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 firstname.lastname@example.org.