| Magazine Feature |

Secret Service

Hershel Gottdiener makes sure all his good deeds remain under the radar

Photos: Jeff Zorabedian, Personal archives

He raises funds for Jews in dire straits anywhere in the world, helps move incarcerated individuals out of backwater third-world prisons, and even does what it takes to get a bochur into yeshivah. But you won’t be reading about Hershel Gottdiener on any blog or frum website — because he makes sure all those good deeds remain under the radar

Hershel has plenty of friends, to be sure, although you might not have heard of him unless you happen to be his neighbor in Monsey, or if you’ve been on the receiving end of his unconditional chesed and largesse. That’s because Hershel’s good deeds are mostly under the radar, and they involve things like bailing Jews out of third-world prisons and secretly helping impoverished families hold onto their homes or marry off their children.

“Hershel has the craziest stories,” I was told. “See how much you can get out of him, how much he’s willing to share.”

Hershel didn’t disappoint, although he did seem disconcerted by the presence of the photographer. “We’re taking pictures?” he asks incredulously when we meet in his Monsey home. “Why pictures?” When I explain that this is protocol, he shrugs. “Okay. But this is not about me, it’s about inspiring others to do chesed. Whatever it takes to accomplish that, we’ll do it.”

Hershel, 43, grew up in Boro Park, the oldest of ten children, in what he describes as “a house full of chesed. Whenever my father saw someone who seemed down and out, he would approach him and see what he could do to help. If finances were the issue, my father would jump up and start collecting money for him.”

Hershel remembers a time when his father, a founding member of Rav Moshe Wolfson’s Emunas Yisroel and head of its kimcha d’Pischa initiative, was working to collect money for a certain member of the community whose identity was a secret. But Hershel, precocious as he was, discovered that it was actually a wealthy member of the community. The man had fallen upon hard times and Hershel’s father, Reb Shlomo Gottdiener — loath to watch someone undergo the shame of having to sell off his assets — worked to raise the funds necessary to help him.

Although the Gottdieners are officially Belzer chassidim, Hershel attended yeshivah in New Square, where he developed a close relationship with the Skverer Rebbe. Hershel was just a teenager then, but, as time would tell, the Rebbe recognized his potential to help the klal even at his young age.

Hershel married at 20, joined the chassidishe kollel in the Mirrer Yeshiva of Brooklyn, and a year later, was blessed with a baby boy. Now, laden with the responsibility to support a wife and child, Hershel set out to found a business.

“I began a car business, leasing, renting, and selling,” he says, but a call from the Skverer Rebbe made it clear that financial success wouldn’t seal itself as Hershel’s salient preoccupation. “The Skverer Rebbe called me and asked me to get involved in a certain communal issue,” Hershel says. The details of the specific incident are less relevant than the message that came with them. “Di bist mein ambassador,” the Rebbe told Hershel. “You are my ambassador.”

“The Rebbe told me this a few times,” Hershel recalls. The Skverer Rebbe never articulated why he chose Hershel of all his talmidim, but it seems clear that he perceived Hershel to be one who was always there to help, no matter what the problem was. Hershel has another valuable quality — the fearlessness to make a cold phone call. “The worst that can happen is that you’ll get a no,” is his perspective.

Hershel refers to the tasks assigned by the Skverer Rebbe as “missions,” some of which were more daring than others: They could be as clandestine as looking for a missing person or as straightforward as combing the various communities in search of quality esrogim when there was a shortage in New Square.

Hershel successfully completed the Rebbe’s assignments but, internally, this sparked a sense of inception rather than finality. Hershel now knew that his would be a life dedicated to helping others in any and every way that he could.

Hershel would become the ambassador of the people.

“People have pointed out that my beard has many white hairs, but look at my peyos, there’s no white at all,” he says of the strange trichological phenomenon — but Hershel sees significance in it, in line with a teaching of the Chasam Sofer. “The Chasam Sofer writes that Hashem gives a white beard to people who have what to offer. It gives off a distinguished impression and increases their ability to influence.” Like Rabi Elazar ben Azarya, whose beard turned wholly white at age 18, perhaps those destined to make critical differences in Klal Yisrael merit an appearance that reflects their mission rather than their age.

