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The Star-Spangled Syrian Rabbi

Dovid Zaklikowski

He was a third-generation Ashkenazic American with chassidic roots, yet he led a group of Syrian Jewish immigrants to become the largest Sephardic congregation in the US. What was Rabbi Avraham Dov Hecht’s secret that got him hired on the spot after one Shabbos drashah?

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

It was 1967, shortly after the miraculous Israeli victory in the Six Day War, when Jews still living in Arab lands found themselves in extreme physical danger. In the halls of the United Nations, in front of an Arab delegation headed by Saudi Arabian ambassador George Baroudy, a group of Sephardic lay leaders and their rabbi made several requests.

“I am the oldest son of Chacham Ibrahim,” the rabbi told the diplomats in fluent Arabic. “My father, may his memory be blessed, was the spiritual leader of the Syrian Jewish community for many long and fruitful years.”

At one point during the meeting Baroudy approached the rabbi with a comradely smile, touched his beard and stated emphatically in Arabic, “Ah! This rabbi is a true Syrian and I respect him!”

The other members of the Syrian Jewish delegation looked at each other knowingly. They knew their rabbi was talented and innovative, but Chacham Ibrahim? Their rabbi was a stars-and-stripes American, yet this venerated Saudi leader had been thoroughly taken in.

The rabbi was Rabbi Avraham Dov Hecht, and his only Middle Eastern ancestor was Avraham Avinu. His roots were in Shinever chassidus and he was American born and bred, yet he spoke fluent Arabic and led the largest Sephardic congregation in theUnited States for over 60 years.

The story of Rabbi Hecht, who passed away a year ago this week, two months shy of his 91st birthday, isn’t only about the success of an outspoken, charismatic, scholarly American rabbi born at the beginning of the last century; or about how he led several national rabbinic organizations and became a spokesman for no compromise on religious and Israeli territorial issues; it’s the story of how a chassidic rav nurtured and elevated Brooklyn’s Syrian community for over half a century.

 

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