Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The 1908 Student Strike at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary: A Newly Discovered Document

The 1908 Student Strike at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary: A Newly Discovered Document
By Eli Genauer
I would like to thank Dr Zev Eleff for his invaluable assistance in helping me frame this article. I would also like to thank Sharon Horowitz of the Library of Congress for providing research assistance.
The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), present day Yeshiva University, was officially founded on March 20, 1897. RIETS was the first unequivocally Orthodox Jewish seminary on American soil.  Initially, its mission was entirely religious, limited “to promote the study of the Talmud and to assist in educating and preparing students of the Hebrew faith for the Hebrew Orthodox Ministry.”[1] RIETS’ first years were difficult ones.  It did not move into a building of its own until 1904.[2] Additionally, RIETS faced difficulty meeting its financial obligations.  including a student stipend. As a result, in 1906, RIET’s was beset by a major student strike. Among the student’s demands was that RIETS expand its mission beyond religious education and they demanded that they be instructed in secular subjects, including learning English.[3] While that strike was settled, another student strike and a lockout occurred over similar issues in May 1908. The strike was ended when changes were promised by the board of directors.  Yet, that settlement proved fleeting.

By August 1908, the students were striking again. The students’ strike received notice from the national press, when on August 19th, the New York Times reported:[4]

the Talmuds are lying idle on the shelves of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at 156 Henry Street, and the drone of the voices of the students as they walked back and forth reading aloud from the Hebrew text is heard no more. For the last few weeks the students have not received the $3.50 a week which they are paid while they are learning to become Rabbis. Consequently, they have gone out on strike. Boruch Shapiro, Louis Mahler and Samuel Broida, the leaders of the demonstration, stationed themselves at the door of the school yesterday and effectively blockaded the entrance of all the smaller boys. Nathan Lamport of the Lamport Manufacturing Supply Company, at 278 Canal Street, president of the school, and David Abramowitz of 47 Forsyth Street, the Secretary, do not know what to do.[5]

On August 20th, citing financial reasons, the board locked out the students and closed the school.[6] As a result of the closure of the school by the board of directors, some of the students and some Rabbinic leaders tried to form a new school called Yeshiva le-’Rabbanim which was designed to address some of the deficiencies of RIETS.[7]

Although the closure of the RIETS has been documented, the August 1908 student strike that led to the closure is not reflected in any published histories discussing the unilateral closing of the school and lockout of the students by the board of directors on August 20th.[8]

One of the difficulties in piecing together exactly what happened during that August 1908 strike, lockout and its immediate aftermath is the dearth of contemporary records. This lacuna is in part attributable to a general lack of documntation of REITS’ early years.  And, “there are no records extant of the Seminary from its inception in 1897 to its merger with Yeshivat Etz Chaim in 1915. Only the Certificate of Incorporation, scattered newspaper accounts, one or two contemporary citations, and passing references in the memoir literature of the time remain as silent witnesses to the great vision and determination of a few men who…created the first Orthodox rabbinical seminary in America.”[9] As an example, in reporting on the August 1908 closure of the school by the board of directors and its aftermath, one scholar quotes mainly from newspaper accounts of the day.[10] There was an important memoir of that period written by Hayim Reuben Rabinowitz, who was an 18 year old student at the time, but Rabinowitz published his account 60 years later.[11]

Recently, however, a contemporaneous account of the events of 1908 has come to light.  This account was discovered as a result of construction at Congregation Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath in Seattle, Washington, when workers came upon a box of papers labeled, “Rabbi B. Shapiro Papers, 1920s-1960’s.” Rabbi Boruch Shapiro (1883-1970) was born in Szmorgon, Lithuania and was recognized as a Talmudic genius (Iluy) at an early age.[12] He was a student of, and received ordination from, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, (Or Sameakh), one of the outstanding rabbinic leaders of his time.[13] While in Dvinsk, R. Shapiro also received ordination from Rabbi Joseph Rozin, known as the “Rogatchover Gaon”.[14]  R. Shapiro immigrated to America in the early 1900’s and visited Seattle in 1913 on a fundraising trip. His visit became permanent when he ended up marrying a local woman, Hinda Gershonowitz and remained in Seattle until his passing in 1970. Rabbi Shapiro is perhaps best remembered as the Rav of Congregation Machzikay Hadath in Seattle, a position he held for forty years.

