Ridgwood, Queens, NY - Thousands Attend Gravesite Of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph Zt'l On 107 Yahrzeit
Ridgwood, Queens, NY - Thousands are participating in prayer visits, reciting Tehillim, at the gravesite of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph, in Union Field Cemetery, 82-11 Cypress Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, not far from Williamsburg, today Thursday, 24 Tammuz, July 16. on the 107 Yahrzeit.
Last year, on the yahrzeit, buses came from Williamsburg and elsewhere, bringing visitors to the cemetery. The usually quiet and tranquil spot was suddenly busy with people rushing to the gravesite of the chief rabbi. People packed the area of the tombstone. Included were many rabbis and their congregants, Chassidishe Rebbes with their disciples, and Roshei Yeshiva and their students, praying and jostling for standing room in the immediate vicinity.
NY Times article from 1902 report of the passing of Rabbi Joseph ZT’l [PDF file]
Hundreds of candles were lit, intensifying the day’s heat. Thousands of tearful prayers of supplicants were heard all day long, beseeching Hashem to answer all tefillos and ease their oppressive burdens.
Rabbi Jacob Joseph was born in Krozhe Province of Kovno. He studied at the yeshiva in Volozhin under Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, zt"l (1810-1883), and was elected as Rav of Vilon, Yurburg, and Zhagovy before becoming Maggid and acting Rav of Vilna in 1883. A brilliant Talmudist, Rabbi Joseph was especially known for his exceptional homiletical talents.
A Chief Rabbi Is Sought
When Rabbi Avraham Yosef Asch, zt"l (1813- 1887), first Rav of Beis Medrash HaGadol of the Lower East Side, passed away, a new Rav was sought. There was a common consensus that organizing the many congregations in New York City under one banner was urgently needed and a decision was made by the 15 most prominent kehillos to appoint a Chief Rabbi. Requests were sent to the leading rabbis of Europe, the seat of religious Jewry at that time, for recommendations of candidates. Several outstanding applicants were considered. A delegation was dispatched to Europe and consulted with its leading rabbis for an appointment of a Chief Rabbi of towering Torah and personal stature for New York’s large and growing Jewish community. Rabbi Yaakov Joseph’s name was repeatedly suggested.
A Chief Rabbi Is Selected
After much careful deliberation, the position was offered to and accepted by Rabbi Yaakov Joseph, zt"l (1840-1902), then de-facto Rav of Vilna. Fifteen leading New York City observant congregations invited Rabbi Joseph to leave Vilna and serve as the official Chief Rabbi of New York City. Rabbi Joseph was offered an annual remuneration of $2,500, a princely sum in those days, a large prestigious apartment, and the allegiance of most of America’s observant congregations. In addition, Rabbi Joseph was presented with $5,000, a veritable fortune, as a signing bonus to settle debts he personally incurred on behalf of the indigent he privately sustained.
The Chief Rabbi Arrives
On Shabbos Parshas Matos-Masei, July 7, 1888 the trans-Atlantic ship Allaire docked at Hoboken, New Jersey. After Havdalah, at approximately 10:00 p.m., the new Chief Rabbi was taken to the nearby Myers Hotel by horse-drawn carriage. The leaders of the congregations that joined in appointing the Chief Rabbi, as well as more than 100,000 people, crowded the streets for an opportunity to catch a first glimpse of him, all detailedly reported by the daily newspapers of the time. Hoboken had never before seen such a large crowd.
The Chief Rabbi delivered his first public speech in New York on Shabbos Nachamu, July 28. Beis Medrash HaGadol at 60 Norfolk Street of the Lower East Side of Manhattan was filled to capacity, standing room only, and tens-of-thousands stood outside. Police were necessary for crowd control. Beis Medrash HaGadol, established in 1852, is still at its original location.
Sadly, Rabbi Joseph was accorded great honor only twice during his tenure as Chief Rabbi. When he arrived in 1888, noting that more than a 100,000 people gathered to welcome him, The New York Times heralded him as an ecclesiastical giant in describing his grand arrival and royal reception.
For months, New York City newspapers continued to report about the huge attendances for his weekly Shabbos sermons. When he passed away in 1902, more than 120,000 people participated in his funeral, the largest New York City had ever seen. His bier was carried through the streets of Manhattan and taken by boat across the East River to Queens.
With the current continuing upsurge of travel abroad to visit burial sites of great tzaddikim across Europe, it is gratifying that many fervently observant Jews here are focusing on tzaddikim that have made great sacrifices in the United States. They literally gave their lives so that following generations would have a greater likelihood of successfully achieving full religious observance.
