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Posts Tagged ‘Harry Fischel’

Harry Fischel: Orthodox Jewish Philanthropist Par Excellence (Part II)

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Note: Most of the information in this article is based upon Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle, the Biography of Harry Fischel (referred to as B) and Continuation of Biography of Harry Fischel, 1928 – 1941 (referred to as UB).

Mr. Fischel had a longstanding relationship with the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), which was destined to have its name transferred to the rabbinical school affiliated with Yeshiva University. When RIETS merged in 1915 with Yeshiva Etz Chaim to form the short-lived Rabbinical College of America, Mr. Fischel became chairman of the Building Committee of the newly formed institution. He then located a property on the Lower East Side and converted it into a facility that was suitable for the rabbinical school.

It was therefore only natural that in 1923, when plans were made to open Yeshiva College, he played a key role in the establishment of the new institution. Without Mr. Fischel’s leadership, there is a good chance these plans might never have come to fruition.

Those involved differed on how much money would be required to build the infrastructure needed to establish an institution that would combine a Talmudic and secular education in a single homogeneous environment. Some said $1,000,000 would be sufficient; others $2,000,000. When Harry Fischel suggested $5,000,000 would be needed, “some of the directors took the view that he had gone out of his mind. Mr. Fischel, however, insisted that five million dollars was none too large an amount to accomplish the purpose in view, and, in order to start the ball rolling, he subscribed at once $10,000 with the pledge of an additional subscription of $5,000 for each million dollars collected, making his total pledge $30,000, if the full amount was secured.” (B page 343.)

This substantial contribution (the reader should keep in mind that we are talking about 1924 dollars) was just the beginning of Harry Fischel’s support of the campaign to establish Yeshiva College. At a fundraising dinner held on December 18, 1924, he proposed to Nathan Lamport, president of Yeshiva, that he would match any amount the well-to-do Lamport family pledged. After some deliberation, the Lamport family decided to give $100,000. Without hesitation, Mr. Fischel committed to matching the amount. (To understand the magnitude of that contribution, consider that $100,000 in 1924 was equivalent in value to $1,107,470.89 in 2004 dollars.)

The announcement of these two large pledges electrified those present at the dinner with the result that almost $800,000 in pledges were made that day. The new campus that would house RIETS and Yeshiva College was on its way to becoming a reality.

Mr. Fischel did more than just give his financial support. “From this moment on Mr. Fischel determined to dedicate his effort, his time and energy, also a large portion of his wealth, to carrying out this vast undertaking. From that day, December 18, 1924, to the present day [1928], Mr. Fischel practically divorced himself from every other activity, both his business and communal interests, to the end, except of course, that he continued to attend the meetings of other institutions with which he was affiliated.” (B page 356.)

When he returned from a visit to Eretz Yisrael in September 1927, he “found that the construction of the Yeshiva building was progressing slowly. As Chairman of the Building Committee, he took charge of the work of the building.” When Nathan Lamport passed away, Mr. Fischel assumed this leadership position also. “Having the additional responsibility, my time was occupied day and night, until the building was finished,” he wrote. (UB page 57.)

Mr. Fischel’s involvement did not cease once construction of the new campus was completed and the institution opened. Yeshiva experienced severe financial problems in the next few years. It was burdened by hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction debts. In July 1932 it closed, with no prospects of reopening in September. With great effort Mr. Fischel settled these debts and the school was able to reopen. In 1939 he headed a reorganization of the RIETS and Yeshiva College and wrote, “The existence of the Yeshiva is now assured.” (UB page 75.)

Mr. Fischel was a bold thinker, years ahead of his time. He wrote that upon realizing that a number of students were not suited to becoming rabbis or teachers, “an idea came to me to establish a trade school in connection with the Yeshiva, so that those students desiring to learn a trade in connection with Talmudical instruction could do so.” (UB page 4.)

Not long after the new Yeshiva buildings were completed, he purchased a nearby site and set aside funds to erect a structure to house the trade school as well as to provide housing for Yeshiva faculty at a low rental. However, “the Board of Directors of the Yeshiva felt that such a school would cheapen the Yeshiva, and refused my offer.” (UB page 4.)

By 1941 Harry Fischel had contributed a total of $160,000 to RIETS and Yeshiva College.

The Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Talmud

Long before it became fashionable, Harry Fischel became interested in the settlement of Jews from Russia and other European countries in Eretz Yisrael. This led to his first there in 1910. Over the years he visited the Holy Land at least seven more times. This was before the advent of air travel, so he had no choice but to travel by boat, an arduous journey that took weeks.