Before arriving in Seattle and shortly after arriving in America, Rabbi Shapiro studied at RIETS. Because he already possessed rabbinic ordination, he was considered in a special class of students, receiving a higher weekly stipend than most others who studied there. [15] He was sent by the school to give lectures at a synagogue in Brooklyn during the Sukkot holiday of 1905 as an example of the quality of students that were studying in the yeshiva.[16]

The box of papers discovered contains Rabbi Shapiro’s account of the events surrounding the student strike in August 1908, and the subsequent founding of the Yeshiva Le’Rabbanim. The account was written on October 7th, 1908 and covers the period from August 20 until that time. Because Rabbi Shapiro was one of the three student leaders of the strike, his account is particularly relevant to filling in the picture of the details of the August 1908 RIETS student strike.[17] Rabbi Shapiro’s writings, it should be noted, reflect that he and his fellow students had been involved in a struggle with, in his view, a dysfunctional and stubborn board of directors for over two years.[18]

Rabbi Shapiro records that:

On Thursday night, 24 Av 5668(20 August 1908), the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva was closed in a very unseemly fashion. Mr. [Jonathan] Shepp, the treasurer of the Yeshiva called the police several times to evict the yeshiva students from the building in which they learned.[19] But despite all his efforts, the police declined to do harm to the students. They remained there despite his displeasure until midnight and at that time they left for their residences.”[20]
After the students of the Yeshiva had concluded that there was no hope to improve both the physical and spiritual conditions of the Yeshiva due to the obduracy of the leaders whose concern was only for themselves, the students decided to separate from the above named Yeshiva and move to “Adas Bnei Yisroel” at 213 East Broadway, which welcomed them with open arms.[21] On 28Av (25 August-1908), the students of the Yeshiva moved their place of Torah study to the above mentioned address in the company of well-known rabbis, such as Rabbi [Shalom Elchanan] Jaffee[22], Rabbi [Chaim Sholom] Shoher[23],Rabbi [Aaron] Gordon [24], and others, who had gathered there to guide them. After much discussion, it was decided that the yeshiva students would study temporarily in Adas Bnei Yisroel, and that they would acquire a charter. So that the leaders of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan would not collect money in their name, they decided that this yeshiva would be called “Yeshiva L’Rabanim”. Similarly, they decided to send out boxes to collect members and to try to establish this yeshiva on a proper foundation.

From 28 Av 5668 until 12 Tishrei 5669, three meetings of well-known rabbis and prominent lay leaders were held. At the second meeting, an interim leadership team for Yeshiva L’Rabanim was chosen: Rabbi Jaffe, chairman; Rabbi Shoher vice chairman and treasurer; Rabbi [Joseph Judah Leib] Sossnitz, administrator;[25] Rabbi Dr. Rabinowitz from Brooklyn, administrator; Rabbi [Judah Leib] Lazeroff, administrator,[26] and others. The job of developing a “program” both in religious and secular studies for this yeshiva was also assigned to the above leaders.

Even before the closure of the Yeshiva Rabbi Isaac Elchanan, the physical situation of the students was very bad because for seven weeks prior to the closure, all they received was a half a kilogram of bread per week. However, the situation since they left the Yeshiva until now was much worse, and the poverty and embarrassment they suffered is difficult to describe. Many of them could have found other means of support, but because of their love of Torah, they accepted their lot and did not abandon Torah study with which they had been engaged their entire lives.

