The position of Chief Rabbi is to be found in almost every major Jewish community except in the United States. Perhaps this is due to America’s separation of church and state, as the position of Chief Rabbi in most countries is a recognized government office. In the late 1800s, when the great Eastern European Jewish migration began, eighteen Eastern European congregations in New York formed the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations and sent letters of solicitation to many of the great rabbis in Europe to find a Chief Rabbi of New York.
America had already gained a reputation as the “treifena medina,” the non-kosher country, a place where most people cast off the “yoke of Torah.” The large salary offered by the New York Jews, however, attracted Rabbi Jacob Joseph, who needed to support his family. Rabbi Joseph was a renowned scholar and speaker in Vilna.
Arriving in 1888, the new Chief Rabbi was, along with his other rabbinical duties, to supervise kosher slaughter, strengthen Jewish education and curtail assimilation. Almost immediately, Rabbi Joseph came under attack by those who wished to break away from the Old World. Later, he was faced with everything from slanderous articles to organized demonstrations of Shabbat desecration. When he tried to improve the standards of the kosher slaughterhouses (many were following less than kosher standards), he was thwarted at nearly every turn–although he did manage to replace many of the not-so-kosher butchers and to introduce the “plumba” (irremovable seal) system to certify kashrut.
America was heart-breaking for him. In 1895, the Association stopped paying him. Fortunately the slaughterhouses took responsibility for his salary. In 1897, he suffered an incapacitating stroke. When he died in 1902, tens of thousands of Jews attended his funeral, recognizing his value only when it was too late.`
*Today is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York.
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