Sunday, April 14, 2019

235 East Broadway - The Lower East Side - An end of an era The former offices of Agudath Harabonim and Ezras Torah

36 hours before crews arrived to gut and remove the contents of this iconic building on the Lower East Side, I received the key and permission to remove the remaining contents/books in the 4 floor building that housed the offices of these great institutions in the last century. What I found was a modern day Cairo Geniza, with files upon files, ephemera, books etc, all pieces of the puzzle known as American Jewry, filling what arguably served as the control room of Orthodox Jewry in the United States.

A team of workers, several van loads of books later followed by several van-loads of Geniza, the following morning at 8:30 am, the demolition team arrived and I tactfully decided that I would be better off outside the building when the walls came down. Unfortunately, much of the files were not retrieved in time. The files have been raided though over the last decades when the building stood vacant and any of the correspondence and documents that had monetary value were looted and now turn up regularly for sale at numerous different auctions and dealers.

The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada (UOR), often called by its Hebrew name, Agudath Harabonim or Agudas Harrabonim ("union of rabbis"), was established in 1901 in the United States and is the oldest organization of Orthodox rabbis in the United States. Among the well-known leaders from the Agudath Harabonim's past are Rabbis Eliezer Silver and Moshe Feinstein. In recent years, the organization has been under the direction of Rabbi Tzvi Meir Ginsberg.

The Ezras Torah Fund was founded in 1915 by members of the Agudas HaRabbanim and the Vaad HaRabbanim of New York. The founding leadership of Ezras Torah was composed of Rabbi Israel Rosenberg, Rabbi Dr. Philip Klein (aka Hillel HaKohen) and Rabbi Yaakov Eskolsky. Rabbi Rosenberg was president until his passing in 1956. Rabbi Klein was treasurer until his passing in 1926. Rabbi Eskolsky was secretary until 1928. The personality who would be most prominently associated with Ezras Torah was Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin. He served as the director of Ezras Torah from the summer of 1925 until his passing in 1973.

This is why you will never find a bookseller with a drug problem, you can get all the highs you need and get your adrenaline pumping with a book-hunt and the aroma of old books.

I will note that I would not put the blame on any specific person or institution for the unfortunate end result. Much of the files were looted by various people over the last decades and after the passing of the last head of the organization, the building's fate was determined by a large board of members, and as is often with such scenarios, it appears that the responsibility did not fall under any specific person and thus it was not taken care of in an organized fashion.

A video of me walking through 235 E Broadway

Many thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Ginsberg and R. Yossel Hoizman for their herculean efforts and assistance in salvaging and preserving what was possible. It should be noted that the Bet Din records were removed earlier and are safe in another location.

 I have yet to unload the van-loads brought in from 235 E Broadway, but took a quick glance at a random ledger and a few random checkbook stubs and was fascinated by the remarkable information within:

The recipients of the funds span all the stripes of the Orthodox Jewish world. Oganizations and rabbinical figures that would never share a meal, appear side by side on pages after pages of records of moneys received, all via the hands of R. Henkin under the auspices of Ezras Torah. I hope in coming days to be able to get a better assessment to be able to convey the nature, diversity, influence and implications of the activities of the Philanthropy and Activism of World Jewry that these records show, but for now, here is a random selection of highlights I noticed.

You can see in the accompanying pictures records of the following recipients of moneys in a ca 1949 check-stub book, the handwriting is generally that of R. Henkin:

