Annually, Rav Dovid Goldwasser, manhig ruchani and longtime Rav of Brooklyn’s Khal Bais Yitzchok, famously visits the Queens tziyun of Rav Yaakov Joseph (Rabbi Jacob Joseph) at the Union Field Cemetery (in Ridgewood, Queens) for New York’s only chief rabbi’s yahrzeit. Last week, Rav Goldwasser, joined by Rabbi Yosef Gesser, a noted tour guide to kivrei tzadikim, was seen accepting names for inclusion in a Mi SheBeirach after the recital of T’hilim. The previous Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, often encouraged his chasidim to daven at the tziyun as news of salvations were reported. But who was Rav Joseph and what is his legacy?

The story takes us to the late 1800s, when the Jewish community of New York was in turmoil. The Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations was formed as a federation by a group of 18 Eastern European shuls and served a mainly Russian Orthodox Ashkenazi contingent. The group sought to bring in a chief rabbi to deal with religious needs, from spreading Yiddishkeit to intensifying the yeshivos, leading a beis din, and hopefully cleaning up the kashrus scene, a growing issue during that era. The conglomerate, although ridiculed by the Reform and other liberal factions of Judaism, settled on bringing in Rav Joseph, who obliged the offer due to severe debt back in Russia, despite knowing that there were far fewer Jews here. Thanks to a hefty financial coaxing, a figure that would be valued at $60,000 today, and being set up in a comfortable, furnished rent-free Henry Street apartment, Rav Joseph, who did not speak any English, became New York’s chief rabbi, standing at the helm of the Agudath HaKehilos. From 1888 until his p’tirah on July 28, 1902, Rav Joseph served his constituents in good faith.

Born in Krozhe, a province of Kovno, Rav Joseph studied in the Nevyozer Kloiz under Rabbi Yisrael Salanter and in the Volozhin yeshivah under the Netziv, where he gained the name Rav Yaakov Charif alluding to the sage’s sharp mind. Rav Joseph became the rabbi of his birth province, following service as rabbi of Vilon (1868), Yurburg (1870), and then Zhagory, before Kovno. By 1883, the Vilna community chose Rav Joseph as their shtut maggid (town preacher). It was there that the rabbi was found to come to America’s shores. Rav Joseph’s boat docked on Shabbos, and he therefore refused to disembark until after nightfall, when it was too late to travel to New York City. So, the saintly man lodged at the Meyer’s Hotel in Hoboken, New Jersey, for his first night in the US.

On arrival, the Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews, who had been in New York for generations and whose origin was from areas of Europe outside of Rav Joseph’s influence, frowned on the rabbi’s sudden authority. There were also quarrels on payments for sh’chitah, paid for the certification with the factions of Reform Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Mizrachis, anti-religious Jews, and Jewish Communists.

Today, we are lucky to have organizations like the Vaad Harabonim of Queens that for the most part have an undisputed level of authority and reign in local kashrus. Unlike many Jews of that era, we are proud to pay a surcharge for the coveted certification. One such issue arose with false stories spread by culturally Jewish but anti-religious Yiddish newspapers, whose ownership disliked the idea of a chief rabbi. So, the Association ceased payments to the rabbi after six uneasy years. Then, the butchers themselves paid the Rav until many questioned if the Rav may take the money in lieu of certifying treif meat.

Despite the naysayers, Rav Jospeh accomplished bringing in G-d-fearing shochatim, introduced permanent plumba seals for use on kosher chickens, and found reputable mashgichim to maintain the area slaughterhouses. In 1897, a stroke, possibly stemming from the kashrus dilemma, incapacitated the Rav. The kashrus industry was thrown into upheaval, resulting in the May 11, 1902, kosher meat boycott where, due to price gouging, 400 kosher butchers on the Lower East Side boycotted the meat trusts. The trusts prevailed and the kosher butchers ended their embargo. However, on May 15, the poor Jewish women of the Lower East Side, steered by Sarah Edelson and Fanny Levy, viciously protested, so much so that 20,000 rioters overtook the streets, smashed shop windows, poured gasoline on meat, ignited it, and – shameful as it sounds – threw them at police officers whom they deemed anti-Semites. It took until May 22 for the Kosher Retail Butchers Association to finally align themselves with the protestors and cease all sales of kosher meat. Astonishingly, major Orthodox religious leaders publicly affirmed support for the boycott on May 27; and by June 9, meat prices drastically fell. Sidelined by his stroke, the chief rabbi, then in poverty, was silent through the mayhem.

