June 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Stories of Courage and Hope

Excerpting: “Whatever It Takes” by Rabbi Shea Hecht. Mosaica Press. 2023.‎ English. Hardcover. 252 pages. ISBN-13:‎ 978-1957579429.

(Courtesy of Mosaica Press) The following is an excerpt from “Whatever it Takes” by Rabbi Shea Hecht.

In my four decades as a community rabbi, I have been asked countless times to help people embroiled in a financial dispute who were going to take it to a din Torah, a Jewish court. Baruch Hashem, I have had the good fortune to help settle disagreements from a few dollars to a million. If the case was difficult, I would send them to a formal beis din of three rabbis, and I would help them secure a to’en rabbani, a rabbinic lawyer.

One of my colleagues in dealing with legal matters is Rabbi Shmiel Fried, a Satmar chassid. Reb Shmiel is a brilliant man, with a depth of knowledge in both Torah and, l’havdil, secular law. In difficult cases, I consult with Reb Shmiel, or tell the person I’m helping to consult with him.

Recently, I went to Reb Shmiel on some matter, and while we were talking I said, “Reb Shmiel, you’ve been in this business for over thirty years. You must have literally hundreds of stories to tell. Tell me your most amazing story.”

Reb Shmiel answered, saying, “That’s an easy one. Velvel Kaplan. He lived on Long Island in the Five Towns and worked on 47th Street as a diamond dealer.

“One day, a Jewish man, whom we’ll call Reuven and who happened to be Chassidic—I won’t say of which group—came to Velvel and asked for a large amount of high-grade diamonds on consignment. Since the diamond business was conducted on trust, often without anything in writing, Velvel agreed and gave the man the diamonds on consignment.

“The arrangement was that the man would pay for the diamonds on a monthly basis.

“Ten months into the deal, the man started delaying his payments. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, he asked Velvel if he could have another half a million dollars’ worth of diamonds for a deal he was working on. All he needed to wrap up the sale was the merchandise. And Velvel Kaplan, a trusting soul, went for it and let him take the diamonds.

“Two days later, Reuven came to Velvel and told him, ‘I was walking near Central Park, and three guys attacked me. One of them pulled a knife and ripped my jacket. They stole my money—over a million dollars in cash—and the diamonds you gave me two days ago.’

“Velvel, needless to say, was extremely upset, I would say almost hysterical, and insisted that the man immediately go to the police, which he did.

“As the police filled out the report, they asked Reuven how much cash was stolen from him. He claimed it was two million dollars and that he’d been carrying it in a medium-sized briefcase.

“The cops asked, ‘In what denominations were the bills?’

“Reuven said, ‘In twenties.’

“The cops looked at him and said, ‘You’re lying. Two million in twenties couldn’t fit in such a briefcase.’

“Reuven came back to Velvel and said, ‘The money and the diamonds are gone. The police didn’t believe me.’ ”

Reb Shmiel continued, “Velvel Kaplan had a connection with Rav Kreiswirth, the chief rabbi of Belgium, so he called him up and explained the situation. Rav Kreiswirth told him to get in touch with me. And I advised him to take the matter to din Torah with Hisachdus Harabbanim.

“I was the to’en rabbani for Velvel Kaplan, and Rabbi Zalman Gross was the to’en rabbani for Reuven. And three judges heard the case.

“Rabbi Gross explained that Reuven had a legal but risky business plan. He would buy diamonds at market price and then sell them at 80 percent market price, taking a 20 percent loss merely to attract customers and build a large clientele. In order for him to function, he needed a big input of cash and a large inventory of diamonds on consignment.

“Velvel jumped in and said, ‘I don’t understand. Last week Reuven took half a million in diamonds from me. I’m sure he didn’t sell them. Let him give them back.’

“Reuven answered, ‘I don’t know where they are.’

“The beis din decided that Reuven’s statement didn’t sound true and paskened that he must make a shevuah d’Oraisa.

“I said to Velvel, ‘I believe the man is guilty. He’s a goniff. But I also believe he’s foolish enough to take the shevuah and tell a lie, even knowing it might cause serious repercussions in Shamayim. So even though the beis din is forcing Reuven to take a shevuah d’Oraisa, I’m advising you to walk away and cut your losses. I’m advising you not to make him take the shevuah, even though you’re right and he’s wrong. You don’t want to be the cause of what might happen to this man.’

“Velvel answered me, ‘But he owes me over a million dollars.’

“And I answered him, ‘If you do this thing and walk away, Hashem will pay you back. Leave it in God’s hands.’

“Velvel was uncomfortable with the idea and said he wanted to go to the Skverer Rebbe for advice and a berachah.

“The Skverer Rebbe told him, ‘If Reb Shmiel Fried thinks you shouldn’t make the man take a shevuah d’Oraisa, listen to him. It’s just like he says: Hashem will find a way to reward you.’

“The following Wednesday, the day before the shevuah was scheduled, Velvel had a meeting with a non-Jewish client in Atlantic city. After their business was concluded, the client said, ‘Hey, you came to Atlantic City. Don’t waste the trip. Make a bet on something.’

“Velvel said, ‘Really, I came here to do business with you, not to gamble. I don’t make bets.’

“The client pressed him to gamble, so Velvel grudgingly said, ‘OK, I’m going to put one dollar in a slot machine. Will that fulfill my obligation?’

“The client was amused, and he agreed. So Velvel put one dollar in a slot machine and wham! Bells and whistles went off, smoke started pouring out of the ceiling, and a sign flashed on and off, reading: Winner of the Diamond Jackpot—$1,200,000.00. People all around rushed up to congratulate him.”

Reb Shmiel looked at me, smiled, and said, “The jackpot was for $1.2 million, the exact amount Reuven owed Velvel. The next day, Velvel went to the beis din and dropped the case.”

FROM 1986 THROUGH 1998, I was the rabbi of the Seaview Jewish Center in Canarsie. My predecessor was Rabbi Norman Strizower, who served in that capacity for twenty-five years.

There was a custom at that time for a congregation to give a parting gift to its retiring rabbi. Rabbi Strizower asked the synagogue committee for a specific amount for every year of his rabbanus. The synagogue committee said that they could only give him half of what he requested.

Though Rabbi Strizower felt he was being treated unfairly, he decided to accept their offer. So the Seaview Jewish Center made a banquet, with Rabbi Strizower as the honoree, and they raised the amount they had committed to.

The next day, Rabbi Strizower came to the synagogue to pick up his personal belongings and receive his check, and while he was walking to his car, a Jewish man met him and asked him if he would buy a raffle ticket for twenty-five dollars, with the funds going to Hatzolah of Canarsie. Rabbi Strizower bought the ticket, and—you guessed it—he won the grand prize of many thousands of dollars, exactly the amount of the difference between what he had requested of the committee and what they had given him.

In a similar vein, after twelve years as rabbi of the same congregation, I ended my term of service and asked for a certain sum of money as a onetime pension. The committee would agree to only half of what I asked for, exactly as had happened to Rabbi Strizower. We took the disagreement to a rav, who said that since the sum in question was in the category of a gift, the synagogue didn’t have to pay more than half of what I’d requested. As the rav said those words, the thought of Velvel Kaplan flashed through my mind. Of course, I accepted the rav’s decision with as much simchah as I could muster. And then I remembered the story of Rabbi Strizower, and I said to myself, “Hashem will take care of me from a different source.” Less than one year later, Hashem brought me a two-year community-relations project that was the most lucrative job I’ve ever had, and that more than compensated me for what I had not received from the shul. Hodu laHashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo.

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