Regarded as a matriarch of Jewish life and education in southern Connecticut, Rivkah Hecht passed away July 8 at the age of 91. A transplant from Malden, Mass., she arrived in New Haven in 1946 with her husband, Rabbi Moshe “Maurice” Hecht. Together, they established and presided over a network of schools responsible for the instruction of tens of thousands of Jewish students.

Born to Shmaya and Eta Krinsky, Hecht grew up in a home continually open to visitors from afar. Like her siblings, she would often reminisce about one guest in particular, Rabbi Yitzchak Horowitz, who was known in the Chabad-Lubavitch community as “Itche the Diligent” and travelled from town to town to raise money for Jewish education in Europe and for communal causes behind the Iron Curtain.

“His bed was never used,” Hecht once related. “He would have his learning stand and would study on it the entire night.”

In 1941, she married Moshe Hecht, then a young rabbinical student at the new Lubavitch yeshiva in New York.

Her husband worked in his father’s business until the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, sought to tap into the young couple’s talent for Jewish activism. In 1942, he instructed them to move to Worcester, Mass., stating: “Until today, you have earned your living by that which comes from the earth. In the future, you will earn your bread from Heaven.”

The Hechts found early success in the northeastern United States. The young rabbi knocked on the doors of Jewish families to convince them of the benefits of religious education, while Rivkah Hecht organized Jewish women. When it became clear that one school would not be enough for the local community, the couple opened an additional Jewish school on the city’s east side.

In 1946, Rivkah Krinsky married Rabbi Moshe “Maurice” Hecht.
In 1946, Rivkah Krinsky married Rabbi Moshe “Maurice” Hecht.

The Sixth Rebbe then instructed the Hechts to establish another school in New Haven. Immediately after he received the telegram, Moshe Hecht took a train to the Connecticut city to lay the groundwork for the new institution.

On its opening day, the school consisted of four students learning in the dining room of a private home. Two years later, the student body numbered 120 children.

Today, the Southern Connecticut Hebrew Academy calls a sprawling eight-acre campus in the town of Orange home. Hundreds of children attend classes there, from daycare through high school.

Debbie Sessel, who knew Rivkah Hecht towards the end of her life, said that the school stands today as a testament to her take-charge attitude.

“She committed hours of dedication and support to the school,” said Sessel. “This was the focus of her entire life, and while she gave all the credit to her husband for the school, we all knew that she had a major part in its establishment and growth.”

From the Ground Up

Upon the passing of the Sixth Rebbe, the Hechts immediately began directing their personal requests for guidance and blessings to his son-in-law and successor, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

On Aug. 27, 1950, the Rebbe wrote in a heartfelt letter a reply to Moshe Hecht’s concern that some parents appeared scared to send their children to a Jewish day school.

“It is incumbent upon you to discuss patiently and cordially with the parents that Jewish education is not to make the kids rabbis and rebbetzins,” the Rebbe wrote, according to a paraphrased translation from the original Hebrew. “If the parents want their children to have a connection to Judaism in the next 10 to 20 years, they have to [transmit] to them as much Judaism as possible.”

In another letter, this one dated April 4, 1951, the Rebbe advised the Hechts to not skimp on the construction of a proper playground, even if doing so would break the current budget.

“They should build a playground that is befitting [the school],” he wrote, “and it will bring a greater return to the school.”

Before the school moved to Orange in 1967, the Hechts sent the building plans to the Rebbe.

“The plans and maps just arrived,” the Rebbe replied on Dec. 12 of that year. “I had the gratification to see that finally, the prospects have become greater.”

During the construction of the school, the Rebbe’s wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, made an unannounced visit.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, an aide to the Rebbe and a brother of Rivkah Hecht, served as the Rebbetzin’s driver.

“I had no way to notify the people there” of the trip, Krinsky related at the 2008 International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries.

Upon her arrival, the Hechts gave the Rebbetzin a tour of the construction site, responding to her every question.

She “spent some 40 minutes on this visit,” said Krinsky.

Later, when the Hechts had a private audience with the Rebbe, he told them that the Rebbetzin was “overwhelmed by the beauty of the building.”

Both husband and wife touched the lives of countless individuals in southern Connecticut.
Both husband and wife touched the lives of countless individuals in southern Connecticut.

An Open Home

In time, Moshe Hecht became a legend in the local community, touching an untold number of lives. But according to the couple’s daughter, Malkie Katz, he couldn’t have done it without her mother.

“My mother was my father’s right hand,” said Katz. “She was involved in all levels of the building of the school. Yet she stood in the background and never demanded anything from him that would take him away from his most-important work in Jewish education.

“My father would always pay teachers’ paychecks on time,” added Katz. “But on the other hand, his and my mother’s paychecks seldom arrived on time.”

Still, Rivkah Hecht never complained, seeing her life’s mission in supporting Jewish education.

In addition to her dedication to the school, noted Katz, Hecht sought to fill various areas of need in the local community. When the area was devoid of kosher establishments, Hecht organized and prepared all of the catered events at her husband’s synagogue, Congregation B’nei Israel. When the holiday of Purim arrived each year, she made hundreds of traditional food packages to deliver to community members.

She also served as a teacher, leading scholarly classes with fervor.

“Students come over to me even today telling me that they remember her great classes on Torah subjects,” said Katz.

Echoing her experiences as a child, Hecht presided over an open home, welcoming anyone in need, from travelers passing through to students at Yale University. She worried for them like a mother.

“I remember her making soup for kids that were sick,” said Katz, “and then bringing it to their dorm room.”

Community member Deborah Sessel witnessed Hecht’s characteristic dedication to Judaism.

“I would watch her walk the two miles to synagogue at her older age in her little black shoes,” said Sessel, who thought of Hecht as a grandmother. “She did it with such a smile and a purpose.”

Hecht regularly baked honey cake and rolls of gefilte fish for Sessel, but it was Hecht’s excitement for Judaism that inspired her.

She would sit in the front row of the synagogue and kindly guide those with less of a religious background on the finer points of Jewish practice.

“She was always there in terms of how to live a life imbued with Judaism,” said Sessel.

“My mother’s entire life was given over to the cause of education and giving to others,” stated Katz. “Those that she touched and inspired will be her legacy.”