Friday the 15th of Menachem Av is the 22nd Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda (JJ) Hecht OBM. If you have memories, stories or pictures of Rabbi Hecht please e-mail us @
Rabbi Hecht was born on the 24th of Cheshvan, 5683, 1923 in Brownsville, New York. He was the 4th of 6 brothers. They are: Shlomo Zalman, Moshe Yitzchak, Avraham Dov, Peretz and Sholom. Many of his family members are shluchim of the Rebbe throughout the world.
His parents, Yehoshua and Sarah, came from Galician backgrounds. His father Yehoshua was also born in America. However Yehoshua’s father, Tzvi Elimelech, was born in Europe. Rabbi Hecht’s mother, Sarah Auster was born in Galicia. After coming to this country his father didn?t trust the American kashrus standards and never ate out of his home.
Reb Tzvi Elimelech was sent by the holy tzaddik the Shinover Rebbe to America to be a meshulach, a fundraiser. After a while doing fundraising he became a businessman. But that too didn’t satisfy his soul. He became the manager of the local mikvah on Prospect Place in Brownsville. The mikvah was visited by many rabbanim and meshulachim who came to Brownsville to raise funds for their institutions.
When handing the visiting rav a towel to use for the mikvah he would wrap a dollar or two into the person's towel. This way he didn’t embarrass his visitor. When the Freirdiker Rebbe visited New York in 1929 he also visited Brownsville and used the mikvah. Reb Tzvi Elimelech heard about the Rebbe and the mesiras nefesh he had. He felt he should give the Rebbe more than the usual rav. He wrapped a $5 bill in the Rebbe’s towel! The Rebbe, upon realizing this gave it back and said that he wanted to pay for the mikvah use.
Reb Tzvi Elimelech said absolutely not. The Rebbe gave him a brocha instead. He said, "Your grandchildren will become my Chasidim!"
This is the real reason all 6 Hecht boys became Lubavitcher Chasidim.
In 1938, Reb Tzvi Elimelech was murdered by someone trying to rob him while doing his mikva duties.
SCHOOLING AND COMMUNAL ACTIVITY
Rabbi Hecht studied in Yeshivas Chaim Berlin for his elementary years and for high school in Torah Vodaas as his parents moved to Williamsburg where Torah Vodaas was located. His older brother Shlomo Zalman had been attending Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson’s chasidus shiurim. Shlomo Zalman’s involvement brought Rabbi Hecht and his brothers closer to becoming Lubavitchers. This helped Rabbi Hecht make his decision. He joined the newly founded Lubavitcher yeshiva beis medrash program in 1940.
In 1943-44 Rabbi Hecht ran a Talmud Torah that was established by the Freirdiker Rebbe under the directorship of Reb Zalman Gurary. It was held in a shul at the corner of Empire and Kingston Avenue. Rabbi Hecht learned a half day and in the afternoons ran the Talmud Torah.
Rabbi Hecht’s father Reb Yehoshua went to the Freirdiker Rebbe and said that he?d like his son Yankel to work for him in his wholesale clothing business. He told the Rebbe that his oldest 3 sons were doing the Rebbe’s shlichus out-of-town, but he needed help locally and his son Yankel was best for the job. The Freirdiker Rebbe said, "You say he is best for your job; I say he is best for my job!"
Around that time the Freirdiker Rebbe was informed that there is a governmental law sanctioning release time for Jewish children from public schools to study their faith. The Freirdiker Rebbe called upon the Rebbe and Rabbi Hodakov to implement this. A program started under the organizational name Shalah, a Hebrew word with the acronym, Shiurei Limudei HaDas, classes for religious training.
Initially the one directing the program for the Freirdiker Rebbe was Reb Yitzchak Feldman, the brother of Rabbi Mendel Feldman of Baltimore. However Reb Yitzchak left his position and Rabbi Hecht replaced him. Rabbi Hecht had much experience with youth groups because he ran a Talmud Torah for young children. He was instructed by the Rebbe in the name of the Freirdiker Rebbe that he should replace Feldman.
Rabbi Hecht worked hand-in-hand with the Rebbe who was the liaison for the Freirdiker Rebbe’s programs. Seemingly this is when the Rebbe forged a close bond with Rabbi Hecht. Rabbi Hecht once said to the Rebbe, "I was your chasid before you were my Rebbe!"
Although he was involved in outreach programs from 1942, such as Mesibas Shabbos and Talmud Torahs, but these were voluntary. In 1945, he was appointed the official director of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, NCFJ organization. Rabbi Hecht expanded the Shalah program to incorporate many other programs including anti- missionary work and Lag B?Omer parades.