Rebbe Eliezer Zusia Portugal of Skulen (1898-1982) receiving money to save children from forced conversions in Romania, sent via the Kopyshnitz Rebbe, at 132 Henry St and requested by Altshtater of Lakewood, NJ
Kollel of Brisk in Eretz Yisrael, for R. Yitzchak Zeev Soloveitchik
Yeshivat Harav Kook and the Diskin Orphanage Home
R. Avraham Baruch Braver requested by the Tzadik of Satmar (sic) R. Yoel Teitelbaum
R. Moshe Shutser of Stanislav
R. David Achowitz of Petah Tikva via R. Yitzchak Hutner
R. Israel Friedman of Husiatyn
Moneys for an ill granddaughter of R. David Wessley of Pressburg
Shlomo Samet of Ujhel who was confined in Ellis Island via Julius Steinfeld
R. Shlomo Zalman Horowitz (Potik Rav) for the Vizhnitzer Family in Israel
Rachel Friedman, an ill righteous refugee requested by Rabbi Ahron Kotler
R. Yitzchak Friedman of Bohush
for Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach and (his mother) Rebbetzin Auerbach
R. Meshulam Feish Levi (Tosh Rebbe?)
and from a 1962 Ledger:
Bene Akiva followed on the next line by R. Ahron Kotler and Moshe Abba Kamyan
Solomon Telushkin, who served as accountant for Ezras Torah (and the Lubavitcher Rebbe), received $250 as payment for his services (Noted author Joseph Telushkin is his son)
Yeshivat Porat Yosef is listed - but apparently received no money, followed by Mir Yeshiva
Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Blau towards publication of his book

and from a 1968 Ledger of Expenditures of Ezras Torah:
R. Matzliah Mazuz of Tunis receiving money for the wedding of his son, R. Meir Mazuz
Chief Rabbis Unterman and Nissim receiving regular payments of $300 each to distribute in Eretz Yisrael
R. Chaim Kanievsky and his father the Steipler receiving regular stipends
R. Michel Feinstein receiving money
R. Yisroel Belsky receiving $200, he was aged 30 at the time
Rebbetzin Kotler receiving a stipend after her husband's passing

Update 5/17/19:
I am excited to report that all the archival material that I was able to retrieve from 235 E Broadway has been acquired by the Mendel Gottesman Library at Yeshiva University.

Many thanks to the librarian Zvi Erenyi and the archivist Shuli Berger for their tireless efforts to get this done and for their efforts in general for the preservation of the Jewish Book.

An American Rebbe calls on NY Jews to eat Machine Matzah, Guest post by Zalman Alpert

Guest Post by Zalman Alpert, Judaica Reference Librarian at the Gottesman Library of Yeshiva University from 1982–2014

Several years ago my friend the late Rabbi Aaron Yakov Brandwein the Stretiner Rebbe of Boro Park
Z"L published a work by his relative Rabbi Isaac Langner the Stretiner Rebbe of the Lower East Side called Kan Zippor a Kabbalistic commentary on some kapitlech of Tehillim.

Rabbi Brandwein was a fascinating man who earned a living as a stock broker and was featured in the NY Times business section, including a picture with beard and peyoth. He also had an important collection of Judaica books and manuscripts. Past middle age, he opened a Beth Medrash and became a Rebbe His son leads the shul today. Rabbi Langner was an early Chasidic rebbe in the US and resided in the Lower East Side, on 115 Lewis Street and was well known among the Galician Jews there.

The book also includes an extensive biography of the Rebbe by my friend Rabbi Hershel Schwartz a master editor, writer and stylist as well as a serious talmid chacham. Rabbi Schwartz has penned important works such as a biographical study of Rabbi Yeshaya Steiner of Kerestir.

The Stretiner Rebbe

The Stretiner Rebbe, promoting the Machine Matzah

Title page of קן צפור 

As we all know the 19th century witnessed a major dispute over the innovation of machine matzo.
The Chassidic community vehemently opposed these matzo, with the opposition led by the Divre Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz, many of the Galician rabbonim were also opposed led by Rabbi Shlomo Kluger.

On the other hand many of the Ashkenazi Hungarian rabbis were supportive including the Ksav Sofer, Rabbi Shmuel Binyamin Sofer.  Many German rabbis also supported the machine led by the Aruch leNer Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger.

I am unsure of the consensus opinion of the Litvishe rabbonim,but I doubt they were opposed, as a matter of fact the person who popularized machine matzo, Rabbi Ber Manischewitz of Cincinnati was allegedly a disciple of Rabbi Israel Salanter.

