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Today is Thursday, April 24, 2014

Untitled Document

Written by: Shlomo Z. Mostofsky, Esq.
National President

National Council of Young Israel is nearing its 100th anniversary - a century of commitment to the Jewish community. Young Israel is looking forward to a period of growth as we utilize today’s technologies and resources to serve our branches & Klal Yisrael.

This is the first issue of our e-newsletter, The Young Israelite, a name borrowed from the Young Israel-Lite, a newsletter that was published by the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway for approximately three decades.  Throughout the years, Young Israel members were  referred to as “Young Israelites.”  I believe that this is a good name for a publication which will supplement the Viewpoint and pay tribute to the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway. It is hoped that the E-Newsletter will be a unique source of information to the Young Israel universe and we encourage contributions and articles from the broad range of our membership and friends.

A number of years ago, Benjamin Lerner, PhD, of the Young Israel of Flatbush, gave me a copy of what is probably the earliest flier for a Young Israel event.  Each time I see a book about 20th century American Jewry I look at the index to see if Young Israel is mentioned. Through this process I met Ms. Shulamith Berger, the archivist at the Yeshiva University library. Ms. Berger gave me a copy of a paper she wrote about the early days of Young Israel. She also told me about and granted me access to the papers of Benjamin Koenigsberg, Esq., A”H,  in whose law office Young Israel was founded in October of 1911.  She also gave me access to the papers of Harold Jacobs, A” H, who served as president of the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway, in Brooklyn, NY, and NCYI. While NCYI has Viewpoints that date back to approximately 1936, the YU library is also treasure trove of information regarding the organization While this is not a scholarly work, I will attempt to cite my sources wherever possible.

While the popular perception is that Young Israel was founded in 1912, Mr. Koenigsberg, in a letter which is supported by other documentation, sets October, 1911, as the date Young Israel was actually founded.  Apparently, Rabbi Stephen Wise, A”H, the leader of the Reform movement, held a Friday night lecture in New York’s Lower East Side. The lecture, on the topic of “Judaism”, attracted a large member of Orthodox youth. At the end of the lecture a basket was passed around for donations. The Orthodox members of the audience made catcalls, placed buttons in the basket and walked out the door in protest of this open chilul Shabbos. Some members of the group who attended, among them Max Grablowsky and Joshua Horowitz, met with Mr. Koenigsberg, to decide how best to battle what they saw as an attack on halachic Judaism. Additionally Max and Bernard Oxenhandler, Moishe Krumbein, David B. Cohen, Louis L. Cohen and Moses Rosenthal, A”H were part of the founding group.

Together with Dr. Judah L. Magnes A”H, a leader of the  Jewish Theological Seminary,  the group decided to found a Friday night lecture series on Torah topics in English. While we take English Torah classes for granted, in 1912 they were viewed as an anathema. In those days, only lectures in Yiddish were permitted in most Orthodox synagogues.  This alienated many of the young Orthodox American born youth who wanted to hear lectures in English. Eventually, the group was able to convince various synagogues to permit Friday evening lectures in English.  In many cases, in return for access to those synagogues, the Young Israel group had to arrange to have the lectures repeated in Yiddish on Shabbos day.  The first lecture took place on January 10, 1913.  More than 5000 people attempted to enter the Kalverier Shul on the lower east side and mounted police were needed to control the crowd. (Rabbi David Warshaw, The History of the Young Israel  Movement 1917-1935,)

 While it is beyond the scope of this article, the early Young Israel movement received support, guidance and found lecturers from the ranks of the leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary. This lasted until the mid-1920’s, when JTS and the Conservative movement abandoned any pretext of being a Torah observant institution or movement.

In 1915, a number of young Orthodox Lower East Siders were asked to assist a local synagogue that had difficulty obtaining a minyan on a regular basis. The young people agreed to become regulars at the minyan if they could lead the services, which would include congregational singing, English language sermons and no commercialism. The latter rule meant that kibbudim could not be auctioned to the highest bidder. Most of the melodies that we sing today in Young Israel branches during Shabbos and Yom Tov were initially sung at that minyan.

At a point in time, both groups used the name Young Israel.  Young Israel synagogues were also sprouting in other parts of New York City. In January of 1918, the two groups merged into an organization called Young Israel Synagogues. At first the individual synagogues were only loosely connected. Eventually, they joined the umbrella organization. In 1945 the organization officially changed its name to the National Council of Young Israel.