Many Rabbis, in writing, speech and action, promised to help. From all the promises very little materialized, aside from Rabbi Lazaroff, who had spoken up a few times in his synagogue on behalf of the Yeshiva. He assembled a worthy number of members from whom he collected funds. The prominent Mr. [Abraham J.] Goldstein and his brother-in-law, Mr. [P.] Feinberg from Jersey City came to the assistance of the Yeshiva in the beginning. [27]With the help of other prominent members of their congregation who worked alongside their honored Rabbi [Shlomo David] Posner, that synagogue supported the yeshiva a bit.[28]

To describe in detail all the problems faced by this new endeavor and the stumbling blocks that were placed in front of this new Yeshiva from the beginning until now would amount to an entire book. The task was difficult and the conflict with the administration of the Yeshiva Rabbi Isaac Elchanan weighed heavily on us. Many did not want to support the students of the Yeshiva since they saw that the “Morgen Journal” had “sold out” to those above mentioned administrators to do their bidding. They also felt that the “Tageblatt” was leaning in the direction of those administrators, and not on the side of the Yeshiva L’Rabanim. Many rabbis knew and admitted that the yeshiva students were right, but kept silent due to fear. So much so, even those who had joined the new Yeshiva were not really able to help it.

The primary laborers on behalf of the new Yeshiva were the students themselves and especially a student council that was chosen from among them to lead the struggle. The five members of this council were Mr. A.[vraham] Shapira, Mr.[Ben Zion] Perl, Mr. [Chaim Yechezkel] Mosesohn, Mr. [H.S.] Linfeld and Mr. B.[aruch] Shapira who was the leader.[29] The politics were so intense that oftentimes those in the Yeshiva did not confide in their fellow students for fear that they were supporting the other side. The council worked diligently with the three main activists, Rabbi B. Shapira, Rabbi A. Shapira, and Rabbi Perl who were most instrumental.  They abandoned all their other pursuits such as attending “Preparatory School,” working day and night to battle with the administration of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Isaac Elchanan.  Nothing was too difficult for them or beneath their dignity. Their physical situation was worse than the conditions of other students, as they had no other means of sustenance and they also received a more meager stipend compared to what they had been entitled to. They suffered immensely during this time. They knew that they were making great sacrifices and losing precious time. Nevertheless, they did not consider their own personal situations so that they could help establish this new Yeshiva on a proper foundation. There were times that matters grew so bad that many of the yeshiva students echoed the complaints of the Jews in the desert: they wanted to return to their previous Yeshiva, but thanks to many of the yeshiva students and the student council, especially Rabbi B. Shapira, these complaints were set aside and it allowed the Yeshiva to attain the status it claims today. The result of what has been done so far is small compared to what needs to be completed. Nevertheless, laying the foundation, which was the most difficult to accomplish, has been done. More effort is required to establish this Yeshiva on a firm foundation and to transform it into an excellent school that will train great rabbis in Torah, wisdom, fear of Heaven; who will work within the spirit of ancient Israel and the spirit of this new generation; and who will unite both old and young, thereby bring blessing to our people, our Torah and our holy faith.”

In the end, Yeshiva Le-Rabbanim did not exist for very long because it never had substantial financial backing and support from the general community.[30] The attempt to form an alternative yeshiva apparently did not deter some of the student dissidents to return to RIETS. In 1917, in a RIETS publication, Rabbi Baruch Shapiro and his brother Rabbi Abraham Shapiro along with Rabbi Ben Zion Perl are listed among those ordained by RIETS now serving as rabbis in America.[31] Even more curious, the strike leader Rabbi Baruch Shapiro went on a fundraising tour in 1917 to raise money for the Rabbinical College of America, one of whose components was RIETS.[32]

The strike’s impact, however, on one of the most important future leaders of RIETS and Yeshiva University was profound.  Chaim Rabinowitz wrote “The strikes stimulated the mind of a young Rabbi who had recently arrived in America. This young Rav was Rabbi Dov Revel.” Rabinowitz cites a letter that Dr. Revel wrote to Rabbi Zvi Masliansky in the spring of 1908, where he grieves about the turmoil in RIETS that Rabbi Masliansky had told him about and hopes for better days for the Yeshiva. Rabinowitz concludes “the dream of Rabbi Revel came to fruition in 1915 when he became the Rosh Hayeshiva…and instituted great changes in the order of studies.”[33]

Here is a sample page of the document:





