Seeds of Torah on Stubborn Soil

 

New York: 1897

It was a time when most American Jews believed that “God has been left on the other side of the ocean,” an attempted chief rabbinate had dismally failed, and a fledgling organization was struggling to create a union of Orthodox Jewish congregations.  One small yeshivah, located over a clothing store on East Broadway, was about to make history…

By Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff

A century ago nascent Orthodoxy on the American scene was just beginning to raise itself above the level of basic temporal survival.  Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European immigrants had already arrived in the “Promised Land.”  A few had successfully integrated themselves in their new home and could afford the luxury of concern for the morrow.  These heroic individuals had to overcome the basic antipathy to Torah civilization that was inherent in the American dream.  Harry Fischel, later to become a prominent philanthropist and lay leader of Orthodoxy, received the following advice upon his 1885 arrival.

Young man, you have just landed in the great city of New York, where all the opportunities are opened to you.  But if you want to succeed, you must forget about God and your religion and especially about the Sabbath and dietary laws.  You must work every day including the Sabbath and eat what you can get, for God has been left on the other side of the ocean.1

The first venture of Orthodoxy to organize itself ended in failure.  The Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations was formed in a meeting at the East Side’s Beth Hamidrash Hagadol on June 12, 1887.  Its main goal was to engage a chief rabbi for their association.  After some correspondence with leading European rabbinical leaders, the choice fell upon Rabbi Jacob Joseph.  The latter, a student of Rabbi Israel Salanter, was then the maggid mesharim (communal preacher) and moreh tzedek (religious judge) of Vilna.  The city known as “The Jerusalem of Lithuania” had not had an official communal rabbi for over a century and a half.  Rabbi Joseph occupied the most prestigious Vilna rabbinical position at the time.

He arrived in New York on July 7, 1888, and his chief rabbinate began amidst much fanfare and hope in the immigrant community.  However, Rabbi Jacob Joseph was caught up in vexatious kashruth problems.  The religious freedom engendered by the American scene undermined the very concept of a chief rabbi.  The rabbi’s final years in New York were spent in ill health and financial distress.  Rabbi Jacob Joseph died on July 28, 1902.  Even in death he knew no peace — a riot ensued at his funeral:  when the funeral procession of tens of thousands passed the building of R. H. Hoe and Company, manufacturers of printing presses, the mourners were bombarded with refuse, stones, and pieces of metal.2

One of the positive results of the tribulations of the ill-fated chief rabbinate experiment was the establishment of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America in 1898.  The organization was to enjoy much greater success than the Rabbi Joseph venture.  This time, the more acculturated element of American Orthodoxy joined with the Eastern Europeans in guiding the newborn Union.  Reverend Henry Pereira Mendes of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York, Congregation Shearith Israel, was the guiding spirit in the formation of the Union, and was joined by other prominent Sephardic and German rabbis.  Leaders of the Eastern European immigrant community also united with the “uptown” Orthodox leaders.

1908:  The main support of the school came from pennies in collection boxes…The simple, working Jew accepted RIETS with all his heart and was willing to sacrifice to support it.

Most revealing is an early debate among the founding fathers as to the public language of the organization.  Pereira Mendes and others such as Rabbi Bernard Drachman of New York’s Congregation Zichron Ephraim insisted on English.  The Eastern European element felt that to appeal to the masses the organization must utilize the language they understood best, which was Yiddish.  A compromise was finally reached in which English served as the public language of all conferences.  At the same time a Yiddish translator would be present at all public events to render the proceedings into the people’s jargon.  Under the dedicated leadership of Dr. Mendes, who was to serve as the president until 1915, the Union slowly began to thrive.  It was gradually to take its place as one of the basic building blocks of the American Torah community.3

While these attempts to create coherence out of chaos on the American Torah scene were happening, another response of far-reaching educational consequences was taking place.  The first advanced yeshivah in the United States was organized on New York’s East Side.  The first stage of its development began with the formation of Yeshivah Etz Chaim in 1886.  The new yeshivah was not a congregational school, but an institutional school sponsored by an independent community organization called Hebra Machzikei Yeshivat Etz Chaim.  The new institution took the place of the public school and the cheder, and it attempted to synthesize the cultural values of both religious and secular subjects into a harmonious curriculum.  Etz Chaim became the first elementary yeshivah on the American scene.4

