David Chase, a Holocaust survivor, businessman and philanthropist who led many important charitable efforts for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and who served at times as a personal representative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—passed away on June 1. He was 88 years old.

Chase’s relationship with the Rebbe was a close one, typified by an emotional encounter on the day of the groundbreaking for a major expansion of the Rebbe’s synagogue and headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. On that late summer’s day in 1988, Chase, who helped spearhead the project, approached the Rebbe following the afternoon minchah prayer to invite him to the groundbreaking.

“A Jew is always making a deal,” the Rebbe responded. He would attend if Chase agreed to publically “say a few words ... in Yiddish, in your mamme lashon [‘mother tongue’].”

That afternoon, with throngs of people looking on, Chase spoke into the microphone.

“Rabbi, I don’t know what to tell you, except that I promised you that I’m going to say a few words in mamme lashon—the mother tongue,” he said, as the Rebbe looked on with a beaming smile. “All I can tell you is: Ich liebe dir, zeir zeir asach—‘I love you Rebbe, very, very much.’ ”

David Tuvia Ciesla was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, where he attended cheder and lived a rich Jewish life. During World War II, he and his family were shipped to Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister perished. His older sister managed to escape by hiding during the war, pretending to be a Christian. After the war, she married an American soldier and brought her brother to the United States, where he was educated and went on to build a successful career.

Starting as an itinerant salesman, Chase became a millionaire before he turned 30 by investing in the discount retail business. He then turned his attention to real estate and communications, where he increased his fortune. By the 1980s, his wealth was estimated at $2 billion.

Yet he viewed his newfound fiscal situation as a means through which he could help make the world a better place. Through his connection to the Rebbe and the Rebbe’s emissaries, he facilitated Jewish growth around the world and encouraged others to do the same.

As his business interests expanded, he became involved in an enterprise in New Jersey, where he first met Rabbi Moshe Herson.

“He became my good buddy, like my brother,” recalled Chase in a 2008 interview with JEM. “Rabbi Herson was running a Chabad school in a poor area of Newark, and he was in desperate need of financial help. I checked him out and found that he was a very special person, with a level of selflessness and dedication to Yiddishkeit that I had never encountered before. I decided to help him with fundraising, and before I knew it, I was on the board of directors of his school—the Rabbinical College of America, which we moved to Morristown—and up to my neck, gratefully, involved with Chabad-Lubavitch.

“In 1968, I met the Rebbe, of blessed memory, and it was love at first sight. When I encountered this great human being, this great educator, this wonderful, humble tzadik, I was changed forever. And I became totally devoted to him.”

Chase receives a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe. In between them is Rabbi Moshe Herson, today head shaliach of New Jersey. (JEM Photo)
Chase receives a dollar and a blessing from the Rebbe. In between them is Rabbi Moshe Herson, today head shaliach of New Jersey. (JEM Photo)

Influenced Those Around Him

Through the Rebbe’s encouragement, Chase incorporated many Jewish observances into his daily life, including putting on tefillin, which the Rebbe requested that he do as a “gift” for the Rebbe’s 79th birthday in 1981.

Chase maintained the practice of praying in tallit and tefillin daily—even aboard airplanes and his personal yacht. In following the Talmudic dictum to face towards Jerusalem while praying, Chase regularly asked his captain, a non-Jew named Nick Winters, of the ship’s position and projected route. One Sunday, while docked at Block Island, Winters asked Chase if he could leave the ship to attend church. “You pray to your G‑d every morning,” he said,” and you’re making me feel guilty that I don’t follow my faith.”

Chase shared the incident with the Rebbe. At a subsequent public talk, the Rebbe told the story, demonstrating how a Jew who is proud and comfortable in his observance can influence all those around him—Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Rebbe and Chase (JEM Photo)
The Rebbe and Chase (JEM Photo)

As chairman of Machne Yisrael Development Fund—a position the Rebbe insisted that he take—Chase was instrumental in raising millions of dollars for new and expanding Chabad centers all over the globe. Closer to home, he was a major backer of the Chabad presence in Connecticut and New Jersey.

“The Rebbe placed a tremendous measure of trust in Mr. Chase,” notes Herson. “I do not know if there was another lay leader who had that kind of connection with the Rebbe. Once, the Rebbe gave Chase $4, noting that he was his ‘four-star general.’ He then gave him a fifth dollar for when he would become a five-star general.”

At a subsequent meeting, Chase told the Rebbe that he wished he could even become a private in the Rebbe’s army. The Rebbe replied: “You may think I am joking, but I am serious.”

Chase speaks at the Chabad House of Hartford, which he helped build. (Photo: Courtesy of Chabad of Hartford)
Chase speaks at the Chabad House of Hartford, which he helped build. (Photo: Courtesy of Chabad of Hartford)

A longtime resident of West Hartford, Conn., Chase first met Rabbi Yosef Gopin as the shaliach was preparing to move there to establish the city’s first Chabad House.

“He was involved with Chabad here in Hartford from day one,” says Gopin. “He got other local businessmen and philanthropists involved with our projects, and he was always willing to help in any way possible.”

Later, when Chabad of Hartford embarked on an ambitious new building project in the late 1980s, it was Chase who became the project’s main cheerleader, and it was he who sent a letter to the Rebbe informing him of the building’s completion.

“The Chabad Houses are ‘lamplighters’ kindling the flame that is inherent in every Jewish heart and soul, since ‘the soul of a Jew is lamp of Hashem,’ ” the Rebbe wrote back to Chase. “ ... May Hashem grant that this be so, in the fullest measure with the new Chabad House in Hartford.”

“Every one of our board meetings would become a farbrengen,” recalls Gopin. “When the Rebbe’s name would come up in conversation, David would begin talking about him, and that was the end of the meeting.”

In addition to the Chabad House in West Hartford, Chase was involved with the construction of three others in the vicinity.

“He would get very excited when he heard about a new Chabad House opening,” attests Gopin. “He felt the Rebbe gave him a mandate to build new Chabad Houses, so each new one was for him very exciting.”

A Sign of Blessing and Success

Acting as the Rebbe’s agent, Chase, who had returned to post-Communist Poland for business purposes, struck up a personal connection with labor activist Lech Walesa in 1990, just before Walesa was elected president of Poland.

Visiting Poland at the behest of the Rebbe, the American tycoon met up with the union leader and gave him a dollar bill that the Rebbe had directed be given to a non-Jew.

“Here is a dollar that you should hold on to,” Chase told Walesa, according to a written account of the encounter by Chase. “When you become president, I’ll tell you who gave me this dollar to give to you. Do not ask me before then. When you become president—and I am sure you will become president—you will find out who gave you this dollar.”

After finding out that the dollar came from the Rebbe, the president kept it with him always, saying he saw the bill as a sign of blessing and success.

Some time later, when Walesa visited the Diaspora Museum in Israel, he saw a portrait of the Rebbe on the wall. “Is this my Rebbe?” he asked, bowing his head in reverence.

After succumbing to a battle with Parkinson’s disease, Chase passed away on June 1, leaving behind his wife, Rhoda Chase; his children, Cheryl Chase and Arnold L. Chase; and his grandchildren.

At the first International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim in New York City, 1987 (JEM Photo)
At the first International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim in New York City, 1987 (JEM Photo)