Rabbi Zalman Kazen, a longtime leader of Cleveland’s Jewish community known for his relentless and unyielding energy to assist local Jews with their physical and spiritual needs, passed away at the age of 92. Juggling a hectic schedule into his 90s, Kazen inspired the community to grow in its scholarship and observance.

Kazen was born in the Russian town of Gzhatsk in 1919 to Rabbi Michoel and Sara Katzenellenbogen, fierce activists in the underground Chabad-Lubavitch network of Jewish schools, synagogues and communal services who risked their lives to provide for and encourage the throngs of Jews persecuted by the Soviets.

Kazen’s mother traveled from one Soviet orphanage to the next searching for Jewish children kidnapped by authorities in the hope they would forget their religious identities. His father, meanwhile, fearlessly taught classes on classic Jewish texts and encouraged Jews he met to not give up the fight to preserve their traditions.

His father was later hauled to prison; his family never saw him again.

Kazen’s father-in-law, Elchonon Shagalov, was a ritual circumciser who practiced his craft in secret. But the Soviets eventually caught up with him and imprisoned him when Kazen’s future wife, Shula, was 14 years old. Her mother, Maryasha Shagalov-Garelik, prevailed in the face of such hardship and refused to give up on educating her children in the ways of their forebears.

“We shared the same fate,” Shula Kazen remarked days after her husband’s passing. “My father was taken from our family to never be seen again and his father was taken from his family to never be seen again.”

In her early teens, Shula Shagalov went to Moscow to an underground Lubavitch home that arranged occupations for its girls and allowed them the opportunity to keep the Sabbath and live together with likeminded teenagers. Her mother, meanwhile, travelled to Leningrad to reside at the home of the Katzenellenbogens.

Sara Katzeneleboigen (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Sara Katzeneleboigen (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

At the time, Kazen was a student in the clandestine network of Lubavitch schools, travelling from one institution to the next to stay one step ahead of the secret police. At one point several students, including his brother Moshe, were imprisoned and later hauled to an orphanage, where Lubavitch activists smuggled them out.

In Leningrad, the two mothers began talking about their marriageable children.

“They made sure we met each other,” said Shula Kazen.

The two married in a secret ceremony in the middle of a forest in Malkhovka, a suburb of Moscow, a joyous celebration for the underground activists who attended. But the couple then endured years of sickness, hunger and instability.

In 1946, the Russian government opened its border to Polish immigrants wishing to return back to Poland. Seeing an opportunity, the Lubavitch underground created a sophisticated process of falsifying Polish passports and training Russian Jews on how to slip across the border to safety.

Sara Katzenellenbogen, by then adored for her deep care for fellow Jews and known as “Aunt Sara,” was one of the central leaders in the project. Only when she felt that the possibility of escape was drawing to a close did she arrange for her own family to leave; and at the last moment, she gave up her ticket and passport to Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, mother of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Schneerson travelled as the mother and grandmother of Katzenellenbogen's children, including Zalman and Shula Kazen.

Katzenellenbogen attempted to escape on the next train to Poland, but was caught and imprisoned for her activities. She passed away in prison.

Clevelanders remembered Rabbi Zalman Kazen’s smile and warm demeanor.
Clevelanders remembered Rabbi Zalman Kazen’s smile and warm demeanor.

Laying Jewish Roots in Cleveland

Kazen, his wife and three children ultimately arrived in Pocking, Germany, where at the direction of the Sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, he studied the laws of ritual slaughtering. They later travelled to Paris, where they helped establish and fundraise for the Beis Rivkah girls’ school, and he sold watches to provide for his growing family and to fund the institution.

In 1953, Shula Kazen’s lifelong dream of moving to the United States became a reality with the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which arranged for the couple and their six children to live in an apartment in Cleveland. Shula Kazen, however, wanted to live in New York amongst other Chabad disciples and in proximity to the Rebbe.