The first advanced yeshivah was the natural development of Etz Chaim.  Among the students at the elementary school was Akiva Matlin, who entered Etz Chaim when his family arrived in New York about 1892.  His father, Rabbi Moses Mayer Matlin, had been ordained by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor of Kovno.  The senior Matlin accepted a call from Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph to be the supervisor of all shochatim under the latter’s direction.  By 1895 or 1896, Akiva was about 16 years old and had mastered as much as could be offered to him at the elementary school.  His father, anxious to see his son continue his Talmudic studies, assembled several youngsters of the same age and taught them personally in his own apartment on the top floor of 172 Clinton Street.

The news of this advanced study group spread and soon numbered 12 students.  Rabbi Matlin could not accommodate them in his home any longer and began to seek larger quarters.  The father of one of the students persuaded his congregation, the Mariampol Synagogue, to house the incipient yeshivah.  The Mariampol Synagogue occupied the second and third floors of the building at 44 East Broadway, over a clothing store.  When the news of the death of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor on the twenty-first day of Adar, 5656 (March 6, 1896) reached the United States, there was widespread shock and bereavement in the immigrant community.  The new school was therefore dedicated to his memory and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary [RIETS] was incorporated in 1897.

The early years of RIETS were marked by a gradual increase in the student body, financial struggle, and constant dialogue over the inclusion of secular studies.  By 1905, when RIETS was located at 156 Henry Street, there were about 100 students, and approximately 125 by 1908.  The main support for the school came from pennies in collection boxes.  Although this collection system was undignified, it did illustrate that the simple, working Jew of the East Side accepted RIETS with all his heart and was willing to sacrifice to support it.

The major issue in the evolution of the school was the question of secular studies.  The students at RIETS were unable to attend high schools or colleges because of the demands of their yeshivah studies.  Many, nevertheless, slipped away for clandestine visits to preparatory schools.  In response to student demands, the study of English was introduced into the RIETS curriculum.  This problem continued to smolder, and finally the directors of RIETS concluded that the yeshivah must also develop a curriculum for secular studies.

During this period there was much discussion concerning a merger between Yeshivah Etz Chaim and RIETS.  The older students at Etz Chaim studied Talmud on a par with the younger RIETS students.  Some students at RIETS also attended secular classes at Etz Chaim.  Before the merger could become a reality, a building was sought to accommodate the combined schools.  In 1915 two buildings were purchased at 9-11 Montgomery Street on the Lower East Side.  Under the direction of Harry Fischel, the buildings were combined into one and renovated for classroom use.

Rabbi Bernard Revel was unanimously selected to reorganize and lead the merged schools.  Born in 1885 in Pren, a suburb of Kovno, where his father was rabbi, Revel arrived in the United States in 1906.  In 1901, when he was only 16, Revel received his rabbinical ordination.  In 1912 he became the first graduate of Philadelphia’s Dropsie College when he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.  After marrying Sarah Travis of Marietta, Ohio, in 1909, Revel joined his brother-in-law, Solomon Travis, in the petroleum industry.  Moving to Tulsa, he became a yarmulke-wearing “oil magnate” moving about the rich Oklahoma oil fields.  Yet by 1915, Revel was anxious to accept the New York challenge.5

After acquainting himself well with the student body and with conditions at the yeshivah, Revel announced that his first major undertaking would be the organization of a secular high school to complement the religious studies.  On September 3, 1916, Revel witnessed the first class, consisting of about 20 youngsters between the ages of 13 and 17, begin its studies with a curriculum similar to the New York City public high school freshman program.  Thus the newly-formed Talmudical Academy became the first American high school under yeshivah auspices where religious and secular subjects were taught.  This innovation was later to be emulated by scores of yeshivah high schools throughout the world.

1916:  Rabbi Revel felt that more than just the knowledge of Talmud and Jewish law was required if the graduates were to succeed in disseminating Torah on the American scene.

