In Search of American Orthodox Jewish History

by | in History

American Orthodoxy has no sense of history. Records are not kept; documents go astray; historic figures who make significant contributions to the rebirth of Orthodoxy . . .  are quickly forgotten.”1 So wrote Yaakov Jacobs, editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Life magazine in the autumn of 1980. Distressed by the dearth of historical data on American Orthodox Jewry, Jacobs proposed the “establishment of an institute for the study of American Orthodox Judaism.” Such an institution, he felt, could document the unique “spiritual and religious life” of the Orthodox Jew in America.

Regrettably, Jacobs’s remarks regarding our poor record-keeping were, by and large, on the mark. If synagogues from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries recorded meeting logs, most did not reach the hands of historians and archivists. There were exceptions, of course. Congregation Shearith Israel began recording minutes and logs close to the time of its founding in the early eighteenth century. Record-keeping was not a novelty to these men and women, many of whom had emigrated from Amsterdam to the New World. Unfortunately, due to the irresponsible caretakers of Shearith Israel’s records, the bulk of the synagogue’s papers begin around the Revolutionary period. By the nineteenth century, Shearith Israel maintained its records in a “small chest.” Eventually, synagogue leaders procured a more spacious room and a formal archive was constructed.2

The minutes of The Eldridge Street Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, currently housed at the Museum at Eldridge Street, have been used by numerous scholars. Nearby, records kept in the nineteenth century by the early heads of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol aided Abraham Karp when he published his important article on New York Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph. Where those records traveled after Karp’s essay remains a mystery to scholars of American Judaism.3

Unlike many Orthodox shuls and institutions, the stately Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan’s Upper East Side has maintained meeting minutes since the turn of the century. Photo: Howard Roy Katz

But these shuls are the exceptions. When historian Dr. Jenna Joselit published her important study of Orthodox Jews during the interwar years, she found that “Orthodox synagogues tended to be notoriously poor record-keepers and failed, for the most part, to maintain a watchful eye over the documents of their past.” Joselit must have been heartened to find that the stately Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun of the Upper East Side maintained meeting minutes since the turn of the century.  Moreover, the synagogue’s longtime leader, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein, kept his own papers in good condition. The synagogue has made its historical resources available to scholars since the 1980s. In 1997, in commemoration of its 125th anniversary, it formally organized its records into a manageable archive.4

Yet, there was little available for study at the synagogue’s counterpart, The Jewish Center, located on the Upper West Side. To be sure, information on the earliest years of The Jewish Center and its founding rabbi were used in a biography on Mordecai Kaplan. However, the vast majority of the holdings and correspondence that were maintained by Kaplan’s successor Rabbi Leo Jung, who served the synagogue for over six decades, were reportedly “destroyed in a flood in the basement of the Jewish Center.”5

More often than not, biographers of leading Orthodox rabbis have relied on papers made available to them by the subjects’ families. The same holds true for Orthodox schools. Rare is the institution that keeps track of its documents, and even rarer is the one that deposits its records in an archive once it is through. Researchers of twentieth-century Orthodoxy with an interest in yeshivot such as Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin or Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn have just a few pieces of secondary literature to consult.6

Leaders of the Orthodox Union, founded in 1898, never recorded their activities. In his institutional biography of the OU, Saul Bernstein diplomatically stated that “throughout its existence, the Orthodox Union has been too busy with its many activities to concern itself with archives or a systematized retention of records.”

Telegram from the OU to President Richard Nixon during the Yom Kippur War, in October 1973, urging the president to “assure that Israel may defend itself.” Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Jacobs Papers, 15/2

Similarly, when Rabbi Louis Bernstein published his history of the Rabbinical Council of America, established in 1935, he noted that “there is no written material remaining from the first three years of the organization’s existence. Even afterwards, minutes were maintained haphazardly, some scrawled in pencil. A filing system was introduced only in 1950.”7

An interesting exception is Torah Umesorah, the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools. “Almost from its inception, Torah Umesorah’s staff members sensed their impending historic significance by preserving minutes, correspondences, reports, memoranda, news releases and clippings, and published materials,” wrote researcher Doniel Zvi Kramer. “All of these items were made available to me without any selective screening, and I freely utilized my unimpeded access to all files and archival collections.” However, one suspects that he did not have free access to all papers. Kramer’s analysis lacks heft and depth and omits vital discussions—perhaps the greatest value of a critical study of Torah Umesorah—of how right-wing Orthodox leaders such as Rabbi Aharon Kotler interacted with Modern Orthodox lay leaders. My suspicions were confirmed recently when I personally reviewed some of the remaining Torah Umesorah papers and found important letters written by Rabbi Kotler that were not referred to in Kramer’s dissertation.8

