Latest update: September 23rd, 2012
When RJJ passed away, he was survived by his wife, Esther Rachel[i], his son Raphael, and two daughters, Mrs. Anna Brody and Mrs. S. R. Schultz. Toward the end of his life, the chief rabbi was under the care of his son-in-law Dr. S. Robert Schultz. His children and his wife were all present when RJJ passed away at 11:45 p.m. on July 28, 1902.[ii]
As soon as the death became known crowds began to gather in front of the house. Nearly a thousand persons were there, and prayers were offered for the rabbi. The fervor of the men and women was striking. Inside the house could be heard loud lamentations over the death.[iii]
Many stories about the greatness and philanthropy of the chief rabbi were told after his passing.
“He never knew what money was,” said a President of one of the synagogues last week. “Rabbi Joseph could have left a million dollars, but he died in absolute poverty. Millions passed through his hands. Never a dollar did be hold for himself.”
Rabbi Joseph’s concern for his fellow man and his humility were legendary. He was scheduled to deliver his first drasha on Shabbos Parshas Devarim 5648 (July 21, 1888) at Congregation Bais Medrash HaGodol, located at 64 Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side, where he had been appointed rav. The officers of the congregation anticipated a huge crowd would turn out to hear the chief rabbi speak. They estimated that as many as 50,000 people might show up. However, the shul was designed to accommodate 1,000 people at most. Their concerns about an overflow crowd were justified. The New York Times reported:
The synagogue was crowded. It accommodates comfortably about 1,000, but yesterday afternoon it must have contained at least 1,500 people. The heat and lack of proper ventilation caused considerable discomfort, yet every man, and there were none but men present, wore his hat. Several Individuals, evidently not of the Jewish faith, took or their hats, but were at once politely informed that It was contrary to the Hebrew religious law to appear in the synagogue with the head uncovered. [v]
Rav Joseph arrived at 3:45 PM. As the president of the synagogue related:
“What is this?” asked Rabbi Joseph of the heads of the synagogue who were near the door. It was explained that an admission charge was necessary to keep the people from hurting themselves in the jam at the church [sic]. “Then I will buy one of those tickets,” said Rabbi Joseph quietly. “You don’t need one,” said one of the leaders of the synagogue. “Yes, I do,” replied the rabbi. “I want one ticket to get in, and I want another ticket to take me back whence I came. I won’t stay in a place where the people must pay to hear me lecture.” This was the first time the men in that synagogue were brought in contact with the splendid views of the rabbi who had already won fame as a biblical scholar and teacher.
A Mr. Levy, who was president of one of the many synagogues that dotted the Lower East Side, related the following story:
“I don’t want your money. I want to help you all,” he said. The two brothers insisted. It then became my duty to give the $200 to Rabbi Joseph. He turned to his lay judges and said: “Take this money and divide it among the first eight needy people who apply for assistance.” That ended the litigation.
The Jacob Joseph Playground
It was mentioned above that Rabbi Jacob Joseph had one son, Raphael Joseph. Raphael had a son Lazarus (1891-1966) who was an attorney, six-time New York State Senator from 1934-45 (21st District 1934-44, 24th District 1945), and New York City Comptroller (1946-1954). Lazarus had a son who was named after his illustrious great-grandfather. Captain Jacob Joseph died during World War II. A park located on the Lower East Side was named in his honor.
May Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph long be remembered for his valiant efforts to strengthen Yiddishkeit at a time when there was an overwhelming move on the part of many to reject the religious values of their ancestors. The existence of today’s vibrant American Orthodoxy rests on the groundwork laid by him and others like him.
[iv] “The Position of Chief Rabbi: How It Was Made One of Importance by Its First Occupant, the Late Rabbi Joseph — Little Stories Now Told on the East Side Illustrating His Character, Just Why He Wielded so Great an Influence,” The New York Times, August 10, 1902, page 25.
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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