I write these words as I am still in shock after the Levaya of my friend, Shneur Zalman Hirsh. Shneur was larger than life, and lived life to its fullest in the manner of a true Chossid.
In the Hayom Yom of Zayin Tishrei, the Rebbe writes, “Chassidim walk discreetly with Hashem,” doing their Avodah in the most quiet and discerning way. Shneur was such a Chossid – doing incredible Avodah in this world, yet if you walked by him on the street, you would never know.
Shneur was a personal friend who I treasured for many years, one who I have turned to for advice, support, and encouragement. An early supporter of my work at the Menachem Education Foundation, Shneur believed deeply in the power of Chinuch and in the potential of his beloved Crown Heights community.
A man of few words, Shneur was a doer – always looking to put ideas into action and to bring about tangible results. Shneur viewed his success in the business world as a tool to help others – he was constantly looking to give back to his community in quiet and meaningful ways.
Whether it was co-signing on the purchase of a friend’s new Chabad House or calling an employee who wasn’t well and letting him know that he is sponsoring Mitzvah Matzah in the Zechus of his recovery, Shneur always gave of himself to others in sincere and meaningful ways. He personified the role of the 21st century “Chassidishe Baal Habos.
Shneur, together with his amazing partners, donated generously to dozens of Moisdos, and many of them thought that their specific moisad was Shneur’s personal favorite. Shneur even had his own personal Tzedakahs, helping friends and family in a manner that was quiet and honorable.
He impacted hundreds with his sincerity, kindness, and compassion- all in an unassuming way.
Shneur truly loved his family and always put his children first. I remember one year, I sat next to Shneur in 770 on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I observed how despite having just one seat in the tightly packed shul, Shneur brought his children with him. He sat them down in the tiny space and guided them through davening. Even though he made the long drive every day to and from New Jersey, Shneur would make it a point to bring his children to school as often as he could. His wife Devorah Leah was a true partner in his work. His dedication to his family was unparalleled – a doting husband and father above all.
Shneur once told me that he had realized a while ago that life is not about making money and attaining personal wealth, but about helping others and making our world a better place. If there was something that he could do, he did it.
He would leverage his influence to help friends’ children get into classrooms that seemingly had no space, and share his business contacts to help others. When I asked him to join MEF’s Board, his response was “If I can be helpful, I’m in.” That was Shneur’s modus operandi – wherever he could make a difference, he showed up.
This past summer, MEF began exploring a new initiative called the Our Heritage project, which sought to bring Jewish public-school students into Chabad Day Schools. The project had a bit of a rough start, with many potential ideas being discussed, but no practical actions were moving forward.
As our efforts seemed to stall, I received a lead gift from a major donor. I needed a matching gift to truly move things along with the ambitious project and it seemed like things had hit a roadblock. Like so many times before, I turned to Shneur for advice on how to proceed. After speaking with him one night, he turned to me and shared that he and his wife believed strongly in the mission of the project and that he was on board.
“We need to make it happen,” Shneur told me. “We just have to launch the project, and the money will come. This is a chance to change the course of a Jewish child’s life. Instead of going to a public school they can attend a Yeshiva and receive an authentic Jewish education. These children will grow up and lead Jewish homes based on Torah and Mitzvos. There is no greater investment in our future.”
With Shneur’s direct encouragement, we moved forward, and his words became a reality. To date, Our Heritage has partnered with 13 Chabad Day Schools across North America, who have collectively enrolled 157 students who would have otherwise enrolled in a public school.
In recent months, Shneur’s health unfortunately deteriorated. Exactly three weeks ago, after not seeing him for a while, I received a Whatsapp voice note from Shneur one evening. “Hey, take in some more kids,” he told me from his hospital bed, his voice excited. “I got you some more money!” No matter the challenges in his personal life, his passion to make a difference was what he lived for.
Shneur was a true believer; he lived with “Tracht gut vet zein gut,” learning and spreading the teachings of Shar Habitochin. Despite his difficult challenges, he constantly maintained a positive attitude. There was simply no other way. His positivity was electrifying and contagious to all those around him.
Shneur was a man with a huge heart and an even bigger Neshama. His life was one of helping others in ways big and small, and his impact will be felt for generations.
In this week’s Parsha, the first Parsha of the Torah, Bereishis, we learn that the first thing Hashem created was “Vayehi Or” – “And there was light.” Commentaries tell us that this first light was a hidden light. The Rebbe questions why there was a need for light when there was nothing in the world. In addition, isn’t a “hidden light” counterintuitive? What purpose could this first hidden light have?
The Rebbe draws a complex and beautiful message on the innate value of this first “Ohr,” but the central idea is that Hashem created this world with the sole purpose of bringing light into this world. The role of light is solely for it to be drawn down into this world. That is why it was created first, because it is the purpose of all creation. It says in the Medrash that Hashem hid the light in Torah and when we increase in Torah we are revealing the light in the world.
Shneur, in your too short, but full, 39 years, you brought immense amounts of light into this world. In your family, work, and through your Tzedakah and dedication to Torah Chinuch, you actively increased light wherever you went. The world is a brighter place because of you. And this is your name “Shneur”, two lights.
Shneur, you are forever a part of us.