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January 21, 2017 / 23 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Rabbi Jacob Joseph’

My Machberes

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

Honoring New York’s Chief Rabbi

Rabbi Jacob Joseph, zt”l

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum

The Chief Rabbi’s Funeral

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

           In a recent front-page essay (May 30, 2008) and in last month’s “Glimpses” column we traced the life of Rabbi Jacob Joseph (1840-1902). Rabbi Joseph, who studied in the famed Volozhiner Yeshiva, was an outstanding Talmudic scholar and one of Rav Yisroel Salanter’s main students.

In 1888 he came to America to serve as the chief rabbi of New York. Unfortunately, his efforts at bringing order to the chaotic situation in the kosher meat business were unsuccessful. In addition, the organization that had brought him here, the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, declined to the point where it began to renege on its obligation to pay Rabbi Joseph’s salary.
Conditions took a serious turn for the worse in the spring of 1895, when the retail butchers banded together and rejected the chief rabbi’s authority and dispensed with his supervision.
A contemporary wrote, “The Rabbi was left without any income and is in dire straits, and there is nothing that can be done with him now. He and his whole family are in very serious difficulties.”[i]

Reduced to abject poverty, Rabbi Joseph was forced to move his family to a squalid Lower East Side tenement flat.


To Rabbi Joseph’s financial distress was added physical illness. He was confined to his bed, an invalid the rest of his life. The community that had once hailed him now completely neglected him. Forgotten was all he had done to elevate the position of the East European Jew in New York and to establish dignity and integrity in the religious institutions that served him. All but forgotten, he lay on his bed of pain, remembering what had been and musing no doubt on what could have been.
At the end of July 1902, the Chief Rabbi once again became the topic of discussion. On the 28th of the month he breathed his last, and headlines announced his demise the next day. He died at fifty-nine [sic], after a five-year confinement to his bed because of paralysis. [ii]

The Funeral

Word of the rabbi’s death spread rapidly throughout the Lower East Side, and the very people who ignored him while he was alive felt obligated to honor him in death. There was an unprecedented outpouring of grief from all segments of the Jewish community. A funeral procession through the streets of the Lower East Side was planned, with stops at the main Orthodox synagogues, where the chief rabbi was to be memorialized.

It soon became clear that thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of mourners planned to participate. Recognizing both the probable enormity of the crowd and the legal requirement to procure a permit for such an event, one of the organizers [of the funeral] called upon the local police. After receiving permission for the march, he informed the police official on duty that as many as 20,000 people might participate. He left assured that twenty-five policemen would be in place the next day and that more could be had if requested. [iii]

The morning of July 30, 1902 witnessed a huge funeral procession following the casket of the chief rabbi.

Behind it stretched a line of 200 carriages bearing family members, local officials, wealthy merchants, and dozens of prominent rabbis from around the country. Standing before them on both sides of the street stretched a crowd of 50,000 to 100,000 mourners.

Weeping, wailing, and the chanting of Psalms filled the air as the massive entourage made its way to each of the main Orthodox synagogues. The crowds struggled and occasionally surged as particularly zealous mourners sought to touch the casket, but remarkably no serious incident occurred. Two hours later, after recitation of the final prayers, the last leg of the march to the ferry at the end of Grand Street (the cemetery was in Brooklyn) commenced. Turning east on Grand Street, the procession soon came upon a massive brick factory that housed the famed printing press manufacturing firm of R. H. Hoe and Co.[iv]

There, unbelievably, a full-fledged riot began. The chronology of the events that led to this riot is given below. presented in stages.

Stage One: As the procession began to pass the Hoe factory, some workers who had climbed onto the roof or gone to  upper-story windows to get a better view of the procession, started throwing a variety of items including food, water, oily rags, and pieces of wood and metal at the mourners.

Stage Two: The mourners were outraged at such disrespect for so solemn an occasion. Some of them began throwing the missiles back at those who had tossed them; others burst into the factory in an effort to stop the assault.

Stage Three: The first-floor office workers were unaware of what was transpiring outside. Therefore, when the irate mourners, many of them screaming in Yiddish, burst into the first floor of the factory, they panicked. The police were called. In addition, in an attempt to “protect” themselves from what appeared to be an unruly mob, they turned on the fire hose and doused the “invaders.” Some anti-Semitic remarks were shouted at the mourners, who were quickly expelled from the factory building.