Interestingly, Rebbetzin Hecht worked for Release Time even before she met Rabbi Hecht. She recalls running a group in Rabbi Nissan Telushkin’s shul in East New York. On an average Wednesday afternoon she took out 200 girls from public school to attend the release time program! There were simultaneous programs for boys as well. Thousands of Jewish children were touched in a most Jewish way. One person who stands out as a direct result of Release Time is Rabbi Sender, Kashrus Administrator of the Chof K organization.
In 5705 on the 15th of Shevat, Rabbi Hecht married Chave Lasker. The Freirdiker Rebbe had been very ill and no one was able to see him, including bride and groom who traditionally received the Rebbe’s blessing. Rabbi Hecht tried to arrange for yechidus but was denied. On Sunday morning, the 14th of Shevat, 5705, 1945, Rabbi Hodakov told Rabbi Hecht the Freirdiker Rebbe wanted to see him and his family and his bride and her family. The Freirdiker Rebbe said that he wanted to give them a brocha and they should all come together.
Rabbi Hecht wanted the Rebbe to be his mesader kiddushin, the officiating rabbi. However since the Rebbe was in the first year of mourning his father’s passing he didn?t accept the honor.
There was a choice of two wedding halls. One was the Thadford Hall in Brownsville and the other the Aperion Hall on Kings Highway in Flatbush. The difference between the two was two fold; the Thadford cost $5 per plate and the Aperion was $6. Secondly, the level of kashrus was better at the Thadford than the Aperion. However the Aperion was a nicer hall and that’s were the bride’s family wanted the wedding although it was more expensive.
They decided on the Aperion. However, they were uncertain as to what to do about the kashrus issue. Rabbi Hecht together with his mother-in-law spent two days kashering all chickens, pots, pans and silverware! The Aperion agreed to buy new plates for the event.
Imagine a choson has nothing better to do a few days before his wedding except kasher chickens and dishes! Yet his tremendous yiras shamayim in terms of maintaining the highest standards of kashrus and his desire to please his kallah made it worth the enormous effort.
In 1945-46 Rabbi Hecht studied at night for rabbinic ordination, smicha, with Rabbi Yosef Dov Kastel. During the day he ran his programs from a walk-in apartment at 575 Eastern Parkway.
In 1946 his oldest child, Sholom Ber was born. Rabbi Hecht who had a close relationship with the Rebbe, asked him to be Sandek. The Rebbe hadn?t been Sandek and asked the Freirdiker Rebbe what he needed to know to be Sandek. The Freirdiker Rebbe said, "A Sandek must hold the baby firmly!"
The Rebbe expected the Freirdiker Rebbe to share with him some esoteric ideas about the great mitzvah of being Sandek, but instead the Freirdiker Rebbe told him to simply hold the baby tight so that the mohel could perform the circumcision properly.
Sholom Ber merited being the first one to have the Rebbe as his Sandek.
In 1948 shortly before Pesach, Rabbi Hecht was hired as the Rabbi of Congregation Yeshivas Rav Meir Simcha in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Rabbi Hecht didn?t want to be a congregational rabbi, yet, with the Rebbe’s encouragement, he took the position. In the early days of his job the Rebbe helped him prepare his sermons. The Rebbe said, "Take a pen." Rabbi Hecht went to the Rebbe’s apartment on President Street to take dictation. When he came the Rebbetzin offered him food. She was concerned about his health because he was very skinny. He refused to eat and just accepted a drink. Before accepting the job, Rabbi Hecht wrote the Freirdiker Rebbe who told him he gives him his brocha and added that a rav needs 3 things.
1. A beard.
2. A daily shiur in Torah.
3. To daven 3 times daily with a minyan.
Initially he lived in Crown Heights and walked to East Flatbush for the Shabbos minyanim and classes. Around Lag B?Omer time he moved to East Flatbush to be near the shul. The shul’s shamash was Reb Mordechai Shusterman, the Rebbe’s baal koreh. They both devised ways of improving the religious status of the shul. For example, there was no mechitza in the small sanctuary. They surprised the people by having a mechitza made with curtains Erev Rosh HaShana. Some of the people moved the curtains aside. Rabbi Hecht immediately admonished them and never again did they say a word.
