Eldridge Street’s Rabbi Yudelovitch- Between Admiration and Controversy

Rabbi Abraham Aaron Yudelovitch

“A kindly-looking, gray-haired, white-whiskered old gentleman,” Abraham Aaron Yudelovitch was a famous Talmudic scholar and a preacher that served as a rabbi at the Eldridge Street Synagogue.[1] Professor Kimmy Caplan, a noted Jewish historian in Jerusalem, has called him “the most fascinating, brilliant and controversial rabbi of the 20th century.”[2]

Born in Novardok, Russia in 1850, Yudelovitch was recognized as a child prodigy. After studying under the tutelage of his uncle, he attended the Volozhiner Yeshiva. In 1871, at the age of 21, he published his first sefer,[3] entitled Olim Lemivehon (Page Proofs). This was a compilation of halachic responsa and sermons. He served twenty-six years in Russia and ten years in England. Rav Tzvi Hirsch Orliansky, the Maggid of Skidell, described Yudelovitch’s memorable preaching style:

In 1878, when I was learning in Sokolka, I heard a lot about the Rov of Kuzhnetza-that he is a Torah giant who studied constantly and over and above that, is a wonderful preacher whose mouth produces pearls of wisdom.  Erev Shabbos Chazon the word got out that Rav Avrohom Aharon, the Rov of Kuzhnetza, was coming to Sokolka for Shabbos, and the gabba’im of the New Beis Hamidrash (where all the finest scholars and the wealthy men davened)[4] invited him to preach there. By 3 p.m. on Shabbos the new Beis Hamidrash was full, with people standing crowded, waiting for the darshan to begin. (…) His powerful voice and the tune through which he poured out his soul, as well as his lofty ideas and extraordinary explanations of the verses of Eichah-I will never forget as long as I live.[5]

While in Manchester, England, Yudelovitch criticized the plan to establish Uganda as a safe haven for Jews though he was an ardent advocate of Zionism.[6] He came to the US around 1908 to serve American Jewry and filled rabbinical charges in Boston, New Haven, Bayonne and New York.[7] He served as the rabbi of the Eldridge Street Synagogue from 1918 until his death.

During this time, in 1925, Rabbi Yudelovitch traveled to Washington together with Rav Velvel Margolis to thank President Calvin Coolidge for his “Omaha Tolerance Speech” in which he pointed out the importance of providing youth with a religious education. Additionally, the rabbi asked the president to ease immigration restriction.

In 1926, the rabbi stirred controversy yet again when he published a responsum permitting a widowed woman whose brother-in-law was obliged to perform levirate marriage to appoint an agent in her behalf to offer chalitzah[8] in Russia.[9] This issue of the agunah continues to have much relevance today in traditional communities, and has led to renewed interest in the writings of Rabbi Yudelovitch.

Yudelovitch had five children, four sons, and a daughter.[10] He died on February 3, 1930 in the home of his son in Bayonne, NJ and was buried in the Bayside Cemetery, Brooklyn. Thousand of mourners chocked Eldridge Street to attend his funeral. His great grandson, Barry Yood, has become a docent at the Eldridge Street Synagogue where he symbolizes a living link to the history of the synagogue and the Lower East Side.

Works Cited:

Berger, Moshe Z. “Rabbi Avrohom Aharon Yudelovich,” Jewish Press, August 1997.

“Rabbi Yoodelovitch Dies at Age of 82.” The New York Times, Monday, February 3, 1930.

“Self Rule By Jews-Hope of Chief Rabbi.” New York American, March 27, 1919.

Sherman, Moshe D. “Yudelovitz, Abraham Aaron.” In Orthodox Judaism in America: Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook. Westport, Connecticut, London: Greenwood Press, 221.

Yood, Barry. “Zayde’s Shul Revisited.” Congregation Or Zarua, November/December 2008, 8.

[1] “Self Rule By Jews-Hope of Chief Rabbi,” New York American, March 27, 1919.

[2] Barry Yood, “Zayde’s Shul Revisited,” Congregation Or Zarua, November/December 2008, 8.

[3] Sefer refers to books of rabbinic literature.

[4] “Davene” means “to pray.”

[5] Moshe Z. Berger, “Rabbi Avrohom Aharon Yudelovich,” Jewish Press, August 1997.

[6] Moshe D. Sherman, “Yudelovitz, Abraham Aaron,” in Orthodox Judaism in America: Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (Westport, Connecticut, London: Greenwood Press), 221.

[7] “Rabbi Yoodelovitch Dies at Age of 82,” The New York Times, Monday, February 3, 1930.

[8] According to Jewish law, if a man dies childless, his oldest brother is commanded to marry his wife. However, if they do not want to marry they must perform the ceremony of chalitzah (“taking off the shoe”) by which the widow becomes free to marry anyone she chose.

[9] Sherman, 222.

[10] Berger.

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