Machberes: Inside The Chassidishe And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Unlike the machinations and backstabbing politics currently under way in full force in the selection and election of the next chief rabbis of the State of Israel, in New York City in 1888, almost every observant Jew clearly understood and agreed that a chief rabbi was needed. This is evidenced by the huge crowds that welcomed the New York’s first chief rabbi.
The 111th yahrzeit for Rabbi Yaakov Joseph, zt’l (1840–1902), chief rabbi of New York, was on 24th of Tammuz, July 2. Thousands gathered in prayer, reciting Tehillim at the gravesite of the chief rabbi in the Machpeilah section of the Union Field Cemetery in Cypress Hills, Queens (not far from Williamsburg, Brooklyn), marking the yahrzeit. In consideration of the many who wished to visit the gravesite, the cemetery kept its gates open from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., in order to accommodate the anticipated continuous flow of visitors. Shuttle buses, organized by Rabbi Yonah Landau, left from Lee Avenue at the corner of Ross Street in Williamsburg throughout the day and ample parking space was made available alongside the cemetery.
Lower East Side, 1852
On Thursday, 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 (1813–1887), who arrived in the United States earlier that year. At that time, the Jewish congregations of New York City were beginning to grow and prosper.
In 1879, because of inner friction, Rabbi Asch resigned from Beis Hamedrash Hagadol and pursued business in kosher wines. At that time, the appointment of a chief rabbi for New York City was a serious consideration. Rabbi Asch, as the most respected rabbi in America, was widely favored for that position. However, because of internal discord, pockets of strong opposition weighed against Rabbi Asch’s appointment. His resignation from the Shul ruled out his consideration as chief rabbi and gave impetus for others to be considered.
The focus was on Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Wisser, zt’l (1810–1880), renowned as the Malbim. The Malbim passed away on Rosh Hashanah of 1880, simultaneous with Rabbi Asch returning to the pulpit of Beis Hamedrash Hagadol. Thus, the effort to appoint a chief rabbi abated.
After the death of Rabbi Asch in May 1887, a new Rav was sought for Beis Medrash Hagadol, coinciding with the growing consensus that organizing the many congregations in New York City under one banner was an urgent need. The decision was made by the 15 most prominent kehillas, joined by 14 other shuls, to appoint a chief rabbi. Requests were sent to the leading rabbis of Europe, then the seat of religious Jewry, for recommendations. Several outstanding applicants were seriously considered. A delegation was dispatched to Europe and consulted with its leading rabbis for an appointment of a chief rabbi of towering Torah and personal stature for New York’s large and growing Jewish community. The name of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph, zt’l (1840–1902), then de facto Rav of Vilna, was repeatedly suggested.
After much deliberation, an offer was proposed to and accepted by Rabbi Joseph. He was offered an annual remuneration of $2,500—a princely sum in those days—a large, prestigious apartment, and the allegiance of most of America’s observant congregations. In addition, Rabbi Joseph was presented with $5,000, a veritable fortune, as a signing bonus to settle debts he personally incurred on behalf of the indigent he privately sustained.
Rabbi Joseph was born in Krozhe, province of Kovno. He studied at the yeshiva in Volozhin under Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, zt’l (1810–1883), and was successively elected as Rav of Vilon, Yurburg, and Zhagovy before becoming Maggid and acting Rav of Vilna in 1883. A brilliant Talmudist, Rabbi Joseph was especially known for his exceptional homiletical talents.
Hoboken, New Jersey, 1888
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 new chief rabbi was taken to the Myers Hotel nearby. The leaders of the appointing congregations and more than 100,000 people crowded the streets for an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the new chief rabbi, as reported by the daily newspapers of the time. Hoboken had never before (and has not since) 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, standing room only, 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 arrived in 1888, noting that more than a 100,000 people gathered to welcome him, he was heralded as an ecclesiastical giant by the New York Times in describing his grand arrival and royal reception. New York City newspapers continued for months to report about the huge attendances, often in the tens of thousands, for his weekly Shabbos sermons.
Lower East Side, 1902
When the chief rabbi passed away in 1902, more than 120,000 people participated in his funeral, the largest New York City has ever seen, before or since. His bier was carried through the streets of Manhattan and taken by boat across the East River to Queens. Hooligans, workmen of the R. Hoe & Co. factory on the East Side, pelting the procession with nuts and bolts, attacked the funeral entourage, killing at least one Jew and injuring 300.
General Slocum Steamship Disaster, 1904
Many Hoe employees were members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church at 323 East 6th Street in the German neighborhood, known as Kleindeutschland, on the lower East Side. On Sunday, June 15, 1904, the Church organized an outing to a recreation spot for a day of swimming, games, and food on the PS General Slocum, a passenger steamboat, to Locust Grove on Long Island Sound. Some 1,358 members of the tightly knit German immigrant community church boarded the ship for the short excursion. Shortly after departure, a fire broke out on ship. Lifesavers on the steamship were old and defective, the crew unprepared. Lifeboats were riveted in place, unavailable for emergency use. The death toll reached 1,021; entire families were lost, registering as the largest loss of life in New York City until September 11, 2001.