 During my tenure as president of NCYI, I have responded to many questions about the religious identity and/or direction of the organization.  By the time I became President, the movement no longer permitted once accepted practices such as mixed dancing.  In addition, new practices, which gained acceptance in some quarters of the Orthodox community, had been rejected by Young Israel. This was in keeping with Young Israel’s tradition which said, ”Do not seek  new forms of social justice, new ideals, for in your tradition you will find sufficient material to enrich your lives.” Occasionally, people tell me that Young Israel has lost its allegiance to so-called Modern Orthodoxy.  Yet, the facts indicate the opposite as, the entire purpose of the organization was to be modern in outlook but true to Judaism. Our founders intended that the organization follow Rabbinic leaders in America. At that time they saw themselves as the defenders of Torah-true Judaism. The founders rejected the early innovations of the Conservative and Reform movements. They rejected what they saw as a diminution of adherence to Orthodoxy. They were determined to resist that trend. In the words of Irving Bunim, Young Israel had to “combat the ignorance of Torah” if it was to succeed in its mission.

The Young Israel Reporter, noted that the merged organization would make all decisions related to the service of the Synagogue. The organization was to concern itself with “the religious, social, cultural and financial interests” of the organization. In so doing, the early movement legislated many rules and regulations that were binding on all branch synagogues.

Almost from its inception, Young Israel  started an employment service to help its member find jobs  at a time when Sabbath observers had little chance of obtaining regular employment. During NCYI’s first year of existence it found jobs for 500 people. Today we have a list-serve on the Internet called NCYI Jobs. Approximately 2,000 people log on to the list-serve each month.

The Jewish Forum, an Orthodox Jewish magazine that was published for approximately four decades, devoted much of its 1926 issue to Young Israel. Moses Hoenig, A”H, noted that to be a Young Israel, a synagogue had to prove it could conduct services in “accordance with the principles of Orthodox Judaism.” He noted that Young Israels were “educational centers catering to all” and that there was “no field in Jewish endeavor in which Young Israel does not interest itself.” He wrote that Young Israel was involved in “Zionistic and Yeshivah work; …aid to the poor needy.”

Many of the social issues that Young Israel faced in its early years were addressed in that same issue of the Jewish Forum by one of our historic personalities, Edward S. Silver, A”H. Mr. Silver was active in Young Israel, while at the same time serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. He noted that Orthodox parents faced a generation gap wherein they did not yet quite understand life in America, while their children quickly became acclimated to the “ways of the land.” He wrote that many young Orthodox Jews viewed Judaism “as a code of pure negations.” Apparently, one of the few concessions to American society made by the movement was the mixed social events held in Young Israels. Indeed, the mere fact that women would attend YI events led to the reluctance of the Shlomo Kruger Yeshiva to rent space to YI for services and programs.

The evidence leads to the conclusion that the leadership believed that halachic concessions were necessary to prevent people, young and old, from socializing at non-Jewish or non-Orthodox events.  For decades most Orthodox girls attended public schools. Dances at Young Israels were seen as a means to encourage the youth to spend Friday night in an Orthodox atmosphere, rather than at a school dance, and attend a dance on Saturday night at the Young Israel under Orthodox auspices.   

While I am sure that there are those who would disagree with my conclusion, it is supported by documentary evidence. The November 2, 1948, issue of YI of Eastern Parkway’s Young Israel-Lite republished an article from the YI of Manhattan’s August, 1948, newsletter, Reporter. The article was in the form of a letter to Moshe Rabbeinu titled “Shall We Dance.” The anonymous author wrote “that the laws of the Torah forbid [mixed] dancing”, and that the halacha  limits “contact between the two sexes” even within a marriage “to about half of every month.” The author stated that although “social dancing” was strictly forbidden, apparently, Jews do not “know how to be merry”, absent mixed dancing. He noted the ridicule one subjected himself to, even to suggest that social dancing be prohibited. The conclusion of the “letter” to Moshe Rabbeinu bears quoting in the original:

How can we cater to them and still be one hundred percent orthodox Jews?  Can’t you just prevail upon G-d to change the law or something?

Then maybe you can prevail upon the people?

This was published in the newsletter of our founding branch. It is quite interesting that the January 15, 1960, Young Israel-Lite addressed  how to attract youth to the branch. One proposal was to raise the height of the mechitza. The other was to reinstitute mixed dancing. Apparently, between 1948 and 1960, the Young Israel of Eastern Parkway abolished mixed dancing at the branch.

Edward Silver, in the above-mentioned issue of the Jewish Forum wrote that Young Israel could have altered Judaism to “suit the limp of Conservativism or the hunchback of Reform.” Instead, the Young Israel movement undertook “gigantic tasks” and accomplished them “in the face of great opposition.”  Young Israel “maintained standards of leadership, stoutly enforcing its rules that every branch officer must be Shomer Shabbat, and that every synagogue must have a Mechitza.”  (Harold Berman, Young Israel: Its Early Days and Some of Its Early Personalities.)  Thus, from its infancy, the branches understood and agreed to the authority of NCYI regarding religious and other issues.