To this day the Perushim in Jerusalem eat machine matzo. Other groups that also do are The Breuers kehillah and a broad swath of the yeshiva community. Until the early 1980's the Vienner kehillAH Adas Yereim baked machine matzo. In the last 25 years the Ashkenazi Hungarian charedim have become neo-hasidic, even changing their nusach hatefilla and their Rav is now a Rebbe too.
Yet as far as I can tell no Rebbe has ever sanctioned machine matzo.

But Rabbi Schwartz records a unique event, in 1927, the certifying Rabbi of Goodmans machine matzo Co, Rabbi David Frankel of the Dukler Shul invited the Stretiner Rebbe to review the baking process there. The Rebbe did indeed do this, and although he was not involved in the hashgocha, he published a Kol Kore in the Yiddish Press calling upon NY Jews to purchase these matzos as everything there was kedeboei, in full conformance to Halacha.

Given the poverty of the Jewish Lower East Side and the unavailability and expense of hand Matzo, the Rebbe made sure that these Goodman's Matzo were under the hashgocha of a Chasidic Rav, related to the Kosyon and Zidichocv dynasties, and were in proper order.

Goodmans continued its Chasidic supervision to my childhood days, as the Rav Hamachsir was Rabbi Mendele Chodorov of the Bronx known as the Talner Vishnitzer Rebbe. Today Goodman's is part of the Manischewitz company, but interestingly, until several years ago Manischewitz was supervised by my good friend the Bostoner Rebbe of Lawrence, NY, Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz.
By now, most Charedim are in the hand matzo camp, but as mentioned, machine shmura is still baked and eaten.
I recall reading that the late Belzer Rav after arriving in Israel adjured his followers not to refer to machine matzo as chametz.
There is much more to be written on this subject and much has in fact been published a good article is by Dr Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University.

The Halitzah shoe of Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin

This past week, I acquired much from the remaining contents of the former offices of Ezras Torah, which were located for many decades on the upper floors of 235 E Broadway, on the Lower East Side, sharing the building with Agudas Harabonim of America and Canada. The highlight for me of my finds there, alongside many other items of historical importance, was a Halitzah Shoe, found in the room used as an office by Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (1881–1973), during his many decades as director of Ezras Torah, a position he held from 1925 until his death in 1973.

Rav Henkin's grandson, R. Eitam Henkin hy"d wrote of his grandfather, that for many decades, despite all the difficulties and obstacles he encountered, Rav Henkin would work 6 days a week and climb the stairs up to the third floor to this office. In the late 1960s, when his health deteriorated, he would work on the first floor, in the offices of the Agudas Harabonim and in the last period of his life, when his health limited his mobility, he would continue his work on behalf of the Jewish People from his home. 

This shoe, which appears to be 100-150 years old is a fascinating memento from the illustrious career of R. Henkin and particularly the post-war years in which R. Henkin served as the ultimate Rabbinic authority in the United States. Already in 1928, Rav Henkin published articles regarding the issues of Halitzah in America, where women who needed a Halitzah to allow them remarry, often led to Agunot issues, if the brothers of her late husband lived in the old world. Visas were very hard to obtain, even if the brother was willing to come to America for the ceremony. Prior to R. Henkin, the Agudath HaRabbanim dealt with this issue as well and sent a letter to its membership in 1922 alerting them to this situation and offering assistance in helping these women acquire temporary visas to the United States thereby allowing these women to obtain a halitzah and to remarry.

Following the Holocaust, many surviving agunot, had their status complicated if they were married before the war and none of the brothers of their late husband were known to have survived. Under the Biblical system of levirate marriage known as yibbum, the process by which a childless widow and a brother of her deceased husband avoid getting married entails the ceremony of Halitzah. R. Henkin was instrumental in releasing many of these women from marriage as well as the many other Halitzah ceremonies which he performed.

The Halitzah shoe is unique in many ways, and to satisfy the multitude of different opinions as to how it should be made and how the ceremony is performed, the shoe has many peculiarities. This handmade shoe is made from leather from a kosher animal, the sole is sewn in from the outside with leather threads and the straps are leather as well. The straps are unusually long, to enable them to be wrapped around the leg several times, including on the back of the shoe, where holes are cut out, to enable the straps to be inserted. The shoe is not made in pairs, rather is a right foot shoe only.