Shechita in America: Past and Present, A Brief Overview

May 5, 2004

Submitted in commemoration of the 100th issue of The Daf Hakashrus, and in honor of its editor, Rabbi Yosef Grossman.

In 1840 the first ordained rabbi arrived in the United States. His name was Rabbi Abraham Rice, and he assumed the position as Rov of Congregation Nidchei Yisroel of Baltimore.

Frustrated with the entire structure of Yidishkeit that he found here, he wished to return to Europe. Having studied with Rabbi Avrohom Bing in Wuerzburg and Rabbi Wolf Hamberger in Fuerth, he turned to them for guidance. In a letter to Rabbi Hamberger he wrote:

“…most of the people are eating non-kosher food, are violating the Shabbos in public….and there are thousands who have been assimilated among the non-Jewish population. Under these circumstances, my mind is perplexed and I wonder whether a Jew may live in a land like this!”

Three principles that comprise the foundation of the Jewish nation, namely, eating kosher food, adhering to the Shabbos laws and family purity as reflected in the laws of marriage and divorce, were being compromised. History has shown us, that the destruction of the Jewish people begins with eating non-kosher food, then leads to the desecration of the Shabbos and culminates with intermarriage as the third and final step. The importance of safeguarding these three principles are vital to the every existence and continuity of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Rice found a Jewish establishment that was in chaos. There were no Rabbis and Shochtim. Hence “self styled Reverends” became Shochtim, Mashgichim, and even performed marriages. “Am-HaAratzus”, sheer ignorance of Jewish law, was rampant.

In the late 1800’s more Eastern European Rabbis arrived in America, but they were hindered by the disorganization of the Jewish communities, and each individual Rabbi soon found himself struggling with religious indifference from within his own community members.

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The New York Jewish community, the “trend-setter” for American Jewry, was entirely in disarray. In 1887 the Jewish population in New York was estimated at between 100,000 – 120,000 families, without any central Rabbinic body guiding them.

On May 23rd of 1887 a meeting was called to form an association of Orthodox Congregations and appoint a Chief Rabbi, for the very purpose of setting order to Jewish communal life in America, by implementing standards for Kashrus, Shabbos and marriage/divorce proceedings.
Over 18 congregations soon united to form “the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations”, and set about on their first task in search of a “Rav Hakollel”, a Chief Rabbi.

By Succos of 1887 they chose the renowned Moreh Tzedek and illustrious preacher of Vilna, Rabbi Yacov Yoseph (known in America as Rabbi Jacob Joseph) to serve as the first Chief Rabbi of New York.

Rabbi Joseph left his beloved Vilna, where he was held in high esteem and treated with fondness and respect as deserving of such a great Torah luminary. He arrived in the port of Hoboken, New Jersey on July 7, 1888, where he was warmly greeted by New York’s prominent Jewish leaders. They were ecstatic with his arrival, and they looked forward to a new beginning for orthodoxy in America under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph.

On July 21st, Shabbos Nachamu, the Chief Rabbi preached his first drasha, in Beis Medrash Hagadol on Norfolk Street, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Four policemen had to accompany him through the large crowds to enter the Shul.

The first program that Rabbi Joseph undertook was to organize New York’s kosher meat business. He felt this was essential, first and foremost in enabling a Torah true Jewish community to exist and flourish in America. Implementing new standards and tightening the supervision of the meat industry entailed a minimal cost; Mashgichim had to be paid. One cent was added to the cost of every bird slaughtered in the slaughterhouses under the supervision of the Chief Rabbi. To these poultry a plumba (lead seal) was affixed which stated in Hebrew “Harav Hakollel R’ Yacov Yoseph”.

Many butchers and shochtim resented the new stricter standards, and some Rabbis feared the loss of Kashrus supervision income. They were joined by the radical press, non-observant writers, who played upon the fears of housewives using the age old cry of “kosher price gouging”, to simultaneously attack organized religion in general. Their aim was to hinder any other projects the Chief Rabbi may have in his plans.

“Korobka”, a tax imposed on kosher meat by the Russian government in order to attack the Jews, became the battle cry! The Chief Rabbi’s opponents played upon old fears still set in their minds of Czarist Russia from where they had fled. The weekly “Der Volksadvokat” featured front page coverage, even printing a poem entitled “Korobka”, which spoke of “Orthodox chickens”…”dancing” whilst “wearing shiny lead plumbas” so “that the Chief Rabbi will live on a fat salary”! Nothing was further from the truth.

Public meetings were staged by so called “religious officials” against Rabbi Joseph. They attacked him personally, and the very position he held as Chief Rabbi, contending that “they” hadn’t chosen nor accepted him as “their” Chief Rabbi, only a few select shuls had.

There was soon an “anti Chief Rabbi” Beth Din, that supervised thirty one butchers! Each week a list of these appeared in “Der Volksadvokat”. The prejudicial attitude that took hold had such a devastating effect, that the major organization supporting the Chief Rabbi, the Association of American Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, began to crumble.

By 1889, the Chief Rabbi was merely a figurehead, with diminishing power. In the Spring of 1895 the retail butchers bonded together and rejected entirely the Chief Rabbi’s supervision. The Chief Rabbinate was now left virtually powerless.

Two years later, broken and downhearted, Rabbi Jacob Joseph, who maintained his position as Chief Rabbi with dignity, honesty and integrity to his last day, took ill and remained bedridden until his Petirah on July 28, 1902, at the age of 59.

Though he did not live to see his efforts reap fruition, the seeds that he sowed left their mark on religious life to this very day. No good deed goes unanswered. His Mesiras Nefesh for Yiddishkeit cleared the way for others to come.


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