For the upcoming Rosh HaShana 5709, 1948 the world famous chazzan Moshe Oisher was scheduled to lead the services. Rabbi Hecht was appalled because Oisher was known to publicly desecrate Shabbos. Rabbi Hecht sought the Freirdiker Rebbe’s advice who told him that since the board hired Oisher as chazzan before he, Rabbi Hecht, became rabbi, therefore he shouldn?t do anything. However he shouldn?t allow Oisher to be chazzan for the upcoming year.
So it was; Moshe Oisher was chazzan for Rosh HaShana 5709 and the board wanted him to come back for the upcoming Rosh HaShana 5710 but Rabbi Hecht vetoed it. Although Oisher had a beautiful voice and many congregants specially came to hear him, Rabbi Hecht was the ultimate decision maker in matters of halacha and he didn?t allow his board members to hire Oisher.
Rabbi Hecht was an excellent speaker. He was called upon by many organizations as their guest speaker. Once he was offered a $100 to speak to a group of Jews who belonged to a conservative congregation. In those days $100 was a lot of money which he could have used. He asked the Rebbe whether he should do it or not. The Rebbe said as long as he speaks in the social hall or anywhere else in the conservative shul building but doesn?t speak in the sanctuary itself, it was permissible.
CLOSENESS TO REBBE
As mentioned earlier, Rabbi Hecht had a special relationship with the Rebbe. Several stories are demonstrative of this.
1. The Rebbe told Rabbi Zalman Gurary that he had three Chasidim who listen to him and did exactly as he desires: Rabbi Binyamin Gorodetsky, Rabbi Moshe Gurkow and Rabbi Hecht. "Rabbi Hecht does what I want even before he is instructed to do it!"
2. My family, (Dalfin) also lived, during the 1960s, in East Flatbush. Many Shabbosos my father, Reb Aron Hillel Dalfin walked together with Rabbi Hecht to the Rebbe’s farbrengen. He once told my father that the Rebbe told him, "Yankel, whatever amount of money you need to disseminate yiddishkeit, I?ll give you; all you should be worried about is implementing it!"
3. During one of the Lag B?Omer parades Rabbi Hecht thanked the Rebbe for schlepping him out of his spiritual shortcomings. The Rebbe sharply retorted, "Not schlepping you out, rather, uplifting you!"
4. The Rebbe was informed that Rabbi Hecht, while translating a farbrengen on the radio, wasn?t feeling well. Shortly thereafter the Rebbe asked him how he was feeling. Seemingly, the Rebbe heard from Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka about it. She would listen to those farbrengens on the radio.
5. The Rebbe instructed him to visit and speak at Chabad institutions in England. On his way home while on the airplane he wrote a duch, detailed report of everything he did on his trip. Rabbi Hecht knew his brother Sholom had permission to see the Rebbe whenever he wanted so he asked Sholom to give his report to the Rebbe. Rabbi Hecht instructed Sholom to inform the Rebbe that he had hatzlacha with the brocha given to him by the meshaleiach, the sender. The Rebbe added, "Er darf epes oich kenen: he, the shaliach, must also know something in order to succeed."
6. His brother Sholom once said to him that sometimes when he goes into the Rebbe’s room he sees the Rebbe sitting in a short white sleeve shirt, without his kapote. Rabbi Hecht responded, I never want to see my Rebbe this way; he’s not my friend; he’s my Rebbe, (and there is a degree of respect that even to one who seemingly there is a human friendship there, regardless, the chasid-Rebbe relationship is primary.)
7. Another occasion, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hecht went into yechidus to discuss a problem they were having with one of their children. Rebbetzin Chave told the Rebbe that maybe she should stop working with her husband because people are jealous and causing an ayin hara, an evil eye, to hurt her child. If she?d stop working with him people wouldn't talk about her and the evil eye would go away. The Rebbe responded, "In Rambam it doesn?t speak about an evil eye! Hence, there is nothing for you to fear and you should continue working with your husband."
Rabbi Hecht was the official translator of the Rebbe’s talks to the children of the Tzivos Hashem organization and for the farbrengens on the radio. The day he was scheduled to translate he would be very nervous not because he didn?t know English properly, but rather he was concerned about using the right English words the Rebbe wanted for the translation.
In 1953 after several years of asking permission to start a camp for girls the Rebbe gave his blessing. In 1957 the Rebbe visited the camp and gave him $5 bills to distribute among the head counselors, etc. The Rebbe also instructed that he give the non-Jewish workers $5 because it’s important to show that they too are important and that their work was valued.
Thousands of girls, many who today are mothers and grandmothers in the frumest communities like Boro Park, Williamsburg and Flatbush, attended Camp Emunah. It was among the first frum camps for girls.
