Memory Lane: Rav Yosef Mordcholowitz

Memory Lane: Rav Yosef Mordcholowitz

We have written in the past about Rabbanim and Admorim, who needed to fight to keep open their Shuls that they opened in their homes. The endeavor of Rav Yosef Mordcholowitz to open a shul was likewise met with opposition. 

Saved by the Shidduch 

Rav Chaim Yosef was born in 1905 in the Lithuanian Shtetl of Dusiat, 130 km from Vilna (to the south) and Ponovezh (west), respectively. He learned in Ponovezh and later in Slabodka, from where he moved to the branch in Chevron. As his family relates, he never left Chevron, even for Shabbos, but on that fateful Shabbos of the massacre in 1929, he was in Yerushalayim meeting his future kallah, Chasia Yoffe—from the legendary family of the Levush—which ended up saving his life. He received semicha from Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, before departing for America in 1930. 

He took a job as a melamed in the Talmud Torah of a local shul on Ocean Parkway. But this did not go without controversy—as we read in The Jewish Bulletin, April 6, 1934: 

Rabbi Joseph Mordcholowitz paces triumphantly today up and down a room in his synagogue at 674 East Second Street, Brooklyn, happy in the knowledge that American justice stands solidly behind the right of Jewish orthodoxy to settle wherever it chooses. For only the day before Justice Peter P. Smith, in Supreme Court, Brooklyn, denied a motion by George H. Miller, 664 East Second Street, to restrain Rabbi Mordcholowitz from operating his synagogue.

Miller said he was acting on behalf of himself and his neighbors, who complained that the synagogue was a nuisance, while the rabbi said emphatically, for himself and his friends who prayed with him, that Miller was greatly mistaken.

The trouble started several months ago, Rabbi Mordcholowitz declared yesterday, when he was teaching Hebrew to young men and women. A reverent man recently arrived from Palestine, Rabbi Mordcholowitz looked sadly upon the current American scene and discovered that orthodoxy was suffering a severe blow.

‘Oh, the Younger Generation’

“In the first place,” he said in Yiddish, “I don’t favor the way many of the young ladies in my classroom were dressed... They revealed their limbs. Furthermore, boys and girls prayed together, which is unconstitutional, orthodoxically speaking.”

“One thing led to another. Rabbi Mordcholowitz soon said farewell to the Center and, gathering together several men who had views on orthodoxy conforming with his, rented the house at 674 East Second street and proudly displayed a sign without that Hebrew could be learned within according to the precepts laid down by Rabbi Mordcholowitz’s ancestors back more than twenty generations...

“Today and for a long time to come the sounds, resembling a murmuring stream, of young and old people studying Hebrew can be and will be heard in Rabbi Mordcholowitz’s modest synagogue on East Second Street. And the sign outside has just been cleaned and polished.” 

A Legacy of Kindness and Torah

His nieces remember Rav Mordcholowitz as a most kind and gentle figure who would always give their parents a few dollars to buy them something—while their brother recalls coming with his father, a phenomenal ba’al tefillah, for the Yomim Nora’im to daven for the amud at his uncle’s shul. He even related a vort that he remembered all these years later from his uncle, a great talmid chochom who stood strong for his beliefs in Boro Park of yesteryear.  

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