As we finalize our preparations for Pesach, Lag B’Omer looms large. This year, as in years past, visitors, in the hundreds of thousands, will ascend to the holy gravesite of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. In addition to hefty airfares, hotels, taxis, car rentals, etc., most visitors have no choice other than walking up the steep hill to reach the gravesite. The roads in Meron get clogged with cars and buses bringing vehicular traffic to a full day standstill. Slowly wading through huge crowds, a moment of prayer at the gravesite is the most possible.
While there, one is enraptured with contagious music, singing, and dancing. Leaving Meron is an instant replay of getting there in reverse. Finding your bus, or any bus, is daunting. Having been there and contemplating visiting there again, some are more enthusiastic or excited. Others, however, may feel that they have “been there, done that.”
The most recent mass visit was to the town of Lijensk (Lizhensk, Lejask, Lezajsk, Lezaisk) in southeastern Poland, eternal resting place of Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum, zt’l (1717-1787), Lizjhenkser Rebbe and author of Noam Elimelech. Thousands upon thousands of chassidim were there for the yahrzeit (Adar 21) on Sunday, March 23, all at great cost, time, and effort, especially for those that were in the area for Shabbos Shemini, March 21-22.
In the wake of these events, other choices may be considered. As an alternative to costly trips to Eastern Europe or Israel, holy sites here in the United States and Canada have been identified by Rabbi Yonah Landau, a chassidishe historian that has brought the early 1900’s American gravesites of tzaddikim to the attention of today’s observant community. The yearly organization and promotion of visiting the important gravesite of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, zt’l (1840-1902), Chief Rabbi of New York, is, to a large degree, the continuing intensive efforts of Rabbi Landau, chairman of the Committee to Visit Jewish Holy Sites in America. In addition, Rabbi Landau has identified and publicized the gravesites of other truly great world-class rabbis that lived and died here in the United States. Visiting their gravesites is an attractive alternative to stressful and expensive trips abroad.
Rabbi Landau is the author of the Yiddish biography of the Chief Rabbi, entitled Rav Hakollel. The two volume work was begun almost 20 years ago with a series of articles in Der Yid telling the story of the Chief Rabbi, his education in the then great yeshivas in Eastern Europe, his successive service as chief rabbi in several leading European cities, and his election to the Chief Rabbinate of New York City. The biography has also been translated into English. Rabbi Landau continues his periodic column in Der Yid focusing on religious Jewish life here in the United States in the beginning of the 1900’s.
Chaim Reichberg is the second son of the indefatigable Mendel Reichberg, zt’l, 1922-2011, pioneer holy sites restoration activist who, after the Holocaust, led the way by bringing groups to holy sites in Eastern Europe and working to restore them physically as well as spiritually. The son follows in the footsteps of his father, speaks publically about kivrei tzaddikim, and brought the Brooklyn gravesite and yahrzeit of Rabbi Hillel Klein, an enormously important Torah leader in turn-of-the-century America, to our transfixed attention.
Rabbi Hillel Klein, zt’l (1849-1926)
Son of Rabbi Zev Zvi Klein, zt’l, disciple of Rabbi Moshe Sofer, zt’l (1763-1839), rav of Pressburg, and revered author of Chasam Sofer. Hillel, a child prodigy, memorized the entire Tanach at the age of 11. He was accepted into the Pressburg Yeshiva at the age of 12, then led by Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Sofer, zt’l (1815-1871), rav of Pressburg and author of Ksav Sofer. Hillel studied there for four years and was then accepted into the yeshiva in Eisenstadt led by Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, zt’l (1820-1899). Almost immediately, the young Hillel was given shiurim to his older colleagues, older talmidim at the yeshiva. In 1867, he was giving a shiur at the renowned Schiffshul in Vienna, then led by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Spitzer, zt’l (d. 1894), son-in-law of the Chasam Sofer. In 1870, Rabbi Klein earned semichah from Rabbi Hildesheimer; Rabbi Zvi Hirsh Binyamin Auerbach, zt’l (1808-1872), rav of Halberstadt and author of Nachal Eshkol; Rabbi Naftali Sofer, zt’l (1819-1899), rav of Neidorf and author of Mateh Naftali; amongst many others. Simultaneous with his high Torah attainments, Rabbi Klein was conferred a doctorate from the University of Berlin in 1873, a truly unique achievement.
At that time, circa 1875, Israel Brodsky, a fervently observant oligarch in Kiev, established and funded the Kollel of the Volozhiner Yeshiva. Brodsky invited Rabbi Klein to mentor his son. Rabbi Klein assumed the position, and met with the many leading rabbis and important dignitaries that visited the Brodsky home.
