Latest update: June 10th, 2013
Title: Rav HaKolel, A Biography Of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef
Author: Rabbi Yonah Landau
Publisher: Rabbi Yonah Landau
In the 1880s, a substantial immigration of Jews poured into New York from all parts of Europe, Russia, and Galicia. They were eager to escape the hard life of poverty and lack of peace back home, but the reality in America was not as they had expected it to be. It was hard to find work; it was a struggle for mere existence.
Some of the leaders and rabbonim became very distressed about the religious state of affairs. It was difficult to observe Shabbos and the kashrus situation was not good either. The meat wholesalers in stores could not always be trusted.
At that time, many communities did have distinguished rabbonim. In New York City and several of the smaller towns outside of New York, the rabbonim and leaders of the communities, after much consideration and meetings, came to a conclusion that the best solution would be to find a great talmid chacham capable of influencing and inspiring leadership. He would be appointed as the Rav Hakolel (chief rabbi) and be supported by the community.
Much of the initiative came from a large synagogue on Norfolk Street known as the Beis Medrash Hagodol. At that time, there were about100,000 Jews living in New York and only ten percent were shomrei Shabbos. After lengthy negotiations, an organization was established to include all synagogues that agreed with the decision to hire a chief rabbi.
Rabbonim in Europe were consulted for their advice and recommendations. At one time, they considered the Malbim, the rav of Lodz. After protracted deliberations, the committee agreed to offer the position to R’ Yaakov Yosef, the maggid of Vilna, known to be a gaon, a scholar, a great orator, a ba’al chesed and a ba’al tzedaka.
After much deliberation, in 1888, the rav finally agreed to come to New York. One of the conditions that Harav Yaakov Yosef made was that the community hiring him should pay off the considerable loans he had borrowed for his tzedakah work.
When he finally arrived in New York, the community was elated. They were confident that a new era would begin. On the first Shabbos, the shul was jammed with an overflow crowd. However, it didn’t take long for some of the enthusiasm to fall off.
The rav’s first concern was to investigate the whole kashrus situation in New York City. He appointed a beis din to assist him and that was where he ran into the first opposition – a powerful butcher’s union, which did not look with favor upon his intent to raise the standards of kashrus. Many of the stores had no hashgachas up to then.
As time went on, the opposition became stronger and more resistant. Within a short time, the attitude towards the rav changed and the glow was beginning to dim. There was also opposition from local rabbonim, jealous of the position of chief rabbi. The Rav Hakolel did everything in his power to stop these issues. By his nature he was an extremely kind and reasonable person, but it was to no avail. Within three years, it all changed.
It reached a point where the organization of rabbonim did not have enough backing and could not pay his salary. The aggravation of the overall situation drove him to illness. He became bedridden and after several years of pain and suffering, passed away. His tragic passing suddenly caused the community to realize what they had lost.
More than 100,000 people came to the levaya and thousands watched from their windows. At that point, the full impact of what they had lost hit them.
And then came the final tragedy. As the funeral procession proceeded to Williamsburg, they were assaulted by hundreds of employees from a large printing company called Hoes, known for their anti-Semitic attitude. They pelted the procession with stones and metal and eventually with boiling water, causing injury to many people. The police were understaffed and not prepared for such masses of people at the funeral. This terrible event made the frum community realize how wrong they were and many felt it was a punishment for the way they treated the rav.
At this point the community was outraged at the terrible and vicious attack and demanded that the mayor of New York City immediately investigate and punish the attackers. The investigation dragged on and very little was done. (To end this story, a few weeks later Hoes treated their workers to an outing on the Hudson River, and during the festivities, their boat sank.)
R. Yaakov Yosef was put to rest in Cypress Hill Cemetery. In retrospect, perhaps had he devoted his energies and tremendous abilities to establishing schools and yeshivas, he might have attracted a stronger backing for his attempts to raise the standards of Jewish life in New York.
The book is available at most Judaica outlets.
Rabbi Avraham Kelman is the principal of Prospect Park Yeshiva-Bnos Leah, Brooklyn, NY.
About the Author: Rabbi Avraham Kelman is the principal of Prospect Park Yeshiva-Bnos Leah, Brooklyn, NY.
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