Channah Gutnick didn’t make it back to Melbourne. In the summer of 1968, Channah was headed home to her native Australia after a few months visiting in Israel. On the way she came to New York City for some shopping and shidduchim. She was fixed up with Sholem Ber Hecht, then a yeshiva student — she was his first arranged date.
Both were in their early 20s, from chasidic families. They went out for a few months — dinners in kosher restaurants, visits to an antique show — and the relationship clicked. One night Sholem Ber borrowed a car.
They drove in Brooklyn, continuing to discuss their anticipated, shared future.
“I want to have 10 children, just like my mother,” said Sholem Ber, who grew up in East Flatbush.
“Fantastic,” said Channah.
She related the conversation to a few friends, also Orthodox women, later that evening. They didn’t share her enthusiasm for such extensive progeny. “I would have walked out there and then,” one friend told Channah.
“Not everyone wants to have so many kids,” Channah acknowledges. “I had the longing for as many as God would give me. I had strong motherly instincts.” Her parents, she says, didn’t have so many children — “only six.”
Six months later, Sholem Ber and Channah stood under the chupah.
They stayed in New York.
For most Orthodox families, Thursday night is prepare-for-Shabbos time: cooking, cleaning, scurrying.
At the Hechts, in a modest, two-story stucco home on a side street of Forest Hills, Channah is relaxed tonight. She’s looking through family photo albums at the living room table with three of her children who have stopped by — two, married, with their spouses, and another who studies at a Crown Heights school and lives with an older sibling during the week.
The two youngest Hecht children, who live at the Queens home, are at the table, too. Nine Hecht children are elsewhere tonight.
Rabbi Sholem Ber and Channah have, bli ayen hara, 14 kids.
“God didn’t give me any more,” Channah half laments.
The phone rings constantly tonight — calls for Mami and Tati.
Channah is in no hurry to end the night of shared memories: about pre-Pesach pranks (one child would hide the 10 wrapped pieces of chametz already put away by a sibling for the ritual household search); about Shabbos afternoon Gong Shows in the living room (a laundry soap barrel would serve as the indicator of familial disapproval); about encounters with the late Lubavitcher rebbe (he served as sandek at Sholem Ber’s brit).
Shabbos preparations began yesterday, Wednesday, for the Hechts with some grocery shopping. Today, “nothing special,” Channah says.
Fridays, Rabbi Hecht and the kids do more shopping, pick up clothes at the cleaners. Channah — “call me rebbetzin, I love that title” — leaves work at noon, a little earlier in winter. She teaches second grade during the school year, directs a camp during the summer.
The chicken, the soup, the gefilte fish, the kugel are ready by candlelighting time. “I’ll put four chickens into the oven at once. How long does that take?” she asks.
A family of 16 translates to fewer people most of the time, a limited number of years of bunk beds, four children to a room. By the time the youngest kids are born, the oldest ones are out of the house. Four children are doing shlichus now, serving as Lubavitch emissaries in Florida, Ohio, Connecticut and Australia. The whole mishpocha gets together only for family weddings and the occasional holiday.
Nonetheless, with a few kids who come home for Shabbos, and friends and other regulars, there’s usually a dozen people at dinner and lunch and seudah shlishit.
The three refrigerator-freezers are packed.
“It was harder for me with one child,” Channah says of her weekly regimen. Thirty years ago she’d start making Shabbos on Thursday night. Then more children arrived. “I was less nervous with six than I was with one. I became calmer. It became easier with experience,” she says. “When I had 14 children, I did everything on Friday.”
When all the children lived at home, a daily rhythm developed. “I got up early,” Channah recalls, “but it wasn’t really that hard.” Six kids would eat breakfast together; the rest afterward. “Sometimes they could help themselves.” They would leave for classes at different times. “Not everyone ate breakfast or dinner at the same time. They ate in shifts,” she says.
As the kids got older, they did errands around the house; the rabbi posted “cleanup charts.” “They helped with everything,” he says – cleaning, taking out garbage, setting the table, baby-sitting. “It has to be done collectively. In a big family, children learn to share.”
The younger children soon get used to caring for the even younger. “Even Esther Leah,” at 11 the youngest Hecht, “has all the grandchildren” to watch – her older siblings’ kids, Rabbi Hecht says.
Baila Rocher Kievman, at 30, is the Hechts’ oldest child. “I worked hard,” she says. “By the time I was 10 I cooked a Shabbos.”
“It’s not overwhelming,” Channah says. “The hardest thing was washing. The washing machine was going all the time.”
