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Honoring New York’s Chief Rabbi
The 24th of Tammuz (Shabbos Pinchas, July 15) will mark the 110th yahrzeit of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, zt”l, chief rabbi of New York in the latter years of the 19th century. Thousands will be praying and reciting Tehillim at the gravesite in Union Field Cemetery, Cypress Hills, Queens, on Sunday, July 16. The cemetery will keep its gates open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to accommodate the anticipated flow of visitors. Shuttle buses, organized by Rabbi Yonah Landau, will be leaving from Lee Avenue at the corner of Ross Street in Williamsburg throughout the day and ample parking space is available alongside the cemetery.
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On June 13, 1852, Beis Hamedrash Hagadol was established at 60 Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Its first rav was Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Asch, zt”l, who had arrived in the United States earlier that year.
After the passing of Rabbi Asch, a new rav was sought for Beis Medrash Hagadol. At the same time, there was a growing consensus among New York’s many congregations that a chief rabbi was needed for the city. Requests for recommended candidates were sent to Europe, the seat of religious Jewry at the time, with letters hand delivered to Rabbi Chaim Berlin of Moscow, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin of Brisk, Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer of Berlin, Rabbi Eliyahu Levinson of Krottingen, Rabbi Hillel Lifshitz of Suwalk, Rabbi Eliyohu Chaim Meisels of Lodz, Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor of Kovno, and Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Vilna.
A delegation of congregational leaders was dispatched to Europe to consult with leading rabbis. Rabbi Joseph’s name was repeatedly suggested.
After much deliberation, an offer was made to and accepted by Rabbi Joseph. The invitation was from fifteen leading New York City congregations to serve as the accredited chief rabbi of New York City. Rabbi Joseph was offered annual remuneration of $2,500, a princely sum in those days; a large apartment; and the allegiance of most of America’s observant congregations. In addition, Rabbi Joseph was presented with $5,000 as a signing bonus to settle debts he had personally incurred on behalf of indigent individuals he privately sustained.
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Rabbi Jacob Joseph was born in Krozhe, a province of Kovno. He studied at the yeshiva in Volozhin under Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and in Kovna under Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. After teaching in Slabodka, Rabbi Joseph, a brilliant Talmudist, was elected rav of Vilon (1868), Yurburg (1870), and Zhagovy before becoming maggid and acting rav of Vilna in 1883. He authored the sefer L’beis Yaakov, published in 1888 in Vilna.
On Shabbos Maatos-Maasei, July 7, 1888, the trans-Atlantic ship Allaire docked at Hoboken, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. After Havdalah, at approximately 10 p.m., the chief rabbi was taken to a nearby hotel. The leaders of the appointing congregations and more than 100,000 people crowded the streets for an opportunity to catch a glimpse of him. Hoboken had never before seen such a large crowd.
The chief rabbi delivered his first public speech in New York on Shabbos Nachamu, July 28. The beis medrash was filled to capacity and tens of thousands stood outside. Police were there for crowd control.
Rabbi Joseph, sadly, was accorded great honor only twice during his tenure as chief rabbi. When he first arrived in 1888 he was heralded as an ecclesiastical giant by The New York Times. New York City newspapers continued for months to report on the huge crowds he drew for his Shabbos sermons – often in the tens of thousands.
In his brave attempts to organize kashrus, Rabbi Joseph waged war with unlearned poultry business owners who were quite pleased with the low level of kosher supervision they were happily and very profitably providing. Rabbi Joseph was unable to persuade his congregations to pay the salaries of the kosher supervisors he appointed. So he imposed a one cent per-pound surcharge only on kosher poultry. This ignited the wrath of “kosher” butchers. The populace, as a consequence, was influenced to turn against Rabbi Joseph.
The constant aggravation wore on the chief rabbi’s health. Knowing the route he walked to and from shul daily, venomous opponents of Rabbi Joseph’s kashrus efforts put pigs in some of the storefront windows together with kashrus certificates signed by the chief rabbi himself.
