Longtime Jewish activist Rabbi Zev Segal was remembered by colleagues as a strong leader who cared passionately about his community, the Land of Israel and the greater Jewish nation. After a day-long search, the 91-year-old was found dead on Thursday in Jersey City, N.J.

Born in 1917, Segal came from a family that traces its lineage back to the 18th century sage known as the Vilna Gaon. His father was a respected rabbi in Chicago, and in the 1920s the son went to Israel to embark on his own Jewish studies. Segal later characterized his years in Jerusalem's Chevron Yeshiva as affording him the privilege to learn from the great Jewish teachers of the day.

A newly-minted rabbi, he returned to the United States in the late 1930s to take up the pulpit at Newark, N.J.'s Young Israel congregation, where he remained for more than 40 years.


"He was a brilliant leader," remarked Rabbi Moshe Kasinetz, who served as Segal's assistant rabbi for six years. He was "a man of principle who had a unique way of taking charge of the community while speaking the language of the young American crowd of the 1940s and 50s."

Segal's influence extended beyond his synagogue. People from all over the city would come to him for help.

"He was really a person who worked for the people," said Kasinetz. When someone asked for assistance, "he got the job done."

It was at that time that Segal began to assist the Rabbinical College of America, a Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva now located in Morristown, N.J. Segal arranged for a bakery to donate fresh bread to the institution; he also got a produce vendor to keep the yeshiva stocked with fruit and vegetables. Every Thursday night, the rabbi let the college use his synagogue for its teen outreach programs, and for large Chasidic gatherings on auspicious days of the Jewish calendar.

Kasinetz said that although he led Newark's most prestigious synagogue, Segal's reach extended far beyond New Jersey and the United States.

"Jewish leaders from all over the world were always calling him," related Kasinetz. "But at the same time, he remained dedicated to his local community."

Segal, though, kept notoriously mum on the subject of his visits abroad to places like Israel, North Africa, Europe and the Soviet Union.

"In my youth, I was brainwashed that if you do a good deed and you talk about it," then it's no longer a good deed, Segal told Jewish Educational Media during a 2007 interview with the Chabad-Lubavitch archival project.

A Life for the Community

It was in the capacity of his communal activities that Segal first met the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

"The Rebbe was not only the leader of our generation," Segal said after the Rebbe's passing in 1994. "He will be the leader of generations to come. Many, many generations will benefit from what the Rebbe [gave] the people of Israel."

Although he wouldn't talk about the specifics, Segal confirmed that he would carry out missions at the Rebbe's request.

"The Rebbe had a certain amount of confidence in me," said Segal. "He shared with me things that I was amazed [that he did], and probably [because he knew] I am not seeking publicity."

On one occasion, the Rebbe found out that Segal was traveling to "a certain country" and asked him to undertake a "very difficult assignment." When he arrived back in the United States, Segal was granted a private audience with the Rebbe.

"I said that the Rebbe should know that it was not an easy task," Segal recalled.

The Rebbe responded: "Since when did you make a contract with the Almighty for an easy life?"

Segal said that that moment stuck with him, and provided a lesson in how one should approach responsibilities and challenges.

As a vice president and, later, the president of the Rabbinical Council of America in the 1960s, Segal met frequently with the Rebbe. They would discuss the status of Jewish communities all over the world, and the Rebbe would direct Segal about missions to accomplish during his travels.

"The Rebbe had a tremendous amount of knowledge [about] what's going on in the Jewish community [everywhere]," Segal once said. "It's amazing how in one human being you [could] have all these areas of knowledge."

On several occasions Segal even served as a liaison between the Rebbe and Israeli government officials.

The Rebbe would frequently single out Segal for attention. Once, while walking to Lubavitch World Headquaters on the day before Passover, the Rebbe met Segal – whose late-night audiences had at times lasted over five hours – and engaged in conversation on a street corner for a half hour.

"He had a great respect for the truth," Rabbi Moshe Herson, dean of the Rabbinical College of America, said of Segal. "He was humbled by the truth and he stood up for the truth."

Rabbi Zev Segal is survived by his wife Esther Segal and children Rabbi Chaim Nate Segal, Moshe Segal, Nachum Segal, Yigal Segal, Peninah Segal and Leah Aharanov. His body is expected to be buried in Israel after Shabbat.