Until very recently the gravesite of the former Chief Rabbi was neglected and visited by very few. An upsurge of interest in Jewish history amongst observant Jews has opened the gates to reviewing and assessing those that were here before us. The sacrifices of the Chief Rabbi, in particular, as well as the sacrifices of other great rabbis and fervent Jews, are being more fully appreciated and the Chief Rabbi’s gravesite is now visited by many throughout the year.
Appreciation must be given to the Committee to Visit Holy Sites in America and Canada, led by noted Jewish historian Rabbi Yonah Landau, and to Professor Marvin Schick, President of Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph, for their continued tremendous exertions in honor of Rabbi Yaakov Joseph.
Rabbi Landau has been actively leading groups throughout the United States and Canada to visit gravesites of Rabbis, Chassidishe Rebbes, and Roshei Yeshiva, some almost unknown today, that contributed significantly, at great personal expense, to today’s Yiddishkeit in America.
Dr. Marvin Schick, in addition to serving as president of the Yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph schools, with a current enrollment of almost 2,000 students, kindergarten through kollel, is a noted educator, author, respected community activist and prolific writer on Jewish affairs.
May Heaven reward all those that labor to honor the New York’s first Chief Rabbi, and may all prayers at his gravesite be answered.
Who Else Is There?
While at the cemetery, many will visit the nearby gravesites of other notable rabbis, roshei yeshiva, and religious leaders. Many came to visit their own ancestors who were buried there. Mendel Beilis, z"l (1872-1934), who was arrested and tried for ritual murder in the infamous blood libel trial in Kiev in 1911, is also buried nearby. The court personally exonerated him but the charge of blood libel against Jews was left on the books intact. Beilis later immigrated to the United States and died on Tammuz 24, the 32nd yahrzeit of the Chief Rabbi.
Not far from Rabbi Joseph’s grave is the burial site of Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Asch, zt"l (1813- 1887), first Rav of Beis Medrash HaGadol of the Lower East Side. In the adjoining Mount Judah Cemetery, which is within very short walking distance, are the tombstones of Rabbi Avrohom Pam, zt"l (1913‑2001), Rosh Yeshiva Torah Vodaath; Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, zt"l (1890-1986), Rosh Yeshiva Torah Vodaath; Rabbi Dovid Liebowitz, zt"l (1889-1941), Rosh Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim; Rabbi Dovid Halberstam, zt"l (d. 1935), Sokolover Rebbe; Rabbi Avrohom Asch, zt"l; and Rabbi Reuven Grozovsky, zt"l (1896-1958), Rosh Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, as well as the widow, a"h, of the Chofetz Chaim, zt"l, amongst many other notables.
Beis Medrash HaGadol Of The Lower East Side
On Thursday, June 13, 1852, Beis HaMedrash HaGadol was established at 60 Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Its first Rav was Rabbi Avrohom Yosef Asch, zt"l (1813- 1887), who arrived in the United States in 1852. At that time the Jewish congregations of New York City and elsewhere were beginning to grow and prosper. The Rav of the shul today is Rabbi Menachem Zvi Greenbaum, son-in-law of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, zt"l (1914-2003), Kovna Rav, author of Sheilos U’Teshuvos Mima’akim, Churban Lita, and The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry, and Rav of Beth Medrash HaGadol for more than 50 years.
Visiting Holy Sites In The United States
The organization and promotion of visiting the Chief Rabbi’s gravesite is, to a large degree, the continuing intensive efforts of Rabbi Yonah Landau, Chairman of the Committee to Visit Jewish Holy Sites in America.
Rabbi Landau published his Yiddish biography of the Chief Rabbi, entitled “Rav HaKollel.” The two-volume work was begun almost 15 years ago with a series of articles in Der Yid telling the story of the Chief Rabbi, his education in the then great yeshivas in Eastern Europe, his successive service as chief rabbi in several leading European cities, and his election to the Chief Rabbinate of New York City. Rabbi Landau continues his weekly column in Der Yid focusing on religious Jewish life here in the United States at the beginning of the 1900s.
The articles about the Chief Rabbi were re-edited and combined with intensive and extensive new research and compiled into a fascinating two-volume book. This is the second publication by Rabbi Landau. His first, Kivrei Tzaddikim, is a compilation of his articles and letters to the editor that appeared in Yiddish newspapers discussing visits to Jewish holy sites in the United States and in Canada.
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