Former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, spent a celebratory weekend in Chicago December 1 and 2, officiating at the rabbinic ordination of 14 community members on Saturday evening, and then and addressing the greater Chicago Jewish community on Sunday in a speech that drew a crowd of nearly 1,000.

Rabbi Lau’s visit to the city was sponsored by Congregation B’nei Ruven and the Jewish Learning Institute of Metropolitan Chicago (JLI).

On Shabbat morning, Rabbi Lau delivered the traditional address during services at Congregation B’nei Ruven, located in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood, and on Saturday night, joined over 300 guests at the Holiday Inn in Skokie for the congregation’s Chag HaSemicha, celebrating the rabbinic ordination of 14 of its members. As the officiating rabbi, Rabbi Lau signed each ordination certificate.

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For the past six years, Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Baruch Hertz, spiritual leader of Congregation B'nei Ruven, has led the group—comprising men of various ages, backgrounds, and professions—in comprehensive study sessions, including four hours of learning a week plus regular tests, to earn the title of rabbi.

Motty Stone was one of three new rabbis who were learning with Rabbi Hertz six years ago when they decided to turn the sessions into something more ambitious.

“We started to get to talking,” says Stone in a video presentation prepared for the event. “Maybe we should formalize this a little bit, and Rabbi Hertz had the idea maybe we should do semicha. There were a lot of people in the community who had gone to yeshiva and for whatever reason had never had the opportunity to do something like this, and we said let’s do it. Let’s really do it,” recalls Stone.

Says Hertz: “Before I knew it, the class grew. . . and the excitement and energy were unreal. There was chavrusa (study partner) learning and questioning; people put in extra hours at night to study.” Rabbi Hertz recalls the exertion that went into preparing for the first test. “People with very busy, intense day jobs were sitting and preparing hours and hours and hours for the upcoming test,” notes Hertz.

The group included a number of doctors, among them ophthalmologist Dovid Spindel. “It has always been my lifelong dream to become a rabbi, to go for semicha, even though I’m not quitting my day job, yet,” says Spindel with a smile.

Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, addresses the crowd at the Chag HaSemicha.
Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, addresses the crowd at the Chag HaSemicha.

Among the 14 rabbis ordained by Rabbi Lau were a father and son who studied together each week over the phone. Rabbi Dr. Chaim Hecht, chairman of the radiology department at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Chicago, began studying with son, Rabbi Mendel Hecht, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Franklin County, Mass., at the genesis of the program six years ago. When they began learning, Mendel Hecht was still living in Chicago, and then moved with his family to Greenfield, Mass. to run a Chabad house, but the father-son partnership continued, and Saturday night they celebrated their accomplishment together.

“I had a very special opportunity to learn together with my father. It was a tremendous pleasure for me to have that experience,” says.Mendel Hecht, who is one of ten Hecht children serving Chabad-Lubavitch in locations across the U.S. and in Europe.

On Sunday night, December 2, Rabbi Lau addressed a standing-room-only crowd of nearly 1,000 people from all segments of the community, where he recounted dramatic stories of his personal experience in Buchenwald concentration camp.

“We are about learning and growing individually and as a community," says Rabbi Meir Hecht, director of JLI of Metropolitan Chicago. "Rabbi Lau's address was more than a profoundly moving personal story, The message of the evening was to translate the suffering of the Holocaust into inspiration for meaningful living today; to recognize the importance of every day and of living with high moral standards, integrity and an appreciation of life.”

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau signed the new rabbis' ordination certificates.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau signed the new rabbis' ordination certificates.

More than 300 guests gathered in Skokie, Il., for the Chag HaSemicha, ordination festival,
More than 300 guests gathered in Skokie, Il., for the Chag HaSemicha, ordination festival,

A crowd of more than 1,000 gathered on Sunday for an address by Rabbi Lau.
A crowd of more than 1,000 gathered on Sunday for an address by Rabbi Lau.