Jeffrey Gurock on the Absence of a Chief Rabbinate in America

In 1893, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Vidrowitz was looking for an advantage in his struggle for leadership of the immigrant Orthodox community on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two other outstanding rabbinical sages also aspired to have the final say among downtown’s religious Jews.

Jeffrey S. Gurock is the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at YU

A far more famous luminary, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, had been brought from Vilna in 1888 by the Association of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and was trumpeted as “Chief Rabbi of New York City.” He was charged to lead a “religious revival” in Gotham. But Rabbi Joshua Segal, of Galician stock, had preceded Rabbi Joseph to the U.S. and was unwilling to play second fiddle in town and gathered around him a score of congregations that designated him “Chief Rabbi of the Congregations of Israel of New York.”

To put his calling card in higher relief against such stiff competition, Rabbi Vidrowitz declared himself “Chief Rabbi of America.” When asked by contemporaries, or so the story goes, “Who gave you the right to be so designated?” the unapologetic candidate replied, “I hired a sign painter; the shingle that we hung out was all that I needed.” Read the rest of this entry…

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