One particularly curious case is the Agudath Harabbonim, an important organization during the first decades of the past century, which for a long time historians believed never kept many records. However, in 2010 a 490-page ledger of the organization’s meeting minutes was sold at an auction to an anonymous bidder. If and when those logs reach the hands of researchers we will know more about the Agudath Harabbonim’s historical sensibilities.9

When the late Dr. Benny Kraut completed his institutional biography of Yavneh, an educational and social organization that served Orthodox collegians from 1960 to 1981, he described how he came across the majority of his primary materials. He and a colleague rescued “nineteen boxes of Yavneh documentary archival material . . . from the second floor of the Manhattan Mizrachi building, which we had been told was destined to be sold. That entire floor, unheated and without electricity, was a dumping ground for innumerable filing cabinets and boxes of material of several defunct organizations.”

Kraut’s experience resonates with my own adventure documenting the early history of NCSY, the OU’s youth group. Without materials to access at the OU, I found my primary archive in the home of a former NCSY national director in Lakewood, New Jersey. Rabbi Pinchas Stolper had saved his files and upon retirement had them transported to his stuffy garage. I spent many hours lugging thirteen heavy boxes back and forth, hoping my efforts might help preserve a small piece of American Jewish history. My other sources came from local archives, including collections in Charleston, Minneapolis and Savannah.10

Remarks of OU President Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein at the 1929 OU national convention in New York City, where he notes that one of the main problems confronting American Jews is keeping the Sabbath. “I have been in touch with labor leaders,” Rabbi Goldstein states in his speech. “I am happy to report that in the fur industry, no furrier must work on the Sabbath . . . a forty-hour work week has been instituted.”
Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Koenigsberg Papers, 9/1

I count myself very fortunate. By and large, little about American Orthodoxy has been explored outside of the New York area. Not many Orthodox institutions outside of the Tri-State hub maintained records. (One beaming exception is Brith Sholom Beth Israel of Charleston, South Carolina.) Indeed, the few critical studies of Orthodoxy beyond Gotham have gravitated toward institutions that boast some sort of archive. One example is Rabbi Dr. Seth Farber’s history of the Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusettes. But that is an exception.11

And what of Yaakov Jacobs’s proposal to establish a repository to ensure that synagogues, organizations and Orthodox leaders have a place to deposit their important papers? Certainly researchers of American Orthodoxy have found much in the holdings of the American Jewish Historical Society (established in 1892) and the American Jewish Archives (founded in 1947). In fact, Jacobs’s idea was preceded by two institutions, but neither had solidly established itself at the time of his writing. The first attempt was made by Yeshiva University in the 1970s. Before then, historians of YU and its affiliates scrambled to unearth useful material in abandoned cabinets and boxes. In 1962, efforts were made by student leaders to furnish microfilm copies of the Yeshiva College newspaper, described as “the only existing written history of this institution.”12  But this effort was minimal.13

The lack of institutional records was felt by two doctoral students in the 1950s. Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman completed his dissertation on the history of Yeshiva University and lamented that “unearthing Yeshiva’s beginnings was a difficult task.” Rabbi Aaron Rothkoff found even fewer institutional resources as he documented the life of the school’s first president, Rabbi Bernard Revel. If not for Sarah Revel who made her late husband’s papers and correspondence available, Rabbi Rothkoff would not have been able to construct a critical biography.14

YU finally began preserving its institutional history in 1977 after the school received a four-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to establish an archive. The archive opened with thirty collections, most of which concerned the institution’s internal history and other American Jewish organizations. Bernard Leibtag, YU’s capable archivist, hoped to accumulate more materials and believed that Yeshiva’s archive could “become one of the major Jewish archives in America.”15

However, YU’s archives were closed shortly after they were opened. In 1984, the archives reopened thanks to a generous donation from Ludwig and Erica Jesselson. When archivist Dr. Roger Kohn was hired, he came to “a room that looked like an obstacle course, with boxes all over the floor” and “papers falling out of boxes.” Today, Yeshiva University Archives, under the stewardship of Shulamith Z. Berger, boasts 400 collections that measure to over 7,000 linear feet of materials.16