The first call Hershel makes when embarking on a new mission is often to international lawyer Allen Lowy, a talented and resourceful attorney and baal chesed

Out of Jail

Sparing a few uniquely sensational incidents, Hershel’s name stays out of the headlines. Gaining fame and publicity is the farthest thing from Hershel’s mind when he sets out on a “mission” and, for that reason, these acts of kindness can be wholly simple, even humbling. There was an instance, some ten years ago, when, during Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, Hershel noticed a rebbi from a local yeshivah nervously pacing the sidewalk outside his office. Finally, the rebbi entered the building and knocked on the door.

“I’m making a wedding after Succos,” he said, “and I don’t have the funds to do it.”

“You go home and relax,” Hershel told him. “Have a calm Yom Kippur.” The rebbi left, and Hershel put a call through to Rav Sholom Green, currently the rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva D’Monsey, a position that at the time was held by his father, Rav Moshe Green a”h.

In Skver, the minhag is to wear a shtreimel from the morning of Erev Yom Kippur, and so, the hours leading up to the holiest day of the year found Hershel, along with Rav Sholom Green, circling the neighborhoods of Monsey and New Square, dressed in their beketshes and shtreimlach, knocking on doors and accepting donations until they reached the desired sum.

This was one of Hershel’s earlier projects, back when life was a lot quieter. Today, while his business ventures have expanded, the requests for help take up, in his estimation, some 95% of his day.

Over time, Hershel has developed a mantra for himself. “I want to help people the way I’d want to be helped. And I believe that if a chesed opportunity comes my way, that means Hashem sent it to me. If Hashem sent it to me, how can I turn it down?”

Accepting a challenge, though, doesn’t necessarily mean you think you can entirely resolve it. “Never say you can’t help,” says Hershel. “Even if you can’t solve the whole problem, there’s always something you can do.”

This means that no job is too sophisticated, too time-consuming, or too daunting for Hershel to take on. Over the past several years, much of his focus has been on pidyon shevuyim in the most literal sense. Using a network of connections, he has succeeded in freeing multiple people from prisons all over the world, or transferring them to safer environments. The genesis of Heshy’s passion to help the incarcerated is, in itself, the greatest testament to his magnanimous nature.

“When I lived in Boro Park, I always worked on Sunday,” Hershel explains. “But in 2010, we moved to Monsey. In Monsey, the culture is not to work on Sundays, so on Sundays, I was bored.” A neighbor suggested that they spend their day off visiting prisoners, and Hershel readily accepted.

“We would leave early Sunday morning,” Hershel recalls. “Sometimes, we would leave on Motzaei Shabbos if we wanted to visit a prison far away.” The subjects of these visits were not limited to any sector or demographic. “We would visit any Jew, it didn’t matter if he was chassidish, litvish, Modern Orthodox or secular — we visited everyone.

“For the most part, these were people who committed very small crimes but got caught in a large net,” Hershel reflects. “It broke my heart that they should endure so much pain. I often felt that they were korbanos for the community.”

This sympathy would blossom into an evolving ball of passion to do whatever needed to be done for those suffering behind bars. But before Hershel began his pursuit on an operational level, it first found expression in his already-honed fundraising skills.

“I’m good friends with Moshe Margaretten,” Hershel tells me. Moshe Margaretten is a leading voice in the movement for prison reform and, in 2018, saw rich fruit of his efforts when the First Step Act (FSA), one of the most significant criminal justice reforms in decades, successfully passed.

Hershel was not involved in Moshe’s efforts on the diplomatic end but, on the fundraising side, he made a significant contribution.

“Moshe was working with lobbyists to arrange for the bill, and I offered to help with the funding,” Hershel says. He’s also a close friend of Moshe’s brother, Heshy Margaretten, and the two organized an elaborate fundraiser held in a local Monsey backyard with celebrated criminal defense attorney Ben Brafman serving as an informal guest of honor. Hershel then formulated a crowdfunding campaign in which some $2.75 million were raised.