With the upheaval in Iran before the fall of the Shah Rabbi Hecht’s son, Sholom Ber, who was a rabbi in an Iranian shul, was sent to Iran to help the Jews. Shortly after his return, Rabbi Hecht received a call from the leaders of the Iranian Jewish community in Iran requesting 100 pair of Tefillin. The only way to send over these Tefillin was to smuggle them in.
Rabbi Hecht heard about an immigration lawyer, Steven Mukelmel in Manhattan. He visited him and brought 100 pairs of Tefillin thereby telling Steven that the Tefillin must get to the Jews in Iran. Steve told him it was impossible given the strained relations between Israel, USA and Iran. "Forget it," Steve said to Rabbi Hecht. Rabbi Hecht didn?t loose faith, he simply left the Tefillin with Steve and asked him to do whatever he could. Steve called the Thailand ambassador in New York who arranged for them to arrive to the Thailand diplomat in Iran. But how do you get the Tefillin from there to where the people are? Every day a local Iranian Jew walked to the gates of the consulate with a briefcase in hand and came out several minutes later. He was given two-three pairs at a time and over the course of several weeks successfully smuggled the teffilin to the Jews who needed them.
SHOLOM BAYIS AND AHAVAS YISRAEL
Rabbi Hecht’s love for another Jew was superior. Without expecting anything in return he helped a Jew when he needed it.
An Israeli had been injured in one of the wars and made his way to America. He spent all his money in New York and was destitute. He had no money for lodging and ended up sleeping on the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. A priest met him and took him in. The priest asked him who he was and he told him his history. The priest said he should call a rabbi for help which he did and was told to call Lubavitch. When calling Lubavitch he was told to call Rabbi Hecht. He did. As soon as Rabbi Hecht got off the phone with him he took his car, without asking anyone, went down to Manhattan, picked him up and brought him to Hadar Torah’s men’s program.
Rabbi Hecht lived ahavas yisrael; he didn?t ask others to do it for him, he did it himself. When parents didn?t have the necessary funds for camp or other programs he ran, he took them in without money! There was no such a thing as allowing a Jewish boy or girl to be deprived from a camp experience or the like because of a lack of funds.
Rabbi Hecht passed away on the 15th of Menachem Av, 5750, 1990 in Camp Emunah. For the last 4-5 years of his life he had a heart related problem which ultimately took his life. It’s interesting that he passed on in camp which was very close to his heart. Each summer he spent Shabbosos there and brought much spirit to the campers. Whether it was his singing of "tzu vemen, tzu vemen," or greeting parents on visiting day, Rabbi Hecht loved each camper and considered them like his own children.
Once, Rebbetzin Chave complained to the Rebbe that Rabbi Hecht worked too hard and he should take it easy. The Rebbe said, "I don?t tell my Chasidim to do anything I know they won?t do!" Rabbi Hecht loved his work and there was no such a thing as "taking it easy."
To sum it up: Several months ago, someone came to see me and in conversation he said, the Rebbe was your general and Rabbi Hecht was your (Lubavitch) foreign minister! Rabbi Hecht brought the Rebbe to the larger New York Jewish world. So many people, from frum backgrounds, came to recognize the Rebbe’s holiness because of Rabbi Hecht. Whether it was his status in the East Flatbush Jewish community or his voice on the radio as translator of the Rebbe’s farbrengens in English or helping with sholom bayis issues, people knew they could count on him. They also knew he spoke from the heart and said it the way it was.
Although he had connections with many government and city politicians including the mayors and governors of New York, he disliked politics. He invloved himself in this arena solely for the purpose of enabling him to have the right connections in order to help another Jew in a time of need.
The Rebbe approved and added words to his monument. The Rebbe instructed that it say in addition to everything else "he disseminated the teachings of chasidus via the radio waves."
The day after Rabbi Hecht was buried the Rebbe sent his secretary Rabbi Binyamin Klein to visit the Hecht family at their home. The Rebbe wanted three things:
1. That the family should know the NCFJE is under the Mazkiros, the Rebbe’s secretariat; a great honor.
2. That two of the NCFJE institutions should be named after Rabbi Hecht.
3. That the family should suggest who would direct the various branches of the NCFJE.
The Shabbos after Rabbi Hecht’s passing the Rebbe said an entire sicha dedicated to Rabbi Hecht, explaining his name, Yaakov Yehuda.
Some say Rabbi Hecht was the Rebbe’s General. Others say he was the Rebbe’s Foreign Minister. In my humble opinion, if one could say the Rebbe had a friend, it was Rabbi Hecht!