Beloved Rabbi Leaves a Lasting Legacy

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Rabbi Zaitchik and his wife Nell in the sukkah, 1988.
Rabbi Zaitchik and his wife Nell in the sukkah, 1988.

Special to the Journal

LYNN — Over 500 people, including more than a dozen Greater Boston rabbis, gathered October 6 at Congregation Ahabat Sholom in Lynn to pay their final respects to Rabbi Samuel Zaitchik, who served as spiritual leader of the Orthodox shul from 19471997. Rabbi Zaitchik died on October 4.

In his eulogy, Rabbi Benjamin Samuels of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton referred to Zaitchik as a "rabbi’s rabbi." Elaborating, Samuels said, "Rabbi Zaitchik was a tremendous Torah scholar. Many of my colleagues turned to him for sage advice on halakah (Jewish law) and pastoral care issues."

Rabbi Zaitchik was respected by Jews and non-Jews alike. Each year Dr. Marvin Wilson, a longtime professor in biblical and theological studies at Gordon College in Wenham, would bring a group of students to services at Congregation Ahabat Sholom.

"[Rabbi Zaitchik] was a gracious man; he had a deep knowledge of Judaism and sacred texts, he had a wonderful humble spirit... When he retired, the North Shore lost a mensch," Wilson said.

Samuel Zaitchik was born in Russia in 1920. The Bolsheviks persecuted his father, Rabbi Meir Zaitchik, who was forced to study Torah in the basement. The family, which included nine children, lived in poverty. So Alan Zaitchik recounted how his grandmother instructed the children to forage berries in the forest. In 1925, Samuel Zaitchik immigrated with his mother and several siblings to America; his father and a sister had emigrated before them. After graduating cum laude from Yeshiva University in New York City, he enlisted in the U.S. Army as a military chaplain.

"It was unusual for an Orthodox Jew to enlist at that time," explained Bella Twersky, whose husband, Rabbi Martin Twersky, was a nephew of Zaitchik’s. "He did so because he was always grateful to the United States for accepting him."

During WWII, Zaitchik became the advisor on Jewish affairs in Kobe, Japan, under General Douglas MacArthur. Alan Zaitchik said his father assisted American Jewish servicemen, and helped Jewish refugees in Japan who were escaping the Holocaust.

"He ‘borrowed’ medicine and clothes for them," Alan said.

It was while stationed at Ft. Hood that Zaitchik met (the late) Nell Bauer of Waco, Texas. She became his wife of 51 years. Together they had three children: Alan, Linda and Deborah.

Zaitchik earned a Master’s degree in Jewish philosophy from Harvard University in 1947. That year, he gave a guest lecture at Congregation Ahabat Sholom, which led to his appointment as rabbi. During his tenure, he oversaw the congregation’s move from Church Street to Ocean Street in 1961, and he led the construction of Mikvah B’Not Yisrael (a ritual bath) at the synagogue in 1978. During the late 1980’s and 1990’s, he aided Jews arriving from the former Soviet Union.

He rubbed elbows with many influential people. In 1951, David Ben Gurion invited Zaitchik to visit Israel. The rabbi joined other dignitaries in meeting President Jimmy Carter and Prime Minister Menachem Begin at the White House in 1978.

Yet Zaitchik also touched the lives of many ordinary individuals. "He would always take the opportunity to make someone feel valued and worthwhile," said his daughter Deborah Zaitchik at the funeral.

Goldie Greenbaum of Swampscott is one example. A Polish Holocaust survivor, she, her husband Bernard and their threeyear-old son Morris settled in Lynn in 1951. The family found it difficult to adjust to America. Zaitchik gave her inspiration.

"He told me that I have a purpose; that life would be good and will continue to be good," Greenbaum said. Although Greenbaum hardly remembers the dress she wore to Morris’ bar mitzvah, she fondly recalls the sermon. In it, Zaitchik described the ways Jews have coped with difficult situations throughout history. His words gave her hope.

Zaitchik enjoyed helping others. Rami Zaitchik recalled, "My grandfather and grandmother would welcome needy people in the middle of the night. She would serve them chicken soup, and he would give them chicken soup for the soul. Everyone left the house feeling better."

Judy Kaplan of Watertown, formerly of Lynn, remembers Zaitchik as a peacemaker. Around the High Holidays, he counseled congregants in disputes to apologize to one another.

She praised how the rabbi balanced the needs of traditionalists with those of younger generations. The migration of congregants to Swampscott and Marblehead in the 1970’s and 1980’s raised the issue of driving on Shabbat. Additionally, women’s fashion changed to wearing short skirts and slacks.

"For Rabbi Zaitchik, people coming to shul was more important than the way they dressed or whether they drove," Kaplan said.

Alan Barnett of Lynn appreciated Zaitchik’s acceptance of different Jews. Barnett grew up as a Conservative Jew. In 1964, at age 17, he joined the newly formed chapter of the National Council of Synagogue Youth at Ahabat Sholom. His driving from Swampscott to Lynn on Shabbat wasn’t an issue for Zaitchik.

"Rabbi Zaitchik always made me feel at home," Barnett said.

Many commented on the depth of Zaitchik’s Torah knowledge. "He could quote any verse in the Torah or Talmud on the spot," said Hersh Goldman of Swampscott, who knew Zaitchik for two decades.

Estelle Cohen of Peabody attended his Tuesday Bible classes for women. "He helped relate the Torah to our lives," she said, adding, "He was a mentor, and brilliant."

Meyer Koplow of New Rochelle, N.Y. said, "I learned many insights into the Torah as a result of his sermons. I am still observant and active in my synagogue due to his influence. His example set a tone and a standard of ethics and morality. I always associated anything Jewish with Rabbi Zaitchik."

Marc Winer, current co-president of Ahabat Sholom, didn’t know the rabbi very well, but said, "When I stand on the same bimah as Rabbi Zaitchik, it’s a bit awesome knowing that he stood there."

While many praised his erudition, Rabbi Zaitchik also had a lighter side. At the funeral his nephew, Air Force Col. Steven Novak, told of the many pranks he liked to play on the younger members of the family. He also liked to play poker and ride motorcycles.

Mark Mulgay of Swampscott remembers that during Sukkot, Zaitchik and other young men in the shul would ride in a limousine to various sukkahs. At each one, he said, they would drink a l’chaim.

Debbie Hallett of Laguna Beach, Calif., formerly of Lynn, said that on Shemini Azeret, the Zaitchiks would open their home to the congregation. "The schnapps would be flowing," she said. "Rebbetzin Zaitchik baked the most delicious pastries. The men would sing until it was time to return to the synagogue for Simchat Torah."

Judy Kaplan said that Zaitchik loved singing so much that people joked he would rather be a member of the men’s choir than the rabbi.

Yet he shined as a teacher. Even in his last years as a resident at Chestnut Park at Cleveland Circle in Brighton, he was still teaching and brightening the lives of all around him.

Debbie Zaitchik said at the funeral, "I once observed him teaching Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, a section of the Mishna. He asked his students, ‘What is Pirke Avot?’ He answered, ‘When you see a fellow resident looking sad, ask them how their day is going.’"

Last modified on Friday, October 18, 2013 - 16:14

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Rabbi Zaitchik and his wife Nell in the sukkah, 1988.

Rabbi Zaitchik and his wife Nell in the sukkah, 1988.

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