Living Legacy: Rav Yaakov Joseph, The Rav Hakollel of New York, on his 120th Yohrtzeit

Living Legacy: Rav Yaakov Joseph, The Rav Hakollel of New York, on his 120th Yohrtzeit

Shabbos, the 24th of Tammuz, marks the 120th yohrtzeit of New York’s one and only chief Rabbi who came to this country in the late 1800’s, and attempted to bring order to Jewish life. He would pay for his valiant efforts with immense suffering, culminating with his untimely passing. 

In the spring of 1887, a number of congregations in New York gathered the funds to bring over a rov who could unite the community, and ‘Rav Yaakov Charif,’ (the sharp one), as he was known in Volozhin, seemed to be the perfect choice. He had learned under the Netziv of Volozyn, as well as in the mussar kloiz of Rav Yisroel Salanter, and was the respected “maggid of Vilna.” In 1888, he accepted the invitation. 

On July 22, 1888, the New York Times reported: “The Synagogue Crowded and Hundreds Causing Disorder Outside. At an early hour yesterday afternoon a crowd began to gather in front of the Beth Hamedrash Hagodal Synagogue on Norfolk Street, attracted by the report that the new chief rabbi, Jacob Joseph, would preach there his inaugural sermon. As time went on the crowd grew denser, until by 3 o’clock it had filled not only the space directly in front of the synagogue, but the entire block between Grand and Broome Streets. It clamored vociferously for admission, and Capt. Webb and 12 stalwart policemen had their hands full trying to preserve order among the struggling mass of people bent on gaining at least a foothold within the temple…

“The heat and lack of proper ventilation caused considerable discomfort, yet every man, and there were none but men present, wore his hat… At 3:45 o’clock, the long-expected chief rabbi arrived and every neck was craned in order to get a good look at the man who is to be the spiritual head of 17 orthodox congregations. The rabbi, who uses a language which is a mixture of Hebrew, German, and Polish, preached a sermon of about one hour in length. His manner of delivery is most deliberate, a pause for almost a quarter of a minute after a sentence he deems particularly important frequently occurring.  

‘A book,’ said the venerable master, ‘is always provided with a title page, whereon his subject is inscribed and with an introduction in which the author explains his guiding principles and method in handling the subject. The present address, too, inaugurating a new movement in Judaism in the United States, should be regarded as the title page and the introduction to the record we intend to make in the book of life.’ The argument, he went on to say, was of little use in producing conversions…

“In conclusion, the rabbi prayed that the Lord might guide and help them to spread His Light and cause Israel ‘to become a blessing to this great land of freedom and among the free people of the United States, where we are permitted to serve Thee as we were taught by our inspired prophets and sages, Thy servants, and where we can express our religious thoughts and convictions without let or hindrance.’” 

The rov was right to assume that America represented religious freedom. The hindrance would, unfortunately, come from within. The Rav Hakollel’s intentions for New York Jewry could not have been clearer… but from the first moment, it was all-out war.

The butchers who were unwilling to conform to the kashrus policies of the Orthodox rabbonim represented a long-standing problem, one that American Jewry would continue to grapple with for a while. The new chief rabbi sought to address this, and they mounted a fierce resistance—one that ultimately took a toll on his health, leading to his untimely passing in 1902 at the age of 62.

Although Adas Yisroel of Eldridge Street petitioned hard to have the rov buried in their cemetery, he was interred in the venerated Union Field Cemetery in the section of his congregation, Beis Hamedrash Hagadol. 

His resting place has become an attraction, where many Yidden daven on the yohrtzeit, and Yeshiva Rabbeinu Jacob Joseph was founded the year of his passing, and has born his name in the 120 years of his harbotzas Torah, a fitting testament to his living legacy. 

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