But then the stories started coming to him directly, and he began his efforts to help the imprisoned in earnest.

“Around three years ago, I received a call from Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, the chief rabbi of Ukraine,” says Hershel. “He told me that there was a Jewish woman who was languishing in a Ukrainian prison for some 20 years. Per her sentence, she was subject to remain there for another 25 years.” The facts behind the case revealed that the sentence was grossly disproportionate to the offense. “She was in a room where a murder took place. The murderer pleaded guilty and so it seemed obvious that she would be acquitted. She hired a public offender, assuming this would be an easy win, but, to her shock, she was given a life sentence.”

When Hershel heard the story, he told Rabbi Bleich six words: “Let me make a phone call.”

The first call Hershel made — as is often the case these days — was to international lawyer Allen Lowy.

Allen is a highly talented and resourceful attorney, and Hershel had met with him several years ago to discuss a legal matter. Since then, the lawyer from Kew Gardens and the askan from Monsey have kept in constant contact, drawn together by their mutual desire to help fellow Jews.

“Allen is a tremendous baal chesed,” says Hershel. “He’s a friend of Alan Dershowitz and very connected in the legal community. He also has a close relationship with the Israeli Foreign Affairs department.”

Allen heard the details of the case and immediately got to work, harnessing his network of connections to try and find a path toward freedom for the unfortunate woman.

“About a year later, Allen finally found an opening. He called me and said ‘We can get her out now, but the judge will only commute her sentence if she has the financial wherewithal to live independently, without welfare.’ ”

Hearing this, Hershel hung up the phone and hit the keypad running. “Within 24 hours we raised all the funds,” Hershel says, noting that it didn’t stop with finances. “We set her up with a Jewish family and got her a job.”

Hershel doesn’t see these sorts of initiatives as noble or altruistic. “I always say that when I help someone, I’m being selfish,” he says. “Because it’s said in the name of tzaddikim that one step for the sake of another Jew is a thousand steps for you.”

During a missing persons search on the Hudson River, Hershel turned his head and saw a woman plunge into the water from the George Washington Bridge. It was clear, says Hershel, referring to her rescue, that one good deed engenders another

Chain Reactions

Sometimes, one good deed brings on others. Several years ago, a member of the frum community went missing in the Hudson River. Hershel set out in a divers’ boat, along with members of New Square Emergency Service, Hatzalah of New Square and Hatzalah of Rockland County, and began combing the area. It was winter, but that didn’t stop Hershel from heading out to the frigid waters daily. On one of those excursions, he saw something that caught his attention.

“I saw what looked like a white ball falling from the George Washington Bridge,” Hershel recalls. “I took my binoculars and saw a person’s face just above the water’s surface. The divers were all underwater, so I yanked on the ropes and they came up immediately. As soon as they were on board, we raced toward the person still visible above the water.” Meanwhile, Hershel called 911 and a helicopter came within minutes.

“When we arrived at the scene, we saw that the figure struggling was a woman, and she was still alive.” The Hatzalah members who were present began CPR and the woman’s life was saved.

Having worked closely with Hershel on so many cases, Allen Lowy has a close-up view of Hershel’s drop-everything-to-help attitude, as well as the kiddush Hashem he affects.

“One evening during Covid, I got a call from Hershel asking me if I had any connections in Port-au-Prince, Haiti,” Allen shares. “I told him that I can work on it and get back to him in the morning.”

The following day, Allen called Hershel back.

“Don’t worry, I’m there already.”

“You’re where?” asked Allen.

“In Haiti.”

“In Haiti? What are you doing there?”

“What do you mean?” replied Hershel, “I’m here to bring food and medicine to the people.”