Mr. Fischel became involved in a wide range of projects designed to foster Jewish immigration to Eretz Yisrael and to assist those who settled there. During his second visit, in 1921, he learned that, while the chief representatives of other religions occupied residences befitting their position, the chief rabbi, Avraham Yitzchok Hakohen Kook, lived on the second floor of an old and dilapidated building, where proper reception of visitors was impossible.

Mr. Fischel decided to build a proper home for Rav Kook entirely at his own expense. The dedication of the Home of the Chief Rabbi of Palestine took place on May 27, 1923.

Mr. Fischel founded the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research (Machon Harry Fischel) in Jerusalem in 1931. “For decades, half of all the religious court judges in the entire country [of Israel] were graduates of this elite institution.” (Maverick Rabbi, page 334.)
The Measure of the Man
Harry Fischel was adversely affected by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. Nonetheless, in 1941 he wrote, “The ten years just past from 1930 to 1940 were the best in my life; while not financially, but spiritually.” (UB page 55.)

At the age of 69 he began the study of Gemara. (His early religious education did not encompass the Oral Law). He studied three times a week with a friend; after six years they completed five mesechtas. At the age of 75 he wrote, “I am now in a position to state that the Talmud became a part of my life, and is the best relaxation for the mind in times like these. I can safely state that it is the studying of the Talmud that has broadened my mind, and given me a clear vision and understanding of how to solve difficult problems.” (UB page 85.)

Yisroel Aaron (Harry) Fischel, a”h, passed away on January 1, 1948 in Eretz Yisrael. His steadfast commitment to Torah and mitzvos, andhis unprecedented devotion to a wide range of philanthropic endeavors, provide us a challenging role model of what it means to live successfully as a Jew.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Harry Fischel: Orthodox Jewish Philanthropist Par Excellence (Part I)

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2006

Note: Most of the information in this article is based on “Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle, the Biography of Harry Fischel” (referred to as B), and “Continuation of Biography of Harry Fischel, 1928 – 1941” (referred to as UB.)
The front-page essay “The Multimillionaire Who Remained True to Orthodoxy” (Jewish Press, April 28) dealt with the early life of Harry Fischel. It sketched his amazing rags to riches story. Indeed, Mr. Fischel had arrived in America from Russia in 1885 with only sixty cents in his pocket and the clothes on his back. In a little more than thirteen years he went from dire poverty to affluence, becoming a multimillionaire at a time when being even a millionaire was nowhere near as common as it is today.
There is much more to the story of Mr. Fischel than just amazing financial success. He remained an observant Jew all of his life and utilized his wealth and position to do his utmost to foster Jewish causes, particularly Orthodox Jewish causes. In this article we recount some of his philanthropic endeavors. Next month’s “Glimpses” article will deal with his key role in the founding of Yeshiva College, his support of Eretz Yisrael and the founding of the Harry Fischel Institute for Research in Talmud.

Endeavors on Behalf of Basic Jewish Education

On July 18, 1931, Harry Fischel delivered a “report” to his family. He wrote, “I have given the best part of my life for the benefit of religious education. I have contributed large sums of money for this purpose, in America, Europe and Palestine.” (UB page 17.) Money, however, was not the only thing Mr. Fischel gave to support Jewish education and other Jewish causes; he gave unstintingly of his time and wisdom.

The first Ashkenazic yeshiva established in America was Etz Chaim, a cheder-style elementary school founded on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1886. In 1889 Mr. Fischel became a director of the yeshiva. When the yeshiva was forced to vacate its premises, it was Mr. Fischel’s expertise in real estate that led to the institution finding a new home. Not only did he find a place for the yeshiva’s relocation, he made the initial $500 payment on the new property.

In 1892 Mr. Fischel became a director of Machzikay Talmud Torah, the oldest Talmud Torah in New York. In 1894, after becoming the institution’s vice president, he made what was considered by many a revolutionary proposal, “that the Talmud Torah open a school for girls to be under the direction of a young woman teacher who had lately come to this country from Palestine. The idea was at first bitterly opposed. No one had previously conceived of religious classes except for boys.” (B page 88.) Mr. Fischel prevailed, and the result was that applications for girls soon exceeded the school’s facilities.As Lower East Side Jews became more affluent, they began to move “uptown,” which led to the founding of the Uptown Talmud Torah on East 111th Street. For a number of years this institution was poorly run and in severe financial straits. Mr. Fischel felt the need to devote himself to reorganizing the school. Shortly after he became its president, he introduced educational reforms that both increased enrollment and solved the chronic financial problems of the school.