Stage Four: Meanwhile, out in the street, a general melee ensued. The fire hose was aimed indiscriminately at those outside the building, whether they had been in the building or not. The mourners responded by hurling bricks, rocks and other items at the Hoe Building. Most of the building’s windows were shattered. However, this situation did not persist for very long. Indeed, the scene outside the factory began to calm down by the time the head of the funeral procession began boarding the ferry to Brooklyn, located a half mile past the factory.

Stage Five: “A few minutes later, at 1:20 p.m., a squad of 200 policemen, summoned at the outbreak of hostilities by the Hoe employees, arrived on the scene under the leadership of Inspector Adam A. Cross. ‘Without a word of warning or any request to disburse,’ stated the report on the incident commissioned be the mayor, the police ‘rushed upon the remnant of the gathering, some of them with great roughness of language and violence of manner.'”[v]

In the end, hundreds of people were injured, primarily by the clubs and fists of the policemen. Eleven Jews were arrested. Nine were fined between five and ten dollars each and then released. The other two were held for $1,000 bail for inciting a riot. Eventually, four employees of the Hoe Company were also arrested.
The Jewish community of New York was outraged. Charges of anti-Semitism were leveled at the workers of the Hoe Company as well as at police. In addition, the police were accused of treating as criminals people whose only “crime” was that they had peacefully participated in the chief rabbi’s funeral possession.
Protest meetings were organized demanding that Mayor Seth Low, who had been elected a year earlier on a pledge to reform the police department, form an investigative committee to look into this incident.
Such a committee, consisting of notable reformers and including two prominent Jews, was indeed formed. It took testimony from many witnesses and issued a comprehensive report that condemned, in no uncertain terms, the brutal actions of the police. The police commissioner, Colonel Partridge, eventually stepped down. Two officers also resigned, and a number of others were transferred to precincts that did not include the Lower East Side.
             The tragic story of Rabbi Jacob Joseph’s tenure as chief rabbi of New York had concluded with an infamous anti-Semitic incident at his funeral.  It marked the end of the attempt to establish a central rabbinical authority over New York’s Jewish community.

The chief rabbi was survived by his wife, a son, and two daughters.

[i]“New York Chooses a Chief Rabbiby Abraham J. Karp, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961) Sep 1954-Jun 1955, 44. This article is available at http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm.




[iii]  “Hibernians Versus Hebrews? A New Look at the 1902 Jacob Joseph Funeral Riotby Edward T. O’Donnell, Journal Of The Gilded Age And Progressive Era, Volume 6, Number 2, April 2007, page 211.


[iv]  Ibid., pages 211-212.


[v]  Ibid., page 213.


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 Chief Rabbi Encounters Opposition

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from “New York Chooses a Chief Rabbi” by Abraham J. Karp, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961) Sep 1954-Jun 1955, 44. The article is available at http://www.ajhs.org/references/adaje.cfm.

In “Failed Experiment: New York’s Only Chief Rabbi” (front-page essay, May 30), we described the warm welcome thousands of Jews gave Rabbi Jacob Joseph when he disembarked from his ship in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 7, 1888. His first drasha at his shul, Beth HaMidrash Hagadol, was attended by a crowd so large it was necessary to have the police present. Initially it looked like Rabbi Joseph’s career as chief rabbi of New York was going to be a smashing success. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.

However, from the outset the appointment of Rabbi Joseph by the Association [of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations]created a furor among certain Jewish circles. Many Orthodox congregations who did not partake in the selection refused to recognize Rabbi Joseph’s leadership. Reform Jewry, on the other hand, remained indifferent or hostile to the entire idea of a “chief rabbi.” Jacob Joseph’s appointment was particularly resented by the Anglo-Jewish press, then dominated by German Jews. Thus, the New York correspondent of Isaac Mayer Wise’s American Israelite, even before Rabbi Joseph’s arrival in America, expressed bemusement that a man who spoke neither German nor English, and whose vernacular was an unintelligible jargon (Yiddish) had been chosen as a fitting representative of Orthodox Judaism to the world at large.[i]

Others questioned the entire concept of a chief rabbi.

