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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.

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.

Printed from: https://www.jewishpress.com/sections/magazine/glimpses-ajh/harry-fischel-orthodox-jewish-philanthropist-par-excellence-part-i/2006/05/03/

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