A few days before their departure from New York, the Kazens had a private audience with the Rebbe, where she raised her concerns about their impending move. The Rebbe responded that without the assistance from HIAS, it would be impossible to live comfortably with six children.

“Cleveland is also a nice place,” the Rebbe said when Kazen’s wife reiterated her wish to live in New York, “with nice people and a good school.”

The Rebbe then asked Kazen what he planned to do once he arrived in Cleveland. Kazen responded that he planned to continue his watch business, but the Rebbe suggested that he be a ritual slaughterer, lead prayer services or become a rabbi of a synagogue.

Upon his arrival in Cleveland, Kazen dropped off his bags and began searching for Jews. While walking down the street, two men ran over to him and looking straight into his eyes, warned him about life in the New World.

“Fanatic, in America you need to shave off your beard,” they told him. “Forget about what they said in Russian about America. Here we work for money and only later comes Judaism.”

But the Kazens would not be swayed. Soon after their move, the Rebbe instructed the family to work with local Jewish families and encourage them to strengthen their Jewish observance. The Kazens knocked on doors and invited their neighbors to join study groups on the Sabbath.

“We found one girl,” remembered Shula Kazen. “Then that girl or boy brought another one, and that one another one, and that is how it grew.”

Shula Kazen encouraged her fellow parents to send their children to the Hebrew Academy. And her husband studied Jewish texts with the local immigrants from Poland, Romania and Hungary.

“We arrived in Cleveland at a time when Jews were trying to move on from the atrocities of the Holocaust,” said Shula Kazen. Still fresh from their own wounds, the Kazens imparted the courage and spirit they inherited from their parents to the local population.

Michael Hoen remembered Kazen’s unrelenting charm.

“He was always smiling,” noted Hoen. “He truly loved everyone he came in contact with and was always interested in every individual.”

In time, Kazen was appointed as the rabbi in the local Congregation Zemach Zedek synagogue, a position he held for more than six decades. His wife, meanwhile, established the Lubavitch Women’s Organization.

“Their personal home,” wrote the Cleveland Jewish News, “became the place for everything Jewish in Cleveland.”

Rabbi Zalman Kazen helps a Jewish man don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.
Rabbi Zalman Kazen helps a Jewish man don the prayer boxes known as tefillin.

To the Hungry with Love

In the early 1970s, the Kazens established the Russian Immigrant Aid Society to assist a new crop of immigrants from the Soviet Union. They provided for the new arrivals’ needs, introducing them to doctors and arranging assistance with food.

“He had a pure soul,” Hoen, who serves as president of the Congregation Zemach Zedek, said of Kazen. “He was interested only in the welfare of his fellow man, especially the welfare of the Jews from the former Soviet Union, because he knew firsthand what they went through.”

“We had some very tough times in Cleveland,” Miriam Goldstein, today a resident of California, recalled. “We would get our chickens from Rabbi Kazen. He would always ensure that we would have what to eat.

“When you have nothing to eat, it’s significant that there’s someone there to give you food with dignity,” added Goldstein. “In fact, we relished going to his chicken store [where he worked]. I never felt embarrassed” by having to ask for food.

Kazen taught his neighbors in their native Russian, showing them how to observe the Jewish holidays and celebrate life events, all things that were forbidden by the Communists. On Sundays, hundreds of people came to the synagogue for a hearty meal while the rabbi organized lectures that explored a selected Jewish topic. Throughout the week, there was always a steady stream of people to pick up free food packages.

It was normal for the rabbi and his wife to wake up at 4 a.m. to begin a hectic day that included feeding the needy, taking them to doctor’s appointments, helping them find furniture, assisting them with job interviews, counseling them through family issues and delivering his many classes.

The Kazens also focused on immigrants’ children.

“We invested much energy so that the children would receive a Jewish education at the Hebrew Academy,” said Shula Kazen.

“They worked endlessly to make sure that [immigrants] would get a Jewish education,” echoed Hebrew Academy’s Rabbi Eli Dessler. “They absolutely were astonishing for their self-sacrifice. They would not leave any stone unturned to enroll another Jewish child in Jewish education.”

