Slightly more than three years ago, I told a story about Rabbi Herschel Schacter in a column discussing kindness (“Acts of Kindness Come in all Sizes”). If you’re interested, you can read it either using the hyperlink in the digital version of this column or in the recent biography of R. Schacter, “The Rabbi of Buchenwald: The Life and Times of Herschel Schacter” by Rafael Medoff, where it serves as the book’s conclusion. (No, I don’t get royalties, but buy it anyway.)
It’s a story of a fleeting instant in his long life, told to give people “a glimpse into [R. Schacter’s] true character”: his empathy, thoughtfulness, kindness, understanding, and care for and appreciation of others. For anyone who knew him personally — and I was one who was so blessed — none of this is surprising.
But his character, as wonderful as it was, is not what made him famous. Nor is he re-membered mainly for his guidance of the Mosholu Jewish Center for more than 50 years, or his leadership of many important Jewish organizations — local, national, and international — throughout his long career. All of that admirable service to the Jewish people may well have merited him an obituary in the New York Times, but not a front-page one that is reserved for those the Times deems to be of special distinction.
And yet he did receive such an obit, headlined “Rabbi Herschel Schacter is Dead at 95; Cried to the Jews of Buchenwald ‘You Are Free.’” That obit by Margalit Fox (who had been the best Times obituary writer when she worked there, or, perhaps, as a friend once corrected me, the best Times writer period) appeared on the front page because of the singular fact alluded to in the headline — that as a U.S. army chaplain in WWII he was assigned to the unit that liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp. Part of that story is told in the obit; a longer version appears in the biography.
Recently, I heard his son, Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought at Yeshiva University, senior scholar at its Center for the Jewish Future, a major Modern Orthodox leader and scholar, and a close personal friend for decades, give a lecture about his father’s life. I’d heard JJ speak about his father before, but each time he adds stories and insights. This time was no different. And what particularly struck me this time was when he said, while telling the story of his father entering Buchenwald for the first time, “and what he saw changed his life.”
As I thought about this, I asked myself “so his career and fame were all based on luck?” There were 66 other Jewish chaplains in the ETO in April 1945. It was luck that R. Schacter was the one assigned to Patton’s army, and that it was that army that liberated Buchenwald. Had any of the other Jewish chaplains been so assigned, had R. Schacter been assigned to a different unit, or had a different unit arrived at Buchenwald first, then he would not have been “the rabbi of Buchenwald”; he would have been one more courageous Jewish hero returning to the States after the war. No doubt he would have gone on to a fine rabbinical career, but not one that would merit a front-page obit.
As I thought some more, though, I realized that my question completely misses the point. It wasn’t that R. Schacter had “luck” (a poor choice of words, to be sure, to describe the hell he walked into that day — perhaps serendipity is better); it was what he made of it. He could have done what he did and minister to the survivors for 10 weeks, and then, after he was mustered out, return to his career as a congregational rabbi.
But he did so much more. First, as the biography tells us, he used “his unique oratorical and public relations skills … [to] become the public face of the survivors and play an important role as an eyewitness” to draw attention to their plight. And then, in addition to leading his congregation, he continued throughout his whole life to serve the worldwide Jewish community above and beyond the call of duty. As his beloved wife Pnina once described him to JJ, then age 5, when he asked where his missing father was during one summer vacation, “ihr iz gegangen helfin yidden” — he went to help Jews, a phrase inscribed on his tombstone.
While it’s sometimes necessary to have luck, it’s usually not sufficient. What’s most important is what one decides to create from it. R. Schacter devoted a life to helping Jews not because of luck, but because of how he determined to use it to do what was necessary to create his future reality.
This is true in so many other areas of life. You’re not really looking for a new job but you hear a vague lead to what could be your ideal position. Pure luck; the rumor just fell into your lap. But it’s not worth much unless you decide to make it so; to follow up, do the hard work finding the right person to contact, apply for the job, and then use your talents to the utmost. Your new career is only partially due to luck, but mainly because of how you determined to use that luck to do what was necessary to create your future reality.
Or you walk into shul on your first Shabbat in a new community. You don’t really know anyone. You see a number of empty seats and choose one next to a fellow your own age. After (or let’s be real, during) services, you chat with your seatmate, think he’s a nice guy, and sit there again the next week. And you turn that into a family Shabbat lunch, a Torah class (or maybe a ballgame) you attend together, discuss your lives and what’s important to you, and after a while you have a new close friend. Luck? Sure; you could have chosen any one of 20 other empty seats and never met him. But luck was only step one; meaningless if you hadn’t determined how to use it to do what was necessary to create your future reality.
And one more, very personal, example — the confluence of events on Shabbat Nachamu, 1965: my good friend Peter coming to visit me in Camp HILI with his car; using his car on Saturday night to look for entertainment, and after being thrown out of Grossinger’s sneaking into the Pioneer; Sharon deciding to spend that same Shabbat at the Pioneer, and after the formal nighttime program in the ballroom where she wasn’t interested in anyone, deciding further not to turn in for the night but rather to change out of her elegant dress into madras slacks and a white tennis sweater (yes, I still remember the sweater) and listen to the jukebox in the more informal auditorium. And so we met at that jukebox, overcoming my awful pickup line (which I remember but won’t reveal), and then spent the hours until sunrise dancing to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” Luck? Sure. One lucky event piled atop another.
But while luck necessary, it wasn’t sufficient. Not even close. It took lots of work over several years (a labor of love, but labor nonetheless) to turn all those lucky coincidences into a match that’s closing in on 52 years of marriage (pooh pooh). I was — I am — an unbelievably lucky guy, but only because of what I (plugging away even through some unwelcome dry spells), and then we together (finally, whew), made from it.
Rabbi Schacter turned his luck into a lifetime of doing God’s work by going to wherever he was needed and doing whatever he could to help Jews. Sharon and I turned our luck into a more than five-decades-long love match, four amazing daughters, two terrific sons-in-law, and four delightful, delicious, and de-lovely (thank you Cole Porter) grandchildren. By doing what we determined was necessary, we used what we thought was luck — it was really destiny — to create our blessed, sublime reality.
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.