Thursday, February 9, 2017

Rabbi Herschel Schachter

Rabbi Schachter in 1971

It is a number of years since the passing of Rabbi Tzvi Herschel Schachter z”l, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, president of HaPoel HaMizrachi, and the one who provided rabbinic services at Yeshiva University in New York. For many years he served on the board of directors of the Rabbinical Council of America and in various leadership roles in the OU, between the years 5730-5742. He was a prominent figure in Orthodox Jewish leadership in the US.

R’ Schachter was in touch with the Lubavitcher Rebbe regarding communal matters and the Rebbe constantly urged him to do more.


R’ Herschel Schachter was born on 24 Tishrei 5678 in Brownsville, in Brooklyn. He attended Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin for elementary school and then the mesivta of Torah Vodaas in Williamsburg. Later, he attended Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon (YU), because he felt that there he would get a better Jewish education.

In his youth he met R’ Yisroel Jacobson, a distinguished Chabad Chassid, who was the director of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in the US. R’ Jacobson taught a group of American bachurim and gave them a taste of Chassidus.

R’ Schachter reminisced about those years:

“I got to know R’ Yisroel Jacobson through friends who learned with me in Torah Vodaas. R’ Jacobson lived in Brownsville at the time, not far from my parents. There was a group of boys who would go to his house every Motzaei Shabbos in order to learn Tanya with him. I loved R’ Jacobson; he was very smart, dynamic, and charismatic. He embodied all the traits of authentic Chassidim. His dedication to Lubavitch knew no bounds. He had a small shul in Brownsville but devoted most of his time to his work as director of Agudas Chassidei Chabad in America.”

One day, word got out about the boys who visited the Chassidic rabbi’s home. This generated a major commotion, as R’ Jacobson himself related in his memoirs:

“It was at the beginning of 5692 when Avrohom MM Barnetzky, Yitzchok Kolodny, and Tzvi Schachter came to shiurim in Chassidus that I would give to talmidim. On Shavuos (I think it was 1933) there was a farbrengen in my house with the talmidim, which was also attended by R’ Yochanan Gordon and his brother R’ YY. The atmosphere warmed up and they gradually took some mashke. They sat on the floor. This was the first time the bachurim had a taste of hard liquor after taking l’chaim two or three times.

“This created a commotion in town. They said R’ Jacobson had inebriated the bachurim. Generally, every occurrence or statement that was out of the ordinary would immediately spread in Brownsville (where most of my students lived) and also in the yeshiva in Williamsburg where the talmidim usually learned.

“The parents who were not of Anash and were b’nei Torah came to my home to see what I was learning with the talmidim and what was attracting them to come to my house in the dark and spend hours there. R’ Avrohom Mordechai Mateshin the father of Yitzchok came, and R’ Pinchas Schachter the father of Tzvi came, as did others.”

In the Rebbe Rayatz’s letters from the beginning of 5699, you can see that Herschel Schachter was one of the members of the Vaad HaPoel shel Achei T’mimim: “I was pleased to read the names of the members of the Vaad HaPoel of Achei T’mimim, Greenberg, Meir; Goldman, Shlomo, representative from Yeshivas Chafetz Chaim; Mordechai Fisher and Tzvi Schachter, representatives of Yeshivas R’ Yitzchok Elchonon; Erbert, Yitzchok, representative of mesivta R’ Chaim Berlin; Barnetzky, Avrohom representative of those learning outside yeshivos; Stark, Yisroel, representative of those in business.” The Rebbe goes on to write that “the six general enactments that they suggested at their meeting that were enclosed in this letter are all good and I hereby ratify them in order to bring them with Hashem’s help from the potential state to the actual.” The Rebbe expressed his hopes that the learning and reviewing of Chassidus was properly established and that all involved were doing the work that they committed to.


R’ Schachter received his BA from Yeshiva University in 1938 and his MA from Yeshivas Rabbi Yitzchok Elchanan in 1941. For about a year he served as rav in a community in Stamford, CT.

Rabbi Schachter leading davening in liberated Buchenwald

In 1942, he enlisted in the army and served as a chaplain. In 1945 he was the first army chaplain to enter and participate in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Later, he was involved in the resettling of the tens of thousands of displaced persons.

While participating in the liberation of Buchenwald along with the US army, he saw a Jewish child, known today by all as Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, rav of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. On the morning of that day, 28 Nissan 5705, most of the SS soldiers had left the camp and had fled for their lives. A few hours later, American soldiers from the Sixth Armored Division arrived, along with R’ Schachter, chaplain of the division.

In his book, R’ Lau tells of R’ Schachter’s arrival at the camp and the moving encounter between them:

“[As a child] I was frightened of the new army that entered the gates of the camp. We did not know whether they were with us, or with our enemies. I hid behind a pile of bodies. Rabbi Herschel Schachter, chaplain of the division … described our meeting many a time.