The movement did not limit itself to synagogues.  It concerned itself with the mitzvah of taharas hamishpocha when observance of this mitzvah was clearly not in vogue. In January of 1929, Dr. David I. Macht gave a Friday evening lecture regarding an article he wrote on the “Menstrual Toxin.” His presentation provided a medical basis for taharas hamispocha. It was hoped that these lectures would have a positive impact on the “[y]oung men and women venturing into matrimony.” Mr. Koenigsberg, in a letter to Moses Hoenig dated January 6, 1929, wrote that many of the women in the audience realized that they had already “violated the rules of the Torah and Shulchan Aruch .” Mr. Koenigsburg suggested that in the future the lectures be segregated by sex in order to make the attendees more comfortable. It was hoped that the lectures would ”cause many a violator of the law to rectify his actions.” Mr. Hoenig asked each branch to provide him with the names of those considering marriage so he could send them a book about these laws.  In January of 1930, Young Israel asked Dr. Macht to lecture again to a Young Israel audience because of the positive impact he had previously made on the young audience “eager to hear a word of reconciliation between science and our religion.”  NCYI was pivotal in the building of mikvaos in the U.S.  An issue of Viewpoint had a full page map pinpointing every mikva in the U.S.


Mr. Koenigsberg received a letter dated February 2, 1942, from an individual who suggested that “[d]espite the recent addition of a handful of yeshivas,” the condition of Orthodox Judaism was becoming weaker in its “general influence on the masses.”  Yet, he wrote, “[t] he step towards Orthodoxy is inevitable in the long run but it will be long and tortuous.”  While many may have shared this sentiment, NCYI was already working towards the growth of Orthodoxy in America.  In 1939, Young Israel asked the American Beth Jacob Committee to speak to its members. Young Israel can also be proud of its record of support of the entire yeshiva/day school movement in America.  Even as late as 1954, when the Viewpoint advocated for a yeshiva education for all Jewish children, it urged “[e]very one of our branches,” and especially those outside of New York, to “actively participate in the maintenance of these [yeshiva/day school] institutions.”

A number of times, I have been approached by yeshiva personalities who made a point of telling me that they grew up in the Young Israel movement. Young Israel positively influenced a number of my friends and many others who became yeshiva rebbeim, administrators, authors of seforim, poskim and Roshei Yeshiva

Young Israel is always thought of, even by its membership, as having been “too modern” for acceptance by the perceived right-wing of Orthodoxy. This is not true. Rabbi Eliezer Silver A”H, president of the Agudas Harabonim, who was not exactly known for his liberal interpretations of halacha, greeted the Young Israel convention of 1930.  Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, A’H,  the Lubavitcher Rebbe, sent a note wishing the organization success.  Rabbi Yitzchak Scher, A”H, of the Slabodka Yeshiva encouraged the Young Israel movement to continue its work. Rav Kook, A” H,  referred to the organization as “mein leibling.” Dr. Leo Jung, A”H, called Young Israel “one of the most potent factors in the revival of Judaism in America.” More recently, Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon, Shlita, the Mashgiach of the Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Reuveen Feinstein, Shlita and many other personalities from the yeshiva world have participated in Young Israel functions.

The Young Israel movement, known for its activism on behalf of Jews all over the world, has especially concerned itself with the welfare of the people and the land of Israel. The Young Israel headquarters in Manhattan served as the collection point for supplies that were shipped to Israel during a period where the United States had  embargoed sending such supplies to the region. When people question me about Young Israel’s support for Jonathan Pollard, I often wonder what their reaction would have been had charges been brought against the Council for its activities during those dangerous times for the State of Israel.

Young Israel’s support for Eretz Yisrael has never wavered. In 1949 Young Israel leaders traveled to Israel to disperse much needed charitable funds. Much of those funds were distributed to the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community such as the Brisker Rav, etc.  During the early days of the Intifada, Young Israel led a mission of rabbis to Israel. Everyone on that trip was touched when a store clerk expressed her surprise to Rabbi Yaakov Wasser, Rabbi of the Young Israel of East Brunswick, that American Jews cared enough and were brave enough to travel to Israel. We support communities in every corner of Israel that have been attacked by terrorists. For many years the American Friends for the Missing Israeli Soldiers operated out of the NCYI office rent free. We continue to support the victims of the Gaza disengagement. Just prior to Succos, together with Yad Ezra, we distributed tens of thousands of dollars of food to those in need. On the very day I wrote these words, I received an email stating that Young Israel would go down in Jewish history as the only organization that stood by the residents of Gaza both prior to and after disengagement. This is why I am proud to be associated with Young Israel.

