Many of the books on the history of American Orthodoxy include the names Bruder, Weberman, Fensterheim and Jacobs. These families helped build the spiritual foundation that enabled American Orthodoxy to flourish decades later.
Pinchas Aaron Bruder and his wife, Bracha, came to America in the 1870s from Galicia. Two of the Bruder children remained religious: Tzurtel, who married Moshe Weberman, and Chana, who married Moshe Yehuda Fried.
By Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, former senior halachic consultant for OU Kosher and rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. Our writer had the zechut of speaking with Rabbi Belsky about his illustrious family only a few months before he passed away. Please note that this essay is based on a conversation with Rabbi Belsky; however, it was heavily edited and is not a word-for-word transcript.
In the 1870s, my maternal great-great-grandfather, Pinchas Aaron Bruder, arrived in America. He was thirty-eight years old.
At the time, there were no organizations overseeing shechitah in America. Anyone who called himself a shochet and sold so-called kosher meat could do so. It was an impossible situation. A group of Chassidic Jews from Hungary who had immigrated to the Lower East Side requested that their rebbe in Europe, the Shinover Rebbe (Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam) send over a reliable shochet. The Rebbe decided to send a young shochet and mohel, Pinchas Aaron Bruder. After receiving the Rebbe’s blessing that his children would remain shomer Shabbos in America, Pinchas Aaron agreed to emigrate to America. He and his family came on the SS Baltimore in 1874. My great-great-grandparents had an unusual advantage: because Pinchas Aaron served as a shochet and a mohel and had his own butcher shop, he didn’t have to work on Shabbos and the family had kosher meat.
Pinchas Aaron was mikarev many, many people. He was a tremendous masmid. He was also the shochet for Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, the famous chief rabbi of New York.
[At that time], there were few, if any, yeshivas, but there were hundreds of shuls. Every shul had an afternoon school. But unless one’s parents were exceptionally charismatic and strong in their Yiddishkeit [they could not transmit the Torah way of life]. The only thing that kept people clinging to tradition was when the family invested in Jewish education and hired rabbanim to teach the next generation.
The Bruders had many children, two of whom stayed religious: Tzurtel, who married Moshe Weberman and Chana, who married Moshe Yehuda Fried, who had moved to America with his family before the Civil War. Pinchas Aaron and Moshe ran the butcher store together.
The Rebbe’s berachah came true. Many thousands of the Bruder’s great-great-great-great-grandchildren are seventh- generation Americans, committed to the Torah way of life. They have spread out, living in Crown Heights, Toronto, Columbus—all over the place.
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My maternal grandfather, Binyamin Wilhelm, came to America from Poland in 1907 as a teenager. His mother had died when he was around eight. [Shortly after], when he was about eleven, his cousin invited him to live with him. He lived with his cousin until the latter moved to Eretz Yisrael, [at which point Binyamin] moved in with his grandfather. When he was sixteen or seventeen, his grandfather passed away.
Young Binyamin then decided to go to America. He had been corresponding with a friend who had moved to America and had been encouraging Binyamin to come. The friend assured him that there was a strong chevra of frum boys there. Binyamin reached America by taking a job as a mashgiach on a boat heading for the US. He arrived in the country without a penny in his pocket.
Experiencing so many challenges in his young life shaped Binyamin into a strong, determined person. His stubbornness turned out to be an advantage; he never faltered when it came to religious life; he resisted every difficulty. Once in the States, he joined the chevra of young men, all of whom made a pact not to give in on any aspect of Yiddishkeit. All of them went on to raise frum families.
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky once said about my grandfather: “Half of the Yiddishkeit in America came about because of Binyamin Wilhelm”; Then he added: “Maybe all of it.”
My grandfather taught his three daughters every day; my mother, Chana Tzirel, was his second child. When the Chofetz Chaim published Nidchei Yisrael, my grandfather bought a copy for each of his girls. [Published in 1893, Nidchei Yisrael is a classic work on the importance of mitzvah observance in places where Jewish people are surrounded by non-Jews. The sefer was written specifically for American Jewry.] Every day, when they would come home from public school, he would learn the sefer with them.
Binyamin knew the importance of chinuch and felt that Williamsburg needed a yeshivah. He went door to door with Max Jacobs [his cousin through marriage] to convince Jewish parents about the need for a yeshivah. They encountered resistance as the notion of a yeshivah was unpopular at that time; people wanted their children to become Americans.