Kazen also never forgot his fellow Jews back in Russia.

His daughter, Henya Laine, related that when her sister Esther was studying in New York, she would attend the regular Chasidic gatherings, where the Rebbe would for hours deliver a stream of scholarly talks. She wrote down what the Rebbe said and sent her notes to her father.

“He would learn the talks and would treasure them,” said Laine. “At the time, it was difficult to obtain copies of the Rebbe’s talks.”

But Kazen did not keep the material for himself. As soon as he was able, he would mail the copies to the Soviet Union, where the papers would be secretly handed from one person to the next. Years later, a man who studied the talks in Russia said that Kazen’s parcels were their only source for teachings from the Rebbe.

Rabbi Zalman and Shula Kazen
Rabbi Zalman and Shula Kazen

The Synagogue’s Spirit

Congregants who came to Kazen’s synagogue were not drawn by its physical beauty, but rather by its warm embrace of all who entered. Attendees said it was like joining a family, seeing fellow Jews from a myriad of backgrounds and speaking a variety of languages. Though they differed in their finances and demeanor, they worshipped as one.

“He taught many of his classes in all three languages,” Russian, English and Yiddish, said Hoen. “It was a wonder to behold. It didn’t matter if you did not understand one of the languages he spoke, for you felt his sincerity and warmth for what he was teaching.”

At the synagogue no one was turned away.

“We believed,” said Shula Kazen, “that every person, no matter how they acted, should always be accepted in our community. There are many looking for their place in society and we were always delighted to welcome them to our synagogue, even if they did not fit in anywhere else.”

Later, the Kazens began working with local college students, their guests many times staying until the wee hours of the morning. At the Rebbe’s encouragement and with the financial backing of philanthropist and American Greetings owner Irving Stone and philanthropist Mel Waxman, they purchased the first Chabad House in Cleveland. Their daughter and son-in-law, Rabbi Leibel and Devorah Alevsky, took up the institution’s reins in 1972. Today there are six Chabad Houses in greater Cleveland in addition to the Congregation Zemach Zedek and Friendship Circle.

When asked how they managed to fit so many activities in one day, Shula Kazen smiled.

“You do not need to sleep, when your soul is happy,” she said. “You cannot leave the work for someone else to do it. There are many people that others do not think about. It is our job for us to think and care for them.”

Today, the Kazens’ children and grandchildren serve as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries across the globe, from Shanghai to Panama City.

Rabbi Zalman Kazen
Rabbi Zalman Kazen

Left a Mark

Of her father, Laine said he had an undying energy.

“He would never waste a second,” she said. “He was always busy with a volume of Jewish teachings.”

Every free moment, it seemed, Kazen spent learning.

“He never had any personal physical pleasures that he sought,” said daughter Bluma Weinberg. “His greatest pleasure was to take a book and learn or teach someone else.”

When possible, he also spent hours immersed in deep, contemplative prayer.

“When I used to go into his shul,” said Dessler, “I saw firsthand his empire of spirituality, where he gave his heart and soul to every individual. He was an inspiration to everyone who saw him.”

Goldstein noted that every year on the anniversary of the passing of her father, she received a handwritten card from Kazen.

“He always remembered us. He truly cared,” she said. “He was our connection to Judaism, our spiritual father.”

“Rabbi Kazen will always be remembered as an incredible individual deeply committed to the broadest spectrum of Judaism,” said Hebrew Academy principal Rabbi Simcha Dessler. “His contributions are evident in his synagogue, in Chabad in Cleveland and in the thousands of Soviet immigrants that experienced Judaism because of him and his wife.”

“Whatever he believed in, he shared with others in such a beautiful way that you wanted to do it too,” said daughter Rivkah Kotlarsky.

Hoen emphasized that point: “He was the kindest, the gentlest and most beloved person in Cleveland.”