No Dearth of Historical Data

by | in Letters

Rabbi Zev Eleff’s plaintive cry about the (alleged) dearth of historical data on American Orthodox Jewry (“In Search of American Orthodox Jewish History,” fall 2012) paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture.

While citing many individuals and organizations that shared their material with him, except for a passing reference to a paper presented at a YIVO conference by Shulamith Z. Berger entitled “The Early History of the Young Israel Movement,” no mention is made of that international Orthodox Jewish organization which has thousands of pages of documentary material about Orthodox Jewish life in America over the past century.

I write with authority as an editor and chief researcher of Young Israel at 100: An American Response to the Challenges of Orthodox Living 1912-2012, published this year. To quote briefly from the author’s forward, “In researching this book, the publication team has pored over thousands of pages of documents, including meeting minutes, memoranda, letters and publications dating from Young Israel’s earliest days.” This 237–page volume—there is enough material for a book three or four times this size—highlights the plight of Orthodoxy in America at the time of the organization’s formation and details how the movement set in motion a transformation that saved Torah Judaism in pre-World War II America.

Even before the publication of this volume, there was a doctoral dissertation by Rabbi David Warshaw on Young Israel’s first twenty-five years and the seminal work Orthodox Jews in America by Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock which details Orthodox Judaism in America from the seventeenth century to 2009. Perusing any of this material would do much to fill the lacunae of which Rabbi Eleff erroneously speaks.

Joel Saibel
Deerfield Beach, Florida

Rabbi Zev Eleff Responds
I am grateful that Mr. Saibel raises readers’ attention to Dr. Jeffrey Gurock’s work. Dr. Gurock is a master scholar and one of my mentors, and his research fills footnotes in many of my own publications, including my recent essay in Jewish Action. Due to space considerations, a fuller appreciation for Dr. Gurock’s work was deleted from the final version of that article. Unquestionably, Dr. Gurock’s prodigious work lightens the load for future scholars of American Orthodoxy. I should also point out that Dr. Gurock was instrumental in bringing the documents of the Young Israel of Parkchester to Yeshiva University’s archives.

It is because we both value Dr. Gurock’s scholarly precision that I hope Mr. Saibel will understand why I disagree with him. I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Saibel and his fellow researchers “pored over thousands of pages of documents.” Unfortunately, however, the historical section of their publication (p. 3-56) lacks notes that would normally indicate archival sources. To be sure, their work contains some new nuggets. For example, the new Young Israel volume contains information on Benjamin Koenigsberg, an important New York-based communal leader. We should thank the authors for this contribution and hope that historians make use of their work as well as of Koenigsberg’s papers located in Yeshiva University’s archives.

Nonetheless, students of the Young Israel movement will find that most of Mr. Saibel’s historical summary is a review of previously published materials. As for Rabbi David Warshaw’s short 1974 master’s thesis (not a doctoral dissertation), a perusal of his bibliography reveals the paucity of primary materials when it comes to Young Israel. Rabbi Warshaw’s fourteen-point index of sources includes mostly newspapers and souvenir volumes that are in reality brief “in-house histories” and not primary sources that date back to the formative years of the Young Israel movement.

While his work is certainly a commendable graduate project, it is doubtful that Rabbi Warshaw intended to conduct the level of research expected of a PhD dissertation. Shulamith Berger’s conference paper remains the most detailed discussion of Young Israel’s early history and contains much of the available primary data.

Finally, I take the opportunity to point out an unfortunate omission in my essay. Dr. Leslie Ginsparg’s 2009 dissertation on Bais Yaakov schools in the United States is very important for what it tells us about Orthodox young women in the twentieth century. Her work is also a stellar example of how scholars might use yearbooks and photographs to give voice to some of the more silent voices in American Jewish history.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2012 .

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