The First Rabbi at Eldridge Street – Avrohom Aharon Yudelovitch
This piece about Rabbi Avrohom Aharon Yudelovitch was researched and written by Barry Yood. Barry is the great-grandson of Rabbi Yudelovitch and, as a docent at the Museum, shares the story of his great-grandfather’s shul with visitors from around the world.
In 1918, 25 years after they first opened, the congregation of the Eldridge Street Synagogue hired their first full-time pulpit rabbi: Avrohom Aharon Yudelovitch. They chose wisely. Yudelovitch was a brilliant scholar, a charismatic speaker, and was respected both in the United States and Europe. He would represent the congregation both to the Jewish and broader New York City communities until his death in 1930.
Rabbi Yudelovitch was part of the massive wave of migration that brought more than two million Jews from Eastern Europe to America. He was born in Novardok, a suburb of Minsk and his lineage included renowned Torah scholars. At a young age, he achieved renown as a brilliant scholar, charismatic preacher, and as a decider of halacha (Jewish law and custom). He held rabbinic positions in major cities of Eastern Europe and in 1898 become the Rav of Manchester, England.
In 1908, at the request of his American-based son Benjamin Yood, he crossed the Atlantic. He presided over a congregation in Bayonne, New Jersey. A year later he became the leader of the prestigious training ground for rabbis – REITS, or The Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He then spent five years at Congregation Sharei Tephila in Boston.
In 1919 Yudelovitch was elected “President of the Jewish Ministers Association of the United States and Canada,” a post referred to as Chief Rabbi of America in articles found in The New York Times. In this capacity he was attacked by name in Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic book, The International Jew as “King of the Jews.”
Yudelovitch held nuanced views on a host of hot topics. He was an ardent advocate of Zionism, inviting Chaim Weitzman to the United States to speak. (In recognition of Yudelovitch’s advocacy, a street in Tel Aviv has been named after him.) Yudelovitch and Rabbi G. Margolis led a rabbinical delegation to listen to President Calvin Coolidge’s 1926 speech on religious tolerance. He was an authority on kosher food and wine, constantly battling companies who falsely claimed their wine was kosher – particularly important at a time when when formal certification of foods as kosher was just emerging. He authored Chometz laws for Passover in the 1920s for New York City’s Jews, explaining how to ready the home and prepare unleavened food for the holiday.
In 1927 he published a highly controversial responsum that advocated for the rights of the agunah, a woman whose husband would not grant her a divorce (get). His legal opinion supporting a woman not going to Russia to marry the brother-in-law of her late brother was widely repudiated by other rabbinical authorities of the time.
Rabbi Yudelovitch passed away in 1930. His obituary appeared in all the Jewish newspapers as well as the major newspapers in all of the largest cities in the United States. His legacy lives on today. In 2010 the town of Lakewood, New Jersey sent a delegation of rabbis and rabbinical students for the Rav’s 80th yahrzeit. Professor Kimmy Caplan, noted Jewish historian in Jerusalem, has Yudelovitch brilliant, controversial and fascinating.