“What is the Chief Rabbi to do?” had already been asked in December, 1887, by the perceptive New York correspondent of the American Israelite, Mi Yodea. He stated that even those “most eager for the creation of this new office,” did not quite know what its functions were to be. To render ritual decisions he was not needed, nor were preachers a scarce commodity; and it seemed highly unlikely that the congregations would import a chief rabbi just to sit and study day and night.

An uptown periodical, the Jewish Messenger, was critical of the entire undertaking. If downtown Jewry had thousands of dollars to import rabbis, why, questioned the Messenger, did they not support the charitable institutions such as hospitals and homes which their population used?

“What do we need of an immigrant and prejudiced rabbi?” asked the Reform periodical Jewish Tidings. “He should go back to the land that gave him birth.”

In a later issue the argument was carried further:

“Rabbi Joseph is unfamiliar with the language of this country and is therefore unfitted to exercise authority or influence over American Jews. The Jews of this country do not need a Grand Rabbi and one from a foreign country; one who is reared among the prejudices and bigotries of the Eastern countries will certainly prove an obstacle to the people over whom he is expected to exercise control.”

Kashrus: Problems And Pitfalls

A motivating factor in the minds of those who wanted a chief rabbi for New York was their feeling that such a person would be able to put a stop the shameful practices plaguing the kosher meat industry. Time and again the Jewish community of New York had witnessed squabbles between butchers, accusations and counter-accusations among the shochtim, as well as abuse to anyone who tried to impose a reasonable system of supervision.

Rabbi Abraham Joseph Ash, who had been the rabbi of Beth HaMidrash Hagadol until his passing in 1887, “had suffered during his incumbency from butchers who flouted his authority and attacked his person.”

[The kosher meat business] was a lucrative business and notorious for its strong-arm methods, chicanery, and squabbles. The butchers and “shochatim” (ritual slaughterers), as well as some rabbis had repeatedly been locked in disputes over the income from “kashrut”: fist fights were not uncommon and disregard for Jewish law and Board of Health ordinances were rampant. Exploiting the vacuum of both secular and rabbinical authority, Jewish abattoir owners and retail butchers alike resolved the matter by engaging their own rabbis, or pseudo-rabbis, to validate the ritual purity of their products. With this seal of “kashrut” the entrepreneur kept his foothold in the Jewish market and justified the higher prices derived from its religious value. The system lent itself to corruption, and it has been estimated that during this period possibly half the kosher meat sold to the Jewish public was non-kosher.[ii]

The solution was really quite simple; namely, the institution of stringent standards of supervision in the kosher meat industry. Therefore, it did not take long for Rabbi Joseph, with the support of the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, to take energetic steps to remedy this situation.

But the leaders of the Association saw in the supervision of kosher meat a source of income for the organization. They argued that proper supervision cost money, and those who benefited from it should pay for it. The Chief Rabbi, however, was opposed to any direct charge for the supervision of kashrut. He maintained that it was in the interest of the entire community that order and harmony exist in this industry and the costs of administering it be borne by the communal religious agency, the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. But he had to surrender to the superior wisdom and experience of the “American business men” who had brought him to this country. He was able, however, to exact the compromise that the tax for supervision be placed not upon meat but upon poultry.

The matter having been decided and agreed upon, it was formally announced through a circular in Yiddish, followed by an English version, distributed in downtown New York.

Every bird slaughtered in the kosher abattoirs was to be under the strict supervision of Rabbi Joseph’s staff, and stamped accordingly with a special lead seal (plumbe). A tax of a penny was to be added to the selling price of each chicken. It was anticipated that this penny tax as well as the dues paid by each congregational member of the Association would be sufficient to cover the salaries of Rabbi Joseph and his mashgichim.

But the Association completely misread the public’s reaction to this additional expense. Instead of easing Rabbi Joseph’s job, the plumbe became a weight which dragged the Chief Rabbi down to the depths of indignity. It eventually led to his downfall.

The penny tax was opposed by many: to Jewish housewives it smacked of price gouging, while to Jewish radicals and most of the Yiddish press, it was reminiscent of the infamous levy imposed by the czarist Russian government on kosher meat. An equally bitter protest came from the ranks of the butchers and slaughterers who were convinced that the best inspection was the one that inspected the least.

