This week, the Jewish world lost a genuine Jewish visionary and leader with the passing of Rabbi Joseph Karasick, zt”l. An extraordinary lay leader, eloquent speaker, erudite rabbinic scholar and successful businessman, Rabbi Karasick and his late wife, Pepa, were outstanding contributors to the flourishing of American Orthodoxy in the second half of the twentieth century.
Born in Minsk in 1922, Rabbi Karasick settled in San Francisco the following year with his family. He crossed the country to attend Yeshiva University, graduating in 1943. He continued on to the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), where he became a devoted disciple of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the Rav), receiving his rabbinic ordination in 1945. Rabbi Karasick assumed the pulpit of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal, a prominent congregation. Shortly thereafter, he left the position to go into business. He joined the board of the Orthodox Union in the late 1950s, during a period when the future of Orthodoxy was far from assured.
At the time, American Orthodoxy suffered from a lack of organization, leadership and vision, and predictions of its demise were phrased in terms of “when,” not “if.” Confronted with these challenges, the OU and a group of dedicated and talented individuals who shared its mission helped turn the tide. At the forefront was Rabbi Karasick.
“For many decades, Rabbi Karasick has served as the model of American Orthodox lay leadership. To me and to others of his successors, he taught that the joy and satisfaction of communal activism need not displace a primary commitment to family, to personal religious growth, and to professional advancement.”
“Joe Karasick was a giant; he was the OU,” says Rabbi Julius Berman, former OU President. “Guided by the views of his rebbe, the Rav, on the role of Orthodoxy in the Jewish world, Rabbi Karasick brought the OU into the broader Jewish arena as the representatives of Orthodoxy. He successfully pushed for OU involvement in the World Jewish Congress—an achievement he was very proud of.”
Rabbi Karasick quickly rose from Board Member to President of the OU (1966-1972) and later became Chairman of the Board of Directors (1972-1978). Throughout his tenure, he constantly pursed the mission of strengthening Orthodoxy nationally and globally. He grew NCSY into a continent-wide organization, leading the efforts to bring it to Canada and the West Coast. He was particularly invested in strengthening shuls across the US; he and Pepa later endowed the Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick Department of Synagogue and Community Services in the mid-2000s.
“Of all the Divisions of the OU, Rabbi Karasick chose Synagogue Services as the one to be associated with the Karasick name because the American Synagogue was very dear to him,” says Emanuel Adler, OU Vice Chairman, Board of Governors and former Chair of OU Synagogue Services. “At the time of Rabbi Karasick’s Presidency, Orthodoxy generally, and synagogues in particular, faced major challenges, including issues of mechitzah and appropriate synagogue practice. Standards prevalent in large Orthodox enclaves would not necessarily work across the country, but Halachic concerns needed to be paramount. Rabbi Karasick, through his wisdom, practical approach and, most significantly, his close personal association with Rav Soloveitchik, guided the Union as it navigated these issues.”
As OU President, Rabbi Karasick also created the World Conference of Synagogues in Jerusalem, supported Jewish communities in France to remain traditional and religious, and saw the OU through the harrowing days of the Six-Day War, where the OU played a major role in organizing the community-wide rally in Washington.
In addition to his longtime OU involvement, Rabbi Karasick also played significant leadership roles in Yeshiva University, the Conference of Presidents, the Beth Din of America and the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC).
Rabbi Karasick is survived by Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick, George and Denise Karasick, Rabbi Benjy and Bernice Mandel, Alyssa and Baruch Colton, Aviva and Menachem Lipner, Rachel and Azi Mandel (Associate Vice President, OU Board of Directors), Rabbi Aryeh and Batyah Mandel, Ami and Elana Mandel, Rabbi Zev and Shoshana Karasick, Yaakov Karasick, Avi Karasick, Yitzi and Teri Karasick, Rabbi Akiva and Yael Willig, Yaakov and Nomi Friedman, Dr. Tzvi and Tami Plowiss, Yechiel and Chaya Friedman, Shimmy and Shira Karasick, Avigayil and Eli Fink, and many great grandchildren.
Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union, (OU), serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
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