Rabbi Revel next turned his attention to the reorganization of the curriculum and faculty of RIETS proper.  He gradually broadened its studies, since he felt that more than just the knowledge of Talmud and Jewish law was required if the graduates were to succeed in disseminating Torah on the American scene.  Courses in Bible, Hebrew, homiletics, Jewish history and pedagogy were added.  On March 23, 1919, the twenty-third anniversary of the death of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor, Revel led the yeshivah in the celebration of the granting of rabbinical ordination to the first five graduates trained entirely under the new program of study.  Among them was Sol B. Friedman, the first American-born graduate of the yeshivah.  The Anglo-Jewish press declared that “for the first time in the history of American Jewry, the semichah has been conferred upon American rabbinical students.”

Rabbi Revel achieved another master stroke when he brought the first great European rosh yeshivah to the United States for the sole purpose of disseminating Torah on the American scene.  Rabbi Shelomoh Polachek, the world renowned “Meitsheter Illui (prodigy),” disembarked on September 1, 1922, to become the senior rosh yeshivah at RIETS.  The older students eagerly gathered around the Meitsheter during the four days a week that he lectured.  Rabbis and scholarly laymen also attended his shiurim.  America was now blessed with a true gadol, and the level and spirit of learning at RIETS greatly intensified.6  The Soloveichik family was later to follow in the footsteps of the Meitsheter and they were to head the RIETS faculty for many decades.  Other advanced yeshivot which were then organized on American soil were also to engage European luminaries to head their faculties.

Rabbi Revel’s final major achievement was the launching of Yeshiva College which later evolved into Yeshiva University in 1945.  Revel felt that the college would be “the natural development of the Talmudical Academy High School, which built the foundation for the college and made it of immediate necessity.”  A major campus was constructed in a newly developing section of Upper Manhattan, known as Washington Heights.  On September 25, 1928, years of anticipation and planning came to fruition when 31 students, mainly graduates of the Talmudical Academy, began their collegiate studies.  Since the new campus was not yet completed, the first classes were held in a temporary location at the Jewish Center on New York’s Upper West Side.  On the second day of Chanukah, December 9, 1928, the new home of the Yeshiva and Yeshiva College was dedicated.  The next day, the classes were transferred to their new and permanent location.

The Depression years which soon ensued were to be extremely difficult for Revel.  The next decade was to be an ongoing struggle to keep the institution financially solvent.  Towards the end of the decade, the ever-increasing difficulties of European Jewry also contributed to Revel’s anxieties and worries.  He now constantly received requests from European professors, rabbinical leaders and students who wished to teach or study at the Yeshiva and Yeshiva College.  By 1939 Revel’s attempts to bring these students, rabbis and professors to the United States became a frantic race against time.  Revel’s health deteriorated and on December 2, 1940, he died at the age of 55.  His last words to his wife were:

        I hope you lived long enough with me not to resent the fact that I shall not live long.  You do not measure life by the yardstick of years, but by accomplishments and achievements.  It was my privilege to serve God, the Torah, and the children of the Torah.

What had started in a New York tenement house in 1897 was now the flagship institution of an invigorated American Orthodoxy.  The Renaissance of Torah on the American scene had begun and many of Rabbi Revel’s concepts and achievements were later to be emulated throughout the Jewish world.

All elements of American Orthodoxy mourned Rabbi Revel’s death.  There was universal recognition that he was the first to turn American soil so that Torah could blossom.7  Subsequent events would indeed prove that once the educational seeds had been sown, Torah life could be cultivated with success.

A resident of Jerusalem, Rabbi Rakeffet is a professor of Responsa Literature at the Gruss Kollel of Yeshiva University and is a founding faculty member of Midreshet Moriah, an advanced Torah study program for women.  He is the author of Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy and The Silver Era: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and His Generation.  Rakafot Aharon, two volumes of his collection of published scholarship in the fields of halachah and Jewish history were published in 1997.

