In what I like to call the Great Asymmetry, every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the “ordinary” efforts of a vast majority. We have a duty, almost a holy responsibility, to record and honor the victorious weight of these innumerable little kindnesses . . .
—Stephen Jay Gould, in an essay published two weeks after 9/11
The following words are written out of a sense of holy responsibility to record and honor the victorious weight of one man’s mammoth kindness.
For my mother’s generation, it was the assassination of JFK. For mine, it’s 9/11. Everyone can tell you where they were and what they were doing when they learned of those shocking events.
Now, where were you and what were you doing on Sunday, August 5, when Mr. Sami Rohr, an extraordinary human being, passed—as quietly as he lived—from this world to the next?
Evil seems to trump goodness in claiming our attention; we don’t hear enough about the lives—and deaths—of the righteous among us. The Jewish masters describe this world as alma d’shikra: a place where integrity and G‑dliness are too often obscured, a world of distortion.
Being a Chabad-Lubavitch emissary, I am close enough to Mr. Rohr’s orbit to remember precisely where I was and what I was doing that Sunday evening. I was in my kitchen washing dishes. The phone rang, my husband picked up; out of force of habit I turned to see who it was on the line. I saw my husband’s posture change and his face cloud over as he uttered the time honored words that mark the news of death in Jewish tradition, “Baruch Dayan Ha-emet,” “Blessed be the true Judge.”
“Who?” I asked urgently, sensing intuitively that a bright light in our lives had been eclipsed.
“Mr. Sami Rohr,” he answered, unconvinced, not believing the words he was saying. For the Rohr family, for the Chabad community, for the Jewish world, this was a profound loss. In this alma d’shikra it did not make the ten o’clock news.
But in the olam ha-emet, the realm the same Jewish masters identify as the world of truth, in the heavens above, here is what I imagine occurred.
The Midrash teaches that each mitzvah, each holy act, generates the birth of a new angel. When the pure soul of Reb Shmuel ben Yehoshua Eliyahu alighted above, there was a tremendous tumult as millions of angels spawned by his good works recognized the source of their existence. These were angels born of mitzvahs performed by Jews of every background and age, in every corner of the world, whose connection to Judaism was forged or solidified due to Mr. Rohr’s beneficence.
The thunderous movement alerted the souls of the righteous Jewish scholars whose teachings Reb Shmuel had not only studied but brought to life with his tzedakah. They, too, joined the welcome.
Leading the procession was the soul of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who greeted and embraced “the partner of Lubavitch.” Mr. Rohr had been bound to the Rebbe in the tradition of the great biblical partnership between our patriarch Jacob’s sons, Yissachar and Zevulun. The Rebbe, of righteous memory, had set his sights on reshaping the landscape of world Jewry. In a time of wholesale defection and assimilation, the Rebbe’s agenda was—and remains—to bring every last Jew home. No one did more to help realize the Rebbe’s vision than did Sami Rohr, in partnership with his children. In large measure, their resources made possible the Chabad-Lubavitch network the world knows today.
It is unlikely that any of the souls above will forget the moment on Sunday, 17 Av, that this great spirit arrived on high. In heaven, Sami Rohr’s arrival was the news.
I never met Mr. Sami Rohr in his lifetime, but I can see him today wherever I look. In every city, in every country, on every continent, including cyberspace, there is a Chabad center or a project initiated—or, at the very least, enhanced—by his and his family’s largesse. This is a man who cannot die; he continues to live in the wealth of good he generated, in an eternal cycle he set into motion. It’s as if the memory of running from the Nazis in his youth catapulted him into building welcoming oases wherever in the world a Jew might find himself. His response to Hitler’s final solution? Providing the means for Jews to learn and experience their heritage in a way that guaranteed its transmission. When you look at a college student Jewishly engaged in a Rohr center today, you are looking at the Jewish future: their children, grandchildren and future descendants.
In the days since his passing, I have been thinking of the lessons this man’s life has for me:
Sami Rohr has been called a successful real estate investor, but his unparalleled business acumen lay in how he turned his assets into a liquid, flammable gold. In his quietly determined way, he fueled a veritable conflagration: through his funding of orphanages and adult education programs, schools and camps, university student centers and hostels for tourists in far-flung locations, hundreds of thousands of Jews owe their sense of Jewish belonging to this man. His investment in every Jewish soul sets us all a powerful example.
Sami Rohr was a man remembered for his formidable intellect, but his true brilliance manifested in a good old-fashioned pedagogical tool termed modeling.
Sami Rohr receives the highest honor, sandek, at the 2009 circumcision of his great-grandson Avraham Zvi Sragowicz, at The Shul of Bal Harbour, Surfside, Fla.
He was the embodiment of what the prophet Micah taught: “He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the L‑rd requires of you: Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your G‑d.”
Hearing Mr. Rohr repeatedly thank the Lubavitcher shluchim for allowing him a share in their holy work was the ultimate lesson in humility.
Sami Rohr valued organization, and appreciated that our most precious resource is time. He was a brilliant, cosmopolitan, pious, debonair gentleman who spoke six languages. Many would call him a Renaissance man. But in my mind, I will remember him always as the shliach’s shliach, the quintessential role model for enacting the Rebbe’s mission: to prepare the entire world for the coming of Moshiach.
I have so much more to learn from him, but this I do know: If Sami Rohr could tell us just one thing now, he would exhort each one of us to do more, to do it with greater precision and wisdom. And to do it more quickly. Transforming our world from an arena of distortion to a platform for the truth is a project long overdue.
L’zecher Reb Shmuel ben Yehoshua Eliyahu: ish tov, niftar beseivah tovah, b’shem tov, b’yom tov (yud zayin), b’chodesh Menachem Av. He was a comforting father to so many, and a comfort to our Father in Heaven.