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A Chief Rabbi for New York
The ill-fated struggle to unite New York Jewry under one leader

by Rabbi Shmuel Singer

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Jacob Joseph
5603/1843-5662/1902


A basic characteristic distinguishing the Jewish community of the United States from that of Europe is in the nature of organization. The Jewish community in Europe was often well organized, especially in the religious sphere. There was an official religious hierarchy leading up to the communal spiritual head, the chief rabbi. This hierarchy included dayanim (religious judges), shochtim (ritual slaughterers), and often congregational rabbis and preachers. Each member of the communal organization had a well defined-position in that organization and he attempted to fill it as required. The communal network was held together and maintained its authority over the general populace by virtue of communal self-discipline -- a discipline maintained by both the religious functionaries and the laymen. It is this organizational structure and accompanying self-discipline that is absent from the Jewish community in the United States. One attempt to introduce it took place in 1888 when New York appointed its own chief rabbi.

The idea of establishing a chief rabbinate was not new to America. The respected position of Nathan Marcus Adler as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire served as a constant spur to the American Jew. The official government recognition of the British Chief Rabbinate and the real religious authority it exercised over British Jewry were constantly before the eyes of American Jewry. As early as 1845, Isaac Leeser wrote in The Occident of the necessity of establishing an American chief rabbinate on the English model; nothing, however, was done. The idea had to wait for the influx of Eastern European immigrants who began arriving in small but increasing numbers, especially after the Civil War.

Wanted: One Chief Rabbi

The oldest and most prominent Russian-Polish congregation in New York was Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side. It had been established in 1859. Rabbi Abraham Ash, an East European immigrant, served as rabbi to the congregation from 1860 on. Rabbi Ash had a stormy relationship with his congregation. He was criticized by his congregants for continuing to engage in business while occupying a rabbinical position. They were becoming Americanized and wanted a full time "clergyman." In addition, Rabbi Ash was of Chassidic background, and thus naturally tended towards Chassidus. This caused an even greater schism with his synagogue members. They were primarily Lithuanian Jewish immigrants of a strong misnagdish tradition and had little sympathy for Chassidim or Chassidus. Thus when Rabbi Ash resigned his position in 1877, his departure was not mourned.

Immediately thereafter the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol resolved to import a distinguished foreign scholar to be its new rabbi. It also decided to ask other congregations to join in the venture. In 1879, a meeting, attended by delegates of thirty-two congregations, was held, resolving to appoint a chief rabbi and a bais din (rabbinical court) to assist him. An organization called the Board of Delegates of the United Hebrew Orthodox Congregations was set up. It was also resolved that the position of chief rabbi would be offered to the famed Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim. The offer was to be made as soon as the sum of five thousand dollars was raised.

A circular was sent to all the East European congregations in New York describing the importance of appointing a chief rabbi. The new spiritual head would stop the chilul Shabbos which was rampant among the immigrants and seemed to be growing worse. He would bring some measure of control to the field of kashrus where absolute chaos reigned. And he was to present religion in a favorable light to the youth and bring them back to religion. In the interim, however, Rabbi Malbim died. Rabbe Ash had meanwhile reconsidered his resignation and was again willing to assume his former duties as rabbi of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol. He was soon reappointed to this position. There was now no need, as far as the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was concerned, for bringing a new European rabbi to New York, and it left the projected union of synagogues. With the departure of the largest and richest congregation, the newly-formed United Hebrew Orthodox Congregations fell apart. For a time the attempt to appoint a chief rabbi was abandoned.

The need for a chief rabbi in New York became apparent in 1887 when Rabbi Ash died. During the 1880's, the previously small stream of East European Jewish migration to America had become a flood. There were now thousands of newly arrived Jews in New York with no effective spiritual leadership.

A meeting was held at the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, resolving that letters be sent to all other congregations to meet on appointing a chief rabbi for all New York. Naturally the idea was ridiculed in the Reform-controlled Anglo-Jewish press. Nevertheless, there was a swift response: within a month an annual sum of twenty-five hundred dollars had been pledged by various congregations, and the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations was formed. This was to be the new Chief Rabbi's kehillah.