A 1964 memorandum issued by former OU President Moses Feuerstein calling for a “Sabbath of Prayer for Soviet Jewry.”
Courtesy of Yeshiva University Archives, Koenigsberg Papers, 9/6

The other archive specializing in American Orthodoxy was founded by Agudath Israel of America. Currently located in its Manhattan offices, the National Orthodox Jewish Archives was conceived by Agudath Israel Chairman Rabbi Moshe Sherer. The idea was first put forward in 1968 but did not gain much traction.17 In a grant request submitted to the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1978, Agudath Israel reviewed the sad state of historical research on American Orthodoxy. “Most studies of American Jews,” it contended, “have been made by people far removed from traditional Judaism” and “a relative scarcity of documentary material to enable even the most objective observer to present an undistorted picture of the ethnic Jewish community and its institutions on the American shore.” Agudath Israel attributed this phenomenon to the American Orthodox pre occupation “with the struggle for fiscal solvency of their institutions. . . In addition, many are unaware of the value of saving documents for study purposes.”

As a gesture of its commitment, Agudath Israel acquired space for its archive and began collecting archival materials. The National Orthodox Jewish Archives requested $200,000 for its archive project. 19

However, Rabbi Sherer and his associates were turned down, receiving instead $2,000 in seed money. Although NEH grant reviewers agreed that “material concerning Orthodox Jewry needs to be preserved,” they felt “that the proposal project was overly ambitious . . . and required more “professional archival expertise of the project staff.” But Rabbi Sherer persevered. He recruited Sybil Milton, a veteran archivist who had formerly served at Stanford University and the Leo Beck Institute, to redraft the NEH proposal. The more modest request asked for $65,000 and provided a more detailed outline for future projects. In 1980, the proposal was accepted by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.20

Agudath Israel hired Rabbi Moshe Kolodny, who had a background in Judaica publishing and had previously taught and served as librarian at Mesivta Rabbi Chaim Berlin, to serve as its archivist. Upon receipt of the grant and the insistence of Milton, members of Agudath Israel visited the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio and were “extremely impressed” to see how professional Jewish archives are run. Agudath Israel’s archive quickly picked up its pace. Consequently, when Yaakov Jacobs’s editorial appeared in Jewish Life, Rabbi Kolodny was quick to inform the writer that his “dream has been realized.” The archivist rattled off some of his holdings and invited Jacobs “to drop in” at his own convenience for a guided tour.21

Rabbi Kolodny’s triumphalism was warranted, but only to a degree. Certainly the steps taken by Agudath Israel’s archive, as well as several others, have helped procure the legacy of American Orthodox Judaism. But the work to catalogue and chronicle the history of American Orthodox Jewry was in no way complete—and is still not today. One suspects that much of American Orthodoxy’s history is packaged in cardboard boxes and steel cabinets in the basements of synagogues and in the garages of retired rabbis and former shul presidents.

What we have now is good, but it is not enough. Scholars of Orthodoxy were tragically reminded of that on May 6, 1988, when a fire ripped through the National Orthodox Jewish Archives, destroying nearly all of the archive’s books and photographs and nearly half of all its documents. Since then, the National Orthodox Jewish Archives has regrouped and rebuilt. The damage, resources so valuable to the recounting of our community’s past, however, can never be retrieved. Let this be a call, then, to all those with access to documents and photographs that tell the story of American Orthodoxy. Let us house these records in a place where they can be studied and examined. If Yaakov Jacobs was correct some thirty years ago, that American Jews have much to learn about their own unique “spiritual and religious lives,” then we require those materials to help educate.22

Notes:

1. Yaakov Jacobs, “A Proposal: Continued,” Jewish Life 4 (fall 1980): 6-7.

2. David and Tamar de Sola Pool, An Old Faith in the New World: Portrait of Shearith Israel, 1654-1954 (New York, 1955), 279-83. On Dutch Jewry’s record-keeping, see Stefan Litt, Pinkas, Kahal, and the Mediene: The Records of Dutch Ashkenazi Communities in the Eighteenth Century as Historical Sources (Leiden, Holland, 2008), 1-11.

3. Abraham J. Karp, “New York Chooses a Chief Rabbi,” Publications of the American Jewish History Society 44 (March 1955): 129-98.

4. Jenna Weissman Joselit, New York’s Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years (Bloomington, IN, 1990), 151.

