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His Title Was "Hillel HaKohen"
He successfully led New York Jewry for thirty- five years

by Rabbi Shmuel Singer

This article originally appeared in the Jewish Observer and is also available in book form in the ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Judaiscope Series. It is reprinted here with permission

Rabbi Dr. Hillel Klein

We yearn for great personalities to admire, often unaware that the American landscape of not-too-long-ago provided us with a number of outstanding individuals. One such figure was Rabbi Hillel Klein.

Two years after Rabbi Jacob Joseph had become Chief Rabbi of New York, he found the responsibility too vast to handle alone. He heard that Rabbi Klein had just been forced out of his position as Rabbi of Libau, Latvia. Rabbi Klein seemed to possess an unusual combination of attributes that made him a most attractive candidate for an American assignment, so upon Rabbi Jacob Joseph's recommendation, a leading congregation in New York invited Rabbi Klein to serve as its Rav. In 1890 he arrived on these shores.

What had made this deposed rabbi so attractive to the Chief Rabbi that he had him brought to America to serve as his assistant? What were the remarkable ingredients in his background that made him so suitable for this task?

The Unusual Combination

HaKohen Klein, born in Baratcka, Hungary in 1849, Hillel was endowed with unusual abilities. By the age of eleven, he knew Tanach completely by heart and was familiar with the entire Seder Nezikin of the Talmud with commentaries. At the uncommonly young age of twelve, he went to Pressburg Yeshiva as a talmid of Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, the Ksav Sofer. He left four years later to enroll in the yeshiva of Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer in Eisenstadt, Hungary.

The Eisenstadt Yeshiva was unique in that it not only taught limudei kodesh (sacred studies), but devoted time to German and classical languages as well as to mathematics. To combat the spread of assimilation and the Reform movement, Rabbi Hildesheimer thought it necessary to produce young rabbanim and laymen with a fundamental knowledge of secular subjects. Here Hillel Klein was introduced to secular knowledge in service to the higher pursuit of spiritual goals.

Recognized as an exceptional talmid, Klein was presenting a shiur (lecture) to thirty students before a year had passed. Two years later, Klein left for Vienna, where he entered the Gymnasium and later the university. Rabbi Zalman Spitzer, son-in-law of the Chasam Sofer, invited the young man to give a daily Gemara class in the well-known Schiffshul - a celebrated fortress of Torah and yiras shamayim (fear of G-d) in Central Europe.

When Rabbi Hildesheimer left Eisenstadt in 1869 to establish his seminary in Berlin, he asked some of his most accomplished disciples to help him - among them Hillel Klein and David Zvi Hoffmann, who was to become famous as rosh yeshiva of the Hildesheimer Seminary in Berlin.

In Berlin, Hillel Klein received semichah in 1871 from Rabbi Binyamin Zvi Auerbach OF Halberstadt. Rabbi Auerbach, with Rabbis Ezriel Hildesheimer and Samson Raphael Hirsch, had been among the foremost leaders in the battle against Reform in nineteenth century Germany. Hillel Klein also received semichah from his rebbe, Rabbi Hildesheimer, and in 1873 he received his doctorate from the University of Berlin.

This was only part of the background that seemed to make Rabbi Hillel Klein so eminently suitable for his position of leadership in the teeming New York City of the turn of the century.

Rabbi Klein moved to Kiev in 1875, to become a tutor to the son of Israel Brodsky, a well-known religious industrialist and millionaire who had contributed the necessary funds to establish the kollel of the famous Volozhiner Yeshiva. During his five years in Kiev, Hillel HaKohen Klein became familiar with the vibrant world of Eastern European Jewry and came into constant contact with leading rabbis of Russia and Lithuania who were frequent visitors to the Brodsky home.

In 1880, Rabbi Klein accepted the appointment to the rabbinate of Libau, Latvia, a large commercial center of some 10,000 Jews on the Baltic Sea.

