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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Cities with (Unofficial) Chief Rabbis in America

Lately I've been reading a lot through the archives of the American Jewish Year Book (published since 1899-1900, initially if I'm not mistaken by the Jewish Publication Society of America and later by the American Jewish Committee). They have a huge number of interesting "blasts from the past," including demographic/cultural/political data, lists of national (and earlier on [pre-1927], local) Jewish organizations, reviews of events in the year in the Jewish world and interesting ``special articles" on numerous topics. One such article, from the 1965 year book, gives an overview of Orthodox Jews in America.

This article, taking up pages 20-96 in that year's Yearbook, is probably worthy of multiple blog posts if I have the time; here's one.

To the extent that [a communal Orthodox structure] existed, however, it was headed by the shtot rov or chief rabbi of each community. This was particularly true outside New York City and Chicago. Cities like Newark, N.J., Boston, Mass., Philadelphia, Pa., Baltimore, Md., Cleveland and Cincinnati, O., Milwaukee, Wis., Springfield, Mass., Rock Island, 111., and Detroit, Mich, each had one rabbi who towered over the Orthodox community; he supervised kosher slaughtering, baking, and the processing of other foods, and presided over the local Jewish court. These were Orthodox leaders par excellence.

Off the top of my head, I can name a handful of these rabbis. For instance, the Baltimore chief rabbi was definitely Rabbi Joseph H. Feldman 1930s-1972 (no real bio of him; his son Emanuel Feldman can in many senses be regarded as the founder of the present Orthodox community in Atlanta and his son Aharon Feldman is the rosh yeshiva of Ner Israel). The Cincinnati chief rabbi was definitely Rabbi Eliezer Silver 1930s-1968, and (I wasn't sure but suspected) apparently the Rav (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik) was in factthe Chief Rabbi of Boston 1932-??? (even though he was the rosh yeshiva of RIETS (Yeshiva University's rabbinical school) from 1941 on).

. Googling, it seems like Yaakov ben Zion Mendelson in Newark, Rabbi Bernard Levinthal (of B'nai Abraham) in Philadelphia, Binyamin Gittelson in Cleveland

2 comments:

Yummy Dummy said...

Correct about R' Mendelson, my great-grandfather. Whether it was official or unofficial is subject to interpretation. He was elected by the leadership of most of the shuls and the shochtim's union to head kashruth for the city. He was also "av beis din," but I don't know when or how that occurred. Either position would possibly be considered "Chief Rabbi."

However, I shoudl note that a few years late R' Joseph Konvitz (son in law of the RIDVAZ and father of Milton Konvitz) formed a separate communal organization, and claimed that he was Chief Rabbi.

There was a lot of bitterness between them, and between the competing national Agudas Harabbonim and Knesses Harabbonim that they belonged to... and kashrus was one of the lynchpins of the organizational conflict as well. The agudah was the creation of the RAMAZ, while the Knessia was put together by the similarly-named R' Gaveriel Zev Margolies, who had more of a European background in leading kehilos.

Yummy Dummy said...

Correct about R' Mendelson, my great-grandfather. Whether it was official or unofficial is subject to interpretation. He was elected by the leadership of most of the shuls and the shochtim's union to head kashruth for the city. He was also "av beis din," but I don't know when or how that occurred. Either position would possibly be considered "Chief Rabbi."

However, I shoudl note that a few years late R' Joseph Konvitz (son in law of the RIDVAZ and father of Milton Konvitz) formed a separate communal organization, and claimed that he was Chief Rabbi.

There was a lot of bitterness between them, and between the competing national Agudas Harabbonim and Knesses Harabbonim that they belonged to... and kashrus was one of the lynchpins of the organizational conflict as well. The agudah was the creation of the RAMAZ, while the Knessia was put together by the similarly-named R' Gaveriel Zev Margolies, who had more of a European background in leading kehilos.