“He got down from one of the jeeps, wearing a soldier’s uniform, and stood facing the pile of bodies. Suddenly, he thought he saw a pair of eyes looking at him and he was frightened. He may even have drawn his gun with the instinctive reflexes of a soldier in order to defend himself and then, and this I remember clearly, he saw me, a child of eight, looking at him from behind the pile of bodies with wide open eyes. He looked shocked – there in the killing fields, in the puddles of spilled blood, a child! I was frozen in fright while he, he realized that a child in a place like this meant a Jewish child.

“The rabbi put back his gun and picked me up and hugged me in a fatherly embrace. Then he asked in a heavy accented Yiddish: How old are you, my child? I saw that he had tears rolling from his eyes. Nevertheless, I was terrified and answered cautiously: What difference does it make? In any case, I am older than you …”

“He smiled through his tears and asked: Why do you think you are older than me? Without hesitation I said: Because you cry and laugh like a child and I haven’t laughed in a long time and as for crying – I don’t cry anymore. So which of us is older?”

R’ Lau goes on to say that R’ Schachter asked what his family name is and where he was from and was excited to hear that he was the son of the rav of Pietrikov and the nephew of R’ Meir Shapiro of Lublin zt”l. When R’ Lau told him that he was alone, without his parents, just his brother Naftali who was in the infirmary for typhus, the two of them went to find him. On their way, they announced the news of liberation in the barracks.

“I remember that people lay there with dull eyes, with no strength to pick themselves up off the bunks, to race to the gate of the camp and shout, hooray, with the others. ‘Jews, you are free!’ shouted the American rabbi in Yiddish, and people looked at him with a wordless question in their eyes, ‘Who is this meshugener standing here in uniform and shouting in Yiddish?’”

When they reached the infirmary, R’ Schachter introduced himself to Naftali as the military chaplain in the division that liberated Buchenwald. He took out some containers of orange juice from his pocket. “I know who you are and I will help you and everything will be alright,” he said to Naftali. “Mazal tov, we’ve gone from avdus to cheirus.”

Those who miraculously survived were more dead than alive. For the next ten weeks, R’ Schachter continued to work indefatigably to revive them. “He gave us back our spirit,” said Jack Rosenthal, who was a boy of 16 when Buchenwald was liberated. “We had been destroyed, spiritually and emotionally, and he restored our humanity that had been robbed from us for so long.”

Naftali Lau would say that R’ Herschel Schachter was the first person who offered him succor and restored his self-confidence and his confidence in humanity.

“Many discarded their faith,” said R’ Schachter, “and there was no quick and easy response for them.”

R’ Schachter remained in Buchenwald for another few months, until after Shavuos 1945, and provided the survivors with religious services. On Shavuos, it was he who led the davening in the camp.

Then he helped the resettling of the displaced persons, one of them being the famous author, Elie Wiesel. He was one of the thousands of Jewish orphans who were liberated in the camp. R’ Schachter was discharged from the army with the rank of captain.


Thanks to R’ Yisroel Jacobson’s great influence on the boys, six of them decided to travel to Otvotzk in Poland, to where the Rebbe Rayatz was.

“R’ Jacobson tried to convince me to go too,” said R’ Schachter, “but I wasn’t ready to make that step. I stayed in America and continued learning in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon while keeping in touch with R’ Jacobson.”

Later, R’ Schachter became involved in the tremendous efforts made by his teacher R’ Jacobson, in rescuing the Rebbe Rayatz from Europe.

Upon the Rebbe’s arrival in America, young Herschel went to see him. He did not become a Chassid (“I chose a more modern path, identifying with Yeshiva College where I finished my degree. I stayed there and studied rabbinics and became an Orthodox rabbi”), but greatly admired the Rebbe.

The Rebbe Rayatz’s son-in-law, Ramash, came to America one year later and R’ Schachter met him.

“I once went to the Rebbe Rayatz and the Rebbe told me to speak with his son-in-law, Rabbi (Menachem Mendel) Schneersohn, and I did so. He wanted to know what I was doing for Judaism and whether I could be influential. He was very young.”

This connection with the Rebbe continued over the years, when the Rebbe took over the Chabad leadership.

“I was drawn to him as were countless Jews. Needless to say, I found him to be an extraordinary personality.

“Over the years, I wrote to the Rebbe a number of times and he wrote back to me. He, like his father-in-law, tried to talk to me about going on various missions, like traveling to Australia, but I wasn’t ready to do that.”

In a long letter that the Rebbe wrote to him in 5716, the Rebbe entered into a detailed discussion about the specific problems facing American Jewry at that time. The Rebbe encouraged him in his efforts to increase the positive expansion of traditional Jewry.

“Your real goal,” concluded the Rebbe in the letter, “is to transform the organization which you serve, into a center of dissemination for the waters of life, of the Torah of life, the Torah of truth.”

In another long letter that dealt with communal matters, which the Rebbe sent to him in Nissan 1957, the Rebbe noted, “I received your letter of 9 Adar II with the enclosed, the publication which I read with interest. Due to great busyness my response was delayed.” The Rebbe ended the long letter with “blessings that you recognize your inner role which is to make of the center where you serve, a center of our Torah, the Torah of life, Torah of truth. Truth means the negation of all compromises. And fulfill your role with expansiveness and with blessings for a kosher and happy Pesach.”