In addition, some rabbis, threatened with the loss of their income from the abattoirs and butchers and resentful of the exalted state and salary conferred on the “chief rabbi,” joined in the agitation against [Rabbi] Joseph and the penny tax.

Opposition to the Association and to Rabbi Jacob Joseph also came from a number of Galician and Hungarian congregations who were unwilling to submit to an authority dominated by “Litwaks” (Lithuanian Jews). Instead, they decided to look for a “chief rabbi” of their own, and in 1892 settled on Rabbi Joshua Segal as their choice. What followed was a squalid competition between the two “chief rabbis,” and their partisans over the supervision of “kashrut.” In 1893 still another rabbi entered the fray. His name was Hayim Vidrowitz of Moscow. He managed to gather to his side a few followers from a number of Hassidic “shtiblakh” (prayer rooms), and hung out a sign reading “Chief Rabbi in America.” Asked who had given him this title, Rabbi Vidrowitz replied, “The sign painter.”

Rabbi Joseph, despite a small and appreciative following, could not overcome the centrifugal forces in the New York Jewish community. Reduced to shame and parody his influence gradually declined. The Associationsoon began to renege on payments of [Rabbi] Joseph’s salary, and for all practical purposes became a mere paper organization.[iii]

[i] “Twilight Years of Rabbi Jacob Joseph” by Joseph Adler, http://www.ameinu.net/frontier/jf_1 00_adler.html

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

(To be continued next month)

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

Failed Experiment: New York’s Only Chief Rabbi

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

(It is widely known among Orthodox Jews that Rabbi Jacob Joseph [RJJ] served as chief rabbi of New York in the latter part of the 19th century. Many are aware that his experience in New York was quite tragic. There is, however, much more to the story of the life of this rav, including the occurrence during his funeral of one of the most serious anti-Semitic incidents in American history.

In this essay, and in the next two installments of my monthly “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” feature, we shall deal with the life of Rabbi Joseph.)

Rabbi Jacob Juspha, better known as Rabbi Jacob Joseph, was born into a very poor family in Kroz, Lithuania in 1840. His father, who worked in a beer brewery, sacrificed no end to provide his son a Torah education. Young Yaakov was an exceptional Torah student and studied for a number of years in the famous Volozhin Yeshiva, headed at that time by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (1817-1893). Later he became one of the chief disciples of Reb Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883).

While Rabbi Joseph did not perpetuate the Musar system of his Master, he considered himself his spiritual heir. At home, in Vilna, Rabbi Joseph, who more than anyone else tried to popularize Rabbi Israel Salanter’s ideas among the people, was considered an authority on rabbinic law, a great preacher, and he lived up to the name he was given, Charif, (sharp, keen minded). Rabbi Joseph was the first of the young Rabbis to put into effect Rabbi Israel’s theories. [Israel Salanter, Religious-Ethical Thinker by Menachem G. Glenn, Yashar Books, 2005]

Rav Joseph’s first rabbinic post was in the town of Vilon (Veliuona) in the Kaunas district of Lithuania. He established a yeshiva there for a few select young men. The yeshiva stressed bekius; each student was required to select one tractate of Talmud during each z’man and was expected to know it virtually by heart.

A dynamic man who, as was true with his teacher Rav Yisroel Salanter, found it difficult to remain in one place for a long time, Rav Joseph served in several rabbinical positions in Lithuania before accepting the post of “community preacher” of Vilna in 1883.

In a short time he became very popular, especially with the unlettered. His sermons, masterpieces of Musar were named Revues.The most wealthy and the most learned of Vilna, many of whom had their Ordination (Semichah), also flocked to hear these sermons. Since Vilna had no chief Rabbi [at this time], he became head of the Bais Din there. [Israel Salanter, Religious-Ethical Thinker]

His published book of sermons, L’Bais Yaakov (Vilna, 1888), shows him to have been a man with an orderly mind and liberal outlook. The sermons are clear, well constructed, and ethical in emphasis.

However, as learned as he was, through overconfidence in people, he became involved in some financial enterprise that failed and he went bankrupt. This made a painful impression upon him.He became melancholic and would spend hours on the old Jewish cemetery in Vilna weeping. [Israel Salanter, Religious-Ethical Thinker]

* * *

In 1852, Beth HaMidrash HaGadol was organized as the first Russian-American Jewish congregation. It would remain the leading Eastern European congregation in New York City for four decades.