Young Israel has never hesitated to speak out when it believed that halacha was being violated or the Torah denigrated. In 1964, Young Israel supported the decision of Chef Rabbi Yitzchak Nissim not to meet with the Pope on his visit to Israel.  A Viewpoint editorial stated that Jews in America sometimes forget “the vast irreconcilable differences between the basic tenets of Judaism and that of Christianity.”  The Viewpoint applauded the Chief Rabbi for his refusal “to allow Rome to cast its shadow upon the philosophic fundamentals of Torah MiSinai and the unity of God.”  Contrast that with yeshivos who have welcomed Cardinals into their Bais Medrash or have had their students discuss Torah with them.  In 1954, Young Israel protested outside the Israeli consulate in New York in opposition to Israel’s National Service

Law which was deemed by the “highest Rabbinic authorities” in Israel to be contrary to the Torah. The YI lay leadership was criticized at the time for conducting a protest against the state of israel in the us, however, the protest was supported by the council of YI rabbis which issued a resolution supporting the lay leadership. The protest was supported by the Council of Young Israel Rabbis, who issued a resolution supporting the lay leadership who were criticized for protesting against the policies of the Israeli government in the U.S.   Our public stand against the Gaza disengagement and the proposed division of Jerusalem is consistent with Young Israel’s policies throughout the 20th Century.

My exploration of the history of the Young Israel movement clearly indicates that it is unique because of the halachic standards set by the organization and its rabbis thought the generations. A 1957 Viewpoint noted that Young Israel “undertakes activities beyond the scope of the local branch dealing with issues demanding the unified voice of an Orthodox membership of thousands upon thousands of modern men and women.”  It also noted that the requirement that all branch officers be Shomer Shabbos was not meant to cast aspersion on others,  but because “those who observe themselves, are attuned to religious values in the Young Israel spirit.” That requirement, together with the requirement that each branch have a kosher mechitza, guaranteed the sanctity of the synagogue.

In May of 1965, President Rabbi David Hill, wrote in  a report wrote about the laborious process of approving new branches for membership is the movement. He wrote that proposed branches had to be visited by a Young Israel officer or staff member, in order to “personally ascertain their qualifications and their right to belong to Young Israel.” Rabbi Hill wrote that several branches had sought Young Israel membership and had an “allegiance to our movement because of our exacting standards.”  (Emphasis added).  Each potential branch had to “prove it could conduct services in accordance with Orthodox tradition.”  These standards were set by the national organization based on halacha. The American Jewish yearbook of 1965, indicated that after World War II, Young Israel rabbis became the spokespeople within the organization for its “religious values.” It claimed that Young Israel had increasingly looked towards the “roshei yeshivot of the right wing yeshivot for leadership”  and noted the increased role of the Young Israel Council of Rabbis. It quoted Executive Vice President Rabbi Ephraim Sturm as having “urged a united Orthodox front which would look to the gedolei Torah… for direction, and be bound by their decisions, not only on purely halakhic matters, but also on nonlegal matters”. Indeed, the current NCYI Constitution codifies that the Vaad  Halacha of the Young Israel Council of Rabbis sets the major halachic guidelines of the organization.

Indeed, the current NCYI Constitution codified that the Vaad Halacha of the Young Israel Council of Rabbis sets the major halachic guidelines of the organization.

Some have criticized decisions of the Vaad Halacha, such as their ruling on women’s prayer groups. This ruling, however, was based upon a responsum by five Roshei Yeshiva from Yeshiva University. A 1985 Viewpoint stated:

The prayer group controversy has diverted attention away from the need to investigate Halachically acceptable ways to augment existing synagogue services to meet the rising spiritual expectations of today’s better educated Jewish woman. The widespread adoption of the Young Israel synagogue model in recent decades is proof that innovation in consonance with Halacha is a realistic possibility even in the Orthodox community.

Young Israel has focused on the importance of tefillah. Last year thousands of English explanatory Kaddish cards were distributed to enhance the importance of the tefillah and to enable those saying Kaddish to better understand the meaning of the words. On the local level, one only must look at the change in decorum at the Young Israel Woodmere as proof that the key to our success is to improve upon what we do at the branch level at the upon what we already do at the branch level  and national level in accordance with the halachic standards of the movement as a whole.