At this time there were two rabbis serving every Jewish community in Russia: The government had established official seminaries to produce assimilation-minded "rabbis." The local communities refused to accept these ignorant, irreligious young men as spiritual leaders. Thus every town had an official crown rabbi, who had graduated from one of the government-sponsored rabbinical seminaries or from a recognized European university, and the true Rav of the city, who answered all rabbinical queries and was responsible for the community's Torah institutions. Rabbi Klein was exceptional in that he could serve Libau in the double capacity of both Rav and rabbi. Because of his unusual background, he was acceptable to both the government and the people of Libau.

In 1881, Rabbi Klein married Julie Hirsch, daughter of Mendel Hirsch, principal of the Frankfurt RealSchule, which had been founded by his father, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch.

Rabbi Klein's rabbinical service to Libau was abruptly terminated in 1890 when he was forced to leave the community on the grounds that he was a foreign national - most likely a ruse to cover up the government's real complaint: that this crown rabbi was not like the others and would not serve as a tool of the regime to promote Jewish assimilation.

The New York Assignment

The fame of Rabbi Klein had reached New York City, and he struck Rabbi Jacob Joseph as possessing just those qualities that the community needed. He suggested that the Congregation Ohab Zedek on the Lower East Side offer the position of rabbi to Rabbi Klein. The congregation followed the advice and sent a ksuv rabbanus (rabbinical contract) to Rabbi Klein.

Soon after his arrival in New York in 1890, Rabbi Klein was appointed by Chief Rabbi Jacob Joseph as one of his dayanim (rabbinical judges) and became his untitled assistant. Rabbi Klein was deeply involved in Rabbi Joseph's efforts towards centralization of kashrus supervision in New York City and was in charge of all supervisory undertakings of the kehillah, especially after the Chief Rabbi's stroke, when Rabbi Klein became the unofficial Chief Rabbi of New York City.

Observant Jews in New York City in the 1890's faced severe problems. The greatest difficulty was the seven-day work-week, which was the rule in all industries. Those with at least a bit of feeling for the day rose early on Shabbos mornings to daven with the first minyan before going to work. Only elderly retired folks and a few hardy exceptions among the active workers truly observed Shabbos. The harm of this situation cannot be over estimated. Children grew up without ever seeing Shabbos observed. No wonder the young generation began to assimilate so completely!

Rabbi Klein joined Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman and Rev. Dr. Pereira Mendes, the leaders of native American Orthodoxy, to remedy this terrible situation, founding Agudas Shomrei Shabbos in 1894 to foster Shabbos observance among the Jewish masses. Manufacturers were approached to close their factories on Saturday. Shomer Shabbos workers were then directed to these factories. A list of other Shabbos observant employers was also compiled ... An educational campaign was launched to convince Jewish housewives not to shop on Shabbos, and then the league would pressure stores in Jewish areas to close on Shabbos. Lastly, the organization advertised in the Yiddish press that all laborers seeking Shomer Shabbos employment contact the organization. While this plan did not fully succeed in completely solving the Shmiras Shabbos problem in New York, it did alleviate it somewhat. There was at least an address for religious Jews to turn to for help in this matter.

Rabbi Klein's intellectual background and university training helped him in his fight against the Reform Movement in the United States as it had in Europe. He attacked Reform in many of his public addresses, and endeavored to persuade the youth that only Torah Judaism was authentic. Reform leaders feared him more than other Orthodox rabbis, for they felt that he disproved their contention that Orthodox Judaism was ancient and outdated. Isaac Meyer Wise, founder and leader of the American Reform Movement, wrote a scathing article in his newspaper against Rabbi Klein, expressing doubts as to whether Rabbi Klein truly possessed a doctorate. (Still unanswered by modern historians is: did Isaac Meyer Wise ever receive the doctoral degree he claimed for himself after his arrival in America?) Rabbi Klein responded with a letter to the newspaper: "In order to save you from error, I am enclosing herewith a copy of my diploma, in which I take but a modest pride. There is but one title that I bear with a conscious pride, and that is Hillel HaKohen." This brief note ended the controversy.

The Slaughterhouse Battles

As Rabbi Jacob Joseph's right hand, Rabbi Klein was actively involved in the fight to centralize shechitah (ritual slaughter of animals) in New York and bring it under proper control. All declarations in the Yiddish press concerning kashrus were signed by the Chief Rabbi, his bais din, and also "Hillel HaKohen hamechuneh (also known as) Doctor Klein."