Advertisements concerning the position were placed in the Russian-Jewish press. In addition, eight leading European scholars were asked for their recommendations on filling the position with the hope that one of them might accept it himself. The rabbis queried were Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor of Kovno, Rabbi Hillel Lifshitz of Suwalk, Rabbi Eliyohu Chaim Meisels of Lodz, Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Vilna, Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer of Berlin, Rabbi Eliyahu Levinson of Krottingen, Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin of Brisk, and Rabbi Chaim Berlin of Moscow. In the letters to these sages, the Association wrote that they did not expect to maintain separate rabbis for each congregation, but they wanted one central authority. This authority would be especially necessary for kashrus. A minimum annual salary of three thousand dollars was promised (an enormous sum in those days).

Rabbis Meisels and Lifshitz expressed willingness to come if the Chief Rabbi would have official government recognition. They were obviously thinking of the British Chief Rabbinate. The others all had no interest except for Rabbi Jacob Joseph, who expressed cautious optimism.

Control of the Association was in the hands of wealthy businessmen. They wanted a Talmudical scholar, but they also desired a rabbi who had secular culture as well. They thus first turned to Rabbi Hillel Lifshitz. He had a reputation of being a great Talmudist, as well as in fluent command of the German language; also he was conversant with modern ideas. An official invitation was sent to him. Meanwhile, however, Rabbi Yaakov Halevi Lipschitz, secretary to Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor, wrote to the Association stating that Rabbi Zvi Hirsch, the son of Rabbi Yitzchok Elchonon, was the choice of leading rabbis for the position. Rabbi Lipschutz carried on an active campaign for his candidate and got Rabbi Hillel Lifshitz of Suwalk to withdraw his candidacy. The Association in New York, however, refused to have a candidate forced on them. They resolved to offer the position to the only other possibility who had shown some interest. This was Rabbi Jacob Joseph.

The Choice is Made

Rabbi Jacob Joseph had studied in Volozhin, where his sharpness of mind had earned him the title of "Rav Yaakov Charif." He was serving as the dayan of Vilna at the time of his appointment. Since Vilna had no official rabbi, Rabbi Joseph had discharged rabbinical functions there as well. He was also the official city magid, and as such was famous for his powerful and effective preaching.

Rabbi Joseph was not too anxious to go to America. It was well known that America was a "treifah medinah," and only the less religious of the Eastern European masses emigrated there. Rabbi Joseph, however, was unable to maintain his family on his meager salary in Vilna, and thus had little choice but to accept the offered position in New York.

The Association was elated by Rabbi Joseph's acceptance. In April, 1888, a constitution and by-laws for the organization were drawn up: Each participating congregation was to send delegates to the Association. No congregation was to be allowed more than ten delegates. A president, vice-president, and treasurer were to be elected as well as a twenty-one member board of trustees. The Chief Rabbi was expected to appoint dayanim to assist him. No member congregation was allowed to choose a rabbi without the approval of the Chief Rabbi. These local rabbis were forbidden to have hechsheirim (kashrus certifications) without the authorization of the Chief Rabbi.

Chief Rabbi Joseph arrived from Europe on July 7, 1888. The ship landed at Hoboken and an enormous crowd gathered to greet the Chief Rabbi. He was escorted to a house provided for him at Henry and Jefferson Streets on the Lower East Side.

The arrival of the Chief Rabbi was attacked vigorously in the Reform-controlled Anglo-Jewish press, asserting that he was a foreigner with no understanding of America and with no possibility of success here. Even such native American Orthodox spokesmen as Rev. Henry P. Mendes and Dr. Sabation Marois attacked Rabbi Joseph. These men feared that the newly established Chief Rabbinate would draw support away from their struggling school, The Jewish Theological Seminary, which was still Orthodox at that time.

The Chief Rabbi gave his first public sermon on Shabbos Nachamu. The Beth Hamedrash Hagadol was packed and large crowds who were unable to get in stood in the street to catch a glimpse of the Rabbi as he entered the building. Police had to be called to restrain the crowd. The sermon was a huge success, and was even favorably reported by the anti-Orthodox press.

Cleaning Up the Slaughterhouse Mess

When the Chief Rabbi had arrived in New York, he found kosher cattle slaughtering done in approximately fifteen small butcheries. Many of these establishments employed shochtim whose learning, piety and skills were highly questionable. In most of the slaughterhouses, rabbinical supervision was non-existent. The shochtim were simply employees of the abattoirs and were completely controlled by the owners. In most slaughterhouses, the external examination of the lungs, required by halachah, was dispensed with because the owners would not allow the shochtim time to perform this function.

