A Hasidic Jew and a pastor walk into an ambulance. This is not the set up of a joke – this what life for Pastor William Richard Harrel Junior, of blessed memory, looked like for decades before he succumbed to Coronavirus several weeks ago. It was around 35 years ago that Pastor William became a volunteer for the Shabbos Hatzalah in Brooklyn so that he could help do the things Jews can’t do for those 25 hours. Through the job, he learned the Yiddish language in order to better understand and truly connect with his co-workers. His sturdy belief of bridging the divide and breeding peace between different kinds of people is what he taught his congregation and embodied as their leader. He was the paradigm of practicing what you preach.
Yoely Lebovits is a Satmar Hasid and a comedian who first befriended Pastor William Richard Harrel Junior nearly 20 years ago, both coming from Brooklyn. After meeting through a mutual friend, Lebovits discovered that the pastor spoke fluent Yiddish and recalls, “he conversed in a very friendly way, almost in a way that when we spoke we didn’t see any divide, any division in any way.”
Because of his deep involvement in the Brooklyn Hasidic community, he was basically a celebrity beloved by many. He was known to pull out jokes from his fedora hat in Yiddish and make people cry of laughter. His humor and sleek style made an impression on everyone he met. He was invited to local simchas and always impressed his Hasidic friends being dressed to the nines.
As a man of faith and a student of the Bible, Pastor William could share more than just jokes with his Hasidic friends. “He was a talmid chacham,” and he would share his divrei Torah in Yiddish. When the Hasidic boys would ask him the weekly parsha, he not only knew it, he’d say it in Yiddish.
This is what gave rise to an authentic friendship between the two individuals and their communities. Though, Lebovits notes that the stereotype of Blacks and Hasidim not getting along is not so true in Williamsburg. “I would say that the Williamsburg Hasidic community has a stronger connection, a stronger friendship to the Black community than the White non-Jewish community in a way. It’s because we grew up together and shared so much together. Even now, in the lockdowns with masks, the blacks and the Hasidim are both facing different treatment than other groups are.”
Being a member of a video production company, Lebovits was once working on an awareness video for the RCCS, an organization that helps people struggling with cancer and its financial burden. The pastor was the perfect recruit for the clip he envisioned to promote this message of positivity in a comical way. In the skit, the Hasidic man is complaining about his aid (played by the pastor) in Yiddish, thinking he doesn’t understand him. The punchline is when Pastor William starts talking back in Yiddish and the old man is embarrassed that he’s been such a jerk. (See it below.)
The public received it tremendously well. “It was a nice tap on the shoulder saying not everyone you think who is different than you is so different.” Lebovits states, “When he was sitting with us, because we only spoke in Yiddish together, he was together with us- he ate cholent with us. He loved all the Jewish food.” He was even given a Yiddish name – Volvy, and went by it enthusiastically. He was known for his awesome spirit and for making everyone feel good about themselves.
When Lebovits shared Pastor William’s passing on Twitter, people from every type of religion and race all over the world reacted with a rush of emotions. The pastor’s widow reached out to one of his friends for help with the burial because it was simply not affordable; the word spread around fast. Lebovits and friends set up a fundraising campaign quickly to offer some solace and within 2 days they reached almost $10,000.
The responses they received due to the campaign were overwhelming. Lebovits notes that a family friend of the pastor “had tears in her eyes, saying that this meant so much to the family – that this couldn’t have been paid without these funds.” This was a team effort of friends getting together to honor his name and help the family. They were all glad to give back and show their appreciation for Pastor William’s friendship and intentions to create a more inclusive and meaningful community between blacks and Jews (and all communities worldwide). Although times are tough, people from the Hasidic circles donated what they could. “It was also beautiful to see how the community is celebrating his life even when it passed” expresses Lebovits.
Pastor William connected to a typical Hasid on almost every level. Lebovits encourages people to reach out in any way, not just financially but to help keep his spirit alive by building that bridge between seemingly different people. Interestingly enough, Lebovits says, “You never see a Pastor being written up in a Yiddish newspaper in Yiddish,” which was done to inform people of his passing and the funeral. His life’s work will not be forgotten; his legacy is all the lives he touched. Lebovits concludes, “And if you want to speak Yiddish, we’re not so scary, we’re ready to talk.”