In 1897, at the age of 57, he suffered a paralyzing stroke and was bedridden thereafter. He died five years later. Although an invalid from 1897 on, Rabbi Joseph founded Yeshiva Beis Sefer in 1900, which was renamed Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph upon his passing. Rabbi Joseph was America’s first world-class gadol and a true martyr for kashrus and Torah observance.
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When the chief rabbi passed away on July 29, 1902, well over a hundred thousand people participated in his funeral, the largest New York City had ever seen. His bier was carried through the streets of lower Manhattan and taken by boat across the East River to Queens. Hooligans, workmen of the R. Hoe & Co. factory on the Lower East Side, pelted the procession with nuts and bolts, causing a riot and killing at least one Jew and injuring three hundred, including a number of policemen.
Many of the Hoe employees were members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the German neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland on the Lower East Side. On June 15, 1904, St. Mark’s organized an outing to a recreation spot for a day of swimming, games, and food on the General Slocum steamship, proceeding toward Locust Grove on the Long Island Sound. Some 1,358 members of the church’s tightly knit immigrant community boarded the ship for the short excursion. Shortly after departure, a fire broke out on board. Lifesaving equipment on the steamship was old and defective, the crew unprepared. Lifeboats were riveted in place, unavailable for emergency use. The death toll reached 1,021. Entire families were lost. The tragedy was the largest loss of life in New York City until the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
Some Jews whispered that the tragedy was divine retribution for the attack on Rabbi Joseph’s funeral procession two years earlier. Nevertheless, Jewish groups were among the first to give assistance in every manner possible. The survivors found it difficult to carry on. Many left the neighborhood and in a few short years Kleindeutschland ceased to exist. The church remained unused and desolate for decades.
The Community Synagogue bought the red brick church building from the congregation in 1940, and it continues to function as a shul to this day. On June 15, 2004, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, a plaque was dedicated in the synagogue in remembrance of the 1,021 victims. Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon, the last living Slocum survivor, died in January 2004 at the age of 100. She’d been a six-month-old infant at the time of the tragedy.
Until recently, the gravesite of the former chief rabbi was forlorn – neglected and barely visited. An upsurge in interest in Jewish history among observant Jews has opened the gates to reviewing and assessing those who were here before us. The sacrifices of the chief rabbi, in particular, as well as the sacrifices of other great rabbis and fervent Jews, are being more fully appreciated and many Jews now visit the chief rabbi’s gravesite throughout the year.
As the crowds gather this Sunday to recite Tehillim, they will, in adjacent areas, find gravesites of other Torah giants. Not far from Rabbi Joseph’s grave is the burial site of Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Asch. In the adjoining Mount Judah Cemetery are the tombstones of Rabbi Avrohom Pam and his rebbetzin; Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, Rabbi Dovid Liebowitz, Rabbi Dovid Halberstam and Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky, as well as the widow and the son of the Chofetz Chaim, among many other notables.
Appreciation must be expressed to the Committee for Visiting Holy Sites in America and Canada, led by Rabbi Landau, and to Professor Marvin Shick, president of Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph, for their tremendous exertions in honor of Rabbi Jacob Joseph.
Rabbi Landau has also been leading groups on visits to gravesites of rabbis, chassidishe rebbes, and roshei yeshiva throughout the United States and Canada. Some of these men are nearly unknown today, but they made significant contributions, often at great personal expense, to today’s golden era of Yiddishkeit in America.
Rabbi Landau recently released a biography of Rabbi Joseph titled Rav HaKolel, which will be available, together with other material, at the cemetery on Sunday.
Dr. Marvin Schick, in addition to serving as president of the Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph schools, with a current enrollment of almost two thousand students, kindergarten through kollel, is a noted community activist and writer. In 2002 he published Rabbi Joseph’s sefer, L’Beis Yaakov.
Driving instructions: Flushing Avenue Exit on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), east on Flushing Avenue; make a right turn onto Cypress Avenue. Continue to Union Field Cemetery, 8211 Cypress Avenue.
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