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An Influential Rabbi and Communal Activist

An Influential Rabbi and Communal Activist

Rabbi Herschel Schacter, 95

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Rabbi Herschel Schacter (left) conducts the service of the first day of Shavuot for survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after their liberation.
Rabbi Herschel Schacter (left) conducts the service of the first day of Shavuot for survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after their liberation.

Rabbi Herschel (Tzvi) Schacter, an influential community activist and congregational rabbi who served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, passed away March 22 in the Bronx, N.Y. He was 95.

Schacter graduated Yeshiva College in 1938 and Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS) in 1941. He was a student of Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik and also of his son, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik. As a young rabbi serving as a chaplain in the U.S. Army during World War II, he participated in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945, and later aided in the resettlement of displaced persons. Schacter went on to serve as a congregational rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish Center in the Bronx for more than five decades, and in leadership positions at many American Jewish organizations.

He was founding chairman of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, and chairman of the Chaplaincy Commission of the Jewish Welfare Board. In addition, he was Director of Rabbinic Services at Yeshiva University, and for many years served on the board of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and was chair of the OU’s Communal Relations Committee from 1970 to 1982.

Schacter grew up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended Yeshiva Chaim Berlin elementary school, and transferred to Mesivta Torah Vodaas in Williamsburg for high school. Later, he moved to Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, where he said he could receive a more well-rounded education.

It was during this period, the early to mid-1930s, that he first encountered Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, the representative in prewar America of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, the sixth rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch.

Rabbi Herschel (Tzvi) Schacter. (Photo: Jewish Educational Media)
Rabbi Herschel (Tzvi) Schacter. (Photo: Jewish Educational Media)

In his memoirs, Rabbi Jacobson notes that as early as 1932 Schacter was among the first American-born students with whom he began studying chassidic teachings. Many years later, Schacter recalled these early days: “Through other friends, with whom I had learned in Torah Vodaas, I was introduced to Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson, who also lived in Brownsville, not too far from my home . . . There was a group of boys that used to come to his home on Saturday night, to learn Tanya. I liked Rav Jacobson, of blessed memory, very much. He was a very bright, energetic, charismatic person, who embodied all the virtues which I associated with really genuine chassidim. Of course, his admiration and commitment to Lubavitch knew no bounds. He had a little shul in Brownsville, but he devoted most of his time to his work as the director of the whole Agudat Chassidei Chabad (The Union of Chabad Chassidim) in America.”

Schacter’s nomination in 1939 as the representative of RIETS to Chabad’s “Achei Hatmimim” student committee reveals the depth of his involvement in the early establishment of the movement upon American shores.

A “critical period” in a young scholar’s life

Schacter remembered this as a “critical period.” A few months later, six of his “colleagues, contemporaries, the young men who brought me into the Lubavitch circle,” made the long trip to Otwock (Otvotzk), Poland, to meet the Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, and to study in the Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva.

“Rabbi Jacobson tried to persuade me to do so also,” Schacter recalled, “but I was not ready for that step. I stayed in America, continued learning in Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, in Yeshiva College. But I maintained a warm relationship with Rabbi Jacobson.”

Six of his friends did go to Poland. Just a few weeks later, the Second World War broke out with the Nazi invasion of that country. All of the American students returned safely to American shores. “As the war years wore on,” Schacter recalled, “I was a little active” in “the efforts that were extended to bring the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe to America.”

When the Rebbe did arrive in America, Schacter met with him and developed a relationship. Schacter did not identify himself as a chassid, and recalled that despite his warmth and admiration for Lubavitch, “there was an element of separation . . . I chose the more ‘modern’ way. I identified with the Yeshiva College, I graduated from the college, I stayed there and studied for rabbinic ordination, and became an Orthodox rabbi.”

It was during this period that he first became acquainted with Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, who would later succeed his father-in-law as the seventh rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch. “I remember once I went to the previous Rebbe (Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak), and the Rebbe told me to talk to Rabbi (Menachem Mendel) Schneerson. And I did. And he wanted to know what I do for Judaism (yiddishkeit) . . . if I could have an influence. He was a very young man himself then . . .”

