Honoring New York’s Chief Rabbi
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.
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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.
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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.