After the passing of Rabbi Joseph and the collapse of the centralized New York kehillah, Rabbi Klein retained a number of the cattle shechitah houses in Manhattan under his supervision. When Judah L. Magnes and other important Jewish figures attempted to establish the New York kehillah in 1914, they turned to Rabbi Klein for help in kashrus supervision. The New York kehillah was an endeavor to link all Jews in the city into one organization with subdivisions dealing with education, charity, and kashrus: the kashrus committee would license shochtim and provide mashgichim for the slaughter houses, eliminating the plague of unreliable pseudo-rabbis and shochtim. The final authority in all New York kashrus matters would be a supreme bais din consisting of five leading rabbis of the city including Rabbi Klein. The supreme bais din was also to organize forty-one additional New York rabbis into local batei din of three dayanim, providing every district in the city with a local bais din.

As can be easily surmised, this plan was never completely operational. The big meat packers objected to any arrangement that would restrict their control of the slaughterhouses. In addition, many local rabbis opposed interference with their personal hashgachos. The crucial blow was the failure of the whole kehillah idea when money and inspiration dissipated with the end of World War I, and the dream quietly vanished into thin air.

Rabbi Klein was also concerned over the welfare of the shochtim (ritual slaughterers). Their working conditions were truly horrible - extremely long hours, sometimes extending from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m.! The working areas were sheds, open at both ends to the cold, wind, and snow. In 1892, the shochtim revolted against these harsh and humiliating conditions. The encouragement of Rabbi Klein and Chief Rabbi Joseph aided the shochtim in organizing the Meleches Hakodesh Society, which struck for better conditions. This strike and succeeding ones eventually brought the shochtim great improvements by the beginning of the twentieth century.

Rabbi Klein was again involved in kashrus matters in the spring of 1911, when the matzah bakers in New York struck against long working hours and low salaries. With Pesach fast approaching, an acute shortage of matzos threatened New York and indeed much of the United States, since most matzah bakeries were in the city. Rabbi Klein organized a bais din to arbitrate the labor dispute. They resolved the strike and the Jewish community's matzah supply was assured for the year.

A Torah Institution for New York

Torah education was primary among Rabbi Klein's concerns, mainly to aid the only advanced yeshiva in the United States at the time, Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan. This bais hamidrash had been established in 1896 on the Lower East Side. Rather than educate Americans, it provided further Torah study for European yeshiva boys who had immigrated to the United States. These talmidim would eventually receive semichah (ordination) and serve as rabbis in their new country. The financial burden of this yeshiva was crushing, especially for the masses of poor immigrants who were the only potential supporters for a European yeshiva in this country. Thus the yeshiva had no permanent quarters, and moved from shul to shul on the Lower East Side.

Rabbi Klein agreed to serve as president of the yeshiva in 1902. He recognized the yeshiva's need for a building of its own to maintain its dignity and optimum function. He thus immediately launched a building campaign fund, and by 1904 the yeshiva purchased a building on the Lower East Side. Rabbi Klein simultaneously led a campaign to clearly establish that the Jewish Theological Seminary was not a yeshiva, or for that matter an Orthodox institution at all. By this time, the Seminary had strayed from a Torah-true course, and it was necessary to publicize this - especially since it had been an Orthodox establishment but a decade before. Rabbi Klein succeeded in having a clear line of distinction drawn in the Yiddish press between the seminary graduates and the musmachim of his yeshiva.

In 1906 Rabbi Klein formed the Semichah Board of the institution together with Rabbi M.Z. Margolies and Rabbi S. Wien. Under their supervision, the first students of the yeshiva, and perhaps the first talmidim to be ordained on American soil, received semichah that year. Rabbi Klein resigned from his position as president of the yeshiva in 1908, but remained one of the yeshiva's masmichim until his death. In that capacity he was responsible for assigning a host of rabbis, both Eurpean immigrants and native Americans, to positions all over the United States.

