Rabbi Zalman Kazan, a longtime leader of Cleveland’s Jewish community known for his relentless and unyielding energy to assist local Jews with their physical and spiritual needs, passed away at the age of 92.
Juggling a hectic schedule into his 90s, Kazen inspired the community to grow in its scholarship and observance.
Kazen was born in the Russian town of Gzhatsk in 1919 to Rabbi Michoel and Sara Katzenellenbogen, fierce activists in the underground Chabad-Lubavitch network of Jewish schools, synagogues, and communal services. They risked their lives to provide for and encourage the throngs of Jews persecuted by the Soviets.
Kazen’s mother traveled from one Soviet orphanage to the next searching for Jewish children kidnapped by authorities in the hope they would forget their religious identities. His father, meanwhile, fearlessly taught classes on classic Jewish texts and encouraged Jews he met not to give up the fight to preserve their traditions.
His father was later hauled to prison; his family never saw him again.“We shared the same fate,” Shula Kazen remarked days after her husband’s passing. “My father was taken from our family to never be seen again and his father was taken from his family to never be seen again.”
In her early teens, Shula Shagalov went to Moscow to an underground Lubavitch home that arranged occupations for its girls and allowed them the opportunity to keep the Sabbath and live together with like-minded teenagers. Her mother, meanwhile, travelled to Leningrad where she met up with Sara Katzenellenbogen. At the time, Kazen was a student in the clandestine network of Lubavitch Yeshivot, traveling from one institution to the next to stay one step ahead of the secret police.
In Leningrad, the two mothers began talking about their marriageable children.
“They made sure we met each other,” said Shula Kazen.The two married in a secret ceremony in the middle of a forest in Malkhovka, a suburb of Moscow, a joyous celebration for the underground activists who attended. But the couple then endured years of sickness, hunger, and instability.
In 1946, following WWII, the Russian government opened its border to Polish immigrants wishing to return back to Poland. Seeing an opportunity, the Lubavitch underground created a sophisticated network of using Polish passports of people who died in Russia and training Russian Jews on how to get across the border to safety.
Sara Katzenellenbogen, by then adored for her deep care for fellow Jews and known as “Aunt Sara,” was one of the central leaders in the project. Fearlessly she aided hundreds of families to leave communist Russia for a chance to live openly as committed Jews. Through her efforts, Zalman and Shula Kazen, their three daughters born in Russia, and two orphans, and a ‘grandmother’ left Russia. The grandmother was not Sara, who remained behind to continue to help others. Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, mother of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory left with Zalman and Shula as ‘their mother and the children’s ‘grandmother’. She eventually made it to the shores of America where she delighted in the presence of her eldest son, the Rebbe, and was known as ‘the mother of Royalty’ – a woman of great spirit, wisdom, and royal bearing.
Sara Katzenellenbogen attempted to escape on one of the last trains to Poland but was caught and imprisoned for her activities. She passed away in prison on the 9th of Nissan.
Kazen, his wife and entourage arrived in Pocking, Germany, where at the direction of the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, of righteous memory, he studied the laws of ritual slaughtering. They later traveled to Paris, where three more girls were born. Here Zalman helped establish and fundraise for the Beis Rivkah girls’ school (in existence till today).
In 1953, Shula Kazen’s lifelong dream of moving to the United States became a reality with the assistance of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. When the family arrived in New York, they were informed that HIAS had arranged for the couple and their six children to move to Cleveland, Ohio, where they would receive an apartment and aid to resettle. Shula Kazen, however, wanted to live in New York amongst other Chabad disciples and in close proximity to the Rebbe.
The Kazens had a private audience with the Rebbe, where she raised her concerns about their impending move.
The Rebbe responded that without the assistance from HIAS, it would be impossible to live comfortably with six children.
“Cleveland is also a nice place,” the Rebbe said when Kazen’s wife reiterated her wish to live in New York, “with nice people and a good Jewish school.”
The Rebbe then asked Kazen what he planned to do once he arrived in Cleveland. The Rebbe suggested that he be a ritual slaughterer, lead prayer services or become a rabbi of a synagogue.
Upon his arrival in Cleveland and as they were getting settled in their apartment, two Jews came in to welcome the new immigrant family. Seeing Kazen’s beard and religious garb, they took it upon themselves to warn him about America.
“Fanatic, in America you need to shave off your beard,” they told him. “Forget about what they said in Russian about America. Here we work for money and only later comes Judaism.”
The Kazens would not be swayed. Instead these words had the opposite affect. They were determined to live a proper Jewish life and help others see the beauty in Judaism as well.
