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A Classic of the Time, Rabbi Zev Segal, Dead at 91

Rabbi Zev Segal, one of the few survivors of the Jewish community murdered by Hevron Arabs in 1929, was buried in Israel on Sunday.
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 3/9/2008, 5:26 PM / Last Update: 3/9/2008, 8:26 PM

Rabbi Zev Segal, who for more than half a century represented Judaism at its warmest and best in Newark, New Jersey, passed away last week after an early morning stint helping his son keep Jewish radio alive in the United States.

Rabbi Segal's body was flown to Israel late Saturday night after he spent decades travelling back and forth between the rest of the world and the Jewish State.

He left his birthplace of Saratov, Russia for the Holy Land with his family in 1919, at the age of two. By a miracle, he was "out of town" during the massacre of Jews by axe-wielding Arabs that rocked his community in Hevron in 1929. By 1939, he had arrived on the shores of the United States, soon to be ordained at the Skokie Yeshiva in Illinois, followed by a stint as a spiritual leader in Los Angeles.

The long-time Rabbi of the Young Israel of Newark arrived in New Jersey in 1945, and led his congregation till his retirement in 1978. It was a time in which American Jewish youth transformed from "greenhorn immigrants" who wanted nothing more than to assimilate, into proud Jews with strong attachments to the State of Israel.
The moment of Nachum's father entering the studio was filled with emotion. A father coming to honor his son.

From 1968 to 1971, Rabbi Segal also served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, which represents about 1,000 Orthodox rabbis in 14 countries. He had served as a vice president for the RCA for a decade.

A proponent of interfaith dialogue on issues such as race relations, poverty, peace and substance abuse, Rabbi Segal had no qualms about taking an equally strong stance against what he referred to as 'homogenized religion.'

In 1967 he firmly told reporters, "Discussion of the deep religious commitments which a faith community holds can only serve to confuse."  Three years later, as RCA president, he combined efforts with Protestant and Catholic leaders to combat drug abuse, drawing African-American and Puerto Rican organizational leadership into the dialogue in an effort to prevent Jewish "white flight" from racially mixed neighborhoods.

Since his retirement Rabbi Segal spent much of his time working for the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture.

He was a man that all his children looked up to, 6'2" -- including his 6'7" son, radio personality Nachum Segal, host of the most popular Jewish music and news radio program in the US, JM in the AM on WFMU in Jersey City.

Rabbi Segal's last morning was spent helping his famous son on the air in his annual fundraising marathon. Last Wednesday, as he offered his congratulations to Nachum on the program's 25th anniversary, little did father and son realize it would be their last conversation.

"The moment of Nachum's father entering the studio was filled with emotion," recounted one of the show's producers and fill-in hosts, Mattes Weingast. "A father coming to honor his son."

Rabbi Segal told the listeners that he and his wife were very proud of their son's accomplishments in the Jewish world, that they knew from early on that he would make a difference in the world, and wished continued success for his son in continuing to support the nation of Israel and the Land of Israel.

"Out of respect, Nachum stood for the entire interview," Weingast told Arutz-7's IsraelNationalNews.com. "He did not even mention his father by name when introducing him, but rather had an associate mention the name."

Upon leaving the radio station, the 91-year-old rabbi drove his car down the road, but in the wrong direction, plunging directly into the Hackensack River at the end of a nearby dead-end street. Foul play was ruled out by Hudson County prosecutor Edward J. DeFazio, who noted that Rabbi Segal's car was not the first to drive into the river at that location.

A spiritual leader at a time in which the challenge of keeping the Sabbath collided with the challenge of staying fed, Rabbi Segal gracefully bridged the gap between observant and secular Jews, "a brilliant scholar" who had one foot in both parts of the world.

"It was in a time when many 'traditional' people were not able to keep the mitzvos or didn't care to anymore, but not that they were the Conservatives or Reform Jews necessarily. It was more the non-observant Orthodox people, or those who had little knowledge," Weingast explained.

"See, unlike now, back then you had a lot of people who were Orthodox but didn't follow everything. They had to work on Shabbos. Nowadays many of the so-called 'gedolim' or their people wouldn't give them the time of day," said Weingast, who added that Rabbi Segal enjoyed a very close relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as with "all of the true gedolim of the previous generation."  

It was his warmth that Weingast remembers most, however. "He was a quiet and unassuming man, but yet very powerful. He was always very welcoming. He could draw people in with his words and actions, never berating. He welcomed all."

In addition to Esther, his wife of 60 years, Rabbi Segal leaves behind two daughters, Leah Aharonov and Penina Rabin, both of whom live in Israel, as well as four sons, including Nachum, Rabbi Nate Segal of Staten Island, NY, Rabbi Moshe Segal, NY and Rabbi Yigal Segal, a resident of Jerusalem.

The shiva (seven-day mourning period) will be observed in Tel Aviv at the home of Peninah Rabin, Rehov Ha'Atzma'ut 13, Petach Tikvah (03 909-5767) and in the capital at the home of Rabbi Yigal Segal, 6/8 Agasi, Har Nof (02 652-3103) until Sunday morning, March 16, 9 Adar II.