Tzeddakah Campaigns and Communal Activities

Some of Rabbi Klein's greatest achievements were in the field of tzeddakah. In 1914 the first World War broke out, enveloping most of Europe. The main Jewish population centers ran along the Russian-German and Russian-Austrian borders, which became the most heavily contested battlefields. Old established communities and yeshivos were uprooted. The Jewish population of entire regions fled into the interiors of their countries, and those that did remain were subject to impoverishment and persecution by constantly advancing and retreating armies. The yeshivos suffered most, for they were deprived of their means of support, and the future of Torah learning in Europe hung in the balance.

Realizing that something had to be done, Rabbi Klein, together with other Orthodox activists and rabbis, organized the Central Relief Committee to aid the suffering Jews of Europe by raising large sums of money. Rabbi Klein was careful to set up this organization with only Orthodox supporters. He thus was able to direct funds and food supplies to the responsible rabbanim and community leaders in war-torn Europe, rather than to anti-religious elements who would have used the shipments for their own purposes. In this manner he was also able to channel a substantial share of the money to the European yeshivos. Eventually the secularists set up their own relief organizations, but it should be noted that Rabbi Klein and his colleagues were the first workers in this field. Ultimately the various relief organizations consolidated to form the Joint Distribution Committee. Rabbi Klein was able to maintain his influence on the JDC and assure that a fair share of aid was sent to Orthodox circles.

Rabbi Klein continued to exert his influence on the JDC after the war as well, dispatching much financial aid to help the European yeshivos in their reconstruction. He was particularly active on behalf of the Hungarian yeshivos, devoting time and effort to his former yeshiva in Pressburg. Without Rabbi Klein's work, the existence of the yeshivos in Lithuania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary would have been precarious indeed.

Rabbi Klein was also actively interested in the Old Yishuv in Eretz Yisrael. In 1892, Rabbi Klein joined a number of prominent Jewish figures, including the Orthodox newspaper publisher, Kasriel Sarasohn, in forming the Agudas Hakehillos Letziyon - to unite all activity in this country on behalf of the old Yishuv. Rabbi Klein headed the (Hungarian) Kollel Shomrei Hachomos in Eretz Yisrael until his death. He regarded his activity on behalf of the Kollel as a serious obligation, working late into the night, signing receipts and answering correspondence so money would not be spent on secretarial help. These arduous activities eventually led to serious eye trouble, which necessitated an eye operation.

Rabbi Klein also helped found Ezras Torah, a much-needed fund devoted entirely to supporting Torah scholars in Europe during and after World War I. He lent his full efforts and prestige to Ezras Torah, serving as treasurer for fully ten years.

In 1918 a delegation of great Torah leaders, including Rabbi Aaron Walkin of Pinsk and Rabbi Dr. Meir Hildesheimer of Berlin, came to New York on behalf of the fledgling World Agudath Israel Movement. A second delegation, with Rabbi Hildesheimer, Rabbi Meir Don Plotzki and Dr. N. Birnbaum followed in 1920. These delegations were warmly received by Rabbi Klein, but nearly all prominent rabbis and lay leaders in the United States were followers of the Mizrachi movement, with only one exception, Rabbi Klein. Indeed, Rabbi Klein was appointed president of the newly founded American branch of Agudath Israel, a position he retained until his death. Unfortunately, the time was not yet ripe for an Agudath Israel branch in America. The attempt ended in failure and Rabbi Klein's demise closed the episode.

Until his death Rabbi Klein remained the spiritual leader of Congregation Ohab Zedek. When he was installed as rabbi there in 1890, this shul was located on Norfolk Street on the Lower East Side. Later the congregation moved to 116th Street in the then-fashionable Jewish neighborhood of Harlem. From 1909 to 1922, Rabbi Klein had as his assistant rabbi the well-known, native-born American ba'al teshuvah, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman. During this same period, the famous Yosele Rosenblatt served as the shul's chazan.

Rabbi Klein died on March 21, 1926, leaving a solid record of Jewish achievement in this country. At the time of his death he was honorary president of the Agudas Harabanim, president of Agudath Israel of America, treasurer of Ezras Torah, the nassi of Kolel Shomrei Hachomos in Jerusalem and vice-president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. One can whole-heartedly agree with the Yiddishe Tageblutt's eulogy: "There was practically not one important thing done in New York in the last thirty-five years foreign to HaRav Klein."

(The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Tzemach Dovid)

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