While many of Hershel’s activities are kept under wraps, he, together with Allen Lowy and Alan Dershowitz, were involved in the highly publicized story of Larry Franklin, a US defense intelligence analyst indicted on charges of espionage. Franklin’s efforts in the Pentagon were primarily focused on combatting the threat from Iran. In late 2000, Larry became aware of an Iranian hit squad pursuing undercover Israelis operating in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. He shared this information with the Israelis, pursuant to an intelligence-sharing compact between Israel and the United States that allows the sharing of information on Iraq, Iran, and Libya. Ultimately however, the government deemed this to be an act of espionage and pressed charges. To avoid imprisonment, Franklin took a plea deal that required him to forfeit his military pension as a full colonel in the US Air Force for 35 years, half his pension as a high-level civil servant, and his VA pension as well. The financial loss added up to something in the range of $750,000.

“Together, Allen Lowy, Alan Dershowitz, and I raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for him,” Hershel says. “We also bought him a new car.” Hershel explains of this kiddush Hashem that “one who does so much to help the Jewish People will not be forgotten. He should not feel betrayed.”

In Istanbul with a team of local helpers to get Dani out of prison. It took another year, but meanwhile kosher food was arranged and a siddur was allowed into his cell

Out and In

“When I first met Hershel,” Allen relates, “he told me that his goal is to make enough money to support his family and then to devote all his resources to help Klal Yisrael. And you know, I never have to call him. He always calls me, asking if there’s any case in which he can help. He uses his connections with people all over the world to negotiate the release of Jewish prisoners, or their transfer to an Israeli prison.”

In a both dramatic and emotional episode, Hershel helped with the release of Ethiopian Israeli Dani Awaka from a prison in Istanbul where he had been held for five years.

“In Turkey, you won’t get food or a bed in prison unless you pay for it,” says Allen. “Hershel raised all the money for that, making sure that Dani received kosher food. He also raised the money for a Turkish attorney to argue in Dani’s defense. He even went to Istanbul just to visit Dani and offer him words of encouragement.” Due to Hershel’s efforts, a skilled attorney named Oktay Cindioglui was retained. Oktay managed to negotiate for the allowance of a siddur into the prison, the first time such permission was granted by the Turkish government.

In November of 2023, after much effort, Dani was finally released. Allen was there to greet him at the airport, as was Oktay. Absent was Hershel, who had funded the operation and was now likely on to the next.

In another distressing incident, Allen was contacted to negotiate the transfer of an Israeli girl from a Peruvian prison back to Israel.

“The girl was mentally ill,” Allen explains, “and she was duped into smuggling drugs into Peru.” In this case, Allen succeeded in obtaining a complete acquittal, but only on the condition that she would have room and board upon release. “I called Hershel. He knew people in Peru. He found a place for her.”

In another tragic case without a happy ending, an Israeli was being held in a Peruvian prison and the Allen-Hershel team managed to arrange for his transfer to Israel. “But a few weeks before the transfer,” says Allen, “he was murdered by fellow inmates.” The Peruvian prison notified them of their plans to cremate the body and Hershel, as expected, leaped forward and raised all the funds necessary to have the body sent to Israel. As the family had no money, he raised funds for the funeral as well.

Hershel is currently busy working through the Iraqi courts to arrange for a commuted sentence for an Israeli being held there on death row on charges of homicide, which Hershel believes was likely committed in self-defense.

“Under Arab law, there is a concept called silcha — which means that, if the family forgives the offender, then the government drops the case,” Hershel explains. Allen and Hershel got in touch with the family and requested that they issue a silcha. They agreed, in exchange for $150,000. “Allen is working on the legal proceedings,” says Hershel, “and I’m taking care of the fundraising.”

Hershel not only helps get people out of their countries of confinement, sometimes he has to help them get in.

“The oldest son of a close friend of mine married an Israeli girl and settled in Yerushalayim,” Hershel shares. “My friend’s second son was getting married and so the couple came in from Eretz Yisrael. This was during Covid and, while they were here, they took the opportunity to visit their grandparents in Toronto. When the visit was over, they sought to return to the States for the wedding, but the border patrol wouldn’t let them in.”

Hershel’s friend mentioned how, although he had lawyers working on the case, little progress was being made, and it was causing him tremendous heartache. The wedding date for his second son was fast approaching, and it was growing likely that the couple wouldn’t be able to make it.