Nevertheless, in 1917, my grandfather managed to open Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. Despite the pessimistic outlook of American Jewry, the yeshivah opened its doors with ninety students. (My grandfather Binyamin’s oldest son, Chaim Yehoshua Wilhelm, was one of the first students of Torah Vodaath, as was my father Dov Belsky.) The Jacobs, along with the Wilhelms and the Webermans, were among the founding families of Torah Vodaath. Then my grandfather discovered Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and asked him to serve as the principal of Torah Vodaath; Rabbi Mendlowitz’s leadership succeeded in turning the yeshivah into a great institution. [Ed. note: By 1940, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath had 1,000 students. At the time, only 7,700 students were in Orthodox day schools or yeshivot nationwide. ] My grandfather was also instrumental in establishing the first Bais Yaakov for girls in Williamsburg in 1937. He was a leader and a mover. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky once said about my grandfather: “Half of the Yiddishkeit in America came about because of Binyamin Wilhelm”; Then he added: “Maybe all of it.”
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In 1931, when my father, Dov Belsky, was eighteen years old, he went to Europe to learn at Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Radin. He was one of the first American boys to go [to Europe to learn]. My father became close to the Chofetz Chaim. The Chofetz Chaim would hold his hand and say “Ay, from America, a boy coming from America.” He was amazed to see a ben Torah from America.
My father told me that when he dies, right after we get up from the shivah, we should go to Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn to visit his father’s grave. [My father explained that] when he was thirteen, all his friends from school left yeshivah and left learning. He was the only one who didn’t, and he felt very lonely. He asked his father: “Maybe I should leave too?” His father put his hands around his shoulders and said, “Mayn kind, vestu blaybn baym lernen,” “My child, you are going to remain with Torah and learning,” which my father did. He wanted us to go to the cemetery to convey his thanks to his father for making him stay in yeshivah and become a ben Torah.
By Chayim Lando, third-great-grandson of Pinchas Aaron Bruder
When the wave of Jewish immigrants came to the United States after the Holocaust, they weren’t coming to a country devoid of Torah. After the Holocaust, many Chassidim came to America and settled in Williamsburg because frum Jews were there already, and had set up an infrastructure for religious life. It’s unfortunate that kids growing up today don’t know about the mesirus nefesh that so many Jews—including my ancestors—had in the early years of building Torah in America.
When Pinchas Aaron Bruder settled in New York, his daughter Tzurtel stayed behind in Poland. She was already married to my great-great-grandfather, Moshe Weberman, and Moshe’s father was adamantly opposed to his son emigrating to America. A few years later, when Moshe’s father passed away, Moshe and Tzurtel joined Pinchas Aaron on the Lower East Side.
Rav Moshe Weberman owned a deli on the Lower East Side. A very devout man, he purposely did not have chairs and tables in the store, as he didn’t want people to come in and eat without washing and bentching. In 1915, the Weberman’s daughter, Kate, my great-grandmother, married Mordechai Tzvi Dicker. Even though Mordechai Tzvi was European and his wife, Kate, was American, the family spoke English at home. A lot of the immigrants would mock them for not speaking Yiddish. Mordechai Tzvi used to say, “Me darf nisht redn Yiddish, me darf zayn Yiddish,” “We don’t have to speak Yiddish; we have to act Yiddish.” That’s a famous line that was passed down in the family.
Mordechai Tzvi owned a twine and paper store on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side. [The business, MH Dicker, recently closed.] The Webermans and the Dickers were active in bringing young people closer to Yiddishkeit; the Dickers ran an oneg every Shabbos to attract all the kids on the block, many of whom were not shomer Shabbos. They were active in Pirchei Agudath Israel of America, Zeirei Agudath Israel of America and the Young Israel movement.
My grandfather, Moshe Fensterheim (Mordechai Tzvi Dicker’s son-in-law), was one of the first talmidim to graduate from Torah Vodaath. When he finished high school, he wanted to work. His mother felt, which was quite rare in America in those days, that he would benefit from another year of learning. She promised him if he learned for another year in yeshivah, she would buy him a Shas from Europe, which by today’s standards probably cost thousands of dollars. My grandfather eventually became a mechanic, but that extra year of learning had a big impact on him. He received the promised Shas and kept it his entire life; he was even buried with it.
