipsker would often farbreng. Way past midnight, we would call White Top Taxi to take us all back to Crown Heights. Crammed into a station wagon piled on top of each other we would enter Crown Heights, at which point the driver would start inquiring the home address of each of us. I was the last one out for I was heading to East Flatbush where I lived with my grandfather Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda Hecht (JJ) OBM and my bubby Rebbetzin Chava Hecht, may she live and be well. It was me and Rabbi Lipsker in the car and to this day I remember the driver once asking the mashpia “where do you live?” Rabbi Lipsker, having downed a very “few” l’chaims and in a state of spiritual ecstasy and the sublime aftermath of a farbrengen done well, raised up his head and replied, “and who said I live…”
Though I have a weekly chavrusa in the Rebbe’s letters with Rabbi Levi Shemtov of Detroit, I seldom find myself randomly opening its pages to find guidance on issues or dilemmas. For each their own. But it was now 3 PM on Friday and with excruciating pain in my upper back and nowhere to sleep at the Ohel, I was in a jam and in desperate need of direction. With no access to my seforim, I simply typed these words into google anticipating guidance on an abode for this holy Shabbos. Novelty always surprises us. I typed into google. “Rebbe, where should I sleep?” An ordinary freethinking individual would have assumed I had lost my mind. Perhaps I have. Yet, I instantly cleaved to a transcendental faith that the Lord would direct me.
The first relevant thing that loaded on my screen was of course a JEM video. Lo and behold, the Chief Rabbi of Philadelphia, Rabbi Ephraim Yolles approached the Rebbe in the midst of a Yud Tes Kislev Farbrengen and continued what seems to have been correspondence between them about the need and obligation to sleep 8 hours a night. At the end of the short clip, the Rebbe introduces a commentary on Shulchan Aruch from the Buchacher Rav in which he suggests that despite the Rambam halachically prescribing eight hours of sleep per night, another reading could imply a duty to sleep merely eight hours in a 48-hour period. The Rebbe smiles and deduces that perhaps 4 hours a night is sufficient. And the Rebbe tells Rabbi Yolles in no uncertain terms that he, the Rebbe, sleeps enough.
I grabbed my keys, talis, wallet and sleeping bag and hit the road. It was now 4:00 PM. Surely, I would find a mattress at the Ohel and between the painkillers and some l’chaim over Shabbos, I would get my four hours. Worst case scenario, I’d catch the eight on Motzoei Shabbos. I hit the 95 South and raced to Queens.
As I drove, I began to voice-WhatsApp and email (not recommended) anyone and everyone I knew that would possibly have an empty bed for a New Haven bloke with a bruised back lined with stitches. My initial email to Rabbi Abba Refson of the Ohel Chabad-Lubavitch Center specified my request, “Do you have a bed, Abba?” The auto-reply from Abba’s office read, “Your letter will be brought to the Ohel shortly.” Stop the press, I shrieked and continued driving…
To be continued…
–Rabbi Shmully Hecht can be reached at [email protected]