“My heart went out to him,” says Hershel. “Although I knew that others were hired to work on the case, I asked permission to get involved as well. My friend was more than happy to let me do my part.” Hershel began reaching out to his contacts but the efforts met with little success. Yet on one phone call, the beginnings of a strategy began to hatch.

“The Israeli daughter-in-law was in her eighth month of pregnancy,” says Hershel, “and since she would be having a baby soon, we thought we might be able to get her through on the grounds of emergency.” The wedding was on Tuesday. On Monday night, Hershel got in touch with an organization who told him that if he would charter a private jet to transport her from Canada, they might be able to fly her into one of the New York airports. Tuesday morning came, and the plan was appearing to go sour. None of the airports were willing to do it. Then, Hershel got an urgent call. “I can get her into the States through JFK! All I need is the tail number of the plane that will transport her here.”

Meanwhile, Hershel’s friend, the father of the chassan, called. “Thank you so much for all your efforts,” he said. “We’re going to the wedding. If anything develops, please let us know.”

A few minutes before the kabalas panim, the parents received a call. It was Hershel Gottdiener. “They’re in the air,” he said.

Nothing by Chance

Wild coincidences of all types seem to follow Hershel.

“I was once in Eretz Yisrael and got a call from the grandson of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe in Monsey,” he says. “He was calling to tell me that a Vizhnitzer bochur had flown to Eretz Yisrael with the understanding that he was accepted into a certain yeshivah but, when he got there, discovered that this wasn’t true — he had never been accepted.” The Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s grandson knew that Hershel had ties to the yeshivah’s biggest patron and asked Hershel if he could use this connection to help get the boy in. “Interesting that you ask,” Hershel responded, “I’m going out to dinner with that man right now.”

Once they were seated together in the restaurant, Hershel began asking his friend about the acceptance policy of the yeshivah.

“I have nothing to do with acceptance,” the friend said. “The yeshivah’s hanhalah takes care of that.” But then he let something slip. “Once, a certain rebbe called me and asked to get a boy into yeshivah. I can’t say no to a rebbe, so I got the boy in.” Hearing this, Hershel thought maybe he had an opening. “You mean if I get a rebbe on the phone to ask you to take in a boy, you’ll do it?” the friend nodded. Hershel stepped out of the room and put a call through to the Vizhnitzer Rebbe’s grandson.

“Would your grandfather call this man and request that the bochur be accepted?” he asked.

“Yes, definitely,” the grandson said. “He’ll do anything to get the bochur into the yeshivah.”

Hershel pauses at this point to reflect upon the depth of that statement. “The Rebbe was nearly 90 years old at this point. Yet he would do anything just to make sure that a simple bochur shouldn’t endure the humiliation of being sent home from a yeshivah to which he thought he was accepted. I was there when the Vizhnitzer Rebbe called. The next day, the boy was in yeshivah.”

Being in the right place at the right time doesn’t always have a happy ending, though.

“I was very close friends with Shragi Gestetner a”h,” says Hershel. “After Shragi got married, he moved right next door to me.” Shragi Gestetner was a well-known singer, one of the victims of the Meron tragedy of 2021. “I was in Meron when it all happened, and I started getting phone calls alerting me to the fear that Shragi might be among the casualties.”

Police barricades barred entry to the scene but Hershel, never deterred or intimidated, negotiated his way in. “After I told Shragi’s father-in-law what I had discovered, I left and broke down in tears.”

On several occasions, Hershel’s Rosh Hashanah preparations involved round-the-clock work with Ukrainian authorities when travelers to Uman were sent to prison on various charges. In one instance, an agreement for the release of the prisoners seemed to be finalized but, at the last moment, fell through. “And so, I worked to get them kosher food for the Rosh Hashanah seudos.”

And sometimes, there’s more than being in the right place at the right time. It requires being in two places — sometimes thousands of miles apart — and stringing the experiences together.

