Another Type of Biography

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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.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Lawrence Kaplan

    Gil: A fine and thoughtful post.

  2. excellent post – you inspired me to buy the book on Amazon!

  3. One of the best books I’ve ever read. It’s worth the price to see the picture of his indoor Sukkah.

  4. For a few years when I lived in Jerusalem, I had a small apartment off of Bar Ilan St. in the Bucharian section, and there was an old shul around the corner from me with the words Machon Harry Fischel written on the front entrance in Hebrew (I think there was also something like, “Institute for Talmudic Research”). I was always curious who Harry Fischel was and what the story behind this “Institute” was but no one in the neighborhood had any idea. At that point, there didn’t seem to be any “research” going on there, it was just being used as as shul.

    I think I finally found out some info on him when Wikipedia got an entry on him.

  5. The OU made a similar point to your first in the Jewish Action published for their 100th anniversary in 1998. They included about fifty biographies of people who had built American Judaism and Orthodoxy- but I think less than half were rabbanim. The rest were lay leaders, and intentionally so.

    R’ Herbert Goldstein, by the way, wrote the first biography of Harry Fischel.

    Hedyot: I think the institute continues to function, training dayanim. Of course, YU has a few things named after him.

  6. Gil, an excellent piece.
    the former rosh kollel of bar ilan’s kollel, was a graduate of harry fischel in jerusalem. it still functions and trains dayanim.
    shabbat shalom

  7. Very beautiful post. Thank you. I think I will want to tell his story, for many reasons, again and again.

  8. The interesting trade off question:
    1.He retired very early and devoted his time to guiding Jewish organizations. the age of 69, he overcame his lack of education and began studying Talmud.


  9. HaModia Magazine, Inyan, is writing about Harry Fischel in Part 1 of a two-part article (I assume two parts).

  10. There is Mike Tress, All for the Boss, and many other biographies that are not the standard rabbinic biography.

  11. Fotheringay-Phipps

    Also, there’s a bio out of Irving Bunim.

    But I agree with the post, and with those who complimented it.

    BTW, one guy who should really have a bio written about him is R’ Herbert S. Goldtein himself. He was a very prominent man in his time, and had his foot in all camps and accomplished a lot, but his role has been obscured over time, probably because he didn’t found any movement or school of thought or leave important writings.

  12. MiMedinat HaYam

    F-P — bunim wrote an auto biography. also intersting, but i read it years ago. intersting footnotes about jewish history of his time.

    i recall there is a bio of r dr goldstein written by his grandson r reichel, esq (aguda rep to the un, whatever that means)

  13. S.,

    Thanks for the link you provided. I see that Rav Kook wrote a hesped for Mrs. Harry Fischel. Are there other examples of Rav Kook writing in English or do you think it was translated?

  14. Lawrence Kaplan

    Eric: I am certain it was translated, though I recall reading that Rav Kook, when serving as a rabbi for some two years in (Yiddish speaking East End) England was being tutored in English.

  15. Machon Harry Fischel’s הלכה פסוקה – הלכה ברורה is one of the best resources on הלכות דיינים – when researching an issue discussed in the first several simanim in Hoshen Mishpat, “let’s check the Harry Fischel” is standard …

  16. I read the short bio of Harry Fischel in the Hamodia mag this past weekend. It talks about the fact that he had a built in sukkah in the apartment building he owned and lived in. He mentioned that he did not allow anybody to live above him so he could have the sukkah. Anybody know more about this? Is the building still in existence? How did the sukkah work exactly (I wasn’t quite sure just from reading the article).

  17. Hoffa,

    The book must have it but the building still stands i’ll check my notes I think is is 80th and Park Ave. did you notice the shapes on the ceiling ?

  18. Gil – terrific post – thanks!
    It’s worth noting that the first director of Machon Harry Fischel was none other than Saul Lieberman, who was close to Rav Kook as well. Another illustration of how what seem like bright line affiliations today, came later.
    Natan Ophir has written a very good study on Rav Kook’s connections with Dr. Revel, with lots of interesting material on Harry Fischel. You can read it here.

  19. Re Sukkah.

    From the time that he first owned a home of his own, Harry Fischel made sure that it had a sukkah. One should keep in mind that most people were negligent in fulfilling the mitzvah of sukkah during the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries. In 1925 Mr. Fischel demonstrated how far his commitment to this mitzvah went when he built a 14-story apartment building on the southwest corner of Park Avenue and 80th Street. In order to be able to have a sukkah, he “omitted one room on each floor of the twelve floors of the structure above his own apartment on the second floor, entailing a loss in rentals of about $12,000 a year.”

  20. Excellent article! Excellent feedback! Having put together the AUGMENTED edition of the Fischel biography and having written the related Goldstein biography, I expected to fill in a few loose ends. Each time I made a mental note to add a word of explanation or response to a comment or query, invariable a later comment eliminated the need for one! Just a couple of additional points: The Fischel Foundation has a web site which lists most of the Foundation’s projects and beneficiaries, over the years, in addition to contributing to the support of the Machon Fischel in Israel and the grad school at YU: Also, the Machon in Israel has 4 major divisions. Most notably, it was the 1st yeshiva to train dayanim systematically for the religious courts in Israel, & it was at least 1 of the 1st yeshivot to publish research in Israel on traditional texts.

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