Although Abraham Joseph Ash served intermittently as its rabbi from 1860 on, there was dissatisfaction with him on the part of many of those who davened at the shul. Several reasons were given – he alternated between business and the rabbinate, he was inclined toward chassidism; etc. – and many of the more learned congregants, especially the shochtim and butchers, did not recognize his authority because they believed his scholarship was lacking.

It was widely felt that what New York really needed was a chief rabbi. At a meeting held in 1879 and attended by delegates from 32 New York City congregations, a decision was made to offer the position of chief rabbi of New York to the noted Talmud scholar and Bible commentator Rabbi Meir Leibish ben Yechiel Michel Weiser (1809-1879), known by the acronym Malbim.

The Malbim was famous for his battles against the Reform movement. He served communities in Russia, Poland, and Germany. In each of these communities the “enlighteners” informed against him on the grounds that he was an extremist and a “rebel against enlightenment” and he was forced to leave. In 1879 he was without a rabbinical position and therefore free to accept a call from a new community. At the time he was asked to be chief rabbi of New York, however, he was also offered the rabbinate of Krementchug in Russia. He chose to accept the latter position rather than travel all the way to America.

The Malbim would never actually serve in Krementchug as he passed away before he could assume the new position. His death led to the reappointment of Rabbi Ash as rav of Beth HaMidrash Hagadol, a turn of events that put an end to a search for a chief rabbi. Beth HaMidrash HaGadol was the leading congregation in New York City, and without its participation nothing of significance could be attempted. But the idea of appointing a chief rabbi of New York was not forgotten by Jewish leaders.

* * *

More than 50,000 Jews came to the United States from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1885. Rabbinical leaders in Europe were made increasingly aware of the religious problems faced by these immigrants. In 1887 Rabbi Yaakov Halevi Lipschitz (1838-1931), the secretary to Rabbi Yitzchok Elchanan Spektor (1817-1896), known worldwide as the Kovno Rov, wrote:

For some years now, many leading rabbis who are greatly concerned with the welfare of their people and the Torah have turned their attention to their brethren in America. Since the material and spiritual lives of American Israel are so intertwined with our brethren here, in matters of aid and support, in matters of family purity, marriage, and divorce, which are officiated over by improper men, in matters of kashrut… [To deal with these problems] the leading rabbis held three conferences two years ago [1885] in Telsiai and in Ponevezh to seek ways and means of elevating Jewish religious life in America. [“New York Chooses a Chief Rabbi” by Abraham J. Karp, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961) Sep 1954-Jun 1955, 44. Article available at http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm]

Given this, it is not surprising that shortly after Rabbi Ash passed away in 1887, members of Beth HaMidrash Hagadol led a second effort to find a chief rabbi for New York. A number of prominent congregations formed the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations. Each synagogue pledged funds to help support the soon-to-be chosen chief rabbi for a period of five years.

Among those considered for the position were Rabbi Hillel Lifshitz, noted both for his Talmudic scholarship and his wide general culture, including a command of the German tongue, and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Spektor, son of Rav Elchanan Spektor. Neither candidate, however, was supported unanimously by the key players in the search. Therefore, the Association turned to another person who had expressed an interest in becoming chief rabbi – Rabbi Jacob Joseph.

* * *

(Unless otherwise indicated all quotes in this section are from “New York Chooses a Chief Rabbi” by Abraham J. Karp, cited above.)

On the eve of Sukkot, 1887, the Association dispatched a letter to Rabbi Jacob Joseph, communal preacher of Vilna, inviting him to become its Chief Rabbi. The leaders were disturbed by their [previous] lack of success and by the waning enthusiasm of the congregations. Their letter to Rabbi Jacob Joseph had an urgent, even desperate, tone. Are you ready to accept the position? If so, let us know immediately. We will then call a meeting to elect you and send you the contract. Rabbi Jacob Joseph did not keep them waiting. Within the month he informed them of his willingness to accept, stating that leading rabbis had urged this action. He suggested that his salary be such as would befit the office and permit its incumbent to live in comfort and dignity. He also demanded a six year contract. Seemingly as an afterthought he mentioned that he would need a substantial advance before he could leave Vilna.

The reason for Rav Joseph’s requesting an advance was that his financial situation was precarious. The rabbi was deeply in debt and needed to pay off creditors before he could leave Europe.