5. Louis Bernstein, “The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate” (PhD diss., Yeshiva University, 1977); Jeffrey S. Gurock and Jacob J. Schacter, A Modern Heretic and a Traditional Community: Mordecai M. Kaplan, Orthodoxy, and American Judaism (New York, 1997).

6. See Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, The Silver Era in American Jewish Orthodoxy: Rabbi Eliezer Silver and his Generation (Jerusalem, 1981); Aaron I. Reichel, The Maverick Rabbi: Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein and the Institutional Synagogue—“A New Organizational Form” (Norfolk, 1984); and Moshe D. Sherman, “Bernard Illowy and Nineteenth Century American Orthodoxy” (PhD diss., Yeshiva University, 1991).

7. See Saul Bernstein, The Orthodox Union Story: A Centenary Portrayal (Northvale, NJ, 1997), xi; Louis Bernstein, Challenge and Mission: The Emergence of the English Speaking Orthodox Rabbinate (New York, 1982), 7; and Shulamith Z. Berger, “The Early History of the Young Israel Movement” (Paper presented at a seminar at the YIVO Institute, New York, NY, fall 1982).

8. See Doniel Zvi Kramer, The Day Schools and Torah Umesorah: The Seeding of Traditional Judaism in America (New York, 1984), xiii.

9. Catalogue of Fine Judaica (Kestenbaum & Co., May 2010), 71.

10. Benny Kraut, The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the Nineteen Sixties (Cincinnati, 2011), xxii.

11. Seth Farber, An American Orthodox Dreamer: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Boston’s Maimonides School (Hanover, MA, 2004), xv; Jeffrey S. Gurock, Orthodoxy in Charleston: Brith Shalom Beth Israel & American Jewish History (Charleston, 2004), xiii. See also Benny Kraut, German-Jewish Orthodoxy in an Immigrant Synagogue: Cincinnati’s New Hope Congregation (New York, 1998).

12.  “Microfilming Commentator,” The Commentator, 4 December 1962.

13. Pearl Berger, “Jewish Libraries and Archives in America,” Judaica Librarianship 12 (2006): 17-21.

14. See Gilbert Klaperman, “The Beginnings of Yeshiva University: The First Jewish University in America” (PhD diss., Yeshiva University, 1955), 3-4; Gilbert Klaperman, The Story of Yeshiva University: The First Jewish University in America (London, 1969), x, 191, n.1; and Arnold Rothkoff, “Vision and Realization: Bernard Revel and his Era” (PhD diss., Yeshiva University, 1967), vii. Since Klaperman published his book, record books dating back to the school’s founding in 1886 have been found.

15. “Historical Documents on Jewish Relief Organizations To Be Examined at Yeshiva University Under NEH Grant,” January 19, 1977, YU Records, PR Collection, folder title “Library Collections: Rare Books and Manuscripts, 1949-1978”; and David Fester, “Disorganized YU Archives Recently Revitalized,” Hamevaser, 21 November  1977.

16. David Inslicht, “Library Archives Rejuvenated,” The Commentator, 12 May 1987.

17. David Kranzler, “Needed: An Archive for Torah Jewry,” Jewish Observer 5 (April 1968): 7-10.

18. David Kranzler and Menachem Lubinsky, “Proposal for an Orthodox Jewish Archive,” June 1, 1978, Lubinsky Collection, Folder title “BA42 Proposals for Orthodox Jewish Archive,” National Orthodox Jewish Archives, New York. All later sources for the history of the National Orthodox Jewish Archives can be found in this folder.

19. Morris Sherer, July 3, 1978, Lubinsky Collection; and Barbara Bensoussan, “Chronicling the Community: Inside Agudath Israel’s Archive Room with Rabbi Moshe Kolodny,” Mishpacha Magazine, December 2008, 28.

20. Sybil Milton, “Proposal to Complete Processing of Non-Current Records in Archives of Agudath Israel, January 1980-December 1980,” Lubinsky Collection.

21. “Visit by Menachem Lubinsky to the American Jewish Archives,” October 13, 1980, Lubinsky Collection; and Moshe Kolodny to Yaakov Jacobs, January 29, 1981, Lubinsky Collection.

22. Robert Feinstein, “Recovering from Disaster: The Agudath Israel Archive Rebuilds,” Judaica Librarianship 5 (spring-winter 1989): 32.

Rabbi Zev Eleff is a doctoral candidate at Brandeis University. He also teaches Judaic studies at Maimonides School in Brookline, Massachusetts.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2012.

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