[1] “Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary Association Certificate of Incorporation,” March 20, 1897, (quoted in Gilbert Klaperman, “Yeshiva University:  Seventy-Five Years in Retrospect,” American Jewish Historical Quarterly 54,1 (September, 1964), 6). William Helmreich, however, states that teaching “the language of the land” and Talmud was articulated in the RIETS charter, and, as such, “the first such mention of combining secular and religious studies in one institution.”  William B. Helmreich, “Old Wine in New Bottles:  Advanced Yeshivot in the United States,” American Jewish History, 69, 2 (December 1979), 235.  But, the 1897 certificate does not mention “language of the land,” and Helmreich’s assertion is without citation. 
[2] Gilbert Klaperman, The Story of Yeshiva University: The First Jewish University in America (New York: Macmillan, 1969) 71-72.
[3]Alexander Dushkin, Jewish Education in New York City (New York: Bureau of Jewish Education, 1918), 77-78.
[4] “Boys Go On Strike,” New York Times, August 19, 1908.
[5] The Times report may have been the result of the RIETS’ students, who, to gain sympathy to their cause alerted it to the unrest. See Klaperman, Story, 95
[6] The most complete report on the student unrest from 1906-1908 can be found in Klaperman, Story, 94-112.
According to Rabbi Klaperman, the closure and lockout on August 20th was reported by the Jewish Morning Journal on Friday August 21st, 1908 and the Judisches Tageblatt on Sunday August 23, 1908. Idem. 217n8.
[7] Gurock, Men and Women, 40; Rabinowitz, “60 Shana,” 553; and Klaperman, Story, 118.
[8] There are three discussions regarding the closure of RIETS on Thursday, August 20th, 1908
See Klaperman, Story, 111-12. There is no mention of a strike immediately preceding the board’s action. Rabbi Klaperman does not cite the Times article in any of his footnotes. Additionally, in footnote 21, p.218, he writes that there was no clear picture of presidential succession of RIETS between February 1906 and fall of 1908, despite an indication in the NY Times article that Nathan Lamport was the president of the school in August of 1908.

The second is Hayim R Rabinowitz’s recollections that appeared in Hadoar in 1968. Hayim R. Rabinowitz, “60 Shana le-Shvitot be-Yeshivat Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchanan,” Hadoar, June 14, 1968, 552-554. In 1908, Rabinowitz was an eighteen-year-old student at RIETS, and writes at length regarding the situation leading up to the closing of the school on August 20th, with the resultant lockout of the students from the building at 156 Henry Street, but does not mention that the students had been on strike immediately preceding this event. Although Rabinowitz was a contemporaneous observer, his reminiscences were only published sixty years after the events in question.