Almost thirty years ago there was a fiftieth yahrtzeit seudah for my great-great-grandfather Moshe Weberman. At that point in time a family tree was made, which had about 2,000 family members, of which around 1,800 were frum. There’s no question in my mind that the numbers today would be over 5,000, beli ayin hara. You’d be hard-pressed to find a community in the world where we don’t
By Paul (Pinchas Aaron) Jacobs, great-great-grandson of Pinchas Aaron Bruder
Bruder, Weberman, Fensterheim, Dicker, Wilhelm. I grew up hearing these names
In the late 1800s, only a fraction of American Jews were Orthodox; the Reform movement in America was officially organized in 1873. There were no yeshivot in those days; that was part of the spiritual risk of coming to the midbar (desert) of America. My paternal great-grandmother [Chana Fried, nee Bruder] as well as my grandmother [Kaila Jacobs, nee Fried] and their siblings had no formal Jewish education. The children were American raised and educated in Yiddishkeit by their parents. It was only later, around 1890, that Etz Chaim Yeshiva, a cheder-type school for elementary age children was established on the Lower East Side; it eventually evolved into Yeshiva University.
My father, Harold, graduated from one of the first classes of Torah Vodaath. [At the time, Torah Vodaath did not have a yeshivah gedolah] so after my father graduated, a rebbe from Torah Vodaath came over in the afternoons to teach my father and his brothers.
By the time my father’s sister Ruth, who was born in 1922, was ready for grade school, the nearest Jewish option was the Yeshivah of Crown Heights, which had been established in 1923. (Now in her nineties, Ruth is the last survivor in our family from that generation.)
After high school, the boys went on to college. There were two choices for college—City College in New York, which was free, or St. Johns University, a Catholic college in Williamsburg, for which one had to pay. The conundrum of the late 1920s was that Jews around the world, and particularly in America, were very sympathetic to the Soviet Union and were drawn to communism. Many of the movers and shakers in the communist movement were Jews. They saw it as a way out of the poverty and the discrimination of the Czarist regime. City College had a reputation of being a hotbed of communism and socialism.
My grandmother, Kaila, who was a very religious woman, said to my father, “Harold, if you go to City College, you may come out as a communist; if you go to St. Johns, you definitely will not come out as a goy.” He went to St. Johns.
My father, Harold, married Pearl Schraub and moved to Crown Heights. Over the years, he was involved in different businesses. After WWII, he realized that with the soldiers coming home there would be a big boom in housing (the government subsidized housing for soldiers), so he started manufacturing kitchen cabinets. Eventually his cabinet business became the second-largest kitchen company in the US.
In his early forties, my father decided to devote the rest of his life to working for the klal. He began by focusing on the Sunday blue laws, which mandated that all stores be closed on Sundays. If you were shomer Shabbat, you had to close your shop on both Shabbat and Sunday, which presented huge financial challenges. My father succeeded in helping to change the law.
Once he became involved in the political process, he joined the Madison Club, a Democratic Party branch that was widely regarded as the most powerful Democratic machine in the State of New York. He was the first Orthodox Jew to join that club and, in general, one of the first to be involved in politics. In fact, he was the one who introduced the political process to Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel of America; the two had been good friends from their early days in Williamsburg. In the 1940s and 50s, my father showed the world that a Jew wearing a yarmulke can interact with non-Jews, secular Jews and politicians at the highest level, while contributing to both the body politic and to the
In 1958, my father was invited to join the OU Board of Directors and was active in the OU for three decades, serving as vice president, president (1972-1978) and chairman of the board. He was considered to be the voice of Orthodox Judaism in the national Jewish organizations of that day, including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. His main interest, however, was ensuring that Jewish youth would not assimilate. He pushed for the growth of the OU’s highly successful youth group, NCSY. He mentored various lay leaders, as well as NCSYers, who are now prominent in Orthodox lay leadership. He was instrumental in setting up the OU Israel Center. [The Pearl and Harold Jacobs Zula Outreach Center in Yerushalayim—a drop-in center in Jerusalem for troubled Israeli teens—was dedicated in memory of my parents.] He also established Orthodox funeral standards for Jewish funeral homes throughout the country.
My father’s phone never stopped ringing with people requesting favors, whether it was getting someone a job, helping a yeshivah obtain a mortgage, getting someone admitted to a school, et cetera. Literally hundreds of people reached out to him. He just loved helping people.
Over the years, many people suggested we write a book about my father. This past year, which marked his twentieth yahrtzeit, we published his biography, entitled Building Orthodox Judaism in America: The Life and Legacy of Harold M. Jacobs, and distributed it at my grandson’s bar mitzvah (who is named after him).