Mr. Fischel noted that the wealthiest Jews, who did not live in close proximity to the Uptown Talmud Torah, often did not send their children to this school. In fact, many of these very affluent Jews provided no religious education for their children. He felt it imperative that every Jewish child receive an Orthodox Jewish religious education. This led him to propose the opening of a branch of the Uptown Talmud Torah in the neighborhood where the wealthiest Jews lived – and in 1913 the West Side Annex of the Uptown Talmud Torah came into being.

The Harlem Uptown Talmud Torah and its Annex became a “huge and virtually unprecedented” success, educating thousands of boys and girls. “This facility boasted an enrollment that fluctuated over the years, from 1,800 to 2,800 students.” In 1916 Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, a rabbinic leader and son-in-law of Mr. Fischel, called these Harlem schools “the most important Jewish educational institution in America.” (The Maverick Rabbi by Aaron I. Reichel, Donning Publishers, 1986, page 110.)

HIAS and Beth Israel Hospital

In 1890, at the start of his early business successes, Harry Fischel became treasurer of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), known at that time as the Hachnosas Orchim. Given the difficulties he underwent as a new immigrant to the U.S., it is no surprise that he became involved with this organization. In 1919 he played a crucial role in the relocation of HIAS to its new home in the former Astor Library. Rather than make a large profit for himself on this property, Mr. Fischel purchased it in the name of HIAS.

“The work of transforming the Astor Library building into the home for immigrants was commenced by Mr. Fischel in March 1920 and from that time until the middle of 1921 he devoted practically his entire time to this undertaking.” (B page 212.)

In 1889 Mr. Fischel began what was to become a longtime association with Beth Israel Hospital. He played a key role when the hospital built a new building on the Lower East Side. He was, of course, also involved when the hospital built a larger facility on Livingston Place, between 16th and 17th Streets.

“Mr. Fischel has always emphasized the religious side of Beth Israel Hospital. The observance of Jewish dietary laws helps greatly in the return to health of the patients, according to Mr. Fischel.” (The November 3, 1922 American Hebrew newspaper. Quoted in B page 280.) Over the years his donations to this institution totaled $75,000. (UB, preface)

From the time that he first owned a home of his own, Harry Fischel made sure that it had a sukkah. One should keep in mind that most people were negligent in fulfilling the mitzvah of sukkah during the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries. In 1925 Mr. Fischel demonstrated how far his commitment to this mitzvah went when he built a 14-story apartment building on the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 80th Street. In order to be able to have a sukkah, he “omitted one room on each floor of the twelve floors of the structure above his own apartment on the second floor, entailing a loss in rentals of about $12,000 a year.” (B page 370.) Clearly, for Mr. Fischel Judaism took precedence over financial gain.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

The Multimillionaire Who Remained True to Orthodoxy

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Note: Most of the information in this article is based upon Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle: the Biography of Harry Fischel,edited by Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, published by the Bloch Publishing Company, New York, 1928, and the unpublished manuscript Continuation of Biography of Harry Fischel, 1928-1941. The published book will be referred to as B, and the unpublished manuscript as UB.
In 1924 Harry Fischel had occasion to visit the town of Eishishok in Lithuania. Eishishok is located a few miles from Radin, where Rabbi Yisroel Meyer Hakohen Kagan, zt”l, popularly known as the Chofetz Chaim, lived.

When the Chofetz Chaim learned that Mr. Fischel was nearby, he immediately sent an “automobile bus used for the purpose of conveying students from the station at Radin to the yeshiva, to take Mr. Fischel to Radin. Accompanying the bus was a committee of students. Mr. Fischel was met at a considerable distance from the yeshiva by the rabbi, then 86 years of age, who personally escorted him to his home and then through the Talmudical college” (B page 318).

Who was this remarkable man whom the Chofetz Chaim went to great effort to see, spend so much time with, and honor in such a manner?

Humble Beginnings

Yisroel Aaron Fischel (later known as Harry) was born on July 19, 1865, in the small, isolated Russian town of Meretz. His father, as well as most of the residents of Meretz, barely eked out a living. His parents were admired, however, for their deep piety, and they did their utmost to instill Torah values in their children. They were successful with Harry, who throughout his life remained an Orthodox Jew strictly committed to the observance of mitzvos.

