Rabbi Herschel Schacter zt”l

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With sadness I share the news of the passing of Rabbi Herschel Schacter zt”l (not to be confused with YU RIETS Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Hershel Schachter yltv”a), beloved husband of Mrs. Penina (nee Gewirtz) Schacter, beloved father of my beloved teacher and mentor Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, beloved father of Dr. Miriam Schacter of Riverdale, beloved uncle of my colleague and friend Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz of the Young Israel of Brookline.  Although Nissan is not a time period during which Hesped– eulogy is permitted, the Halakah exempts a great rabbi and/or teacher from this proscription.  And although, as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik tz”l (whose 20th Yahrzeit will be observed this Chol HaMoed Pesach) taught, the purpose of a Hesped is partly to make us cry, my purpose with these reflections is to inspire and honor a life dedicated to the Jewish people.


Rabbi Herschel Schacter graduated Yeshiva University in 1938, and in 1941 became the first musmakh of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l at RIETS.  He was also a student of the Rav’s father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik zt”l. Rabbi Schacter was the former Director of Rabbinic Services at YU/RIETS, and the former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  He was the Rabbi of the Mosholu Jewish Center for more than 5 decades.  There was a very poignant article about the Mosholu Jewish Center’s last Shabbat (close of an era…) not too long ago in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/1999/11/22/nyregion/final-sabbath-for-spiritual-hub-synagogue-that-embodied-earlier-bronx-closed.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm  For more of his communal and rabbinical achievements, I append below the New York Jewish Week Obituary for him that appeared today.


Although emphasis should be given to the community building, Jewish education and pastoral work he did as a rabbi for over five decades, these essential sacred activities remain primarily unseen and untold.  Rabbi Schacter’s place in the history books stems from the role he played in the Shoah and its aftermath.  During World War II, Rabbi Schacter was a chaplain in the Third Army's VIII Corps. and was the first US Army Chaplain to enter and participate in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945 and later aided in the resettlement of displaced persons.   

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel and current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, tells of Rabbi Schacter’s role in liberating him at Buchenwald.  In his must-read inspiring memoir, Out of the Depth’s http://www.amazon.com/Out-Depths-Story-Buchenwald-Returned/dp/140278631X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1363963616&sr=8-1&keywords=from+the+depth+lau,  Rabbi Lau writes: "I remember the looks of horror on the faces of the American soldiers when they came in and stared around them. I was afraid when I saw them. I crept behind a pile of dead bodies and hid there, watching them warily…Rabbi Herschel Schacter was the Jewish chaplain of the division. I saw him get out of a jeep and stand there, staring at the corpses. He has often told this story, how he thought he saw a pair of living eyes looking out from among the dead. It made his hair stand on end, but slowly and cautiously he made his way around the pile, and then, he clearly remembers coming face-to-face with me, an eight-year-old boy, wide-eyed with terror. In heavily-accented American Yiddish, he asked me, 'How old are you, mein kind?' There were tears in his eyes. 'What difference does it make?' I answered, warily. 'I'm older than you, anyway.' "He smiled through his tears and said, 'Why do you think you're older than me?' "And I answered, 'Because you cry and laugh like a child. I haven't laughed in a long time, and I don't even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?'"

Here is an iconic picture of Rabbi Hershel Schacter leading a Shavuot Service at Buchenwald on May 18th, 1945. 



Rabbi Schacter had previously led a Pesach Sheini Seder at Buchenwald on April 27th, 1945.  In the Torah, Pesach Sheini is the holiday of second chances.  The Pesach sacrificial observance for anyone who for reasons beyond their control could not participate in that year’s Passover.  This was probably the first Pesach Sheini Seder since the time of the Beit HaMikdash.  Could you imagine a Pesach Sheini Seder for liberated concentration camp victims?!


Shiku Smilovic, in his autobiographical memoir,  "Buchenwald 56466," tells the following about that day http://www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/ce/cc/nf-camps-buchenwald-01.htm:

“All Jews were invited by Rabbi Schacter to attend services and to eat Matza, since it was Pesach Sheini that day. The second Pesach, for Jews that couldn't observe the holiday of Pesach at the proper date. Rabbi Schacter brought Matzos and distributed them to everyone. Rabbi Schacter started to deliver his sermon, when suddenly he was interrupted by a fellow prisoner. When he heard the Rabbi say, "We know what you have gone through" The man screamed and said: "No one, but no one, can dare say that he knows what we went through unless, he or she was there! Only they can say, I know what you went through!" He continued at the top of his voice with quotes from the Torah and other scriptures. He was no plain ordinary every day Jew. He spoke with authority. "Why did G-d forget about his children? And we were devastated, just because we are Jews?" he continued. "Before we make a blessing and eat this Matza. We want a Din Torah with the REBONEH SHEL OLAM (Hold Court with the All Mighty): Why? Why the little children? They didn't have a chance to sin yet? Why so many thousands of true dedicated Talmidei chachomim (Jewish learned men), that were sitting and learning JOMAM VLAJLA day and night? You can take your matzos back to America. I don't want them, as far as I am concerned. The rest of you: you are free! You can do what your heart desires!" Rabbi Schacter did not interrupt the man and he let him finish. He moved his fists towards his heart and said, "Chotosi Uvisi Pushati Lefonecha: Please, may I have your forgiveness?" The man raced up to the Rabbi and embraced him for a while. The rest of us just stood there in silence, and our tears did the talking. After that scene we all decided to have some Matzo anyway. We made the blessing of ACHILAT MATZOT in unison. I am sure that this blessing was heard in heaven, and all the Angels answered Amen.”


