June 17, 2024
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Book Launch for ‘Rabbi of Buchenwald’ Pays Tribute to Rabbi Herschel Schacter, z”tl

(Courtesy of NNJ Holocaust Committee) Sponsored by the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Committee and Congregation Keter Torah, the Tisha B’Av book launch of Dr. Rafael Medoff’s “The Rabbi of Buchenwald” was a beautiful tribute to the life and legacy of Rabbi Herschel Schacter and a poignant reminder about the sanctity of unity as a supreme value for the Jewish people.

The NNJ Holocaust Committee, under the leadership of Steve Fox, initiated its plans for a Holocaust Memorial and Education Center on the Teaneck Municipal Green several years ago. As noted in its recently published “Case for Giving,” the memorial will “serve as a physical memorial to those who perished and offer cutting-edge education curriculum to enhance child and adult understanding about the Holocaust throughout the region and beyond.” Sunday’s program at Keter Torah, held both in person and on Zoom, was intended to raise funds for the project and to offer a meaningful and inspiring program that would highlight the life of Rabbi Herschel Schacter, the father of one of Teaneck’s most preeminent Torah scholars, Rabbi JJ Schacter, and promote an understanding of the role he played and the impact he had on countless survivors and Jewish communities around the world.

Following an introductory video created for the book launch, Rabbi JJ Schacter noted that while our community traditionally commemorates the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, we appropriately recognize Tisha B’Av as the day when all Jewish tragedies are memorialized. Timing for the launching of this book about Rabbi Herschel Schacter, a larger than life individual who describes April 11, 1945, the day he witnessed the liberation of Buchenwald, as “the most unforgettable day in my life,” was impeccable. It was the singular event that shaped his father’s life work and influenced the course of his career.

As explained by Rabbi Schacter, when his family approached Dr. Medoff with the idea of writing this book, their intention was that it should be not a hagiography or even a biography, but rather a book that presented 20th-century events in the United States, Israel, the former Soviet Union and the world through the lens of their father’s life story and experiences. To illustrate his father’s impact, Rabbi Schacter read excerpts from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s book, “Out of the Depths,” and from Martin Greenfield’s biography, “Measure of a Man.” According to Rabbi Lau, it was Rabbi Herschel Schacter who restored his older brother, Naftali’s “confidence in himself and in humanity” following his liberation from Buchenwald. Martin Greenfield, the tailor to numerous American presidents, describes his childhood encounter with Rabbi Herschel Schacter in Buchenwald as he inquired of the rabbi, “Where was God?” Rabbi Schacter explained that some questions simply had no answers, and he held the crying child in his arms as the young boy tried to come to terms with his reply. The scene was repeated decades later at the Holocaust Museum dedication in Washington when Martin Greenfield and Rabbi Schacter were reunited. Mr. Greenfield wrote that to “experience once again that connection, to stand with a man who held me as a boy when my spirit had been shattered by the Nazis…I felt as though I’d been kissed by an angel.” As noted by Rabbi Schacter, that is the true meaning of a legacy. To have had such a lasting impact on so many people, to have lived a life where he often crossed the globe and was absent from home because he had “gegongen helfen Yidden” [went to help Jews], makes for a life worthy of celebration and emulation.

Dr. Rafael Medoff, the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and the author of more than 20 books about the Holocaust, Zionism and American Jewish history, followed Rabbi Schacter with words that confirmed all that had been said about Rabbi Herschel Schacter. Rather than deliver a synopsis of his work, Dr. Medoff brilliantly opted to present a picture of Rabbi Schacter that offered a meaningful message for the day. Focusing on the themes of unity and disunity in the Jewish world, he noted that many of Rabbi Schacter’s experiences centered about the elusive goal of Jewish unity and his valiant efforts to maintain it. Recounting a challenging situation that confronted Rabbi Schacter and his colleagues while serving on the U.S. Army Chaplaincy Commission, Dr. Medoff described how Rabbi Schacter and one of the Reform rabbis on the Commission worked quietly behind the scenes to find a way that cooperation among the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Commission members could be achieved. Like so many other aspects of his life and career, acts like this were informed by Rabbi Schacter’s experience in Buchenwald. When Jews were persecuted, no distinctions were made between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews. It behooved him, therefore, to dedicate his life to advance the precious goal of unity among our people. Without doubt, Rabbi Herschel Schacter was not only the rabbi of Buchenwald. As a mentor, healer and role model, he was among the great rabbis of post-Holocaust world Jewry.

The book launch was a most meaningful and impactful event and a prime example of the type of program the Holocaust Committee will continue to share with the community. With this program, the goal of creating a central space to memorialize the victims of the Shoah while bringing inspiring Holocaust educational programs for all to learn from took another step toward becoming a reality.

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