Mr. Fischel received a basic religious and secular education from his father and the local school. It’s interesting to note that he apparently had virtually no exposure to Torah she’ b’al peh.

“I had no opportunity [in my youth] to acquire very much Hebrew knowledge. However, since I came to our free country ‘America,’ where knowledge can be acquired without any hardship and without any cost, I immediately took advantage of the opportunity and began the study of Mishna.” (UB pages 83-84.)

“At the age of only ten years, he spent some weeks in modeling from wood, with a lowly pen-knife, a miniature replica of the Tabernacle [mishkan], so accurately designed according to the description in the Scriptures, and so carefully executed, as to excite the wonderment and surprise of the dwellers in the town. Through this bit of work, done on his own initiative, the boy developed a taste for the profession he was later to adopt.” (B pages 4-5).

The aptitude Harry exhibited at such a young age would enable him to master the rudiments of architecture by the age of eighteen.

At that time all able-bodied Russian youths were compelled to serve in the army for five years as soon as they reachd the age of twenty-one. To avoid this, Harry, at age twenty, made the difficult decision to leave his beloved parents and to immigrate to America.

“Their final words of admonition were, ‘When you reach the golden land, do not exchange your religion for gold.'”(B page 9.) He never forgot these words as long as he lived.

Early Struggles

Harry Fischel arrived in the United States on a bitter cold day in December of 1885 with only sixty cents in his pocket and the clothes on his back. He first tried to secure a job in an architectural firm, but soon saw that this was hopeless. He therefore became a carpenter’s assistant, earning three dollars a week. Harry did not forget his parents after his arrival in the goldene medina. His commitment to the mitzvah of kibud av v’aim led him to send his entire first week’s wages to his parents. He asked the family he lived with to extend him credit for his room and board.

“From this time on, the young man never failed to send his mother and father a monthly remittance of at least ten roubles, or about five dollars in American money, so budgeting his expenses and living on such fare as to make this possible, no matter how small his earnings were.” (B page 15.)

Shmiras Shabbos, No Matter What

We live in a time and place where laws protect the Sabbath observer from discrimination. Most businesses have a five-day workweek. While it’s true that observant Jews still encounter situations in the workplace that test their commitment to Yiddishkeit, today’s milieu is a far cry from the one Harry Fischel found himself in when he first arrived in America.

Harry worked for six months as a carpenter’s assistant, toiling 12 hours a day and then spending two hours in night school, where he studied English and broadened his knowledge of architecture. He did not mind the long and grueling hours because he did not have to work on Shabbos.

Eventually an architectural firm offered him a position at ten dollars a week. While this presented him with a great opportunity, he would have been required to work on Shabbos. After some soul searching, he recalled the words of his parents – “Do not exchange your religion for money” – and refused the offer, continuing on in his low-paying job.

More difficulties loomed, however. One summer day he arrived to work only to find his place of employment closed – the owner had gone bankrupt. All Harry’s attempts to find another job proved fruitless, because every time he applied for a position, he made it clear that he would not work on Shabbos.

Finally he was hired by a firm of architects – but during the interview, he had chosen not to tell them he was a Sabbath observer. He hoped the firm would let him have Shabbos off based on the quality of his work and his willingness to work for five days at considerably lower wages than he’d been offered for six.

The job turned out to be all that Harry had hoped for and more. The week flew by as he applied himself in his new position. The working conditions were excellent, and he found the work interesting and stimulating. But when he approached his employer on Friday afternoon and asked if he could have Saturday off, he was told, “If you don’t come tomorrow, you need not come on Monday.”

He was now faced with a most difficult test of his religious principles. This job ws precisely what he had been looking for, and it held the potential for the realization of his dream to become an architect. It appeared to be the road that would lead him from poverty to financial success.

Harry spent a sleepless night agonizing over what to do. He finally decided that he would get up early Shabbos morning, daven, and then go to work. After davening he headed home to change from his Shabbos suit to weekday clothes and go to work.

Arriving at the corner of Hester and Essex Streets on the Lower East Side, he saw that not a single store was open. The streets were filled with people dressed in their Shabbos finery. The atmosphere of Shabbos was everywhere. Harry was truly torn by his predicament. He thought of how shocked and disappointed his parents would be if they knew what he was thinking of doing. Finally, with great difficulty, he made his decision.

“He knew that neither then nor later would it ever be possible for him to desecrate the Sabbath.”(B page 19.)

On Monday he returned to his place of employment. He pleaded with his employers to let him work a five-day week, saying he would accept half of the salary that had been agreed upon when he was hired. Not only was his plea rejected, he was not even paid for the week that he had worked.

