It was the third night of Chanukah, 2007. I was standing in Basel’s Marketplatz engrossed in building a five-meter high menorah and preparing the grounds opposite the Rathaus, the city’s historic red municipal building. In just a few hours, the municipal president would be hoisted in the air by a crane to address the hundreds of celebrants at our public menorah lighting.

My cell phone rang, and a kind, distinguished voice came through on the other end.

“Rabbi Wishedski? Doh redt Sami Rohr. Vos hert zich?

It was Mr. Sami Rohr – I referred to him as Reb Shmuel – and he wanted to know what I was consumed with at that particular moment.

“I’m in Marketplatz,” I answered. “We’re erecting the menorah, and in a few hours the lighting will take place opposite the Rathaus.”

“I remember the Marketplatz very well. A mere 62 years have passed since then,” he said. “Tell me, Rabbi Wishedski, how many people do you expect?”

I told him 400.

Un vifel latkes hot ihr bashtelt?” (And how many latkes did you order?)

Again, I told him 400. But we didn’t order latkes, we ordered jelly doughnuts.

The 82-year-old Reb Shmuel’s voice reverberated over the line from Miami.

“Only 400?! You said you expect 400 Jews! Quickly, please order another 200 doughnuts so there’ll be an ample supply, with gezint und menichah.”

An Active Partner

Mr. Rohr once advised that “a really good friend is the one you are friends with for 60 years.”

I can’t say that I was friends with Sami Rohr; he was a full half-century older than me. And I was certainly not his rabbi, although he never called me or any of my colleagues around the globe by our first names.

But in 2002, Divine Providence saw me installed as the Chabad-Lubavitch emissary in Basel, the Swiss city Mr. Rohr lived in for two years as a teenager escaping Nazi Germany. His affection for the city and the deep gratitude he felt to Basel’s Feldinger Family, who welcomed him in and treated him as their own son, connected us. Before long, I merited to be in close contact with a person of immense stature, bold vision and rare humility.

Sami Rohr wasn’t just a donor or a patron. He was a full partner in our work, and despite his years, was perpetually young. Often it was he who initiated our programs and activities, almost always at additional cost to himself.

One Friday afternoon three winters ago, he rang me. The conversation opened as usual: “Rabbi Wishedski, Sami Rohr speaking. What’s new?

“Are you hosting a kiddush reception tomorrow at the synagogue? Do me a favor, make a good cholent with meat; buy an expensive bottle of whiskey and see to it that the crowd says some l’chaim.”

(Needless to say, this party was for people well over the age of 21.)

“If you buy quality whiskey, they will enjoy,” he continued, his voice full of love and appreciation for the community he stayed in close touch with. “But make sure to pour it in person. Heed my words, a community will yet emerge from this cholent.”

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, Gabriel Feldinger, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, philanthropist Sami Rohr, and interim Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen cut the ceremonial ribbon outside the new Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo: Meir Dahan)
Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski, Gabriel Feldinger, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, philanthropist Sami Rohr, and interim Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen cut the ceremonial ribbon outside the new Feldinger Chabad Jewish Center in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo: Meir Dahan)

I promptly ran out to buy the whiskey and other necessities, and I put up a large cholent, a traditional stew kept warm throughout Shabbat, to cook.

But there was a small problem. No kiddush had been scheduled. In fact, our Chabad House didn’t have regular Shabbat services. I prayed at a local synagogue, and was flummoxed as to how to host a massive lunch without services.

I made a round of phone calls to 15 local Jews who did not frequent any synagogue on the Sabbath and invited them to come to the Chabad House the next day.

“We’re hosting a special prayer service,” I told them, “and after prayers we’ll have a kiddush and some l’chaim on fine whiskey.”

Needless to say, the people came and enjoyed.

But, as usual, the story was not over.

Three days later I received a phone call from Rabbi Mendel Kotlarsky at Lubavitch World Headquarters in New York.

“Mr. Rohr sent a check for you, specifying ‘for the kiddushes.’ Any idea what this is about?”

Ever since, the Basel Chabad House has hosted Sabbath prayer services, complete with a kiddush featuring a hearty cholent and some fine whiskey.

“How Can I Possibly Stop?”

“We have 140 shluchim throughout the Former Soviet Union,” Reb Shmuel said to me when I visited him in Florida toward the end of 2008, using the Hebrew term commonly referring to Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries. “And there are many more on the U.S. campuses. I am particular in giving a tenth of my earnings to charity, and, thank G‑d, my children are stringent in doing so as well. However, in the past year, due to the economic crisis, my earnings decreased, and the original 10 percent is now 20 percent or more.”

That was characteristic of Mr. Rohr, who refused to decrease his monetary contributions, and inspired countless others the world over to do the same.

“But how can I possibly stop anything?” he went on. “Could I be responsible for community X or Y having no shliach? Who would tend to the Jewish communities?! They are not there to build a career; they come to their locations and remain ‘until moshiach arrives.’ ”

Being a true partner was only one facet of this unbelievable Jew. There were times you felt that he was like a loving father or a compassionate grandfather, empathetic and caring. You got the impression that he wasn’t a multi-millionaire with international business dealings, but that his entire being was wrapped up in ascertaining that a family of emissaries somewhere on the map was doing well, ensuring that they were able to carry out their mission with good health and peace of mind.

At the April dedication ceremony for Basel’s Feldinger Chabad House, which Mr. Rohr donated, his son George related:

“In the past year, my father has experienced some difficulty walking, and has had to pray at home on Shabbat. Shluchim whom my father supports send a semi-annual report of their work to him. Thank G‑d, he receives a substantial amount of reports weekly. When reaching the Yekum Purkan prayer beseeching G‑d to reward the rabbis, teachers and leaders of the Jewish people, he mentions all the names of the shluchim and their families in the said reports, and prays for them and their families.”

Gratitude

The April ceremony was a particularly emotional one for Reb Shmuel and his family. He hadn’t returned to Basel in 67 years, and there he was sitting in the same seat he occupied as a teenager, participating in the morning prayer services at the Adas Yeshurun synagogue. Later, he was cutting the ribbon to the Chabad house he dedicated in appreciation for the righteous family who nurtured him and cared for him as its own.

Before celebrating with rabbis, diplomats, government officials and Jewish community leaders, Mr. Rohr was addressed at the Basel Parliament by legislative president Daniel Geopfert.

Leaving Parliament, he said to me: “In today’s portion of the Psalms, we said, ‘He raises the poor from the dust, [and] lifts the destitute from the garbage heaps to seat them with nobles, with the nobles of His people.’ I was here in the dust, destitute, and G‑d raised me up, and the nobles of the city have come to greet me with a beautiful reception.”

As he spoke, Reb Shmuel cried. He repeated these same words of Psalms publicly on television.

“I plan to live until the age of 180,” he used to proclaim with a twinkle in his eye. He certainly will. And well beyond. His presence remains vibrant in a Siberian kindergarten, in the Dusseldorf Chabad House, on scores of college campuses, and inside the Chabad House in Basel. Present but sorely missed.

May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life.