On July 28, Rav Joseph, 62, returned to Hashem. It is said that, despite an inability to speak, Rav Joseph found a way to deliver a Shabbos Shuvah drashah. Widely publicized, it was well attended, but then, as the Rav began with “Shteit in Rambam,” he fell silent and, moments later, burst into uncontrollable tears, eventually saying “Du vaist vus es maint tzu fargessin a Rambam far dem illui fun Volozhin” – Do you understand what it means for the Illui from Volozhin to forget a Rambam? The Rav took his seat and the drashah had a lasting impact on every Jew in the Lower East Side seeing that no quarrel could shatter the spirit of the chief rabbi except for his inability to remember a Rambam. Some 50,000 to 100,000 Yidden, some in grief and others from guilt, came out for his l’vayah, arguably the largest to date in New York State.

As discussed, the Rav’s arrival was fraught with a fair share of dispute. His funeral procession was similarly marred, this time with violence by the German employees of R. Hoe & Company, a printing press manufacturer. The men chucked water, paper, wood, and iron from the upper floors of their factory at 504 Grand Street, resulting in a response by 200 police officers who, per their riot protocols, physically assaulted the mourners instead of the attackers. Hoe himself, who received just a slap on the wrist for the assaults, died just a month after this episode. The attack led to what was considered the largest “cleaning of house” for the NYPD initiated by then New York City Mayor Seth Low.

On June 15, 1904, more than 1,300 members of New York City’s Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), which included the majority of the R. Hoe & Co.’s workforce, boarded a PS General Slocum passenger steamboat owned by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company to spend the day at Locust Grove on the Long Island Sound. As the steamboat passed East 90th Street on the East River, it became engulfed in a ball of flames. More than 1,020 people died by the time the boat finally docked. Due to the tragedy, within the next few years the entire neighborhood collapsed.

As is common after death, Rav Joseph was honored by many of the Jews who often withheld his praises. These same Jews competed to have the Rav interred in their cemeteries. Ultimately, Congregation Adath Israel on Eldridge Street gave the widowed Rebbetzin Esther Rachel an immediate deposit of $1,000 and an additional $10 weekly for some years. She passed away in 1925 and was buried beside Rav Joseph. Congregation Beis HaMidrash HaGadol, the controlling shul of the Association, prevailed, and that is where Rav Joseph’s tziyun resides. The landmarked shul at 60-64 Norfolk Street, once a church, was the site of Rav Joseph’s rise to the helm, and a space where he often preached was also the site of his final respects until his aron was ferried to Queens, where 40 rabbanim eulogized and protected the late gaon. In 2017, the shul was destroyed by a fire; it had not been in use for some time.

The Rav’s legacy was marked locally with the establishment of Rabbi Jacob Joseph School (RJJ), now in Staten Island and New Jersey, with over 1,200 talmidim, as well as internationally by his work L’Beis Yaakov (Vilna 1888). Markedly, in 1886, the Rav established Etz Chaim Yeshiva in the Lower East Side, which had evolved into the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. Rav Jospeh was famously survived by his grandson, six-time New York State Senator and New York City Comptroller Lazarus Joseph, who pushed for aggressive kosher meat laws in the city.

A playground at Henry and Rutgers Streets originally designed for the schoolchildren, honors the Rav’s great-grandson, Lazarus’ son, and his namesake, Capt. Jacob Joseph, a Columbia University junior, who passed away at 22 in action at Guadalcanal while in service as a US Marine during World War II. Notably, Joseph was the youngest Marine Corps captain.

In Sullivan County, Captain Jacob Joseph Memorial Chapel at Camp Keowa, part of New York City’s Ten Mile River Boy Scout Camps, also stands as tribute, where every August a Kaddish service is conducted. Chana Anna Brody, the Josephs’ eldest daughter, was buried not far from the Union Field Cemetery – at the New Mount Carmel Cemetery (Glendale, Queens). Dr. Simon Robert, Rav Joseph’s son-in-law and personal physician, was close to the couple. His wife, Nechama Dorothy Schultz was RJJ’s longtime office manager until she was niftar in 1963, always personifying the traits of philanthropy instilled by her parents. While Young Israel synagogues pride themselves on large minyanim, Rav Joseph was part of the “shtiebelization” of America, where each shul operates on its own accord. This practice proudly lives on throughout America’s cities.

By Shabsie Saphirstein