In subsequent years Schacter maintained a close relationship with Rabbi Menachem Mendel, especially after he began to serve as the Rebbe. “I was attracted to him,” said Schacter, “as were infinite numbers of Jews all over the world. That I found in him a remarkable personality is superfluous to say.”

“I wrote to the Rebbe several times. He answered me, he wrote back; I have it in my files. And he too, like his father-in-law, tried to speak to me about going to Australia, about going on different missions. I was not ready to do that.”

A mission to the Soviet Union

Another interesting episode recalled by Rabbi Schacter involved his 1956 participation in the first rabbinic delegation to the Soviet Union. “Rabbi (Dovid) Hollander and I had a long session with the Rebbe; we got certain instructions about certain people, certain places, where to visit, where to go, what to see. And it was remarkable, remarkable.”

“The Rebbe trusted us, I think, and he gave us the information, and we went there and we saw, and we spoke to Lubavitcher chassidim from Moscow and Leningrad, to Gruzinia, to Tbilisi, Kutaisi. I had other trips, not just that famous trip, to Russia. Other trips around the world, in different capacities, and I always consulted with the Rebbe, and he knew exactly who was where.”

In a long letter dating from 1957, one example of their extensive correspondence, the Rebbe entered into a long discussion of the specific problems facing American Jewry at the time, and encouraged him in his efforts to magnify the positive expansion of traditional Judaism. “Your true purpose,” he concluded, “is to turn the organization in which you serve into a center for the dissemination of the living waters of the Torah of life, the Torah of truth . . .”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Herschel Schacter (center) and Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik in 1980, at a farbrengen celebrating the Rebbe’s 30th year leading a global Jewish renaissance. (Photo: Jewish Educational Media)
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Herschel Schacter (center) and Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik in 1980, at a farbrengen celebrating the Rebbe’s 30th year leading a global Jewish renaissance. (Photo: Jewish Educational Media)

Throughout the years a connection was maintained, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. While there were periods when he dropped out of sight, he recalled that the Rebbe would always “keep track” of him. When he would once again attend a chassidic gathering in the Rebbe’s synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Rebbe would sometimes comment, “I haven’t seen you for a while.” Recalling this, Schacter remarked, “This man was a genius. There is no one like him. He knew and remembered his relations with hundreds of thousands of people.”

In 1980, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik visited the Rebbe and attended a farbrengen. The occasion was a celebration of the Rebbe’s 30th year leading a global Jewish renaissance, and Rabbi Soloveitchik, an old friend of the Rebbe from the years they spent together in Berlin, came to publicly honor the Rebbe. Rabbi Schacter accompanied Rabbi Soloveitchik, and played a pivotal role in organizing the visit. Years later, in a video interview with Jewish Educational Media (JEM), Rabbi Schacter remembered the words that these two Torah giants exchanged before they took leave of one another:

“The moment the Rav stood up, the Rebbe jumped up,” recalled Schacter. “The Rav didn’t wait for the Rebbe to come to him,” he continued. “He went to the Rebbe to shake hands and say goodbye, and I walked with the Rav, right behind. And they talked to each other for a few minutes. Very warm. You could see on their faces that these two men liked each other, they really liked one another . . .”

“These words are not in any manuscript, but I was standing right there, and I heard—this, you can take it on my word of honor—that the Rebbe said to the Rav, and he’s looking at me . . . He says, ‘You have wonderful students!’ (Du host, Boruch Hashem, voile talmidim!)

Remembering the Rebbe’s remark about himself, Schacter concluded, “After a hundred years, when I come before the divine throne, I’m going to remind the Master of the World of what these two Torah geniuses said to one another.”

He is survived by his wife, Pnina G. Schacter; his children, Rabbi Jacob J. and Yocheved Schacter, Miriam Schacter and Dr. Benjamin R. Gampel; four grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.



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