Another Type of Biography
The Orthodox Jewish bookshelf is saturated with rabbinic biographies. Some are formulaic and others more original but they all highlight the brilliance and leadership of our Torah scholars. These rabbis serve as links within our tradition, spiritual descendants and representatives of Moshe. Yet the story of the building of our Torah community must go beyond rabbis. They are not the only people who dedicated their energy and lives, at great personal risk, to create the vibrant community we have today. Rabbis are not our only role models.
Harry Fischel was a poor Russian immigrant who was literally willing to starve rather than work on Shabbos. He eventually became a millionaire and devoted his life and fortune to building the Jewish community. Fischel tells his story in Harry Fischel: Pioneer of Jewish Philanthropy–Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle and the Years Beyond, originally published in 1928 right before the Depression and recently republished with additional material through 1941 that Mr. Fischel wrote himself. The penniless Harry was nearly broken and went to shul one Shabbos morning with the intent to continue afterward to work. However, he could not take that step and resolved to always keep Shabbos no matter what. When he informed his parents, themselves destitute in Russia, of his decision, they sent back a letter offering to sell their pillows so he would not have to work on Shabbos. Shortly after he married, Fischel lost the job he had found and spent months without income or food. Despite the immense hardship, he never submitted to violating Shabbos.
Fischel eventually found another job and began a string of highly successful real estate ventures, quickly growing to be the richest Orthodox Jew in New York. In his philanthropic activity, he often joined with the broader Jewish community, instituting kosher food and Torah education in orphanages and at honorary dinners attended mainly by secular Jews. He lobbied for Jewish immigrants and built temporary housing with kosher facilities. He supported yeshivas, particularly Yeshiva Etz Chaim and Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan which grew to be Yeshiva University.
Fischel was not just a giver but an organizer. He retired very early and devoted his time to guiding Jewish organizations. He served on the boards of hospitals, schools, immigrant organizations and much more. He was the force behind the Uptown Talmud Torah. He spearheaded a lending corporation that created a construction boom in Israel. He led the multi-year fundraising for Jews displaced and impoverished in World War I. His days and nights were devoted to the Jewish community.
Harry Fischel was a lover and supporter of Torah. He energized the building campaign for the uptown campus of what would become Yeshiva University. He served as the President of the Uptown Talmud Torah, personally redesigning its curriculum. When he visited Israel and saw Chief Rabbi Avraham Kook’s impoverished situation, he personally paid for a new house and an associated synagogue and yeshiva. In attempting to memorialize his name (he only had daughters), he established a kollel in Israel (Machon Harry Fischel) and established the Harry and Jane Fischel Foundation, which provides support to Yeshiva University.
The variety of philanthropic efforts emphasize how crucial Fischel was in building communal infrastructure and instilling within them a modicum of Torah. He certainly did not, and could not, turn secular Jewish institutions into bastions of Torah, which they still are not. But he added a flavor of Torah, keeping them grounded in a tradition most Jews wanted to discard. And he also championed specifically Orthodox institutions. He was a human being, a Jew and an Orthodox Jew.
If you read the book carefully, including the text of Mr. Fischel’s speeches, you will notice something odd. Regardless of his audience, Fischel always included words of Torah. But he is often somewhat wrong. His quotes are occasionally so incorrect that he misinterprets the Talmud’s intent, albeit with his own fine sentiments that are based on a strong Jewish intuition. I found this strange until I reached the end of the book. In Fischel’s previously unpublished additions, he states with pride that, at the age of 69, he overcame his lack of education and began studying Talmud. Wow! A textually uneducated man, full of tradition but lacking in texts, was able to withstand the pressures of starvation and grow to become one of the primary builders of Torah in America. He was an admirable ambassador of Torah Judaism even though he was no scholar.
But he had an obvious source of guidance for his finely tuned attitudes. In addition to Fischel, two people feature prominently in this book: R. Moshe Zevulun (Ramaz) Margolis and R. Herbert S. Goldstein. The former was among the, if not the, leading American rabbis of the time. The latter, Fischel’s son-in-law, was a pioneer of Orthodox outreach and the President of the OU. These two rabbis advised Fischel at every step of the way. However, Fischel also spoke with many other rabbis. He personally consulted with great rabbis like R. Meyer Berlin, Rav Kook and even the Chafetz Chaim, whom he met twice.
What emerges from this book is a confident and pious pre-war Orthodox model, a layman who devoted his life and fortune to Torah and the Jewish people. He was not one of the scholars but he followed their guidance in his visionary efforts to build the communal infrastructures we take for granted.
We need rabbinic role models. Our children (and our adults) must know that we can become scholars, we can acquire pious traits, we value Torah as a primary value. But we also need to know that textual ignorance does not mean communal irrelevance. Jewish greatness comes in many faces. Dedication to, mesiras nefesh for, mitzvah observance is a value in itself. Philanthropic activity is praiseworthy and devotion of time and energy to communal causes is a goal we must emphasize. If we want a robust community in the future we need to transmit these values to our children. We must teach them that a Torah community needs all types of people.
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