Weekly Chasidic Story #816 (s5773-45 / 10 Menachem-Av 5773)
The Last Jewish Organization
“Cancel all my appoitments today!” called out Rabbi J. J. Hecht to the secretary in his Brooklyn office. “I have to go to this church in Manhattan.”
Connections: Seasonal — 15th of Av (2013: July 21-22) is 1) “Jewish Matchmaking” Day; 2) the 69th yahrzeit of Rabbi Hecht.
It was 1989. Yoav Eitan arrived in New York City from Israel having heard that the streets of New York were paved with gold. As a disabled soldier – he had been maimed in battle – he felt that he would have brighter prospects for making a living in the United States.
Like the immigrants of the early 1900s, Yoav soon found out that there was no gold lining the streets of New York city. And, try as he might, he was finding it impossible to get a job. Each time he responded to a “Help Wanted” sign in a store window, he was immediately asked, “Green card?” And every time, Yoav shook his head “No.”
The small sum of money that Yoav had brought with him to America soon ran out and he was forced to sleep on benches in Central Park. Each day when he went to yet another few stores to ask for a job, he now asked for food or money in response to the inevitable question, “Green card?”
One night when he was falling asleep on a park bench, a priest who was known to make the rounds throughout Central Park tapped Yoav on the shoulder. “Do you drink?” he asked Yoav. Yoav said “no.” “Do you do drugs?” the priest continued. Again, Yoav’s answer was “No.”
“In that case,” the priest offered, “come with me. You can eat in our soup kitchen and sleep in our shelter.”
That night was the first time Yoav went to sleep with a full stomach, freshly showered, and on a bed in many, many weeks. In the morning, the priest greeted Yoav warmly. Yoav began telling the priest his story, how he had come from Israel to America to try his luck in the land of opportunity but had not been lucky at all. “I’m not afraid to work hard, but I don’t have a green card,” he told the priest.
“I am going to call some Jewish organizations to see if any of them can help you,” the priest told Yoav. “In the meantime, take this $20, go out and see what you can find.”
Each morning, upon awakening, Yoav would ask the priest if he had found a Jewish organization that could help him, and each day the priest told him that none could be of any help. “Tell him to go back to Israel,” many of them even responded.
The priest would then give Yoav another $20 and encourage him to go look for a job.
One morning the priest told Yoav, “There is only one Jewish organization left in the phone book for me to call. I will call the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education right now. But if they tell me, like every other Jewish organization, that they cannot help you, I would like to give you an offer. If you will convert to Christianity, then I promise you that within 6 months you will have a green card and a job.”
The priest called up the NCFJE office in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and was put through to Rabbi “JJ” Hecht, founder and executive director of the NCFJE. “I have one of your boys here in our church,” the priest told Rabbi Hecht. “He’s an Israeli with no money and no job. Every other Jewish organization has told me they can’t help him. What about you?”
“Tell him to wait for me outside of the church. I’ll be there in 15 minutes.”
As Rabbi Hecht ran out of his office, he shouted to his secretary to cancel all of his appointments for the rest of the day. He dashed into his car and drove to the address of the church in Manhattan in record time. He stopped his car with a screech–on the sidewalk!–in front of the steps of the church. He ran up the steps of the church, where Yoav was waiting with the priest.
“I need a green card,” Yoav told the rabbi, defiantly.
“You need a neshama (soul),” Rabbi Hecht told him boldly.
“The church is promising me a green card in 6 months if I convert,” Yoav countered.
“I’ll get you one in 3 months,” said Rabbi Hecht.
Yoav thanked the priest for all of his help, gathered his little bundle of belongings, and got into Rabbi Hecht’s car (still parked on the sidewalk). When they arrived in the NCFJE office, Rabbi Hecht told Yoav, “Anything you need, any time you need, you come to me.” Rabbi Hecht then introduced Yoav to some of his sons, saying, “These are my sons and now you are like another one of my 12 children.”
Over the next few days, Rabbi Hecht found Yoav an apartment and a job. Once every week or so, Yoav would inquire about the green card. “I’m working on it,” Rabbi Hecht would tell him.
One day Yoav arrived at the office looking for Rabbi Hecht. The secretary told Yoav gently that Rabbi Hecht had passed away the week before. After Yoav got over the initial shock, he asked, “How am I going to get my green card now?” The secretary just shrugged.
The story could end here, and probably no one would be the wiser about another one of the thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people whose lives Rabbi Hecht personally touched, changed, saved. But it doesn’t.
Soon thereafter, Yoav became engaged to Alba, who had been working in the Kiddie Korner Preschool of Congregaton Bnai Abraham Synagogue in Brooklyn Heights. Alba asked her boss, the rabbi of the Congregation and director of Chabad of Brooklyn Heights, Rabbi Aron-Leib Raskin, to officiate at the wedding.
The rabbi happily agreed, and then promptly invited Yoav to come see him so they could get acquainted. In their meeting, Yoav told his story, speaking in loving and respectful terms about Rabbi JJ Hecht and how Rabbi Hecht had literally saved him, body and soul.
That’s when Rabbi Raskin told Yoav that he was Rabbi Hecht’s grandson! Yoav became extremely excited, and doubly happy that this was the rabbi who would officiate at their wedding.
Not only that, when Rabbi Raskin heard that Yoav still didn’t have the green card, he told him that as Rabbi Hecht’s grandson, he was duty bound to take care of it. A highly energetic fellow, very much in the style of his grandfather, Rabbi Raskin succeeded in helping Yoav find a better job, and volunteered to be his sponsor for a green card, and thus was fulfilled the final clause of his grandfather’s promise.
Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from an article by Rabbi Aron-Leib Raskin in L’ChaimWeekly (#980).
Rabbi Yaakov Yehuda (“J.J.”) Hecht (24 Cheshvan 1923 – 15 Av 1990), was sometimes described as the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Foreign Minister. In 1945, he was appointed the official director of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE). In 1953 he started one of the first camps for religious Jewish girls, Camp Emunah. In the 1970’s he became the administrative head in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, of both Hadar HaTorah Yeshiva and Machon Chana Seminary. Rabbi Hecht also was the official translator of the Rebbe’s talks to children and for the farbrengens on the radio. The Rebbe once described him publicly as one of “the chasidim who share deep soul bonds with him.”
Connections: Seasonal — 15th of Av (2013: July 21-22) is 1) “Jewish Matchmaking” Day; 2) the 23rd yahrzeit of Rabbi Hecht.
Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.