When Orthodox Jews think of leaders, they generally call to mind various rabbinic figures. Without devoted laymen, though, these rabbis could arguably accomplish little. One of the leading laymen of the previous generation, Harold Jacobs (1912-1995), is the subject of a recently published biography, “Building Orthodox Judaism in America: The Life and Legacy of Harold M. Jacobs” by Dr. Rafael Medoff.
Jacobs, at various points in his life, served as president of the Orthodox Union, president of the National Council of Young Israel, president of the Crown Heights Yeshiva, president of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, and chairman of New York City’s Board of Higher Education.
The Jewish Press spoke with Paul Jacobs, one of Harold Jacobs’s sons, to learn more about this active personality and the times in which he lived. Jacobs is president of Jacobs Capital Limited and Precision Equities, Inc.
The Jewish Press: Your father grew up in Williamsburg and was among the first students of Torah Vodaath. Why did his parents send him to yeshiva at a time when 99 percent of Orthodox Jews were sending their children to public school?
Jacobs: My grandmother, a”h, had the good fortune to be the daughter and granddaughter of shochtim who had butcher shops on the Lower East Side that catered to those who wanted to be absolutely sure their butcher was reliable. My grandmother’s grandfather, Pinchus Aharon Bruder, was the only shochet from whom Rabbi Jacob Joseph – New York short-lived “chief rabbi” – bought his meat.
Throughout her life, my grandmother was totally unyielding when it came to halacha – so much so that she cut off almost all communication with family members who were no longer frum so that her children wouldn’t be influenced. Today, of course, when we baruch Hashem have yeshivas, mikvehs, shuls, etc., we are much more understanding and comfortable with our non-frum relatives.
Your father also attended Camps Argyle and Delawaxen, America’s first kosher overnight camps. Many readers may be surprised to learn that Orthodox overnight camps existed so long ago. What were they like?
I have limited information about them other than some pictures taken in the late 1920s. My father mentioned, though, that the camps were very primitive by today’s standards. For example, they didn’t have bunks; they slept in tents.
In Building Orthodox Judaism in America, Dr. Medoff mentions an interesting berachah your great-great-grandfather received from the Sanzer Rebbe, the Divrei Chayim. What was this berachah and what were the circumstances under which it was given?
The berachah was that his children would remain frum in America.
My great-great-grandparents were very upset that the Rebbe told them to go to “treifa” America. My great-great-grandmother, Brucha Bruder, cried profusely and was even ashamed to show her face in town. It was a big busha.
Needless to say, over the seven American generations in the 140 years since my great-great-grandparents landed in New York, there have, no doubt, been many dropouts, but baruch Hashem there are thousands of cousins who have remained frum.
Today, Crown Heights is known as a Lubavitch stronghold. But the Crown Heights in which your father lived and raised you was quite different. What was this now bygone Crown Heights like?
First of all, it was still somewhat undeveloped. My father told me he remembered farms on Empire Boulevard. Also, it was considered somewhat “out” from the main Jewish communities in Williamsburg, the Lower East Side, Harlem, etc. As difficult as it is to believe, my grandparents moved to Crown Heights to get away from anti-Semitism in Williamsburg. In any event, the community was solidly what today would be called Modern Orthodox. So were Boro Park and Flatbush.
As a child you attended the Crown Heights Yeshiva, where your father was president from 1953-1968. What was this yeshiva like?
It was one of the first day schools in America. It was co-ed, and had a truly exceptional curriculum and faculty in both kodesh and chol. It produced hundreds of balanced young people who have thrived in all walks of life. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of my classmates did not come from shomer Shabbos homes and became frum because of the Crown Heights Yeshiva.
The school was very strict, and we feared both Rabbi Baumol, z”l, the principal, and Mrs. Singer, a”h, the English principal. But this permitted us to learn and grow up in a disciplined way.
Your father was also president of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, where you often davened on Shabbos. What was this shul like?
It was exceptional and, as per the aim of the Young Israel movement, it managed to blend our Americanism with our Yiddishkeit. I should mention that, in those days, the lines between Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews were not as drawn as they are today. The Conservative movement was not a reaction to Orthodoxy; it was meant as a foil to counteract Reform and was much more halachic than it is today. Socially, therefore, many of the congregants of Conservative synagogues, such as the Brooklyn Jewish Center, which was also on Eastern Parkway, and Orthodox shuls, such as the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, were almost indistinguishable. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for a Young Israel member to go to work after shul in the 1930s and 1940s.
You lived on President Street, two doors down from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Did your father, or you, have any interactions with him?
Like so many others, my father felt the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, was an extraordinary person and one of the preeminent leaders of our time. He and the Lubavitcher Rebbe were well acquainted. First of all, my father chaired at least two of the annual Lubavitch dinners. They would also occasionally correspond on community matters. For example, my father explored the possibility of merging the OU and NCYI and, in one letter, the Rebbe argued against it for several reasons, among them that “kinas sofrim marbeh chochma” – competition breeds excellence.
During elections, my father would bring various candidates to meet the Rebbe, particularly to farbrengens. For example, when his good friend Abe Beame ran for mayor and my father was his campaign finance chair, they were taken to meet the Rebbe in the middle of a farbrengen. This, of course, was great politicking for Abe Beame.
Finally, every year thousands of Lubavitcher chassidim would escort the Rebbe from his house on President Street to Prospect Park for tashlich. I remember one occasion when my father and I were standing on the sidewalk watching the Rebbe walking in the middle of President Street with thousands of chassidim singing behind him. At one point, the Rebbe noticed us standing on the sidewalk and, to the amazement of the chassidim, walked over to wish a Good Yom Tov to my father. It was a bit surrealistic, to say the least.
When did the Jewish character of Crown Heights change?
The first change occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when Crown Heights was predominately Reform and Conservative, and Modern Orthodox Jews started to relocate there and founded Orthodox shuls and schools. The second change occurred during the war years and after when escapees from the fires of Europe arrived and introduced what we call today haredi influences and institutions.