At a meeting of the Association on December 7, 1887, Rav Joseph was elected chief rabbi with an annual salary of $2,500, a munificent sum in those days, for an initial period of six years. He was also to be provided with an apartment suitable for a chief rabbi’s residence. “In the letter informing him of his election, the Association also undertook to provide traveling expenses for himself and family and to grant him the advance requested.”

It took some time to raise the funds needed to cover the expenses of bringing Rav Joseph and his family to America and paying for rent and home furnishings. In addition, the Association drafted a constitution outlining the duties of the chief rabbi as well as his relationship with its congregational members.

The readers of the Tageblatt learned the good news on the morning of July 1, 1888. “Now It Is Certain,” the headline proclaimed. The Chief Rabbi would arrive in ten days. Rabbi Jacob Joseph had boarded the ship Aller at Bremen, and was already on his way. Preparations to welcome the great man were begun. An apartment was rented and furnished. The press was alerted. The leader of the Association spent a busy week of frenzied activity. Among those preparing for the advent were the “Hebrew Ritail Butcher Union” [sic]. An invitation was issued for “only those butchers who sell Kosher meat” to attend a meeting, Monday, July 2nd, at 125 Rivington Street. Matters pertaining to Judaism in general and “the Union and butchers in particular” were on the agenda.

On early Saturday morning, July 7th, the ship Aller reached its American port, Hoboken, New Jersey. The Rabbi spent the Sabbath aboard ship and his congregation counted the hours to sundown when they might cross the river to welcome their leader.

As soon as Shabbos was over many people boarded the ferry from New York to Hoboken in order to greet the new chief rabbi. Stevedores at the port of Hoboken were amazed to see some ten thousand bearded Orthodox Jews waiting to greet Rabbi Joseph upon his arrival. Dramin Jones of Congregation Bais HaMidrash HaGadol headed the delegation that had come to greet Rav Joseph. He welcomed him with an offering of bread and salt and then recited the traditional benediction upon seeing a great scholar: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who hast imparted of Thy wisdom to those who revere Thee,” and added, “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Who hast given us life and sustained us and privileged us to reach this day.”

Rav Joseph was then introduced to the large crowd that had come to greet him. He responded with a brief address calling for unity and cooperation to carry out his work. He was then taken by carriage to a hotel in Hoboken where he spent the night.

On Sunday morning the chief rabbi was taken to his new residence amid considerable pomp and circumstance.

When it [the procession escorting him] reached the house at Henry and Jefferson Streets, thousands upon thousands of Jews milled about. Police had been called earlier. There were some curiosity seekers, but the crowd was composed almost entirely of East European immigrant Jews who felt that the arrival of Rabbi Joseph marked the beginning of a spiritual revival for American Jewry and a new deal for the disregarded and despised Russian Jew.

It was with great pride that the Jews of the Lower East Side learned of the article on the Chief Rabbi’s arrival which appeared in the New York Herald of July 8th. “The only such dignitary in this country,” this important American newspaper called him, further disclosing that “he was till recently in charge of the largest synagogue in Wilna.”

All seemed propitious for the chief rabbi when he assumed his office. The good feelings would not last long:

I was there as vice-president of the synagogue [on the Shabbos when Rav Joseph delivered his first drasha]. Concerning his sermon, he did not succeed fully in moving his hearers here, even though in Vilna he had preached so eloquently to the congregation that he had brought tears to those who heard his voice speaking of ethics which flow from a pure heart. Of course, his language style used in his preaching was Lithuanian, without any order, and he mixed together a good bit of nonsense with a little subtle argumentation and points of Scripture. He hurt the ears of the intelligent listeners who were accustomed to preachers whose sermons were delivered clearly in pure English or German, and therefore they didn’t think much of him. [Otzar Zikhronotai by Judah David Eisenstein, 1929]

This was merely a hint of the woes Rabbi Jacob Joseph was to experience in his role as chief rabbi of New York.

(To be continued next week in Dr. Levine’s monthly “Glimpses Into American Jewish History” feature, which appears the first week of each month.)

Dr. Yitzchok Levine is a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. He can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Dr. Yitzchok Levine

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/failed-experiment-new-yorks-only-chief-rabbi/2008/05/28/

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