The third discussion is by Jeffrey Gurock.  Jeffrey Gurock, The Men and Women of Yeshiva: Higher Education, Orthodoxy, and America Judaism (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1988) 39-40. Citing Rabinowitz, p.553, he writes “Frustrated, feeling that a double cross was in the making, RIETS students were once again talking strike in the late spring and early summer of 1908.” Gurock, however, does not mention that a strike and blockade of the building took place in August as indicated by the headline of the New York Times and in the subsequent article.
[9] Klaperman, Story, 48.
[10] Idem, 217-19.
[11] Rabinowitz, “60 Shana,” 552-554, quoted extensively in Gurock, Men and Women,39-41.
[12] The Jewish American Family Magazine and Gazette (Amerikaner Familian Magazin un Gazetten), vol. XXXIX, no. 47, September 19, 1941, 2.
[13] Rabbi Meir Simcha was the author of “Ohr Sameach”, an important commentary on Maimonides' “Mishna Torah”, and of “Meshech Chochmah”, a commentary on the Torah. Rabbi Meier Simcha wrote of Rabbi Boruch Shapiro “he has the ability to formulate outstanding novella acceptable to all”. The Jewish American Family, 2.
[14] Prior to coming to America, Rabbi Shapiro obtained letters of support from two other leading rabbinic figures in eastern Europe, Rabbi David Hirsch Eisenstein and Rabbi Shlomo Vilner. The Jewish American,2. Rabbi Vilner wrote that he never gives ordination to one so young, but in the case of Rabbi Shapiro, he was willing to make an exception.
[15] Rabinowitz, “60 Shana,” 553.  Rabinowitz also refers to Rabbi Shapiro as a “Gadol B’Torah”
[16] Klaperman, Story, 62.
[17] The New York Times article identifies him as one of the three student strike leaders. See also, Rabinowitz, p.553 As early as 1906, R. Shapiro held a leadership role.   He was among the four students chosen to represent the students’ views before RIETS’ board of directors.  Rabinowitz, “60 Shana,” 553; The Jewish American, 2, which states that Rabbi Shapiro was chosen as a representative by the students in dealing with the board.
[18] Regarding the student’s relationship with the board of directors, Klaperman describes an interaction between the students and the directors as follows: “The student’s dissatisfaction and the obduracy of the directors brought about continuous agitation in the school and highlighted the confusion of aims in the curriculum” Klaperman, Story, 86.
[19] Klaperman, Story,99 writes that in 1906, Jonathan Shepp was elected as the new treasurer, and that Jonathan Shepp was part of the finance committee appointed on August 31, 1908 to assist in reopening the school after it was closed on August 20. Klaperman, Story, 99, 113.
[20] Gurock indicates that the treasurer threatened to call the police, but that in fact the police were never called.  Gurock, Men and Women, 40 (citing Rabinowitz, “60 Shana,” 553).
[21] Regarding the address of the building to which the students moved, Rabbi Shapiro was physically at this new address so it is reasonable to assume that he recorded it correctly. Additionally, on June 3, 2015, there was an auction of documents associated with the newly founded Yeshiva La-Rabbanim (Kedem Auction No.8, Lot 301). One of the documents evidences a stamp which says 213 East Broadway. Rabbi Klaperman lists the address as 123 East Broadway.  Klaperman, Story, 116, 219n38.
[22] Rabbi Shalom Elchanan Jaffe (1858-1923) was an important early American Orthodox Rabbi. He received Semicha from both Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin and Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor. He arrived in America in 1890 and served as a Rav in St Louis and in Brooklyn before becoming the Rabbi in 1901 of the prestigious Beth Midrash Hagadol synagogue on the Lower East Side of New York. He was one of the most influential of Rabbis at the time, especially when it came to the supervision of kosher meat. Jaffe’s motivations for his involvement with this breakaway school, may have less to do with issues than his personality.  According to Klaperman, Jaffe was not one wedded to the idea of secular education, one of the central demands of the students. “On the other hand, Rabbi Jaffe was the stormy petrel on the rabbinic scene, known as an impetuous non conformist who rushed in without fear when his mind was made up.” Klaperman, Story, 117.
[23] Rabbi Chaim Sholom Shochar (Rabbi H.S. Shoher) came to Boston in 1882 to be the Rabbi of Bais Avraham synagogue and subsequently served as the Rabbi of Hadrath Israel and Mishkan Tefillah among other synagogues in Boston. In 1905, he moved to New York City to become the Rabbi of the prestigious Shaare Zedek synagogue located at 38-40 Henry Street. In 1910, he is listed as living at 215 East Broadway, next door to the location of Yeshiva Le-Rabbanim. He authored a pro-Zionist book Shalom Yerushalyim in 1909 and passed away in 1918.
[24] Rabbi Aaron Gordon (1845- 1922) known as the Miadziol (Myadel) Iluy, emigrated to America in 1890 and was the chief Rabbi of Rochester, New York until 1900 when he moved to New York City. He was one of the founders of the Agudath Harabanim and served as head of a Bet Din on the lower east side. He served as the Rabbi of Congregation Talmud Torah Tiphereth Jerusalem at 147 East Broadway. He was a prolific writer, authoring many books on Halacha, among them Even Meir (Pietrokov 1909), Teshuvat Meleat Even (Pietrokov 1912), Minchat Aharon (Jerusalem, 1920) and Sha’arei Da’at (Jerusalem, 1921).
[25] Rabbi Joseph Judah Leib Sossnitz (1837-1910) was born in Birzhi, district of Kovno. He has been described as a Talmudic scholar, mathematician and scientific author. He settled in New York in 1891 and in 1893, founded a Talmud Torah on 104th street in Manhattan. In 1899, he was appointed a lecturer in Jewish ethics at the Educational Alliance at 197 East Broadway.
[26] Rabbi Judah Leib Lazarov (1875-1939), studied inTelz, Mir, Volozhin and Radin before immigrating to America in 1898.He was hired as a preacher at Beth Midrash Hayei Adam at 89 Henry Street in 1903 and succeeded Rabbi S.E. Jaffee as Rabbi of Beth Midrash Hagadol in 1910. He authored a multi volume work Divrei Yehudah (New York, 1906-1910).

