I’m prompted to rephrase the second half of the old adage, “From Moses to Moses there was none like Moses” – referring to Moses of the Bible and Moses Maimonides – to read, “From Moses to Moses there was none like our Moses.”
Moses I. Feuerstein was a dynamic, unique leader in American Orthodox Jewish history. I write as a disciple does of his mentor – I succeeded him as president of the Orthodox Union – and as one of the first who understood the importance and greatness of this charismatic individual.
With his passing on February 23, the Feuersteins lost a husband and a father. And I lost one of my greatest teachers and dearest friends.
Throughout Moe’s tenure leading the Orthodox Union, he remained at home, in Brookline, Massachusetts. For this reason, he required a friend he could trust to discuss matters of kashruth, mechitzah, and broader Jewish politics and relay his decisions to the other officers and many individuals outside of our organization. More often than not, I was this close friend, and on many occasions accompanied him when he left Brookline to lend strength and inspiration to Jewish communities across the country.
When Moe took over the presidency of the OU in 1954, the Orthodox Jewish community was virtually nonexistent. This was less than a decade after the Holocaust. The survivors arriving on America’s shores looking to rebuild their lives did not have the heart or the will to form the infrastructures necessary for functioning Orthodox communities.
The Orthodox establishment of the day suffered from an inferiority complex that inhibited it from playing any significant part in American Jewish life. Orthodox rabbis were still primarily Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Russia, Poland and Hungary. The Orthodox lay leadership could not compete with the non-Orthodox leadership of the various organizations that existed at the time.
Besides, the Orthodox lay leadership was too poorly educated (many having no more than a weak Talmud Torah background) to inspire a new generation growing up in America.
By great fortune, Moses I. Feuerstein appeared on the scene and, knowingly or not, created a tsunami. The Orthodox Jewish community began to speak in a unified voice and place American-born rabbis – mostly from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary – in communities that surely would have crumbled without multi-institutional support.
Moe was the first to articulate clearly the need for Orthodox rabbis and lay leaders to move from the back of the room to the front. He convened conferences to let the world hear Orthodoxy’s new voice.
Spending most of his time in the Boston area, Moe developed a very close relationship with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known fondly in our circles as the Rav. It was during Moe’s administration that the Orthodox Union appointed the Rav as its official halachik decider.
Moe himself discussed a wide variety of halachic, social, and political matters with the Rav. To offer just one example, when the Roman Catholic Church’s Vatican II reversed longstanding anti-Semitic teachings, there was a big push for interfaith dialogue. But the Rav felt strongly that discussion between Christians and Jews should be limited to nonreligious subjects, and Moe and the Orthodox Union followed the Rav’s directive.
Due greatly to Moe Feuerstein’s initiative, the Rav remained a fixture in Orthodox Union policy making. I can testify that in my years as president of the OU immediately following Moe’s tenure, I consulted with the Rav several times a week on various issues.
Mention should also be made of Moe’s incredible generosity. Many are familiar with Moe’s brother, Aaron Feuerstein, and the millions of dollars he spent keeping all his 3,000 Malden Mills employees on the payroll after a fire destroyed much of the factory in 1995. While Aaron’s actions are admirable, they represent the kindness that defines the entire Feuerstein family. Aside from the considerable financial contributions they made to all sorts of institutions, stories abound in Boston’s Jewish community of the pleasure Moe and his beloved wife, Shirley, took in inviting guests into their home.
Moe was audacious and fearless, and with his charm, smile and energy emerged as the recognized spokesman of Orthodox Jewry in America at so many decision-making conferences. Convinced that Orthodoxy had a future in America, he insisted that Jewish laymen wear yarmulkes at all times, and wear them with a great sense of pride.
Certainly, he received criticism from time to time. Yet whenever some oppositional force would dare to confront Moses I. Feuerstein, that party invariably left the meeting dazzled by Moe’s unique personality.
Of course, these talents were his calling card as a leader in Torah Umesorah, the Boston Jewish community and several other philanthropic institutions with which he was significantly involved. It was always very clear, however, which institution received the lion’s share of Moe’s communal life. Indeed, just as his biblical namesake became the spokesman of his people, so did our Moses in his 12 years of leadership in the Orthodox Union.
Most important, he laid the groundwork for the development of an Orthodox laity that would carry on his unforgettable work through the 20th and 21st centuries. Yehi zichro baruch.
Reprinted from The Jewish Press. Rabbi Joseph Karasick was president of the Orthodox Union from 1966-1972 and chairman of its Board of Directors from 1972-1978. He continues to be heavily involved in all phases of the Orthodox Jewish community.