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.