The relationships that Rabbi Simcha Krauss zt”l, 85, fostered over his 25 years of influence in the Hillcrest community led to lifelong friendships and an everlasting mark on Modern Orthodoxy. From a career that began with pulpit rabbi positions, Rabbi Krauss rose above to make an everlasting mark on p’sak, Torah strides, and opportunities for women. His lifelong work concluded this past Thursday, January 20, with his p’tirah, following a stay at a Yerushalayim-based hospital.
It is his genuine humility, which often masked his Torah wisdom but allowed his hundreds of congregants to receive his guidance, that quietly set a tone for a neighborhood. This same unpretentiousness translated into decades of altruistic, noble work, often with a unique sense of bravery on behalf of the individuals he championed, rising above all to fight for the rights of agunos in his later years. Always brilliantly prepared for a Torah-infused conversation, Rabbi Krauss was not one to let go of his beliefs or seek self-importance.
Rabbi Krauss, a descendant with rabbinical ancestry going back 13 generations, was the son of Rabbi Avraham Dovid and Rebbetzin Charna Perel Krauss. In 1948, the family left Romania for France until finally settling in the Bronx. He learned in Yeshiva Chasan Sofer in Brooklyn and, in 1963, at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, where he formed a lifelong friendship with his chavrusa Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. It was there that he received s’michah Yoreh Yoreh Yadin Yadin from Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l. He also obtained a bachelor’s degree from City College and a master’s degree from the New School for Social Research. He began his own rabbinical path, serving as a congregational rabbi at Congregation House of Jacob in Utica, New York, and at the Young Israel of St. Louis, beginning in 1969. There, until his move to Queens, he developed the shul’s well-educated, deeply committed membership, welcoming newcomers with warmth and an opportunity to learn and grow religiously. While in New York, he spent 20 years as a maggid shiur at Yeshiva University’s RIETS, holding political science teaching jobs prior in each locale. As an accomplished author, his ideas were shared in “Orthodoxy’s Retreat from Modernity” in Moriah; “Litigation in Secular Court” in the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society (Spring 1982 issue); and, in year 2000, in Tradition, entitled, “The Rav: On Zionism, Universalism, And Feminism.” In 2005, the Krausses made aliyah and the rav took on the position as Senior RAM at Katamon’s Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi. During his stay in Israel, saving agunos became a passion, sending him back to the shores of America for a brief five years to establish the International Beit Din in 2014.
Rabbi Krauss was president of Religious Zionists of America-Mizrachi in the early 2000s and continued as an honorary president. The organization remembered the rav as “a rabbinic giant in our generation.” RZA noted his involvement in reviving their Or HaMizrach journal.
Passionate about Holocaust history, Rabbi Krauss often shared his story of being a victim to “regular anti-Semitism.” Of note are interviews from April of 2015 and 2020 with his son Binyamin Krauss, principal of Riverdale’s SAR Academy, where the two passionately discussed Yom HaShoah and Rav Krauss’ early days in the 200,000-person Jewish community of southern Transylvania, Romania.
As mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Hillcrest to roughly 550 families, Rabbi Krauss formed deep bonds, earning him the title of rabbi emeritus. Glenn Cohen served as president of the shul from 1992 to 1994. “My fondest memories of Rabbi Krauss were of Friday evenings when 50 or so young men would line up for a brachah from the rav, a kohen himself,” said Mr. Cohen to the Queens Jewish Link. “Our youth department had close to 450 children then. To see so many children walk up the stairs to greet the rav for Shabbos was very special.”
Cohen’s tenure was during the period when Rabbi Krauss began his notable movement of empowering women. “We were one of the absolute first k’hilos to take on the Bat Mitzvah presentation program. It must have been the second or third week of my presidency when we instituted this program where, after the conclusion of davening, the young woman would be seated next to the president’s chair, receive divrei brachah from the Rav and be presented with a sefer. It is a tradition that continues today.”
Dr. David Flug, another former president of the shul, remembered Rabbi Krauss. “He was a Torah giant, and his knowledge was encyclopedic. To Rabbi Krauss, it was not about being machmir or meikil; it was about individualizing the case to the person who stood before him and those that his decision would affect. When delivering a drashah in shul, his divrei Torah was never lengthy, but each word was a pearl.” To Dr. Flug, Rabbi Krauss embodied the notion that Judaism is a religion that lives and breathes with new ways to be pushed forward, affording agunos and women in general their place in its corridors.