Notes

  1. Herbert S. Goldstein, ed. Forty Years of Struggle For a Principle: The Biography of Harry Fischel (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1928), p. 12.
  2. For details of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph venture see Abraham J. Karp, “New York Chooses a Chief Rabbi,” Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, Volume 44, Number 3 (March 1955), pp. 129-198.
  3. For details of the formation of The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America see Saul Bernstein, The Renaissance of the Torah Jew (Hoboken, New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House, 1985), pp. 152-157; and Jenna Weissman Joselit, New York’s Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1990), pp. 5-7.
  4. For the early history of Etz Chaim and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary see Gilbert Klaperman, The Story of Yeshiva University: The First Jewish University in America (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1969), pp. 17-72.
  5. For the details of Bernard Revel’s life see Aaron Rothkoff, Bernard Revel: Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1972).For an analysis of Rabbi Revel’s achievements at The Yeshiva see Jeffrey S. Gurock, The Men and Women of Yeshiva: Higher Education, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 43-120.
  6. For details of the “Meitsheter Illui” see Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Rakafot Aharon (Jerusalem: Shvut Ammi, 1997), Volume One, pp. 23-29.
  7. Recent rewritings of American Torah history minimize Revel’s role. For example, in the otherwise excellent volume by Eliyah Meir Klugman, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: Architect of Torah Judaism in the Modern World (New York: Mesorah Publications, 1996), p. 66, in which he describes Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz as “the first great Torah educator in America.” It is important for us to be aware that, in fact, Reb Shraga Feivel revered his predecessor in Torah education.  Mr. Irving Waxman, then a student in Rav Mendlowitz’s yeshivah, Torah Vodaath, described the mourning atmosphere in the school after Rabbi Revel’s death in a memoir dated January 6, 1997.  The following is an announcement published by the Torah Vodaath faculty in “The Jewish Morning Journal” on December 3, 1940.

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

An affiliate of Yeshiva University

100 Years Later, RIETS…

* has trained 2,400 of the world’s most distinguished Orthodox rabbis, scholars and teachers.

* benefited from numerous eminent scholars who taught there over the years, including:  Rabbis Shimon Shkop, Moses Soloveitchik, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Dovid Lifshitz, zt”l.

* currently has 31 renowned roshei yeshivah.

* alumni serve Jewish communities in 25 states in the United States, 5 provinces in Canada, 16 cities in Israel, as well as in Argentina, Austrailia, Brazil, Great Britain, France, Germany, India, Italy, Peru, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey, former U.S.S.R. and Venezuela.

* maintains 5 kollelim, including:

Marcos And Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) with more than 60 students.

Kollel L’Horaah (Yadin Yadin) enabling scholars who already received ordination Yoreh Yoreh to serve as posekim.

Ludwig Jesselson Kollel Chaverim for those who plan to enter positions other than the rabbinate.

Caroline and Joseph S. Gruss Kollel Elyon (post-graduate kollel program) for those who want to devote themselves fully to Torah study and service.

Caroline and Joseph Gruss Institute in Jerusalem which offers year-long programs including Kollel, Chaver, semichah and post-semichah.

* trains professional cantors in the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music.

* teaches the rich heritage of the Sephardic community through 4 components:  the Jacob E. Safra Institute of Sephardic Studies, the Sephardic Community Program, the Dr. Joseph and Rachel Ades Sephardic Outreach Program and the Maybaum Sephardic Fellowship Program.

* extends numerous services to the entire Jewish community including outreach programs and publications.

******

Excerpts of the Centennial Address delivered on May 28, 1997, by RIETS President and Rosh Yeshivah Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm

“…Unquestionably, the great mission and prime emphasis of RIETS is Torah lishmah — ‘the study of Torah for its own sake’:  not for professional achievement, not for adornment or prestige, not for the glory of any individual or any institution….Our credo is and must remain that Torah is the highest and most sublime ideal of Am Yisrael, that study of Torah is the noblest occupation, that the Torah way of life is worthy of the most demanding sacrifice.  But Torah is not incompatible with a creative life in the enormous variety of pursuits open to us in modern life:  in the arts and sciences and business and crafts and professions.

“The second emphasis of RIETS, as the premier institution of Modern Orthodoxy, is therefore on service to the Jewish community….We believe, as the Rav [Soloveitchik] taught us, that Torah can be lived and implemented in every time and circumstance, and that includes modernity and post-modernity.  We stand firmly in the world of halachah, but we shall not turn our backs on the world of madda — of culture and science….Our commitment is to Torah, to this community of Modern/Centrist Orthodox Jews, and to this ideology.  And it is a commitment, not a compromise or concession.

“…As I consider our alumni and our current students, I can tell you that the overwhelming majority live up to and exceed our expectations.  They are aflame with dedication, but they are more mature than their years.  They are idealistic, and among their great ideals are their love of their fellow Jews, their love of Eretz Yisrael, as well as their love of Torah.  Be proud of them!  They deserve it.”

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This article was featured in the Fall 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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