On Chamisha Asar B’Shvat, during the auspicious days between Yud Shevat and Chof Beis Shevat, Machon Chana students had the privilege of hosting a very special guest speaker, Rebbetzin Chava Hecht.
Rebbetzin Hecht was introduced to the students as the co-founder and director of Camp Emunah, and a true example of an “eizer k’negdo” to her husband Rabbi J.J. Hecht (o.b.m).
Rebbetzin Hecht shared with the students her memories of living in America before the Frierdike Rebbe arrived on these shores and the difference the arrival of the Frierdike Rebbe made. “The Rebbe – one human being – changed what Jewish life in America looked like,” she related. “The Rebbe said he was going to change America and he did! When the Rebbe spoke about ‘kosher chinuch,’ we didn’t understand at first what he meant. We understood that food had to be kosher, but chinuch?” Even something so taken for granted today, that teachers in Torah school should themselves be Torah observant, the Frierdike Rebbe had to campaign for.
With a smile and a twinkle in her eyes, Rebbetzin Hecht remembered how in the 1940s, she had been “shlepped” by a Lubavitcher friend to 770 on Simchas Torah, which was on a Friday that year. During the walk from East Flatbush where the two girls lived, the friend explained that it might be so crowded that she would not be able to see the Rebbe. Rebbetzin Hecht was shocked. “I knew from rabbis, but not about the Rebbe. I didn’t understand why I wouldn’t be able to see him!” Her friend’s concerns were unfounded. “We got to 770 and went upstairs. The men were all on one side of the room with the (Frierdike) Rebbe, and the women were on the other side of the room with Rebbetzin Nechama Dina around the table. At one point, a few of the men moved and I was able to see the Rebbe. From that moment, I was ‘hooked.’ Just seeing the Rebbe changed my whole life.”
Rebbetzin Hecht told the students how her husband, Rabbi J.J. Hecht, and all of his brothers, became Lubavitcher Chasidim. Their grandfather, Hirsh Meilich, operated a mikva in Brownsville, which the Frierdike Rebbe used during his visit to the United States in 1927. Before leaving the mikva, the Frierdike Rebbe wanted to give Hirsh Meilich a tip, but he refused to take it. “Then I will give you a blessing,” the Rebbe told him. “Your grandchildren will become my Chasidim.”
Many years later, when Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson was teaching in Yeshiva Torah V’daas, he influenced a number of the students there to come to Lubavitch. “My husband was the first of the six Hecht boys, and all of his brothers followed after him,” said Rebbetzin Hecht.
For a Jew to remain shomer Shabbos in those days took tremendous mesiras nefesh, explained Rebbetzin Hecht. Almost every job required working six days a week, and that included Shabbos. Rebbetzin Hecht once asked her father how he had managed to remain strong in his Shabbos observance when so many around him were not able to withstand the difficult test. “My daughter, Shabbos is Shabbos!” was her father’s simple reply.
Rebbetzin Hecht told the story of an uncle who had been diagnosed with cancer of the spleen. When her aunt came to them, begging that they should ask the (Frierdike) Rebbe for a blessing, Rabbi Hecht insisted that she should first promise that “the shop” would be closed on Shabbos. The aunt promised and Rabbi Hecht put in a letter to the Rebbe. The next day, the uncle was operated on. Despite the fact that all of the tests clearly showed there was cancer, when they “opened” him up nothing was there.
Stories and memories flowed easily for nearly an hour. The Machon Chana students were spellbound by Rebbetzin Hecht. They were enamored with her vibrancy, youthfulness and sense of humor. It was deeply meaningful to them that Rebbetzin Hecht was able to relate her personal experiences, including a yechidus with the Frierdike Rebbe on her wedding day, the Rebbe being sandek of her oldest son Rabbi Sholom Ber, and a woman she knew whose blessing for children from the Frierdike Rebbe was brought to fruition through the Rebbe.
The talk took place in the Machon Chana dormitory on President Street as 15 Shevat is the date of the Rebbe’s very first visit to the dormitory. Before leaving, Rebbetzin Hecht agreed to return to share personal stories of “our” Rebbe with the students.
The dorm was beautifully decorated for 15 Shevat by alumna, artist Ruti Rosin, whose paper cuttings and watercolors added a festive touch to the stately mansion.
On Friday, Yud Shevat, the Machon Chana students were inspired by a special farbrengen with Mrs. Tzivia Jacobson. Mrs. Jacobson was an unofficial “chozer” to thousands of women in the ezras noshim during the Rebbe’s Shabbos farbrengens throughout the years. Her knowledge of the Rebbe’s sichos and Chasidus in general are evident when she farbrengs.
After describing the mesirus nefesh that Jews lived with in Communist Russia where she was born, Mrs. Jacobson spoke of life in the United States in the early years of the Rebbe’s nesius. She then seamlessly wove together deep concepts from the Maamer Basi L’Gani with practical ideas of how to foster personal growth and what the Rebbe expects of us as his Chasidim.