Rabbi Krauss, whose demeanor was never argumentative, but filled with humility, was quite adamant on his rulings that he would often say, “I defy anyone in the room the room to tell me that I am incorrect. If you can prove me wrong, I will take back everything.” The rav did not respond to queries with a wishy-washy response, rather always with definitive halachic calculations. There was no “I will get back to you,” as Rabbi Krauss knew much Gemara offhand. “After the rav moved from the community, I would often email him with sh’eilos and receive fast responses,” said Mr. Cohen. “These allowed his brilliance to shine.”
Rabbi Krauss had a sense of humor, too. Glenn Cohen and his wife were once invited to a Shabbos meal at the Krauss home during his presidency. At the time, Mrs. Cohen was also president of the shul’s sisterhood. As the meal finished, Rabbi Krauss asked, “Can the president lead us in bentching?” to which Mrs. Cohen responded with, “Rabbosai n’vareich.” Of course, this was a joke that brought out chuckles, but it was well received in a home that gave women the capability to shine when halachically permissible.
The Young Israel of Hillcrest, now under the leadership of Rabbi Dr. Richard Weiss, continues another Rabbi Krauss ritual. As Pesach neared, families would come to the rav to sell their chametz. Many would not be stringent on the usage of matzah shmurah, but the Rav wanted to strength this mitzvah. He would purchase from his own finances matzah shmurah and distribute a box to each family that came to his door.
“Rabbi Krauss was a one-of-a-kind man with an unparalleled scholarship who rarely spoke of himself,” expressed Dr. Johnny (Jonathan) Halpert, who for eight years was the shul’s chairman of the board. “I do not know if it can be said of anyone else who learned simultaneously with the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in the afternoons, and with Rav Yitzchok Hutner in the mornings. I vividly recall how Rabbi Krauss detailed these shiurim, explaining that Rav Soloveitchik would ask what he learned from his rebbe that morning and Rav Hutner would ask the same of the Rav. These interactions showed the greatness and respect of both these rebbeim for one another as Rabbi Krauss would relate their respective teachings.”
Dr. Halpert, who made a name for himself coaching Yeshiva basketball from 1972-2015, noticed Rabbi Krauss’ concern for the youth of the shul. “Rabbi Krauss would gladly give up his pulpit for others to speak, especially for the high school and collegiate young men during the 15-minute breaks on Yamim Tovim before Maariv. My own son was one of these privileged youth who was encouraged to give a d’var Torah. Many of his friends went on to achieve s’michah or work in education.” Rabbi Krauss similarly encouraged the regular baalei batim of the shul to deliver Torah thoughts. “For five to ten minutes before Kabalas Shabbos we would have regular men like accountants or doctors give out very memorable pieces of Torah.” After 50 years in Hillcrest, the Halperts moved to New Rochelle and continued to converse with Rabbi Krauss every few weeks.
Dr. Flug was privileged to check the Hillcrest eruv during the time Rabbi Krauss served. It once happened that the two were in Dr. Flug’s car when the doctor’s phone went off as he was driving a bit too fast. Rabbi Krauss, in his eloquence, asked, “Could I help out in some way?” offering to drive or take the call.
Dr. Avi Bitton, a popular ophthalmologist and Young Israel member, learned in many yeshivos and finally found a rebbe in Rabbi Krauss. “His mindset, openness, and willingness to listen and see the big picture helped me find someone to fill the role of being a rebbe. I found completion to the words of Pirkei Avos – Asei l’cha rav, k’nei l’cha chaver (Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend); Rabbi Krauss with his high caliber and depth of learning was a gadol on every level and was my lifelong friend.”
Dr. Bitton’s daughter, Adina, related, “Before I got married, Rabbi Krauss sat with me at the pizza shop while I asked him a range of questions from hair covering to family planning and it was the first time that I had my own extended dialogue with Rabbi Krauss and got to appreciate the way his mind knew halachah and yet spoke with realities of the lived human experience at the forefront.” Once married, she lived with her husband Michael in Israel. “That first year of marriage, we lived in Jerusalem not far from the Krausses. Davening at the Ramban Shul was the place to be. Rabbi Krauss sat in a section with other retired shul rabbis from the States. Every week, Rabbi Krauss would save a seat for Michael.”
