The life of a self-sacrificing international religious leader, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Mordechai Hershberg, zt”l,
chief rabbi of Mexico, international religious negotiations expert, renowned author and foreign diplomat.
The inspiration for writing this piece about my late grandfather is motivated, in part, by the fact that I never met him personally, but the stories about his legacy were transformative for me as I traveled the world more and grew closer to my grandmother, Rebbeca (Rabbi Hershberg zt”l’s wife). In sharing my grandfather’s name (in Hebrew) and endeavors, I feel strongly that others can learn valuable moral lessons on how to be an example in regard to spending one’s life concerned with the welfare of others. He combined many of his talents in the rabbinate, dayanut (an arbiter of Jewish law in the High Courts) and international diplomacy to rebuild post-Holocaust Jewry and its posterity. His passion and self-sacrifice were contagious and had an enormous impact on his own family, friends and the global community. Even though I never met my grandfather, his life has made me a better and different person. Due to his influence on me and my family, I felt a powerful conviction to share some of his many undertakings with a larger Jewish audience. His story is both courageous and legendary. In addition, he taught us all that we should think beyond ourselves and in the better interests of humanity. My grandfather’s influence in my life has a recurring positive effect on my thinking and actions to this day.
Rabbi Dr. Avraham Mordechai Hershberg, zt”l, was born in Poland in 5676. His father died before he was born and he was named after his father. Prior to his bar mitzvah, he was accepted into the prestigious Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin and was considered one of their most outstanding talmudic scholars. During World War II, Rabbi Hershberg fled to Vilna, and from there to Japan and Shanghai. In 1942, he arrived in Canada and then went to the U.S. and landed in Chicago, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe asked him to meet his son-in-law, the RaMaSH, and discuss Torah subjects with him. In short, their relationship was maintained for the following 40 years of his life.
Until his passing, Rabbi Hershberg, zt”l, was the chief rabbi of Mexico and founder and president of The Latin American Beis Din Association and The World Organization of Peace and Freedom. As the Holocaust began, he miraculously escaped from Europe to the U.S. along with many members of his yeshiva and the Mirrer Yeshiva. Upon his arrival to America, his talents didn’t go unnoticed by the greater American Jewish community. He was offered a job as the Rabbi Emeritus of the Orthodox Community in Chicago. However, he declined, taking into consideration that many of his fellow religious leaders and peers felt that his talents could be more meaningfully used in Latin America where Jews were lacking a religious leader and pulpit figure.
In 5720 (1960), Rabbi Hershberg moved to Mexico where he then spent the next several decades of his life building synagogues, yeshivas and mikvahs in Mexico City. One can argue, without exaggeration, that he was the first person to inspire Latin American Jewry to pray and study Torah in the proper spirit and manner.
While Rabbi Hershberg’s job was primarily to serve as a Jewish leader for Latin America, he happened to find time to carry out many secret religious missions across the globe on behalf of the Carter and Begin administrations. There are some stories I can share today, and others that have not yet been declassified and publicized. Among his many accomplishments, Rabbi Hershberg spent much of his time in Egypt with President Sadat, and in Iran, after the revolution, with the Supreme Leader and Grand Ayatollah Imam Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini. These meetings made it possible for Rabbi Hershberg to foster relationships with religious leaders that were increasingly difficult in order to gain their respect and admiration, and ultimately negotiate with them. These efforts were considered by many as imminently dangerous and putting his own life at risk. However, his dedication to saving Jews, protecting religious freedom, and advocating for peace took precedence in his eyes. In every sense of the word, he was a pioneer and hero.
Rabbi Hershberg was able to contact the Jews among the American Embassy hostages in Iran who were imprisoned at the beginning of the revolution, enabling them to light the Chanukah candles. Furthermore, he was able to rescue the chief rabbi of Iran, Rabbi Cohen-Tzedek. However, many other missions he carried out in third world countries have yet to be publicized and declassified. In addition, Rabbi Hershberg had a historic meeting with President Sadat to bolster their economy, in turn allowing more religious freedom and peace. Until his passing, he remained very close to Presidents Carter, Begin and Sadat, with permission to visit them at his discretion and convenience.
My grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Dr. Avraham Mordechai Hershberg, zt”l, was the chief rabbi of Mexico for 25 years (1960-1985). All the Jews of Mexico and Latin America accorded Rabbi Hershberg with the greatest of honor and esteem. Rabbi Hershberg ultimately passed away on 25 Elul 5745 (1985) and was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Heroism, courage, moral integrity, self-sacrifice and unparalleled devotion to the Jewish people were at the core of what Rabbi Hershberg exuded as an individual and Jewish leader. He was more than just any one role; he was unique in nature and combined many talents both personally and professionally, solely for the benefit of others. In any generation these qualities are rare and sorely needed. In many ways he was well ahead of his time, anticipating what needed to be done in order to ensure a more promising future for our people.
Marc (Avi) Hershberg, MSRE is a local Bergen County, NJ, resident and husband to Chana Rosenzweig-Hershberg. Hershberg is a thought leader, contributor and columnist for many leading national real estate news outlets. Hershberg was named Top 20 Young Professionals by the NYREJ and the Commercial Observer in 2020. Hershberg was born in Chicago, raised in Englewood, NJ, and now living in Teaneck, NJ. Hershberg devotes much of his time to supporting leading Jewish and humanitarian charities both domestically and internationally as his passion. Visit his full biography online at www.topazcg.com/executive-team/ , and he can be reached via email at [email protected]