Memory Lane: Rav Eliyahu Mordechai Finkelstein, Pioneer in chinuch
The first official Rav of the 107 year old Sfardishe Shul was most likely Rabbi Eliyahu Mordechai Finkelstein, a ga’on who did much for the future of chinuch in New York—within Boro Park and without.
Rav Finkelstein was born in 1873 in the town of Międzyrzec (Mezerich: pronounced the same as, but not to be confused with, its much more famous Russian counterpart), in the Sidelic region of Poland, where he was recognized as a brilliant Torah scholar, and learned in the glow of Rav Refoel Yisroel Isser Shapiro, the Rav of the town. He came from a long line of Rabbanim, and ancestors who contributed much to Jewish life in Mezerich, and one relative built the main shul in the town.
When he married, he moved to Warsaw where he corresponded with Rav Meir Shapiro, zt”l, and other gedolim of his time—and he would speak in the big shul there before the balebatim.
Rabbi Benzion Eizenstadt was prolific writer on the history of American Jewry, as well as Rabbanim and Jewish life around the world. Much of what remains about the early days of American Jewry is due to his work. In his sefer Doros Haachronim, he profiles Rabbi Finkelstein, writing that he settled in Warsaw as a businessman, but spent most of his days immersed in learning.
In 1907, he immigrated to the United States with his family and immediately acquired a position as the menahel of the Talmud Torah Tiferes Yisroel of East New York, where 600 boys and girls came to learn after their day in Public School. In this capacity he toiled for six years to raise the level of the program, accomplishing much in this regard. During this time he also delivered many shiurim in the East New York community.
In 1913, he received semichah from the renowned Rav Avraham Eliezer Alperstein, and Rav Moshe Chaim Rabinowitz who was known as "the ga'on of Brownsville," and then he accepted the position as the shul and Talmud Torah Rav of Machzkei Talmud Torah of Boro Park.
In 1917, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath was established—and has since that time produced thousands of fine alumni who have impacted the Torah world forever. Harav Zev Gold who had previously led Boro Park’s Shomrei Emunah, at its establishment in 1908, was then a Rav of Anshei Sholom in Williamsburg. Rabbi Binyomin Wilhelm approached him, and together they established the yeshivah.
The Morgen Zhournal on August 14, 1918 reports: “Harav Finkelstein Principal of Yeshivah Torah Vodaath. The yeshivah Torah Vodaath, located at 238 Keap Street, Brooklyn, appointed as principal and main manager of the yeshivah the renowned pedagogue (expert in the education of children) and the wise Rabbi Eliyahu Mordechai Finkelstein of Boro Park.
In 1920, he became the Rav of Anshei Sfard, and joined the Vaad Harabanim of Boro Park as well as the Vaad Hakashrus, where we see him indicated together with boro Parks most illustrious Rabbanim.
His granddaughter, Rebbetzin Brachah Lieberman, recalls: “When zeidy was elderly, he moved in with us. Every day, when I came home, he would ask, “Brachah, what did you learn today. I showed him the chumash, and Rashi… from whom he was a descended. And then he said, that is wonderful, but that is not enough. He would then proceed to launch into learning the remaining mefarshim such as Ramban, Ibn Ezra, and others—and this instilled in me a lifelong love of learning that burns in me to this day.”
Rav Eliyahu Mordechai Finkelstein was niftar in the summer of 1949, following a lifetime of teaching and inspiriting his fellow Jews in Boro Park of yesteryear.