Rabbi Joseph was able to eliminate these evils. He tested all the shochtim and replaced unqualified ones with newly arrived European shochtim. He also ordered the hiring of more shochtim, and was responsible for increasing by thirty or forty the number of active shochtim in New York. The Chief Rabbi also ordered that all lungs be examined visually, and that lead seals be attached to all kosher carcasses, to avoid confusion. Two rabbis were appointed as mashgichim (supervisors) to visit the various slaughterhouses and inspect the knives of the shochtim.

Rabbi Joseph also came to grips with the chaotic conditions reigning in the chicken markets. In these establishments, rabbinical supervision had been virtually non-existent. The Chief Rabbi ordered the shochtim to attach a lead seal to identify every bird they killed. The seal was to be irremovably fixed to the leg of the fowl.

The supervision Rabbi Joseph had introduced into the chicken markets involved the cost of five cents per fowl. The Associated Congregations hesitated to impose the full cost on the kosher consumer. It had entertained establishing a central abattoir for the killing of all fowl, where great economies in slaughtering and supervision could be instituted. This, unfortunately, was not to be achieved.

The system of kashrus set up by the Chief Rabbi was for reasons of practicality confined to the downtown neighborhoods. Pious Jews living uptown wanted the Chief Rabbi's system extended to their own vicinity. Thus in February, 1889, a meeting was held at Bloomingdale's Rooms, 60th Street and Third Avenue. Among the sponsors of this meeting were the two leaders of uptown Orthodoxy, Rabbi Bernard Drachman and Rev. Henry Pereira Mendes. An advertisement was inserted in the Anglo-Jewish press stating, "Uptown Kosher Meat Supply - Wanted Retail butchers for the above, East or West Side. Any willing to open stores under regulations of the Board of Shechita will please apply by letter to the Rev. Dr. Drachman."

Rabbi Joseph was not only active in the field of kashrus; he was also interested in education. The Chief Rabbi took an active role in the young yeshiva, Etz Chayim (forerunner of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary), which had been founded on the Lower East Side in 1866. This was the first yeshiva established in America. It was an elementary school that later expanded into a high school, which taught both Hebrew and secular subjects. Rabbi Joseph periodically visited the school and gave oral tests to the older classes to check on their progress. He was also actively involved in aiding immigrant scholars, granting them semichah and helping them find rabbinical positions.

Despite all its accomplishments and all the forces supporting it, the Chief Rabbinate and its Associated Congregations organization was not destined to last. In the end, it succumbed to the cumulative opposition of self-seeking, anti-religious elements. A prolonged struggle preceded this doom.

As a source of support for the Association, the Chief Rabbi announced a tax on shechitah of chickens. The buyer would pay an additional penny at the purchase of each chicken slaughtered. This penny would go towards covering the expense of supervision of the shochtim and general kashrus.

The proposed tax ran into immediate difficulties. Housewives protested against the extra expense. The butchers and shochtim, who were previously able to do as they chose and were now subjected to strict supervision, joined the attack. The other rabbis on the Lower East Side who were losing their income from independent hashgachos also joined in. The tax was assailed as being "carobka" - the Czarist government tax on shechita. Once this emotional charge was injected, reasonable discussion became impossible. Naturally, the Socialist and atheistic Yiddish Newspaper writers, who had been waiting on the sidelines, enthusiastically joined in the attack. The Chief Rabbi was assailed as robbing from the poor to maintain himself and wealthy businessmen in luxury.

The butchers formed a Butchers' Association at a meeting addressed by local rabbis, who were losing their hashgachah income. A new bais din, composed of these anti-Chief Rabbi rabbis, was formed. The butchers and shochtim pledged that they would only accept the hashgachah of this new bais din.

Rabbi Jacob Joseph fought back. He obtained the support of the two prominent uptown American Orthodox leaders - the afore-mentioned Rabbi Bernard Drachman and Rev. Henry P. Mendes. In response to their initiative, the butchers made peace with the Chief Rabbi and dissolved their new organization.

A new problem soon arose, however. The Chief Rabbi attempted to introduce hashgachah on matzah flour for the Pesach of 1889. The cost of the hashgachah was minimal, less than a quarter of a cent per pound of matzah. Nevertheless, the Socialist press seized this and made it into a major issue. The Chief Rabbi was painted as the defender of capitalist interests ... These constant quarrels and disputations completely destroyed the dignity and respect so necessary for an office such as the Chief Rabbinate.

