What was it like to be an Orthodox rabbi in America a century ago?
By Aaron I. Reichel
Much of what we take for granted about today’s Orthodox rabbinate was considered revolutionary 100 years ago. Preaching a sermon in unaccented English was virtually unheard of in those days. And there were few, if any, Orthodox rabbis in America who were born and educated in the United States.
All of which made Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein—the first American-born, Ivy League-educated Orthodox rabbi—unique in the American Orthodox Jewish landscape and a driving force in transforming Orthodoxy in the early part of the twentieth century.
An aspiring lawyer, Rabbi Goldstein decided to become a rabbi when a British rabbi in the prestigious Upper East Side neighborhood of New York passed away suddenly. Rabbi Goldstein saw the need to fill a void. He asked himself: “How can I contribute more to the Jewish people?” Thankfully, this charismatic and colorful figure decided to enter the rabbinate.
Nowadays, there is a glut of Orthodox rabbis seeking prominent positions. This was not always the case. Rabbi Goldstein dared to take giant strides on a road not traveled, receiving semichah more than once in order to earn acceptance from the broad spectrum of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Goldstein’s wife, Rebecca, was born in America, and despite the fact that she lacked role models of successful American-born rebbetzins, she, even as a teenager, already dreamed of marrying a rabbi, opening her home to congregants and devoting her life to spiritually strengthening the Jewish people. She fulfilled these dreams with Rabbi Goldstein.
What was it like being an Orthodox rabbi in America a century ago? There was no such position; it simply didn’t exist. To be sure, Rabbi Goldstein did many of the same things rabbis do today: he delivered sermons, taught classes, visited the sick, officiated at life-cycle events and spoke at fundraising dinners. But he also did more, simply because his congregants had less. There were no day schools or yeshivot north of New York’s Lower East Side, no five-day workweek and few kosher food symbols on products in the supermarkets.
Rabbi Goldstein organized Friday evening forums in his synagogue not just to give young people an opportunity to learn Torah together, but also to keep them away from pool halls and gambling casinos—many were that far from their roots already, even if their parents were brought up Orthodox. The rabbi’s challenge bordered on the impossible: to go against the mainstream culture and attract a generation of young people who were sliding into the melting pot.
Rabbi Goldstein was called a maverick for good reason. He tried every approach to draw people into his synagogue. He managed to convince generations of Jews who were eager to “Americanize” that since Americans espouse Judeo-Christian values, to be a good American you had to be a good Jew too.
Nowadays, there is a glut of Orthodox rabbis seeking prominent positions. This was not always the case.
To lure young people into the synagogue, he came up with an innovative idea: he turned the shul into a multipurpose institution serving the physical, recreational and social needs of the local Jewish population. What he essentially created was the forerunner of the modern Jewish community center. He first implemented this idea in the Central Jewish Institute, and then in the original Institutional Synagogue (today the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan) he founded in Harlem, when Harlem was a flourishing Jewish neighborhood. Many young people came to the synagogue, at first, exclusively for the gym and the pool, but eventually they were inspired to attend services. Rabbi Goldstein was proud of the fact that his Jewish community center was the only one with the word “synagogue” in its name. A famous non-Orthodox philanthropist offered him a huge sum of money on the condition that the name of the institution be changed, but Rabbi Goldstein refused.
His approach was so successful that at its heyday, the Institutional Synagogue served more than 3,000 people a day from all walks of life. The synagogue had many literary, social and athletic clubs—sixty-seven at one point! Every club was required to open meetings by reading a portion of the Torah. They held Jewish holiday parties and explained through slides and “moving pictures” the significance of various yamim tovim. They organized Friday night home meetings for discussing Jewish topics, singing Hebrew melodies and listening to interesting sermons.
So what did the rabbi have to do with all of this? Instead of delegating everything to a youth director, he led by example. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Goldstein hosted meetings of club leaders in their own home—not just at the synagogue. One time, Rabbi Goldstein even led a club himself. One club member recalled that the rabbi “visited every club periodically—every club [emphasis in the original] in the building from top to bottom. He always had a coterie of people around him. . . He took a personal interest in all of us.”
The rabbi made it a point to spend some time almost every night in the game room, where he sometimes played checkers with two or three people at a time. Playing a game of basketball with the rabbi in the gym was not uncommon either. You can be sure that, win or lose, quality time with the charismatic rabbi made a lasting impact.
Rabbi Goldstein wrote an English commentary to the Torah, possibly one of the only ones by an American Orthodox rabbi at that time. He also honored the hundreds of military servicemen from his synagogue over the years, in his synagogue publications and on plaques on the synagogue walls. Around the time of World War I, Rabbi Goldstein visited military training camps for the Jewish Welfare Board where he inspired Jewish soldiers. He personally distributed hundreds of pairs of tefillin long before any others were doing it.
Was every rabbinical position a century ago similar to Rabbi Goldstein’s? Hardly. But one thing is for sure: this tireless, passionate leader taught generations of rabbis how to serve their American synagogues and communities with, as famed writer Herman Wouk once said of him, a combination of “total loyalty to tradition with a sophisticated modern mind.”
Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel, Esq., is a grandson of Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein and the author of The Maverick Rabbi (Norfolk, 1984), a biography of his grandfather.