Soon after their move, the Rebbe instructed the family to work with local Jewish families and encourage them to strengthen their Jewish observance. The Kazens knocked on doors and invited their neighbors to join study groups on the Sabbath.
“We found one girl,” remembered Shula Kazen. “Then that girl or boy brought another one, and that one another one, and that is how it grew.”
Shula Kazen encouraged her fellow parents to send their children to the Hebrew Academy. And her husband studied Jewish texts with the local immigrants from Poland, Romania and Hungary.
“We arrived in Cleveland at a time when Jews were trying to move on from the atrocities of the Holocaust,” said Shula Kazen. Still fresh from their own wounds, the Kazens imparted the courage and spirit they inherited from their parents to the local population.
Michael Hoen remembered Kazen’s unrelenting charm.
“He was always smiling,” noted Hoen. “He truly loved everyone he came in contact with and was always interested in every individual.”
In time, Kazen was appointed as the rabbi in the local Congregation Zemach Zedek synagogue, a position he held for more than six decades. His wife, meanwhile, established the Lubavitch Women’s Organization, N’shei u’Bnos Chabad.
“Their personal home,” wrote the Cleveland Jewish News, “became the place for everything Jewish in Cleveland.”
In the early 1970s, the Kazens established the Russian Immigrant Aid Society to assist a new crop of immigrants from the Soviet Union. They provided for the new arrivals’ needs, introducing them to doctors and arranging assistance with food and jobs.
“He had a pure soul,” Hoen, who serves as president of the Congregation Zemach Zedek, said of Kazen. “He was interested only in the welfare of his fellow man, especially the welfare of the Jews from the former Soviet Union, because he knew firsthand what they went through.”
Another congregant chimes in: “My family had some very tough times in Cleveland. We would get our chickens from Rabbi Kazen. He would always ensure that we would have what to eat. When you have nothing to eat, it’s significant that there’s someone there to give you food with dignity. In fact, we relished going to his chicken store [where he worked as a shochet]. I never felt embarrassed by having to ask for food.”
Kazen taught his neighbors in their native Russian, showing them how to observe the Jewish holidays and celebrate life events, all things that were forbidden by the communists. On Sundays, hundreds of people came to the synagogue for a hearty meal while the rabbi organized lectures that explored a selected Jewish topic. Throughout the week, there was always a steady stream of people to pick up free food packages.
The Kazens also focused on the immigrants’ children.“We invested much energy so that the children would receive a Jewish education at the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, the same school that our children attended,” said Shula Kazen.
At the time, the school did not have a program for Russian-speaking children, yet this did not deter Shula Kazen. She asked, begged, and cajoled until a program was established. Hundreds of children received a Jewish education because of her efforts.
“They worked endlessly to make sure that [immigrants] would get a Jewish education,” echoed Hebrew Academy’s Rabbi Eli Dessler. “They absolutely were astonishing for their self-sacrifice. They would not leave any stone unturned to enroll another Jewish child in Jewish education.”Kazen also never forgot his fellow Jews back in Russia.
His daughter, Henya Laine, related that when her sister Esther, a’h, was studying in New York, she would attend the regular Chasidic gatherings, where the Rebbe would for hours deliver a stream of scholarly talks. She wrote down what the Rebbe said and sent her notes to her father.
“He would learn the talks and would treasure them,” said Laine. “At the time, it was difficult to obtain copies of the Rebbe’s talks.”
But Kazen did not keep the material for himself. As soon as he was able, he would mail the copies to the Soviet Union, where the papers would be secretly handed from one person to the next. Years later, a man who studied the talks in Russia said that Kazen’s parcels were their only source for teachings from the Rebbe.
Congregants who came to Kazen’s synagogue were not drawn by its physical beauty, but rather by its warm embrace of all who entered. Attendees said it was like joining a family, seeing fellow Jews from a myriad of backgrounds and speaking a variety of languages. Though they differed in their finances and demeanor, they worshiped as one.
“He taught many of his classes in all three languages, Russian, English and Yiddish,” said Hoen. “It was a wonder to behold. It didn’t matter if you did not understand one of the languages he spoke, for you felt his sincerity and warmth for what he was teaching.” At the synagogue no one was turned away.
“He was the kindest man in Cleveland,” Hoen added.
The Kazen’s imprint is felt in the lives of individuals and the community as a whole.
May his memory be for a blessing.
Adapted and shortened from Chabad.org by Dovid Zaklikowski (printed July 15, 2011)
For the full article please see: Chabad.org/rabbikazen