Yiddishkeit On Parade

Rabbi Shea Hecht, author, speaker, and communal activist, speaks about the early years of the Lag Baomer Parades and the development of the signs and iconic floats.

Here’s My Story

An author, speaker, and communal activist, Rabbi Shea Hecht is the chairman of NCFJE, the parent organization of Jewish Released Time. He was interviewed in the years 2015, 2020, and 2023.

After Lubavitch came to America in the 1940s, its first initiative to reach the outside world was the Jewish Released Time program for public school children.

This program – which is active to this day – also became known as “Wednesday Hour,” because from 2 to 3 PM every Wednesday, in accordance with New York State law, children may be taken out of school to a nearby synagogue to learn about Torah and Judaism.

“Mesibos Shabbos” youth groups also started at around this time, gathering children together on Shabbat afternoons to teach them Torah, tell stories, and recite blessings over some snacks. In those days, there were a lot of Jews in New York who weren’t religious but were attracted to these groups, which helped them grow in their Judaism.

As an outgrowth of both of these programs, whenever Lag B’Omer fell out on a Sunday and all these children were free from public school, there would be a special parade in Crown Heights. Mesibos Shabbos was built around keeping Shabbos as a focal point for our Judaism and our relationship with G-d; Released Time was about giving children a Jewish education; and the main theme of the Lag B’Omer parade was the concept of Jewish pride. The Rebbe really wanted people, young kids in particular, to feel proud that they were Jewish.

In 1945, acting under the direction of the Previous Rebbe, the Rebbe – then known as “Ramash” – appointed my father, Rabbi J. J. Hecht, to be the executive director of Released Time. And from 1957, he also became the organizer and emcee of these parades. When I grew up, my father would be fully wrapped up in the parade as Lag B’Omer approached. He had a radio program on Fridays and Sundays, and for weeks it was all he would talk about.

When the Rebbe spoke at the parade, in Yiddish, my father would follow up with an English translation. And so, at every parade, my father would stand beside the Rebbe, write down notes as he spoke, and then give over his words to the crowd. The Rebbe often smiled broadly as he heard my father’s translations, particularly when he used modern phrases like “knocking the yetzer hara [evil inclination] out of the box” in his reiteration of the Rebbe’s message.

The first parade I really got involved in was in 1967, just after I had turned thirteen. I had some talent in drawing, and so for a couple of weeks before the parade I would paint signs. We took two storefronts in Crown Heights, with one section reserved for the boys and yeshivah students and another for the girls from Bais Rivka, and night after night we would come to work.

Each of us would try to come up with different ideas to catch the audience. There were the usual signs that had been used since the ‘50s, with messages like “SOS: Save our Shabbos,” or a picture of skyscrapers and the words, “New York Salutes Lag B’Omer.” But by then the hippy movement had started and so there were other signs, like “POT: Put On Tefillin.”

People kept thinking of ways to enhance the parades, and one year they came up with the idea of adding floats. The yeshivah students of 770 made a “Shabbos float” on the back of a truck, with seven ascending levels representing the days of the week leading up to Shabbat.

When this first float went by the Rebbe, he was beaming with happiness, and so in the following years there were five floats, then ten, and more. There are other parades with floats, but these floats conveyed a meaningful message which, I think, is why the Rebbe appreciated them so much. A lot of thought went into the floats, as well as a lot of good work by the talented kids in our schools, and they were beautiful.

One year, as a yeshivah student, I was on a float dedicated to the theme of “knowing G-d in all your ways,” showing how a person could look like a Jew while engaged in all kinds of occupations. Together with a friend, Yisroel Brod, I was playing basketball on the float, as we wore our yarmulke and tzitzit; we were pointing out that even when you’re playing ball, you have to play ball like a Jewish boy.

At that parade, as well as at similar events and rallies, I and other yeshivah students would also dress up as clowns, to help entertain the kids. I remember that after one Chanukah rally in the ‘70s, we suddenly heard that the Rebbe would be giving out Chanukah gelt to all of the attendees. At the time, I was still in a clown costume, which put me in a big dilemma: Do I go and get a dollar from the Rebbe, or should I first change and wash my face, and risk missing out? Some friends thought it was fine to go as I was, but another friend thought it would be disrespectful. “You know what?” I thought to myself. “Maybe the Rebbe will like it. I’m going like this!”

When I went over, the Rebbe smiled, and gave me a dollar and a few words of encouragement, with an expression he often used: “Next year, twice more!” Maybe it was because he didn’t recognize me under the clown make-up, but he spoke to me in English rather than Yiddish, and those words still ring in my ears.

Over time, more schools from other communities would join the parade which made the Rebbe very happy. But even when there were thousands of other people there, the Rebbe would often turn to my father and ask, “Where are the Released Time children?” It was as though the parade was their party, and we had invited other friends and neighbors to join in.

Still, the focus remained on all the children. Throughout the parade, the Rebbe would be waving to them and showing his affection. I can’t tell you if it was because the Rebbe never had any physical children of his own, but the devotion and love he showed to children – in private audiences, when giving out nickels for children to give to charity, and while celebrating Lag B’Omer – was incomparable to adults. “As you know,” he once told my father after one of the parades, “I really have an appetite for this.”

Lag B’Omer marks the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who revealed the mystical teachings of Kabbalah that became the cornerstone of the chasidic movement. There were other Rebbes who did special things on Lag B’Omer, but the Rebbe – “the Rabbi Shimon of our generation,” as my father called him – turned it into a national holiday, with a parade to go along with it. He showed that it wasn’t just for us, but for the rest of the world too  – and especially for the children.

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