Jerome J. Shestack, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer and human-rights advocate whose work on behalf of the United States government, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and other organizations took him around the globe, was an intellectual and moral force to be reckoned with.

Those who knew and worked with the Jewish attorney, who passed away last week at the age of 88, described a man unwavering in his beliefs, a tireless champion of justice.

“Human rights was not an ‘issue’ for him,” says Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, a close friend of almost 40 years. “Human rights were his life.”

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard Law School, Shestack’s religious adherence is credited with saving his life during World War II. His son Jonathan told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was wounded in the 1945 Japanese kamikaze attack on the American aircraft carrier Ticonderoga, where he served as a gunnery officer. Because lunch that day consisted of pork, he avoided the officer’s mess, which “bore the brunt of the attack.”

As a lawyer, Shestack earned a reputation for fighting human rights abuses, both domestically and internationally. According to the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, which awarded him its 2008 Justice Prize, Shestack launched a movement to have women admitted to Harvard Law while he was still a student there. Later, while a faculty member of Louisiana State University, he led a successful campaign to desegregate that school, and as the First Deputy City Solicitor of Philadelphia, he helped end segregation in public amusement spaces.

Jerome Shestack
Jerome Shestack

Appointed by President Jimmy Carter as U.S. Ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Shestack fought political disappearances in South America, and under President George H.W. Bush, served on the delegation to the Moscow Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

“He was unwavering in his commitment to the highest of American values and international human rights standards,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement after Shestack’s passing. “He was a committed public servant and a dogged defender of human rights.”

Shestack also served as a president of the American Bar Association, chairman of the University of Pennsylvania Press, president of the Jewish Publication Society of America, and on the boards of the American Jewish Congress and American Jewish Committee.

Shemtov, the Philadelphia-based chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the international umbrella organization of Chabad-Lubavitch, first met Shestack in the summer of 1972 when the attorney was a speechwriter for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie. In time, said Shemtov, Shestack, a grandson of rabbis who was fluent in Hebrew and Yiddish and enjoyed studying the Talmud, was drawn to the teachings and approach of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. He saw in the Rebbe’s global leadership and scholarship an “inner sincerity and pious honesty that shined outward and inspired thousands of people.”

“He was very much inspired by the Rebbe’s public gatherings” in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., during which the Rebbe would speak for hours on scholarly subjects without the use of notes, and would “look at himself as if he was the one being addressed,” said Shemtov. “He also felt it was his privilege to pass on those teachings to others.”

He became a trusted attorney to the Rebbe, “entrusted by him with many sensitive issues,” said Shemtov.

Rabbi Abraham Shemtov holds one of the rare books recovered in Poland. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)
Rabbi Abraham Shemtov holds one of the rare books recovered in Poland. (Photo: Lubavitch Archives)

Among Shestack’s many accomplishments on behalf of Chabad-Lubavitch was his fighting for the return of holy books and manuscripts belonging to the Rebbe’s predecessor, the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. Headed by fellow Philadelphia community leader Leonard Goldfine, the effort concerned volumes that had been discovered in a warehouse in Poland and resulted in that government’s unprecedented return of the sacred items. They were later showcased in a Philadelphia ceremony thanking Poland for the manuscripts’ return.

“As you know, this Schneerson Library included not only a collection which my saintly father-in-law had acquired personally during his lifetime, but mainly manuscripts and books that were the legacy of his saintly forebears,” the Rebbe wrote to Shestack in 1979, thanking him for his efforts to secure the library’s return. “There is surely no need to elaborate on what these manuscripts and books meant to him, as to all the Lubavitcher Rebbes before him. He had a very special, profound and soulful attachment to them, over and above his attachment to books and manuscripts of similar sacred content. And many of them represent the heart and soul of the sacred Chabad literature.

“You can therefore well understand how deeply moved I was, and will always be, and the feelings of all the friends of Lubavitch about your great and noble endeavor in volunteering your time and effort and prestige to ‘bring home’ these sacred manuscripts and books,” the Rebbe continued. “It is truly a case of [redeeming captives], since only by being at home can these spiritual treasures resume their full vitality, not only for the benefit of those who are directly associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, but also for the benefit of all our Jewish people.”

Shestack, who was chairman of special projects for American Friends of Lubavitch, would later serve as co-counsel on behalf of Agudas Chasidei Chabad in the landmark 1987 federal case concerning ownership of many of those very volumes. The judge’s ruling in the case, which is studied in law schools to this day, affirmed that control of the library rested with Agudas Chasidei Chabad, based on the principle that a Rebbe is not a private individual, but a communal figure synonymous with the body of Chasidim.

Shemtov spoke of Shestack’s involvement at many American Friends of Lubavitch events, such as when he joined Vice President Walter Mondale in the U.S. Senate chamber during a commemoration of the Rebbe’s 75th birthday and the concurring celebration of Education and Sharing Day, USA; and when he and philanthropist Ronald Perelman escorted President Gerald Ford at a Philadelphia dinner commemorating two centuries since the founding of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

The rabbi recalled that about a month ago, although his health was failing him, he attended an event marking 17 years since the Rebbe’s passing.

“The mere fact that even in his recent state, he had to be there to honor the Rebbe’s passing shows you how important and how essential it was for him to express that connection,” said Shemtov.

“His passing is noted around the world, and the movement of Chabad-Lubavitch expresses its condolences to his wife Marciarose and their entire family.”