The Geographic Split: Another Chief Rabbi

In addition, another problem emerged. East European Jewry consisted of groups from various sections - such as Lithuanians, Poles, Galicians, Rumanians and Hungarians - all represented on the Lower East Side. It was alleged that the new kehillah was totally controlled by the Litvaks (Lithuanians). Not only was the Chief Rabbi from Lithuania, but so were the newly appointed dayanim. Indeed, it was because of awareness of this problem that the Association had already in June 1888 offered the position of av bais din (head dayan) to Rabbi Yehoshua Segal, known as the Sherpser Rav. Rabbi Segal had immigrated from Galicia to New York in 1875, and was one of the leading rabbis on the Lower East Side. He, however, had refused the offer; he had felt that by reason of his seniority in America, he was entitled to the Chief Rabbinate.

Rabbi Segal had a large following among Galician Jews specifically, as well as among all those immigrants who came from Chassidic areas. As discontent with the Chief Rabbi grew, Rabbi Segal put in his bid for authority. In 1889, he was declared "Chief Rabbi of New York' by two Lower East Side congregations. Soon a new organization - Congregation Sons of Israel, Men of Poland and Austria - was created. Other congregations soon joined. There were now two rival kehillos with two Chief Rabbis in New York. Each undertook supervision of kashrus, and the chaos increasingly worsened.

Thus, in 1894, the large packing form of Weston and Levi fired the shochtim approved by the Associated Congregations and replaced them with shochtim approved by the rival Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Joseph inserted an advertisement in the Yiddish press denouncing this move. It read in part:

"Upon the basis of qualified witnesses, we have established that the shochet, Moses Kemilhar, who is now employed by Weston and Levi on East 44th Street, had been found guilty of knowingly and willfully passing treifah meat for kosher. Our verdict is that he is a disqualified shochet and that it is forbidden to eat of the meat he slaughters."

This announcement was signed by Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph and the Bais Din.

A few days later a paid rejoinder appeared in the Yiddish press. It read:

"To inform all buyers of meat that the wholesale meat firm of Weston and Levi, East 44th Street, employs two shochtim learned in Torah, pious, and competent in shechitah. Slaughtering is conducted under my scrupulous supervision. Every Jew, even the most religiously exacting, may eat of this slaughtering."

It was signed Chief Rabbi Joshua Segal.

On top of this, conflict broke out again between the butchers and Chief Rabbi Joseph. The conflict over matzah supervision had also taken its toll. The Association eventually found itself unable to financially maintain the Chief Rabbi and his office. Finally, an agreement was reached with the butchers whereby they would pay the Chief Rabbi's salary in exchange for his supervision of their work. Although the Association still remained in existence on paper, it was now a dead body. Rabbi Jacob Joseph had moved from Chief Rabbi of New York to a simple mashgiach of the New York butchers.

Throughout all these attacks and tribulations, Rabbi Joseph attempted to maintain his dignity. He refused to allow his opponents to be attacked in the same low, vicious manner in which he was being assailed both orally and in the Yiddish Press. Indeed, he went so far as to protest to the leaders of his kehillah when they attempted to publicly brand the supervision of the rabbis opposing his as being treifah. "They need their hashgachah for parnasah," was the Chief Rabbi's protest. Perhaps Rabbi Joseph was too modest and too humble for survival in the rough and tumble of the New World...

The Chief Rabbi retained his title, but even this was disputed when Rabbi Y. Vidorowitz of Moscow arrived in America in 1893. He immediately announced himself as Chief Rabbi of the United States and Canada. He was of Chassidic background, and succeeded in gathering a number of tiny shtieblach together and also became a Chief Rabbi. By this time, the title had become a mockery.

The final blow came in 1895. The butchers refused to continue paying Chief Rabbi Joseph's salary. The congregations also refused to accept the burden, and he was thus left penniless. Soon after, the Chief Rabbi suffered a stroke which left him bed-ridden for the rest of his life. He became a forgotten man and spent the last five years of his life as a paralyzed invalid in squalid misery. In 1902, when Rabbi Jacob Joseph passed away, he was all of fifty-nine years of age. His sufferings had taken their toll. Thus ended the tragic attempt at establishing a European style chief rabbinate in New York.

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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