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Keeper of the Stories

Barbara Bensoussan

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz won’t let the struggles of frum Jews in early America fall into oblivion

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

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Rabbi Horowitz grew up steeped in tales of his illustrious ancestors and imbued with the Bostoner attachment to mesorah. (Photos: Shulim Goldring)

T he chassidic world is known for stories,so maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Horowitz, the Bostoner Rebbe of Lawrence, New York, is a veritable fount of them. His full beard, glasses, and resonant, well-enunciated voice lend him a professorial air as he spins out tale after tale, one folding into the next. He clearly relishes these stories, and recounts them with infectious enthusiasm.

As the oldest great-grandson of the original Bostoner Rebbe, not to mention a ninth generation scion of the Baal Shem Tov,. From an early age, he absorbed the importance of preserving family and collective Jewish history.

But he hasn’t contented himself with chassidic stories alone. Through his travels as a kashrus director, he has come across many tales of Jews in the early days of America who struggled to remain faithful to halachah even in the wilds of the American West. They were pioneers as Jews as well as Americans, establishing the first Jewish institutions and doing their best to practice within the fold. These often-moving stories prompted Rabbi Horowitz to begin collecting information about the history of frum Yidden in America, moving tales often neglected in an American Jewish history field dominated by non-observant Jews. Today he leads the American Jewish Legacy, an organization he founded to pursue and disseminate his findings.

Chassidus Lands in America

“Bostoner chassidus is the first American chassidus, serving the Jewish community for over 100 years,” Rabbi Horowitz declares, sitting in the old-fashioned dining room in his apartment above the Bostoner shul in Lawrence, NY. “My great-grandfather, Rav Pinchas Dovid, the first Bostoner Rebbe, arrived in 1915, in the middle of World War I.”

Rav Pinchas Dovid was anything but American; he was Yerushalmi born and bred. His grandfather was Rav Elazar Mendel Biderman, the Lelover Rebbe of Jerusalem. His great-grandfather, Rav Moshe Biderman, had immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1851, the first rebbe to create a chassidic yishuv in Jerusalem.

There were many pockets of heimishe Jewish life in America outside the main centers.

It was Rav Luzer Mendel who designed the distinctive Yerushalmi levush of white and gold caftans, which have since been adopted by many groups and produced by a tiny, specialized group of tailors; Bostoner chassidim wear them on Yom Kippur and at the Sedorim. “When I went to the tailor, my wife pointed out she didn’t think the pieces hung just right on me,” Rabbi Horowitz says. “He told her, ‘They aren’t made to fit perfectly. They’re designed al pi kabbalah.’ ”

But we digress; he returns to his tales of Old Jerusalem and the Bidermans. Rav Pinchas Dovid Horowitz, a yasom, was raised by his mother’s brother, Rav Duvid Tvi Shloima Biderman, Lelover Rebbe of Yerushalayim. Around 1907, his uncle suggested he go to America. “America?” he responded. Later he’d recount, “If my uncle — who was my rebbe, and like a father to me — would have asked me to jump off a roof, I wouldn’t have hesitated. But to America? I was afraid to go!”

But when a tzaddik decrees, things have a way of coming to pass. Rav Pinchas Dovid was summoned to a din Torah in Russia to represent Jerusalem in a dispute over who should be the Nasi of the Galitzianer settlement. “In those times, cities in Europe would finance settlements and kollelim in the Holy Land,” Rabbi Horowitz explains. “You still have places like Batei Ungarin and Batei Varsha, named for the sponsoring places.”

But shortly after Pinchas Dovid arrived, World War I broke out. “My great-grandfather decided to run back to Eretz Yisrael, literally on foot,” Rabbi Horowitz says. “He sometimes ran through actual active battlefields.” Several times he barely escaped with his life, like when he was caught carrying forbidden foreign currency. He was pushed against a wall and told to raise his hands while they searched him; fortunately, he had hidden the money in his closed fists. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 683)

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