Rabbi Herschel Schacter* was a prominent American Rabbi with a distinguished career in the rabbinate and in public Jewish life. During WWII, he was a chaplain in the third Army’s VIII Corps and was the first US Army Chaplain to participate in the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after it had been liberated by General George S. Patton’s troops on April 11, 1945.
While others begged to leave Buchenwald due to the unbearable stench, Rabbi Schacter stayed for months, tending to survivors and leading religious services. Liberation had come just a week after Passover. Still he distributed matza daily for the hungry Jews. When the holiday of Shavuot came around a few weeks later, he led services for the Time of our Receiving the Torah, and on Shabbat when possible. At these services, the children he met, were able to say Kaddish for their parents who had died al kiddush Hashem.
Some time after his arrival, Rabbi Schacter organized a train transport for many of the children to France. Among the children in this transport were two who were to become very famous – a young boy of eight years old, Lulek, who grew up to become chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau; and a teenage boy by the name of Eli Wiesel!
One of the children he met there was a young man from a Polish Chassidic family. We will call him Yechezkel (a pseudonym). Rabbi Schacter took a special liking to the intelligent boy. Yechezkel had lost his entire family during the war and had completely renounced his faith in G-d. Defiantly, he told the rabbi about his plans to assimilate and live the rest of his life in post-war Germany without a trace of Judaism. Rabbi Schacter listened sympathetically and tried to offer his moral support. They talked often.
When another transport of 400 boys was organized to Switzerland, Rabbi Schacter offered Yechezkel a ticket. He told him that he would be personally traveling with this group. Each boy was issued a special ticket from the Swiss government, and Rabbi Schachter was responsible for distributing them to the boys. But Yechezkel refused the offer. He wanted no part of restarting a Jewish life. The day came when the train for Switzerland arrived at Buchenwald. Rabbi Schacter told Yechezkel, “Look, even if you don’t come with us to Switzerland at least come to see us off when we board the trains.” Yechezkel reluctantly agreed.
Rabbi Schacter was rushing to and fro, making sure each boy was accounted for. All the while, Rabbi Schacter was wondering if Yechezkel would show up. As the train was ready to depart, Yechezkel appeared and came up to shake the rabbi’s hand.“Yechezkel, it’s so nice of you to come and say goodbye!” he said to him. With that, he grabbed the boy’s hand and with a burst of strength hauled Yechezkel onto the train just as it was departing, pulling out of the station. Yechezkel was shocked and furious. Rabbi Schacter told him he just did it on impulse, but to please not be so angry. Yechezkel was steaming!
Finally, the train made its way to Switzerland.
After their arrival, Rabbi Schacter attempted to make a minya on Shabbat. There were easily enough people for Shacharit (morning prayers)but Mincha (afternoon prayers) proved difficult. He could only find nine men, including himself. Remembering Yechezkel, he went in search of the young man, who was not happy to see him.
“Yechezkel, I need you for a minyan.”
“Are you crazy? Absolutely not!”
“But we only have nine. We need a minyan in order to daven (pray) and read from the Torah scroll.”
“Oh really? Well, you need a minyan. I do not!” To prove his point, he brazenly lit up a cigarette.
“Yechezkel, I’m begging you. Just come into the tent. We’ll pray quickly.”
In a huff, Yechezkel replied, “Fine! Just this once!”
He entered the makeshift shul with a scowl.
The nine men who would be praying began the preliminaries, followed by Kaddish. All the while, Yechezkel made sure everyone knew how unhappy he was. Rabbi Schacter then took out the Sefer Torah and asked if any of the men knew how to read. They all shook their heads. Yechezkel meanwhile was looking longingly outside the tent.
Then Rabbi Schacter remembered. “Yechezkel!”
“What do you want?” the boy replied coldly.
“Didn’t you tell me you were a baal koreh (qualified Torah scroll reader) before the war?!”
“Maybe, so what?”
“So you’re the only one of us who knows how to Lein (read the Torah scroll). We need to hear the Torah reading for this Shabbat afternoon.”
“There you go again with your, ‘We need…’. You might need but I certainly don’t!”
“Yechezkel please! This is the first chance in years for people to hear the Torah publicly read. I’m begging you. I know you can do this!”
With extreme reluctance, Yechezkel threw his cigarette outside and approached the table. He cast an expert glance at the Sefer Torah and immediately found the starting point.“Okay,” he sighed. “Let’s get on with it.”
A man was called to the Torah and made the blessing – “Baruch ata Hashem…….who has chosen us from all other nations and given us the Torah…”
“Amein,” Yechezkel found himself saying automatically. It came back so easily. Yechezkel began to read the 3300 year-old sacred text. Something unexpected happened. The holy letters of the precious scroll seemed to jump off the page and reach deep inside his soul. He looked as if he was literally being struck with the powerful black letters and that they were searing his soul. Yechezkel’s angry veneer had been shattered. He broke down crying like a baby and barely got through the Torah reading. When he had begun to read it, he was reading the Torah for someone else, feeling totally disconnected. Now he had reclaimed it. And it had reclaimed him!
Yechezkel was forever changed by that Torah reading. He returned to the path of mitzvah fulfillment and remained Torah observant for the rest of his life. He built a beautiful Jewish family in Australia and championed Torah causes there. Yechezkel also stayed a devoted friend to the Schacter family for many decades.
*Rabbi Herschel Schacter – October 10, 1917 – March 21, 2013
Rabbi Schacter was discharged from the US Army with the rank of Captain. He became the spiritual leader of the Mosholu Jewish Center, an orthodox synagogue in the Bronx where he presided from 1947 until it closed in 1999. He was a leader of many national Jewish groups including chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. He traveled to the former Soviet Union with a group of rabbis, in 1956 to lobby for better rights for Soviet Jews and was an adviser on the subject to President Richard Nixon.Rabbi Herschel Schacter was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, NY, to immigrant Jewish parents from Poland. He was the youngest of ten children.A protégé of Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, he went on to learn at Yeshiva University where he was a student of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and received semicha (rabbinic ordination) there. He enlisted in the Army in 1942. In 1948, he married Pnina Gewirtz. He is survived by a son, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, the former director of the Soloveitchik Institute, and presently senior scholar at YU Center for Jewish Future, and Miriam Schacter, a psychotherapist, and many grandchildren. Miriam shares: “Our father modeled for us the great importance of caring for other Jews and devoting one’s life and efforts to the Jewish people.”
(not to be confused with Rabbi Hershel Schachter, who was Rosh Kollel of Yeshiva University and a student of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, and who accompanied the Rav when he came to a farbrengen of the Rebbe, Yud Shevat, 5740 – 1980. See Living Torah Disc 18, Program 72.)