Murmurs on the street at the time hinted that the tragedy was Heavenly retribution for the attack on the chief rabbi’s funeral procession. Nevertheless, Jewish groups were amongst the first to give assistance in every manner possible. Survivors found it difficult to carry on. Many left the neighborhood and, in a few short years, Kleindeutschland ceased to exist. The Church remained unused and desolate for decades until sold as a synagogue. Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon, the youngest and last living Slocum survivor, died in January 2004 at the age of 100. The Community Synagogue bought the red-brick church building from the congregation in 1940, and continues to function. On June 15, 2004, the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, a plaque was dedicated by the synagogue in remembrance of the 1,021 victims.
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 supervision under which they were very profitably operating. In his efforts to appoint kosher supervisors, the chief rabbi was unable to persuade his congregations to pay their salaries. Alternatively, the chief rabbi imposed a one cent per pound surcharge only on kosher poultry. This ignited the wrath of “kosher” butchers. The populace, as a consequence, was also turned vehemently against Rabbi Joseph.
As a result, the chief rabbi’s health was sacrificed. Knowing the route he walked to and from shul daily, malicious opponents of the chief rabbi’s kashrus efforts put pigs in some of the storefront windows together with kashrus certificates signed by the chief rabbi himself. At the age of 54, he suffered a paralyzing stroke and was bedridden thereafter. He died seven years later, in 1902. Although an invalid from 1895, Rabbi Joseph founded Yeshiva Beis Sefer in 1900, which was renamed Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph upon his passing. He authored L’Beis Yaakov, first published in 1888. Rabbi Joseph was America’s first world-class gadol and a true martyr for kashrus and Torah observance.
The Pioneer American Tzaddikim
With the continuing upsurge of travel abroad to visit burial sites of great tzaddikim across Europe, it is gratifying that many observant Jews here are focusing on the tzaddikim that have made great sacrifices in the United States, literally giving their lives, so that subsequent generations would have a greater likelihood of successfully achieving full religious observance.
In the popular book All for the Boss, the biography of the American tzaddik Yaakov Yosef Herman zt’l, a description is given of an episode when his child took seriously ill. Attending doctors conceded that there was nothing more they could do. He gathered a minyan at the gravesite of Rabbi Joseph and recited Tehillim, and the child immediately took a turn for the better, soon recovering fully.
Until very recently, the gravesite of the former chief rabbi was forlorn, neglected, and visited by very few. An upsurge in interest in Jewish history amongst observant Jews has opened the gates to reviewing and assessing those that were here before us. The sacrifices of the chief rabbi, in particular, are being more fully appreciated and his gravesite is now visited by many throughout the year.
As crowds gathered on Tuesday to recite Tehillim, they found in adjacent areas Torah giants of the last generations resting there eternally. Not far from Rabbi Joseph’s grave is the burial site of Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Asch, zt’l (1813–1887). In the adjoining Mount Judah Cemetery, which is within short walking distance, are the tombstones of Rabbi Avrohom Pam, zt’l (1913–2001), Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, zt’l (1890–1986); Rabbi Dovid Liebowitz, zt’l (1889–1941), Rosh Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim; Rabbi Dovid Halberstam, zt’l (d. 1935), Sokolover Rebbe; and Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky, zt’l (1886–1958); as well as the widow of the Chofetz Chaim, zt’l, amongst many other notables. Mendel Beilis, z’l (1887–1934), victim of the infamous blood libel trial of 1911–12 in Russia, died on 24 Tammuz (the same yahrzeit day as the chief rabbi), is buried in the adjacent Mt. Carmel Cemetery. Also buried in that cemetery is Leo Frank, z’l, Hy’d (1884–1915), the only Jew lynched in America.
Appreciation must be articulated to the Committee for Visiting Holy Sites in America and Canada, led by Rabbi Yonah Landau, and to Professor Marvin Schick, President of Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph, for their tremendous personal exertions in honor of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph.
Rabbi Landau has been actively leading groups on visits throughout the United States and Canada to gravesites of rabbis, chassidishe rebbes, and roshei yeshiva, some almost unknown today, that contributed significantly, at great personal expense, to Yiddishkeit in America. Rabbi Landau authored historical works on the chief rabbi in Yiddish and in English.
Dr. Marvin Schick, in addition to serving as president of the Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph schools, with a current enrollment of almost 2,000 students, kindergarten through kollel, is a noted author, distinguished community activist, and popular weekly columnist. Dr. Schick recently republished Sefer L’Beis Yaakov, authored by Rabbi Joseph, and added a handsome collection of speeches, writings, and biography of the chief rabbi.
May Heaven reward all those that labor to honor the New York’s first chief rabbi, and may all the prayers at his gravesite be answered. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.