Such were the tests observant Jews faced in America at the end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century.

Marriage, More Job Related Problems – and Success

Harry finally found a suitable job in October 1886, as a foreman for a builder. The hours were long, but at least Shabbos was not a problem. On November 26, 1887, he married Jane Brass. She had immigrated to America in 1883. She came from a fine religious home. Indeed, her father, brother and grandfather were all talmidei chachomim.

“Thus, the young woman possessed in both her antecedents and upbringing all those qualities most likely to appeal to the young man and to strengthen and encourage all that was best in his own character.” (B page 24.)

Harry’s employer gave him two weeks’ vacation as a wedding present. When he returned, however, he was told there was no work and he should look for another job. The newlyweds now faced a most difficult time. Harry spent months looking for a job, without success. Things were so bad that the couple was forced to pawn every item of value just to get through the terrible winter of 1887-88.

The tide turned in July of 1888. Harry was asked by Mr. Newman Cowan, a customer of his former employer, to estimate the cost of raising the roof of the building that Cowan̓s business occupied. The job was so large and complex that many contractors refused to even bid on it. Further, Harry had no capital with which to undertake such a job. He told this to Cowen, who replied that if the price were right he would arrange credit for him.

The work took five months to complete. Harry’s cost estimates were so precise that not only did he make a good living on this job, he was also able to save $250, a substantial sum in those days. The most beneficial outcome was that he became well-known as a successful contractor, one very much in demand.

In the year following the completion of this job, Harry had so much work that he built up his savings to some $2,500. For the reader to fully appreciate what that amount of money represented, consider that $2,500 in the year 1889, according to the consumer price index, had the same purchase power as $50,883.78 in the year 2004. Or, looking at it from the perspective of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita, an index of the economy̓s average output per person that is closely correlated with the average income, $2,500 in the year 1889 was equivalent to $12,335.26 in2004. (See http://eh.net/hmit/compare/ for details.)

Mr. Fischel was now on his way to affluence.

“The story of the next few years [of his life] reads like a fairy tale.” (B page 31.)

His abilities as a businessman and his expertise in construction and architecture led him to financial success after financial success. By 1900 he was the owner of a number of tenements and, eventually, entire buildings on Park Avenue in the most affluent neighborhood in New York City. He now had a large annual income.

In short, in little more than thirteen years Harry Fischel had gone from a condition of dire poverty to one of affluence, becoming a multimillionaire at a time when even being a millionaire was nowhere near as common as it is today.

Through all his success he remained true to Orthodox Judaism.

“Mr. Fischel’s principles as to Sabbath observance went far deeper than merely refusing to work himself on that day, his religious code held it equally wicked to cause others to work and he at once met the problem, not only by closing down operations of his own buildings, but by setting an example for others by paying hundreds of men the wage they would have obtained by working the half day Saturday, in order that they might resist the temptation to desecrate the day. Not only then, but in later years, when he came to build on a very extensive scale, it is Mr. Fischel’s pride that not a single Jew has ever worked on the Sabbath on any operation on which he has been engaged or in which he has been interested.” (B pages 32-33.)

Harry Fischel’s rise is not the only rags-to-riches story that occurred in the goldene medina in those times. What makes his unique is what he did with his success.

“He regarded the prosperity which had come to him as a direct answer to his prayers and considered that it imposed a definite obligation upon him to express his gratitude in good deeds. While he continued to strive to increase his holdings and to make more secure his fortune, it was mainly with the desire to place himself in a position where he might devote himself with greater zeal to his religion and might have more time to be of service to others.” (B page 84.)

Mr. Fischel became involved in a myriad of Jewish causes. These spanned such endeavors as founding the first religious classes for girls in 1894, playing a key role in HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society), serving as vice president of Beth Israel Hospital, and becoming perhaps the major figure involved in the founding of Yeshiva College, to name just a few.

(Editor’s Note: There is hardly enough space here to discuss all the philanthropic concerns Harry Fischel was involved with throughout his life. His efforts to promote Orthodoxy will be discussed in some detail in Dr. Levine’s next “Glimpses into American Jewish History” column, which will appear in the May 5 issue of The Jewish Press.

(The author wishes to thank Rabbi Aaron Reichel, a great-grandson of Harry Fischel and the author of The Maverick Rabbi, for his assistance with the preparation of this aricle.)

Dr. Yitzchok Levine, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press, is a professor in the department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. His “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” feature appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

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