In recent weeks, the Yated wrote about Rabbi David Hollander, the stalwart spokesman for Orthodox Jewry back in the era when Conservative Judaism had made powerful inroads into corrupting shomrei Torah, while allegedly trying to “conserve” what the Reform movement had destroyed.
Years ago, I noticed a picture of Rabbi Hollander that was taken at an event. The picture had four rabbis, and the makeup of the group struck me as odd, if not downright bizarre. There was my zeide, Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky, standing next to my father. Of course, I understood that pairing: My father was his eldest son and the dean of the new yeshiva. But the next two figures seemed incongruous. To my father’s left, looking rather stoic, stands Rabbi David Hollander, rabbi of the Mount Eden Jewish Center in the Bronx. He is next to Rabbi Irving Miller, leader of Congregation Sons of Israel, a shul that was slowly betraying its Orthodox roots by liberalizing its agenda to conform to the whims of the Conservative movement.
Rabbi Miller originally began his career in the Five Towns in the 1930s, as rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, an Orthodox synagogue in Far Rockaway. In 1952, however, he moved on to Congregation Sons of Israel in Woodmere, New York. Under his tenure, an Orthodox shul with a mechitzah was transformed into one with a three-sectioned sit-as-you please service. Technically, even today, despite its breach of tradition, Congregation Sons of Israel is neither officially aligned with the Conservative movement, nor is it an official member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Its charter directs that “prayers should be recited according to the tradition of Orthodox Judaism.” And to fulfill that missive, they use an Orthodox siddur.
Rabbi Miller, to his credit, founded the Jewish Center School, the first Jewish Day School on Long Island and perhaps one of the first 10 in the United States. But in 1954, the name was changed to The Brandeis School, in honor of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and the school aligned itself with the Conservative Solomon Schechter Day School movement by becoming one of its first members. Rabbi Miller was also chairman of the Zionist Organization of America.
The picture—which also has a glimpse of a Mr. Eli Gut, sitting in a corner and, as always, smiling—was taken at a hachnosas sefer Torah to the fledgling Yeshiva of South Shore in 1956.
I asked my father to explain how Rabbi Miller was connected to the yeshiva, why he would have come to the yeshiva’s event. But more interesting was why Rabbi Hollander—a well-known zealous advocate for the primacy of Torah-true Judaism—would be standing next to Rabbi Miller at the same ceremony.
Rabbi Hollander was a kano’i, a powerful spokesman for unadulterated Orthodox Jewry, who would not even openly use the title “Rabbi” to acknowledge rabbinic members of the Conservative movement. Rather, he would call them “members of the Jewish clergy.” In many of his speeches, he expressed his view that those who use the term “rabbi” to refer to Conservative Jewish clergy, but do not recognize their rabbinic actions or rituals as valid, are being dishonest.
At the time, nearly 60 years ago, it was not easy to get someone to donate a sefer Torah. The executive director of the American Office of Slabodka Yeshiva, Rav Friedman, was delighted that a yeshiva had been started on Long Island by the son of his dear friend from Slabodka, Rav Yaakov Kamenecki (as it was spelled when he knew my grandfather in Europe). He met my father and introduced him to another Slabodka talmid, Rav Alter Koslowski, who lived in Woodmere.
Rabbi Koslowski and his wife were frail, and his daughter and son-in-law in Woodmere looked after them. The children were members of Congregation Sons of Israel, so that’s where they brought their father to daven. Rabbi Miller allowed a separate minyan in his office for older-generation Orthodox members, including Rabbi Koslowski—a minyan that still exists on Yomim Noraim until today, with a proper mechitzah in the synagogue building.
Rabbi Koslowski endeared himself to many of the congregants and introduced my father to another Orthodox member of that synagogue—Mr. Eli Gut, a successful manufacturer of zippers and fasteners. Mr. Gut, together with his wife, Lily, a scion of the Chasam Sofer’s family, was at the forefront of many philanthropic endeavors. They had commissioned the writing of a sefer Torah in honor of the bar mitzvah of their son Ralph, to take place on Parshas Lech Lecha in 1954. The bar mitzvah took place—but without the Torah. The sofer had passed away in the middle of writing it, so it wasn’t finished on time—it took another two years.
That’s when my father stepped in. There was a yeshiva, and the yeshiva needed a Torah. And so, a relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Gut soon evolved into the dedication of a Torah scroll. It turned out to be a festive celebration, but there were some issues of political correctness to deal with, even in those days. The Guts were members of Rabbi Miller’s congregation, and it was only proper for him to be invited to the hachnosas sefer Torah. After all, the Torah was coming from his shul to the yeshiva, with his blessing. And if a rabbi comes, a rabbi speaks. But because Rabbi Miller had moved to the left, my father was afraid he might articulate some radical thought in his remarks, so he called his father, Rav Yaakov, for advice.
“I will come,” said my zeide. “I doubt he would say anything against the mesorah in my presence. And just in case, invite Rabbi David Hollander. If there will be something needing immediate refutation, Rabbi Hollander has been a most powerful advocate for the emes, and would be able to counter the speech with one of his own.”
Indeed, Rabbi Hollander, a son-in-law of Rav Shimshon Zelig Fortman of the nearby Congregation Kneseth Israel (The White Shul), knew what my father was trying to accomplish in Woodmere and accepted the invitation.
Rabbi Miller did speak, in English. Believe it or not, he only alluded to his leanings, stating that “Yiddishkeit is like a tree, an eitz chaim, and a tree has as many branches as Yiddishkeit has divergent ideas and customs. But,” he concluded, “there must be a trunk. And the trunk of Yiddishkeit is a yeshiva. Without the trunk, there could be no branches.” The message focused on the importance of the yeshiva, with little elaboration on what he meant by “many branches.” Afterward, he approached my zeide, subtly acknowledging that the presence of the rosh yeshiva clearly mitigated the chance of any wrong ideas coming from him. However, he apologized to my grandfather. “I am sorry that I gave the speech in English.” My grandfather smiled and said, “Don’t worry. What you spoke was a Yiddishe drosha.”
I am not sure if Rabbi Hollander ended up speaking—but I do not think he had to. His very presence probably kept the other speaker in line.