Except for Rabbi Dr Rabinowitz who was from Brooklyn, all the above named rabbinic leaders were from the Lower East Side near both Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva on Henry Street and Yeshiva La’Rabanim on east Broadway. They most likely would have been aware of the struggles of the students with the board of the Yeshiva and had possibly allowed them to speak in their synagogues during the May strike. See Klaperman, Story, 104. It is also possible they were consulted by the students on an ongoing basis even before they tried to start a new school.
[27] Abraham J. Goldstein emigrated to America in 1884 and immediately settled in Jersey City. One book, Distinguished Jews of America, (New York, 1917), describes him as “a strict Orthodox Jew in every sense”, “one of the richest and most prominent citizens of Jersey City”, and “a member of almost every Jewish organization in Jersey City”. He owned a grocery wholesale business, was president of the Erie Building and Loan Association, and was one of the largest real estate owners in Jersey City.
[28] Rabbi Shlomo David Posner (Rabbi S.D Posner) was a Rabbi in Jersey City, New Jersey, for many decades. He signed his letters “Rav V’Av Beit Din” of Jersey City.  He authored a book of homilies Eshed Hanahar (New York, 1932). In the introduction, he writes candidly about being a Rabbi in America over many years. He was involved on a national level in many Rabbinic organizations and he helped raise money for the Jewish community in Palestine
[29] It is interesting to note that Rabbi Shapiro refers to this group as Mr. but later, refers to three of the group as Rabbi. The two Shapiro brothers and Ben Zion Perl are referred to by Rabinowitz as having Rabbinic ordination already at that time. Rabinowitz, “60 Shana,” 553.
The four referred to by Rabbi Shapiro aside from himself are:
(1) Rabbi Abraham Shapiro was the brother of Rabbi Boruch Shapiro. Like his brother, Abraham already possessed Semicha from Eastern Europe at this time. He later served as a Rabbi in Canton, Ohio and in Utica, New York. He was considered to be a prominent Musmach of RIETS in later years.
(2) Rabbi Ben Zion Pearl served as a Rabbi in Harlem. He was the director of the Uptown Talmud Torah Association which had 2,400 students in 1919. In 1925, he was involved in raising money for the building fund of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Yeshiva. He passed away in 1929.
(3) Rabbi Chaim Yechezkel Moseson came from Lodz Poland, learned in the Yeshiva in Lomza Poland and received Smicha from Rabbi Yechial Michal Epstein, author of the Oruch Hashulchon. He was the principal of Yeshiva Torah Vadath, Mesivta Tiferes Yerushlayim, and other Yeshivot. He wrote many articles for Dos Yiddishe Licht, a newspaper financed by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.
(4) Harry Sebee Linfield (1889-1978), was a rabbi and statistician. His Jewish Statistical Bureau conducted research on Jews in America and published numerous reports and other publications on their findings, specifically the Statistics of Jews. He was born in Lithuania and came to the United States in 1905. He was awarded a PhD by the University of Chicago in Semitic language in 1916, and the following year was ordained a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati
[30] Klaperman, Story, 118.
[31] Idem. 262
[32] The Reform Advocate, December 29, 1917, p.501
[33] Rabinowitz, “60 Shana,” 553-554.

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