Dr. Bitton’s daughter Yael noted her connection. “When I made aliyah and married, it was a source of true joy to me that Rabbi and Esther Krauss moved to Jerusalem at the same time, where Rabbi Krauss educated another generation of students, but also allowing me to maintain that special relationship with ‘my’ rabbi.”
Rabbi Dr. Jonas Prager, an associate professor of economics in the Arts and Science division of NYU, was one of an aspiring group of individuals from the Young Israel who set out to receive s’michah after the age of 50. “Rabbi Krauss was a mentch in the true sense of the word and was a yachid b’mino, a unique man who was an extremely modest person who gained tremendous respect as a talmid chacham, never putting himself above others. He was one to take on great responsibility and challenges even when they were unpopular, and I never saw him get angry, even when provoked.”
The educator, who was on the original search committee at the Young Israel that helped select Rabbi Krauss, related that he was a quiet doer. In an initial meeting, he asked Rabbi Krauss, “What do you think about women learning?” to which the Rav replied, “I don’t believe in women learning; I believe in men and women learning.” This response endeared the two men into a lifelong comradeship showing how the Rav stood for ideals ahead of his time.
In the early 1990s, the Hillcrest Jewish community formed a women’s prayer group. When the contingent needed rabbinical direction, Rabbi Krauss was their choice for guidance. On a rare occasion, the Rav’s decisions were met with confusion, but the Rav, always acting on his own accord and not representing his shul, spent time using the Gemara and its resources to defend his conclusions.
It was not in Rabbi Krauss’ nature to take a grandstand, lead a march, organize a protest, or make a statement on a controversial topic; rather, he cared greatly for all people and felt that he must speak up on certain issues that required adjudication based on halachah, even if he would be attacked for his stance. Often, these ideas impacted the Jewish community, or an individual, like when he felt that a young woman could make the brachah of al limud Torah to lein from a Torah in a case that once came up in a private home.
Prior to his move to Hillcrest, Rabbi Krauss founded schools in Utica and St. Louis. In one instance in St. Louis, Rabbi Krauss was quite proud of his rabbinical colleagues when they stood by his decision not to wed a woman who had previously been married to a non-Jew when she sought to marry a local kohen. “As my poseik, I found Rabbi Krauss to be very understanding as he believed in halachically appropriate responses despite how others would perceive these decisions. He was a man of principle who called things as he saw it and would not violate the perception of right and wrong to play out to affluent members of his community,” offered Dr. Prager.
Over the years, Rabbi Krauss’ standpoints on women’s empowerment were met with controversy, which he publicly addressed. Amongst his colleagues on the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, there was a time when these positions led to his ultimate resignation from the group. The issue of agunos was very dear to Rabbi Krauss both in Eretz Yisrael and in America. In Israel, he felt that little could be done, as the Israeli Rabbanut would need to be heavily involved. However, in the US, there was no united rabbinic establishment, so he returned to New York after making aliyah to establish the International Beit Din (IBD), focused on these measures, but did not seek headlines for his initiative. Rabbi Krauss spent nearly five years here but would not rely solely on his own opinions and would confer with the necessary rabbinical authorities as well as explaining his decision to the local community rabbi.
Rabbi Krauss was the brother of the late Rav Mordechai Krausz zt”l, the Rosh HaYeshivah together with HaRav Doniel Lander of Yeshivas Ohr HaChaim.
It was Rabbi Krauss’ dream to live his final days in Eretz Yisrael, and he was granted that final wish, as well as being amongst his family at the time of his passing. K’vurah was on Har HaMenuchot. The Rav is mourned by his beloved eishes chayil Esther, founder of Maayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls, his children Rivka and Tully Harcsztark, Bini (Binyamin) and Shana Krauss, and Aviva and Danishai Kornbluth. Rabbi Krauss sincerely cherished the opinions of all he encountered, but he most loved learning from his grandchildren Talia, Eitan, Romi, and Eli Harcsztark; Davida, Zachy, Henna, Ariel, and Peri Krauss, and Lia, Michael, and Yehuda Kornbluth.
By Shabsie Saphirstein