Some five hundred people had gathered for the auspicious event: the dedication of a Holocaust memorial at Temple Beth Tikvah. It was Rabbi Haim Asa’s moment of great pride. It was a deeply personal achievement for him; his family had been saved during the war by the intervention of the Bulgarian government. He announced to the crowd, “This is the only Temple in Orange County with a Holocaust memorial.” I was listening in the second row. Suddenly in typical Haim style, he added a surprising remark, “Right, Rabbi Eliezrie?” I was a bit surprised so I lifted up my arms and belted out “Of course, Haim”. He turned to the audience and exclaimed, “Would you believe a Chabad rabbi and a Reform rabbi agree?” The crowd responded, roaring with laughter.
Our friendship spanned thirty years, from the time I arrived in Orange County until his passing just a few weeks ago. There is no question that there were many issues we did not agree on, but we did not let this theological division define our relationship. He would turn up at my house on Shabbat and with a smirk say, “You need any lights turned on?” When he decided to go kosher, I turned up at his house, blowtorch in hand. Once he travelled with me to Brooklyn, to attend at Farbrengen, a Chassidic gathering with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Thousands of Chassidim filled the room. We sat on the wooden benches in the middle of the synagogue. I told Haim that on the other side was Alexander Schindler, then head of the Reform movement. Haim stood up, and they waved across the expanse of Chassidim.
I learned much from Haim, most importantly deep concern and compassion for others. I always knew that if, at 3 a.m. I needed help, Haim would be at my side within minutes. Haim was man who lived Ahavat Yisroel, love for your fellow. It was not a theory, but the way he lived every single day. Coupled with this was his great commitment to a thriving Jewish community. He would look beyond his own parochial interests and see value in anyone who was working for the welfare of the Jewish people and Israel. He celebrated the achievements of others, because at his core his concern was Jewish destiny. More than once a family that had been involved in his Temple intensified their level of observance. He would encourage them along in their Jewish journey. Just a few months ago, he stood with pride as we celebrated together the Brit of a family that had become Shabbat observant, even though they no longer attended his congregation.
And he wondered about the mundane things in life. Once he noticed the tires on my wife’s car were worn, so he demanded I come right away to get a new set. If someone needed help he would be there without a tumult or fanfare to lend assistance. Untold numbers can tell stories of his help in their finding a job or apartment. How he stood at their bedside in a dark moment of sickness, giving hope.
Just a week or so before he passed, I visited Haim in the hospital. We went for a walk around the ward, the nurse helping him along. I was holding the oxygen tube. The conversation was upbeat, his classic optimism still strong even though he was fighting for his life. As I left, he turned to me and said, “David, I love you”. His sweet voice touched deep into my heart.
Stella and I have lost a dear friend; a community has lost a man who truly cared for all of us.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is email@example.com.