In 5732, the Rebbe sent him, along with other rabbanim, a letter in which he encouraged them for founding the “Public Office for Checking T’fillin and Mezuzos.” In his letter, he wishes them success in establishing and disseminating all aspects of Judaism and kashrus without dubiety and furthermore, with hiddur.


Four years after returning from liberating Buchenwald, R’ Schachter was asked to lead the Jewish Center at Mosholu in the Bronx. The area had a flourishing Jewish community at the time, in the 50’s and 60’s, and about 1000 congregants packed the shul to hear R’ Schachter’s sermons.

In addition to his congregation, R’ Schachter’s influence was on a global level, for he served as chairman of two national organizations representing Orthodox Jewry in America. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, remembers those years when “R’ Schachter was able to maintain the unity among Jewish communities in America despite the enormous ideological differences. He really reached both ends of the spectrum and earned the respect of his colleagues.”

For over fifty years, R’ Schachter led his flock at Mosholu, but like many other Jewish communities in the metropolitan area, the Jewish community in the Bronx contracted. In 5759, the shul was closed after seventy-two years and the building was sold. Throughout those years, R’ Schachter remained with his congregation even though he received many offers of rabbinic positions in more prestigious places.

“I stayed in the Bronx despite it all, as long as I was able to be involved in various aspects in service of the Jewish people outside the narrow bounds of one congregation,” he said.


Among the many roles R’ Schachter had, he served as the founding director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and chairman of the Rabbinical Board of the JDC. In these positions, he helped the Jews of the Soviet Union during those terrible times and also accepted assignments from the Rebbe for Jews behind the Iron Curtain.

In 5716, he joined a delegation of rabbanim that went to the Soviet Union, together with his colleague in the RCA Rabbi David Hollander, in his role as special advisor to President Nixon.

“Before we left, we had a long meeting with the Rebbe,” said R’ Schachter. “We were given instructions regarding certain people, and specific places to visit, told where to go, what to see, etc. The Rebbe’s knowledge was amazing.

“The Rebbe relied on us, I think, and he gave us the information and indeed, we went there and saw. We met and spoke with Chabad Chassidim in Moscow, Leningrad, Georgia, Tbilisi and Kutais.”

We get another perspective on the visit as seen by the Chassidim, from the memoirs of R’ Chaim Ozer Marinovsky who lived in the Soviet Union at that time. He relates:

“In 5716, a delegation of American rabbanim came to the Soviet Union, Rabbis Schachter and Hollander. They came to visit the central synagogue of Moscow and R’ Shleifer (the rav of Moscow) welcomed them. The visit was highly unusual which is why people were afraid to speak to them because they knew the government was watching. That day, my father and I were still in Moscow and we went to the shul. When R’ Shleifer saw us, he told my father I should meet with the rabbanim so they could see that even in Russia a young generation was growing up that learned Torah.

“I was afraid to meet with them. On the one hand, I was afraid I would have to praise the government’s behavior toward the Jews, which would give the rabbanim a mistaken impression of what life was really like. On the other hand, I was afraid that if I refused to meet them, it would be an affront to the government.

“In the end, my father said that he wanted to be present at this meeting and then he found a private place where the four of us met and nobody overheard us. My father was very moved and spoke to them, in tears, saying they should convey to the world the true situation in Russia and reported about the religious persecution that prevailed throughout the Soviet Union.”

R’ Schachter visited Jewish communities all over the world and often served as the long arm of the Rebbe. “I also made many other trips around the world, for various purposes, and I always consulted with the Rebbe. He knew precisely who was in each place.”


Throughout the years, R’ Schachter was in touch with the Rebbe, sometimes more regularly and sometimes less so. There were even periods when there was no contact at all, but R’ Schachter found out that the Rebbe was always keeping tabs on his activities. When he occasionally showed up at the Rebbe’s farbrengen, the Rebbe would say, “I did not see you for some time now.”

R’ Schachter repeated this and said in amazement, “The Rebbe was a genius. There was no one like him. He remembered his personal connections with a hundred thousand people.”

R’ Yosef Ber Soloveitchik of New York and Boston, attended the Rebbe’s Yud Shevat farbrengen in 5740. His close disciple, R’ Schachter, accompanied him and was the one who arranged the visit. The Rebbe gave R’ Soloveitchik great and unusual honor.

Years later, in a video interview with JEM, R’ Schachter recalled:

“The moment the rav got up to leave the farbrengen, the Rebbe got up. The rav did not wait for the Rebbe to come to him but went to the Rebbe to shake his hand and say goodbye. I went with the rav, right behind him. They spoke to one another for a few minutes and one could see on their faces that these two men liked one another …

“I was standing right there and I heard the Rebbe say to the rav as he looked at me, ‘You have, boruch Hashem, wonderful students.’”

R’ Schachter concluded, “After 120 years, when I go before the kisei ha’kavod (heavenly throne), I am going to remind the Ribbono Shel Olam of what these two geonim said to one another about me.”

R’ Schachter passed away two years ago at the age of 95, leaving his wife, a son, and a daughter.