“I was constantly keeping the house clean,” she says. The house, all six bedrooms and three bathrooms, is spotless. In every family photo —there are hundreds, since Rabbi Hecht is an amateur photographer —the kids are well scrubbed. Channah, modestly dressed with a sheitel atop her head, sets the example. She picks outfits that are fashionable, flattering. At 53, she doesn’t look like someone who has given birth 14 times.
As a chasid, as the head of a large family, the rebbetzin feels a responsibility — for herself, for outsiders who see the Hechts.
“ ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ — I learned that from my mother,” Channah says. “It’s just how I was brought up. My mother was always saying that.”
Tiring? Of course.
“I couldn’t wait for Shabbos,” she says, talking about the days when most of the Hecht children lived at home. “I was exhausted.”
Channah says it’s difficult to raise 14 children. “But the best things in life don’t come easy. And children are the best things in life,” she says.
As the father of 14, Rabbi Hecht hears certain questions all the time: How do you find the time to raise them? How do you find the money?
“There’s not much time,” not much spare time, answers the rabbi, 53, who has served 27 years as spiritual leader of The Sephardic Jewish Congregation and Center of Queens in Forest Hills. He also works as chairman of the executive committee of the National Committee for Furtherance of Jewish Education, a Lubavitch organization.
“Whatever your personal interests are, you try to direct them through your children,” Rabbi Hecht says. “I used to have a hobby collecting stamps. [Later] I did it with Mendy.” Same for other collecting hobbies and photography. “You do it together with them.”
“We make sacrifices,” Rabbi Hecht says. “We didn’t have luxuries. I don’t have a big bank account.” He tells about tuition breaks he has received as a community leader for schools and camps. He tells about buying food in bulk and used cars and giving the children hand-me-down clothes and taking “simple vacations.”
Still, rabbis don’t make extravagant salaries – even when he and his wife took second jobs (Channah after the youngest children started school). And the expenses are enormous.
“There was a time when we were eligible for food stamps, I’m not ashamed to say,” Rabbi Hecht says. Today, “Baruch Hashem, we’re comfortable.” He brags that all his grown children are gainfully employed, tax-paying, Social Security-contributing citizens.
“We give to the community,” Channah says.
“What people should ask,” the rabbi says, “is ‘how did you cope with teaching your children to fulfill a certain lifestyle?’ “ – how did you keep everyone within the chasidic/Orthodox fold?
“That’s the biggest challenge,” Rabbi Hecht says. “If people don’t ask, they probably wonder.
“There are two answers” to the unasked question. “The philosophical answer,” he says, “is that God gives each person the opportunity to make decisions on their own. There’s no guarantee” what path a child will take.
“From the parental point of view, the answer is that it’s not up to my wife and myself [alone]. Many other partners are involved. Grandparents are very important. Children are able to absorb from them in a smoother way, in a more indirect fashion than from their parents. School and friends have a very strong impact – school gives you an intellectual, in piety, in devotion.”
It takes a kehilah to raise a child?
“The family is primary,” the rabbi says. “In a larger family siblings become a mini-community.”
All 14 Hecht children, so far, are happily frum, Rabbi Hecht says. “With God’s help, I hope they all turn out that way [forever].”
He and his wife make time for the children to explain the whys of what’s that they do. “I try to explain the philosophy behind everything,” Rabbi Hecht says. We don’t accept a practice or a tradition just because that’s the way it is.”
Baila Rochel took her four children to a park in Crown Heights the other day. A non-Jewish neighbor commented on how well behaved the kids were. Aren’t four a handful? she was asked.
“I come from 14, so four doesn’t seem like so much,” Baila Rochel told the stranger. “Her jaw dropped.”
Baila Rochel realized “from a very young age” that her family was unusual, demographically speaking. “When we were young, people used to say, ‘Oh, you’re the one with …’- every year it was a different number siblings.” In her Orthodox elementary school, “such big families were not as common as they are today.”
“I’m proud, very proud” to come from a large family, she says. “We were very dependent on each other. It created a very intense relationship,” Baila Rochel says.
She says she “got a lot of attention” from her parents. “My mother was always here. My mother was always waiting for us. Dinner was always ready for us.”
Does Baila Rochel want 14 children?
“I don’t think of a number,” she says. She did not discuss the subject during shidduchim with her husband-to-be, Dovid.
“We take it one at a time. Maybe I’ll have 20,” she says. “Maybe I’ll beat my mother. I wouldn’t mind it.”