The Young Israel movement within its first twenty years grew from an educational movement to a national movement “sponsored by men and women to promote TRADITIONAL JUDAISM.” The organization set out to prove that one could be an “Orthodox Jew in the full sense of the word, and at the same time be a graduate of a college or university,” In 1920, the Council of Young Israel was formed to centralize the organization and to serve “as the authoritative body of the entire movement (emphasis added).” The standards of the YI movement have stood the test of time until the present day.  

Our founders had to worry about members holding down a job week to week. Today, we, B”H, live in an America where yarmulkes are accepted throughout society. I have yet to attend a function as an attorney where kosher food was not made available was not provided to me by the sponsors. Sabbath observant men and women serve in every capacity in American life, mostly unimpeded by their beliefs. This could not have occurred absent the Young Israel employment services and the continued advocacy of Young Israel.In order to ensure Young Israel’s integrity as an organization that follows the Shulchan Aruch, our rabbis have acted to strengthen our standards asour membership grew in Torah knowledge and observance - a result of the incredible growth of the Day School and yeshiva movements over the last decades. The Bais Yaakov movement no longer has to depend on Young Israel for publicity.  Young Israel does not have to rely on medical science as a means to encourage our members to observer taharas hamishpocha. The organization has not moved to the right, as many claim, but has grown and matured following the dreams of our founders to create a movement dedicated to unadulterated Orthodox Judaism, as set forth in the Shulchan Aruch and as interpreted by our gedolim.

To keep Young Israel running on the national and local levels is not an easy task. We have a dedicated staff and dedicated officers and board members who put in many hours above and beyond the call of duty. . Rabbis and presidents are regularly called  by members of the staff.  Board members, Branch presidents may now participate in delegates meetings by phone or over the Internet.  In one case while the branch president  was on the phone  complaining to me that Young Israel “does nothing for us,” the branch’s sisterhood president was on the telephone at that very moment planning a program for  the branch with an NCYI staff member.

The national organization has a rabbinic training program for those wishing to enter the rabbinate. It provides various special shiurim via telephone, in person and over the Internet, and publications for the pulpit rabbi as well as publications designed for pulpit rabbis.

 The Council is in contact with branches that need assistance with governance issues. The Vaad Halacha has been called in on a number of occasions to resolve disputes within branches. NCYI has helped branches with zoning issues. The Council through its Endowment Fund has provided interest free loans to branches for capital improvements. The Council assisted branches hit by fire or almost destroyed by hurricanes. A significant amount of money was raised to help the Jewish community of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, even though there was no young Israel in the area. The Council offers lecturers and programming for our branches. Each High Holiday season, we hold live lectures, and  produce the “Awaken” video which is shown in many branches. Besides organizing unique missions to Israel we have also enabled people with special needs to travel to Israel to visit various Rabbonim for brochos, and to pray at our holy sites which otherwise would have been unaccesable to them.

During the past many months we have had a programs at, spoken to, visited, or have scheduled programs with the Young Israels of: Oak Park and Southfield, MI; Upper West Side, Bensonhurst , Kew Garden Hills, Forest Hills, Bedford Bay, Manhattan, Redwood, Bayswater, Scarsdale, West Hempstead, Staten Island, Ocean Parkway, Great Neck, Plainview and Patchogue, NY; Memphis, TN; Northridge, Hancock Park, Century City and San Diego, CA; Las Vegas, NV; Main Line, PA;   Potomac, MD; Greater Cleveland, OH; Hollywood –Ft. Lauderdale, Pembroke Pines, Miami Beach and Deerfield Beach, FL; and East Brunswick, NJ.

NCYI has recently opened an office in Israel at Heichal Shlomo where we share a floor with Yisrael Hatzair and the Council of Young Israel Rabbis. Our Israel office has recently initiated the Eye Squad. By dialing *9111 on their Israel cell phone, any Amercan yeshiva or college student studying in Israel who is faced with a psychological, physical or other serious problem may call the number 24/7, and be directed to a professional for assistance. On a recent trip to Israel, I met the program staff and saw signs for the program posted through Jerusalem.

I conclude the first YoungIsraelite  with words from the cover of the Fall 1957 Viewpoint which I believe best describes the past, present and future responsibility of Young Israel.

We [… ] dedicate ourselves to help our Young people to see with their hearts that the ways of their fathers and their promised land are meant for them as well as us… that the old Torah and old Israel are for Young Israel… that we have something good to preserve, something of which to be respectfully proud;  to prove to all that what’s good for the fathers is also good for the sons.

This article is dedicated in memory of all of those who sacrificed in the name of NCYI, and especially my cousins Hyman Goldstein, A”H, and Meyer  Weiner, A”H , who both played active rolls in the growth and success of the Young Israel movement.