Jacob Joseph

Jacob Joseph

Rabbi Jacob Joseph (1840–July 28 1902) served as chief rabbi of New York City's Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, a federation of Eastern European Jewish synagogues. Born in Krozhe, a province of Kovno, he studied in the Volozhin yeshiva under the Netziv, where he was known as "Rav Yaakov Charif" because of his sharp mind. He was one of the foremost students of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter.

He became successively rabbi of Vilon in 1868, Yurburg in 1870, Zhagory and then Kovno. His fame as a preacher spread, so that in 1883 the community of Vilna selected him as its maggid.

Chief rabbi

The Jewish community of New York wanted to be united under a common religious authority, and although the Reform and Liberal factions ridiculed the idea, the mainly Russian Orthodox Ashkenazi community sent a circular offering the post throughout Eastern Europe.

Rabbi Jacob Joseph was among those offered the prestigious position. He hesitated in coming to America, aware that there were less religious Jews. Nevertheless, in 1888 he accepted the challenge in order to support his family, and also because he faced severe debt in Russia. The Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations – comprised of 18 congregations and headed by Beth Hamedrash Hagadol – was thrilled when he accepted the position.

They attempted to create one central rabbinic authority in America to maintain order in the field of Kashrus and expand Jewish education programs. Their idea ultimately failed. Although Rabbi Joseph certainly possessed the credentials needed, he was confronted with many problems, primarily diverse groups of Jews, which also included anti-religious factions and Communists.

His tenure was marked by the divisiveness of New York Jewry, and the polemic of the kosher slaughterhouses of the city. Vehemently anti-religious Yiddish newspapers such as Die Forwards and Die Wahrheit unleashed their wrath, spreading false and malicious rumours about the chief rabbi's personal life.

Eventually, after six years, the Association stopped paying his salary. The butchers then paid him until 1895.


Although Rabbi Joseph fought a losing battle in the kosher meat and poultry industry, he managed to achieve some notable accomplishments, including the hiring of qualified shochtim, introducing irremovable seals ("plumba") to identify kosher birds, and setting up Mashgichim to oversee slaughter houses. He also took an active role in establishing the Etz Chaim Yeshiva - the first yeshiva on the Lower East Side, which was founded in 1886. (It was the forerunner of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary).


Rabbi Joseph published:

  • Le'Beis Yaakov (Vilna, 1888), a collection of homilies and novellæ.


In 1897, Rabbi Joseph suffered a stroke, which incapacitated him for the rest of his life. He died at age 59 and his funeral was one of the largest in New York, attended by more than 50,000 Jews. Unfortunately, it was partly marred by a public disturbance in which a number of people were injured. This was due to the funeral procession being pelted by Irish workers, some of whom had been taunting local Jewish immigrants for years, and a riot ensued, abetted by the police, in which many Jews were brutally beaten.

After Rabbi Joseph's death, a sucessory dispute diluted the office of Chief Rabbi and the title was effectively worthless.

Ironically, after Rabbi Joseph's death many congregations began to give him the honor which they had withheld during his life. Aside from the tens of thousands that came to see him lying on his death bed, forty rabbis gathered in the cemetery for the funeral. Each one vied with his colleague to give him a better eulogy.

The congregations also competed with each other, each one desiring to bury him in its own cemetery. Congregation Adath Israel on Elridge Street promised to give his widow $1,000 on the spot and $10 a week all the rest of her life. Congregation Beis HaMidrash HaGadol was permitted to bury him in their plot at the Union Field Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens. This became a good business venture, for the plots near the grave of the chief rabbi became extremely valuable. The widow received the amount promised for several years, and then they stopped sending her the money.

Rabbi Jacob Joseph School

After Rabbi Joseph's death, his son Raphael and Samuel I. Andron obtained a charter from the Board of Regents in 1903 to establish a school in his name. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School was known for its rigorous Talmudic curriculum and remains open to students from nursery age through the twelfth grade.

Its founders originally established the school on Manhattan’s Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, but later moved it to Henry Street. In 1976, the school moved to the Richmondtown area of Staten Island, where it still maintains the boys' school campus; a girls division of the elementary school was established in Staten Island's Graniteville section. In 1982, a boys high school branch and Beis Medrash was opened in Edison, New Jersey.

The School also produces a semi-annual scholarly publication, The Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society ("The RJJ Journal"), edited by one of its rabbinic alumni. The purpose of the Journal is to "study the major questions facing Jews... through the prism of Torah values," and "explore the relevant biblical and Talmudic passages and survey the halachic literature including the most recent responsa. The Journal does not in any way seek to present itself as the halachic authority on any question, but hopes rather to inform the Jewish public of the positions taken by rabbinic leaders over the generations."

Jacob Joseph Playground

A playground on Manhattan's Lower East Side, bounded by Henry and Rutgers Streets, is named in memory of Captain Jacob Joseph (1920-1942), great-grandson of Rabbi Jacob Joseph. Captain Joseph was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, and scion of a family devoted to religious education and civic affairs.

Born and raised in New York, Joseph left Columbia University as a junior in 1938 to enlist in the Marines. Joseph died in action at Guadalcanal on October 22, 1942. Five years later, a local law named this playground in his honor. The dedication ceremony was attended by Mayor William O’Dwyer, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, Councilman Stanley Isaacs, and Captain Joseph’s father Lazarus Joseph - a Democratic Party leader who was a six time State Senator and New York City's Comptroller at the time.

NYC Department of Parks and Recreation also unveiled a bronze commemorative plaque on the flagstaff, which celebrates the life and bravery of Captain Joseph. This playground was built in part to meet the needs of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, located at the time on Henry St. The playground serves as a lasting memorial to a World War II hero, as well as to notable members of the Joseph family who have contributed to the surrounding neighborhood and to the larger New York City community.


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