Tribute: Rabbi Dovid Schochet, 91, a pioneer in building Toronto’s observant community

Rabbi Dovid Schochet

The Jewish community in Toronto lost a towering leader when Rabbi Dovid Schochet, the president of the Toronto Rabbinical Council and the senior rabbi of the Chabad community in Toronto, passed away at the age of 91 on Jan. 28.

He was born in 1932 in Basel, Switzerland, the second of 10 children, to Rabbi Dov Yehuda and Sara Sosha Schochet. After moving from Switzerland to Holland in 1947, where his father served as the chief rabbi of The Hague, the family eventually settled in Toronto.

Shortly thereafter, he enrolled in the Central Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 19. Though not born into a Chabad family, he was inspired by his uncle, Rabbi Mordechai Aizik Hodakov, the distinguished secretary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

In an interview with JEM’s “My Encounter Project,” Rabbi Schochet later recalled, “what really decided me was the pride in being Jewish that the Lubavitcher Chassidim exhibited. Lubavitcher Chassidim openly wore yarmulkes and even went on the streets with the strings of their tzitzit hanging out. That impressed me very much.”

Once in yeshiva, he quickly immersed himself in his studies and became a devout student of the newly appointed Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who gave him much guidance and direction.

At one point, the Rebbe advised the young Dovid to work in the field of Jewish education. He later recalled, “I had been planning to enroll in university after finishing my yeshiva studies with the intent of becoming an electrical engineer, but the Rebbe said that I would find working in Jewish outreach much more rewarding because, as he put it, every Jew is a diamond.”

Shortly after the Rebbe officiated at his wedding, where he married Batsheva Sudak, the Rebbe told him to move to Toronto and transform the city into a haven for Jewish and Hasidic way of life.

So, in 1957, the young couple settled in the Downsview neighbourhood of Toronto and established a shul at the corner of Bathurst Street and Edinburgh Drive, just north of Wilson Avenue. They initiated a myriad of programs and schools for Jewish youth and laid the cornerstone for a renaissance of observant life in Toronto.

I recall him telling me of his meeting with the Rebbe one year after their move to Toronto. There, he confided in the Rebbe that it was a lonely mission, yet the Rebbe encouraged him to remain and forge ahead.

 Indeed, they remained, and for the next 66 years, Rabbi Schochet led the Chabad community with dedication, which today boasts some 45 Chabad centres and schools across the GTA.

I must add that while all Jews are familiar with the Rebbe’s ubiquitous army of shluchim (emissaries) around the globe, Rabbi Schochet was one of the early pioneers, forging a path of dedicated sacrifice to further the Rebbe’s love for every Jew, no matter their religious background or affiliation.

The subsequent decades saw the rabbi rise to fame as a most respected halachic authority in the Jewish Toronto and Chabad community worldwide. He became a rabbi’s rabbi.

Leaders from across the globe would seek his halachic guidance and rulings on an hourly basis. From all my conversations with him, I cannot recall a time when he did not have to ‘grab the other line’ to answer a quick question coming in.

But aside from his genius in the depth and breadth of halachic responsa and literature, he was also the people’s rabbi. He enjoyed interacting with young and old, simple folk, newcomers, and old-timers alike. He was humble and approachable.

While he spent many hours in his office at the Chabad shul in Thornhill, his preference was his basement of his home a block away. There, in a room covered wall-to-wall with Jewish books, he would sit consumed in study, meeting those who came to seek his wise counsel, and on the phone leading discussions and halachic rulings around the world.

Personally, as a young child growing up in the Chabad community, he would summon me each Shabbos and inquire about the happenings of my week, and ensure I wasn’t giving my parents and teachers too hard of a time.

As I grew in my own studies, he guided me in what areas of practical halacha to focus on, for he foresaw that I would one day dedicate myself to the Rebbe’s mission and build a community of my own.

I was honoured to have him officiate at my wedding, and for the past 17 years, he continued guiding me and answering countless questions of mine, both personally and as a community leader.

He will be remembered as a towering authority in halacha and its contemporary application, a pioneering shliach and chassid of the Rebbe, and for his mentorship and attention he gave to each person he interacted with. He made each person feel that they were his only student.

He is survived by his wife, Rebbetzin Batsheva, and his children, Rabbi Yossi Schochet (Toronto); Batya Lisker (Miami); Rochie Diena (Toronto); Chana Weisberg (Pomona, N.Y.); grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Rabbi Levi Gansburg is the founder and spiritual leader of Chabad on Bayview, in Toronto.