Rabbi Hanoch Hecht’s six minutes of Torah in Manhattan one recent day lasted seven and a half hours.
Earlier this month, the rabbi, an emissary of the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement in upstate Rhinebeck, arrived at 8:34 a.m. on the Amtrak Empire Service, walked to a nearby Shacharit minyan, then began a daylong series of one-on-one learning sessions in offices around the borough. His last class ended at 5 p.m., followed by a personal counseling session. He got back to Rhinebeck at 8:30 p.m.
Another day in the life of the “6-Minute Rabbi.”
That’s the trademarked name that Rabbi Hecht, a 31-year-old Canarsie native, gave himself when he began his short-length, long-lived educational program eight years ago.
Every Thursday, no matter the weather, he meets with doctors, attorneys, real estate developers and other professionals, sharing an insight into the week’s Torah portion, an inspirational story and some words of spiritual encouragement, all in the time it takes to get a cup of coffee.
Most days he rides from lesson to lesson on Citi Bikes he picks up at stations around Manhattan, parking them when he arrives at each venue, hopping on another bike after a class, covering some 15 miles a day.
To stay light, he carries no books, no texts on his jaunts around Gotham; lunch is a Power Bar he picks up along the way.
For many of his students, the 360 seconds with him are usually the only Torah learning they can squeeze into their schedule each week. “I want to get the high-powered people, the busy people,” Rabbi Hecht said.
Sheldon Lobel, a zoning and land use attorney who lives in upstate Millbrook, has hosted Rabbi Hecht’s six-minute class for five years after the two encountered each other at a menorah-lighting ceremony.
“I’m always anxious to meet up with him. I learn something every time,” said Lobel, a member of a Conservative synagogue in Poughkeepsie. “I’m not that learned in Jewish law or Jewish history. This brings me closer. It’s made me more knowledgeable in the beauty of the religion and of the history.”
A member of the prominent Chabad family of Hecht rabbis, on this recent Thursday, Hanoch Hecht sports a distinctive maroon velvet kipa, a light-blue striped suit and an open-collared white shirt. Despite the cold, he left his coat at home, opting instead for a light brown plaid scarf.
The rabbi has lived in Dutchess County with his wife, Tzivie, and children for nine years. He began his six-minute gig when someone he knew in Manhattan indicated an interest in incorporating some regular Torah learning into his schedule, but couldn’t find the time.
Rabbi Hecht did some online research and found a study that reported that the average person’s attention span is about six and a half minutes.
The “6-minute Rabbi” (6minuterabbi.com) was born.
“Everyone has six minutes,” the rabbi said. “This is not just a gimmick.” It’s serious, albeit abbreviated, learning. For people too busy to travel to a class, he brings his classes to them. It’s a bit like the popular lunch and learn programs, but in far less time, and without the lunch.
No homework, no tuition, no pitch to put on tefillin or commit to doing any specific mitzvah. “I don’t come with any hidden agenda,” he said.
He compares his program to Speed Dating (which was invented by another, albeit much larger, Jewish educational organization, Aish HaTorah).
“The concept is very similar,” Rabbi Hecht said. “In a short period you can accomplish a lot.”
He spends up to an hour or two each week deciding on that Thursday’s topic and boiling all the material down. “It’s hard work – but it works,” he said. “The hardest thing is juggling the schedules.” Midtown, downtown, then midtown again. Sometimes, students cancel at the last minute.
With Purim approaching, Rabbi Hecht recently touched on some features of the holiday that celebrates Jewish survival in ancient Persia.
“Which is the holiest day on the Jewish calendar?” he would typically ask.
“Yom Kippur,” most students would answer.
Incorrect – at least at this time of year. “Purim is on a very higher level than Yom Kippur, spiritually speaking,” he said. Yom Kippur centers on the man-and-God relationship; Purim’s emphasis is man-to-man, a day of giving charity and distributing mishloach manot food packages and sharing festive meals with friends. “Our relationship between man and man is more important than our relationship between man and God.”
At first, Rabbi Hecht was not sure if the idea would work in practice. But, he said, “I stuck with it. The self-doubt went away.”
From a single student, Rabbi Hecht’s weekly day in Manhattan has grown to about two dozen, by word of mouth and offers to people he meets. “I never spent a dollar on advertising.” Most of his students are from non-Orthodox or unaffiliated backgrounds.
“I don’t study with every person every week,” he said – their time doesn’t always allow it. Usually he arranges a dozen in-and-out sessions; sometimes, up to 18. On his recent visit: 14.
The rabbi typically meets with a single student; sometimes, a few at a time. Sometimes in a private office, sometimes in a conference room, sometimes in a boiler room – wherever space is available. At the office of architect Marc Kushner last week, Rabbi Hecht spoke to 14 employees, Jews and non-Jews, seated at bleacher-type benches built into an office wall. Sometimes the crowd is closer to 30.
“It’s growing,” said Kushner, who has studied with Rabbi Hecht for a year. “I was worried that it would be super ‘Jewy,’” making it hard for the non-Orthodox to relate. But, he said, “the rabbi makes it very accessible,” speaking in terms of general ethical principles.
First, Rabbi Hecht asks about each student’s family. Then, quickly, down to holy business. He scrupulously keeps to his promised time.
“If you spend 10 minutes you’ve messed up the entire point,” he said. “I’m in and out.”
While he doesn’t know of any Manhattan rabbis doing what he is doing, about a half dozen rabbis, all Orthodox so far, including two in his extended family, have started teaching their own “6-Minute Rabbi” classes in the New York area — and beyond.
Rabbi Hecht’s brother, Rabbi J.J. Hecht, offered the classes in Hong Kong during a two-year stint there. The short time frame “worked unbelievably” in the Chinese city’s high-pressure community of foreign Jewish businessmen, he said. “It caught on like crazy … it became a ‘cool thing.’”
Since Rabbi Hecht’s cousin, Rabbi Moshe Hecht, added the mini-classes to his teaching schedule at the Chabad of Windsor Terrace five years ago, he said he’s seen an impact. “I’ve seen changes in people’s lives,” he said.
Dean Palin, who works in real estate, started studying with Rabbi Hanoch Hecht about four years ago and has kept it up. “It motivates me in many ways. I make time for it,” he said, noting that he shares the lessons with his children over Shabbat. “It helps the whole family.”
At the end of each class on a recent Thursday, Rabbi Hecht and his students exchanged Shabbat greetings.
“Hopefully, I’ll see you next week,” one student said.
“Yes, please God,” the rabbi answered.