In 1880, Rabbi Klein was appointed as rav of Libau (Liepaja) in western Latvia, a city of 10,000 Jews. Shortly thereafter, he married Gela, daughter of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Hirsch, zt’l, principal of the Frankfurt Realschule; son of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt’l (1808-1888), revered rav of Frankfurt Am Maim. In Libau, Rabbi Klein was effective and greatly respected. At that time, the government only allowed secularly educated rabbis to assume positions. The kehillas thus had two rabbis, one rabbi to officially be appointed and another rabbi, one learned, to teach Torah and guide religious life. Rabbi Klein, having earned a doctorate, was able to fill serve both functions concurrently. Sadly, secular politics ultimately intruded. As a noncitizen, Rabbi Klein was deported from Latvia in 1890.
Rabbi Jacob Joseph was elected Chief Rabbi of New York City in 1888. Settling into his position and appraising the enormity of his duties, the Chief Rabbi needed the assistance of a Torah true personality that would be able to strictly adhere to halacha and simultaneously deal with the unique challenges of immigrant Jews of that time. Knowing of Rabbi Klein’s reputation and successes and learning that he was displaced, the Chief Rabbi arranged for Rabbi Klein to assume the distinguished pulpit of Congregation Ohab Tzedek of the Lower East Side.
Upon arrival in America in 1890, Rabbi Klein was thrust into key leadership positions. He was appointed head of the Jerusalem Kollel Shomrei Hachomos, sustaining the old yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. In battling to upgrade kashrus, especially in slaughterhouses, Rabbi Klein also fought to improve the work environment for shochtem. That effort established the Meleches Hakodesh Society, which sometimes had shochtim go on strike improving kashrus as well as work conditions. Rabbi Klein also prevailed upon many factory owners to close on Shabbos, thus creating Shomer Shabbos employment opportunities. That effort was called Agudas Shomrei Shabbos established in 1894. He also launched an intensive educational campaign for housewives not to shop on Shabbos, and encouraged shopkeepers to keep their stores closed on Shabbos.
As Rabbi Dr. Hillel Klein, he fought the inroads of the Reform. He repeatedly challenged Reform Rabbi Dr. Stephen Weiss. Dr. Wise once contested Rabbi Klein’s doctorate. Rabbi Klein readily produced a copy of the degree conferred by the University of Berlin. Dr. Wise never verified his own. Rabbi Klein also fought to have the Jewish Theological Seminary recognized as not being Orthodox. The Seminary was established with some support of the Orthodox. However, the Seminary veered away from Torah-true Judaism and Rabbi Klein was successful in having that clearly identified.
In 1897, Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph suffered a debilitating stroke. From that point on, Rabbi Klein assumed much of the burden that Rabbi Jacob was unable to carry. After the passing of the Chief Rabbi, zt’l, Rabbi Klein became the unofficial chief rabbi. He served as honorary president of the Agudas Horabbonim, organized in 1902. In 1906, Rabbi Klein organized the first Vaad Hasemicha in Yeshiva Eitz Chaim, America’s first yeshiva developing into today’s Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan of Yeshiva University. Rabbi Klein served as president of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim from 1902 to 1908. Notably, Yeshiva University just celebrated the Chag Hasemichah of 5774 with 225 young men having earned their semichah. This is a direct offshoot of what Rabbi Klein established 108 years ago.
Rabbi Klein was preeminent in charity efforts. He was one of the founders of Ezras Torah as well as the Joint Distribution Committee. Another facet of his Torah leadership that is felt to today is his becoming the very first president of Agudath Israel of America, serving from 1918 until his passing. He served Congregation Ohab Tzedek for 36 years, from 1890 to his passing in 1927. World famous Chazan Yossele Rosenblatt, z’l (1882-1933), served as the chazan of Congregation Ohab Tzedek from 1912 through 1927. Chazan Rosenblatt joyously worked with Rabbi Klein in many of his significant charitable efforts.
At the age of 76, Rabbi Klein passed away on the 6th of Nissan, 1926. In his great modesty, he instructed that his coffin not be brought into the shul and that he not be eulogized. Sadly, his rebbetzin passed away two days later. She was an accomplished Torah educator in her own right, having led a Talmud Torah of several hundred children. They are buried together with a singular horizontal triangle monument, with separate epitaphs on the upward sides of the triangle. They were buried in the Washington Cemetery, 5400 Bay Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11230. Enter from the Ocean Parkway service road between Avenues J and K, turn left on Hyacinth Avenue, turn right on Lotus Avenue and go approximately 300 feet directly to marker 96. The rav is listed as Philip Klein and the rebbetzin as Julie Klein in the cemetery’s archives.
The yahrzeits this year are on Sunday, April 6, and on Tuesday, April 8. By special arrangement, the cemetery will be open on those days from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Washington Cemetery was established in 1857 and is the resting place of more than 100 rabbis. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (1895-1986), Rosh Yeshiva Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem and author of Igros Moshe, would pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Klein every year on erev Yom Kippur.
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 email@example.com.