Shiku Smilovic also tells how after visiting Buchenwald post-liberation, General Eisenhower ordered that the men, woman, and children from the nearby city of Weimar, about 10km away, be forced to tour the liberated camp.  “[After] being herded into Buchenwald through the main gates. They were then shown all the corpses and all the killing facilities in Buchenwald, some of them couldn’t take it any longer, some fainted, some of them were holding their hands over their eyes, but the G.I.s removed their hands and told them: "Look, look good and never forget what you have seen here today. Maybe you will be able to tell your children, and grandchildren, what your beloved Fuhrer Adolf did to mankind in the twentieth century. In your fatherland, and all over Europe." When the exhibition was completed, they were all assembled on the Apell Platz, where Rabbi Schacter, the Chaplain of the American first and second division of the liberation Army, spoke to the German population of Weimar from the top off a military truck. In his hand, Rabbi Shachter held a young Jewish boy who looked about 6 years old. He raised the child for everyone to see and with his great voice declared: "This child was your Fuhrer's greatest enemy! Can you imagine a greater enemy?" he asked. Their faces were stiff, frozen and ashamed, being part of this devastation. Rabbi Schacter continued and said, "This child will be a witness to your persecutions, and also a witness, that over one million Jewish children never made it." 


That child was Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the future Chief Rabbi of the Modern State of Israel!


I met Rabbi Herschel Schacter zt”l many times during my tenure as a rabbinic intern and then Assistant Rabbi to Rabbi J.J. Schacter at the Jewish Center in 1993-95.  He was an exquisitely nice, soft-spoken, older Jewish man, a mostly-retired rabbi who took great-pride in his increasingly prominent rabbi son.  I had heard some of his stories from him, from Rabbi J.J., and through the rabbinical grapevine.  I remember him as being kind, gracious and complimentary to me.  I remember thinking then, as now:  He seems so kind, so nice, so normal.  A consummate Zeide figure.  But I also knew that he was a giant of a man, a “Bemakom she-‘ein Ish” type of mensch, and a rabbi of our time and for the ages.  Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night: “Be not afraid of greatness: Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”  Rabbi Herschel Schacter’s greatness stemmed from all three sources.


May his living memory inspire all of us on this Pesach to find the greatness within ourselves and our community.  May we, a people once enslaved, who walked with faith across the dry bed of the roiling Sea to Sinai, and then onward the Land of Promise, may we find within ourselves the courage and compassion, strength and determination, to rise above everydayness to a measure of greatness as modeled by Rabbi Herschel Schacter throughout his life.


The funeral took place today, Friday March 21st at 10 am at the Riverdale Jewish Center, 3700 Independence Avenue, Riverdale, NY.  Shiva will be observed until Midday Monday at 3701 Henry Hudson Parkway (Corner 237th St.) Apt. 7B.  The phone number there is (718) 543 3919.  Minyan times are Sunday: Shacharit 8:30 am, Mincha/Maariv 6:50 pm, and Monday: Shacharit 6:45 am.  Rabbi Schacter can be reached at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


May the Omnipresent comfort the extended Schacter family and all of Klal Yisrael with all those who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim


3/21/13 The New York Jewish Week, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, Chaplain At Buchenwald Liberation, Dies At 95http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/national-news/rabbi-herschel-schacter-chaplain-buchenwald-liberation-dies-95


Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a national Jewish leader and the only Jewish chaplain present at the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, died Thursday at the age of 95. The first rabbi to be ordained by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy, the resident of Riverdale led the Mosholu Jewish Center in the Bronx for more than 50 years and held leadership roles in numerous national Jewish organizations, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which he chaired from 1967 to 1969. A statement from Richard Stone, chair, and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference, described the rabbi as “an exemplary leader who often spoke of his `deep commitment to Jewish inclusiveness and unity.’” The rabbi’s son, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future, and daughter, Miriam Schacter, a psychotherapist, recalled: “Our father modeled for us the great importance of caring for other Jews and devoting one’s life and efforts to the Jewish people.” Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, described the senior Rabbi Schacter as “a warm, friendly man and an orator’s orator, someone his colleagues would turn to [for guidance on] speeches and sermons.”  While serving as a chaplain in the VIII Corps of the Third Army of the United States Armed Forces, Rabbi Schacter participated in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and brought comfort to many survivors.  He then led a UNRRA Kindertransport from Buchenwald to Switzerland after World War II. In 1956, he was a member of the first rabbinic delegation to the USSR, and he escorted a transport of Hungarian refugees from Austria to the U.S. His communal activities included president of the Mizrachi-Hapoel Hamizrachi; founding chairman of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry; chairman of the Chaplaincy Commission of the Jewish Welfare Board; and director of Rabbinic Services at Yeshiva University. In addition to his son and daughter, he is survived by his wife, Pnina (nee Gewirtz, who he married in 1948), four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Rabbi Schacter should not be confused with Rabbii Hershel Schachter, who is Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.


Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels

Congregation Shaarei Tefillah

35 Morseland Avenue

Newton, MA 02459

(857) 636-8489

Pager (781) 748-7790

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.




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