“I was in South Korea on a business trip,” Hershel shares. “My trip was paid for by a corporation, and they had arranged for me to have kosher food. When I arrived at my hotel room, I found a beautiful package of kosher food, sent by Rabbi Osher Litzman, the rabbi of the local Chabad. The corporation hosted lavish meals, and, at each course, the caterer approached me and said, ‘we have a special package for you.’ ” All of this had been orchestrated by Rabbi Litzman and, overcome with gratitude, Hershel reached out to him.

“Thank you so much for everything,” he told Rabbi Litzman. “Would I be able to come visit you?” Rabbi Litzman, whose home wasn’t far from the hotel, was more than happy to host Hershel. When the two met, Rabbi Litzman said, “I want to show you something.” He took Hershel to his car and they drove until they reached an old part of the city built into a hill that had multiple levels of stairs leading downward. Together, they walked down the many stairs until they reached a small building.

“This is the mikveh that I’m in the middle of building,” Rabbi Litzman told Hershel. “Right now, the way people get to a mikveh is by traveling by plane to Japan.” But, Rabbi Litzman told him, the mikveh was short $30,000. Hershel was overwhelmed by the mesirus nefesh of those committed to taharah, and made the project a top priority.

“A week later, I was invited to a birthday party that the Aleph Institute threw for Alan Dershowitz,” he says. At the party were many dignitaries and philanthropists, one of whom Hershel knew had a passion for mikvaos. Casually, Hershel shared how he had been in South Korea and was given a tour of the partially completed mikveh that was stalled due to lack of funds.

“As of now, people are taking a plane to Japan,” he said. The philanthropist was genuinely moved. “How much do they need to complete the mikveh?” he asked. Hershel shrugged. “Not that much; $30,000.”

“Tell him to call me tomorrow. He’ll have the check sent over to him.”

The mikveh building in Seoul, while still under construction. Another $30,000 and it would be finished (Rabbi Litzman and his wife decided to design the pool in the shape of a water drop)

Believe in Miracles

Chanukah was reaching its close when Hershel Gottdiener received a phone call from a number he didn’t recognize.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Mr. Gottdiener,” the woman on the other end of the line’s voice quavered, “I need help.” The woman explained that she had been childless for 14 years and that the various organizations she had reached out to had given up on her case.

“But Mr. Gottdiener,” she pleaded, “today is Zos Chanukah — miracles can happen. Who are we to say that something is hopeless? Hashem can do anything! Mr. Gottdiener, is there any way you can help me?”

Hershel said he’d try his best, hung up, and immediately placed a few phone calls.

“The likelihood of success is very slim,” he was told by one leading organization, “but if you come up with half of the funds, we’ll provide the other half.”

The next day, Hershel went on vacation to Saint Martin, an island in the northeast Caribbean, together with a noted baal tzedakah. Hershel knew that his friend was generous to a fault, but he also knew that this friend did not want to be asked for solicitations during his rare days of vacation.

In Saint Martin, the Chabad shaliach, Rabbi Moishe Chanowitz, invited them for a farbrengen. The group traded hearty l’chayims, and Rabbi Chanowitz spoke about the message of Chanukah and its power to elicit miracles.

“You know,” Hershel said, “just yesterday I got a call from a woman struggling with infertility. She said that although the chances were slim, she knows that Zos Chanukah is a time for miracles and begged me to help her.”

Immediately, his friend sprang up. “I’m giving the money!” he cried out.

Rabbi Chanowitz, seeing the opportunity of the moment, shared how he was in the midst of constructing a new building and needed funds for the mikveh.

“I’ll donate the mikveh!” the philanthropist exclaimed.

And with that, a mikveh in the Caribbean — and a woman in the United States — both received much needed funds. The miraculous properties of Chanukah seemed to have done their trick.

Our meeting comes to a close and I step outside, only to be met by a gust of cold, rainy air. This doesn’t feel like April weather, it feels more like… Zos Chanukah. The chill in the air carries the current of that auspicious day when miracles happen and prayers are answered and those who beg to get in are let in and those who crave for release are let out. For Hershel Gottdiener, it’s always Zos Chanukah.

Because when one is willing to do anything and everything to help a fellow Jew, miracles inevitably happen.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008)

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