Yahrtzeit: The First Lubavitcher Rov in America

By Hershel Rosenbluh for Anash.org

The Moscow’er RovRav Chaim Yakov Vidrevitz, a chossid of the Tzemach Tzedek and Rebbe Maharash who later came to America to serve as rov in New York, passed away on this day (12 Iyar) in 5671/1911.


Rav Chaim Yakov Vidrevitz was born in Dobromisla, in the Mohilev gubernya (province), to his father Reb Binyomin, on 8 Kislev 5596. A young prodigy, he soon mastered all of shas and poskim and at a very young age. Although from a non-chassidishe background, upon the advice of a friend he traveled to Lubavitch to be one of the yoshvim (young men who came for extended periods of time to sit and learn and have all their expenses covered by the Rebbe) by the Tzemach Tzedek. After marrying his wife Tamara, he was accepted as a rov in several White Russian towns. He then was sent in 5636/1876 by the Rebbe Maharash to become the Chassidishe rov in Moscow, where he served for 15 years, earning him the title, the “Moskver Rov.

In Moscow, his fame as a great gaon and posek spread far and wide, throughout the Russian Empire and beyond. He was tasked by the children of the Tzemach Tzedek to organize the ksovim and to print the tshuvos of the Tzemach Tzedek. The responsa that we have is due to his hard work over a two year period. He was greatly opposed to the maskilim who tried to make changes to the old Jewish way of life. As rov in Moscow he was called by the Rebbe Rashab to oversee the renovation of the mikveh in Lubavitch that fell into disrepair, after the Rebbe Maharash’s histalkus.

Jewish market in Moscow

In 5651/1891, after upheavals in Russia and an attempt on the Czar’s life, a large portion of the Jews of Moscow was expelled, and Rav Vidrevitz decided to head towards the American shores. There he was appointed as rov of the Lubavitcher-Nyezhiner shul on Henry Street on the East Side of New York. In later years, the chossid Reb Avrohom Chaim Rosenbaum – who had languished in Czarist prisons – came to New York upon his advice, after writing to him and receiving a response that he will help him to settle upon arrival.

In New York, his star began to shine even more and he accomplished much in the realm of strengthening Yiddishkeit in the “treifene medineh,” specifically in the areas of kashrus and mikvaos. He worked independently, as well as together with the “Rav Hakolel,” Rav Yakov Josef, to bring order to a wilderness. His wit and genius were well-known throughout the land and despite his speech impediment people would come from near and far to his drashos and mediate disputes.

Due to his genius and wit, he became a well-known figure in the American -Yiddish press. A story was told that he once had a dispute with a business partner, where Rav Vidrevitz accused the partner of stealing his share. The partner, however, in his audacity, accused the Rov of stealing! The rov responded to his partner: “I’m a liar and you have a stuttering problem!” The partner was bewildered and responded: “You have a stuttering problem!” To which the rov responded: “Yes, but if you accuse me with your shortcomings, then I’ll accuse you with mine!”

Rav Vidrevitz went by different titles at different times, here in America. Among them was the title “Chief Rabbi of America.” When asked once who appointed him to be the Chief Rabbi of America or of all Chassidim in New York and America he answered in jest “The sign painter!”

After the passing of Rav Yakov Josef – known as the Rav Hakolel – in 5662/1902, most rabbonim joined together and formed the Agudas HoRabbonim. For reasons unbeknownst to us, Rav Vidrevitz did not join them and even was at odds with them. When the Agudas HoRabbonim announced that only their kashrus and shechitah should be trusted. Rav Vidrevitch responded that people need not pay heed to that. He said he knows many frum, erliche rabbonim that didn’t join the Agudas HoRabbonim and their hechsherim are better than the Agudah’s. He added that of course, the announcement by the Agudas HoRabbonim meant well, but it’s a chillul Hashem to write something like that.

It’s possible that this disagreement with the Agudas HoRabbonim was the cause for people to think that he disrespected the Rav Hakolel and and was easygoing as far as yiddishkeit was concerned. Rav Joseph was a talmid of Reb Yisroel Salanter and what you might call the leader of the Litvishe/misnagdishe yidden in New York.

This may have brought about that the misnagdishe yidden in New York put forth the idea that Rav Vidrevitz, the rov of the chassidim, was lacking in respect to Rav Josef and to Yiddishkeit in general. Thus painting all chassidim with the very broad brush, that all chassidim are at fault that Rav Joseph’s rabbonus was fraught with issues in the later years. In truth, two prominent Litvishe rabbonim were the ones opposed to Rav Joseph and Rav Vidrevitch stood alongside him.

It may be important to note that after the passing of Rav Yakov Joseph, Rav Vidrevitch was part of a committee that was actively trying to recruit Rav Yakov Dovid Wilowski of Slutsk – the Ridvaz – to be the replacement for Rav Joseph.

Rav Vidrevitz also was very strongly opposed to a controversial rov who arrived in the US and settled in Hoboken, NJ – Rabbi Chaim Hirshenson. Rabbi Hirshenson saw the situation as far as yiddishkeit was concerned, and with good intentions published a sefer called “halichos olam,” where he educates the masses about certain leniencies and loopholes that can be used. Rav Vidrevitz wrote many articles against him and his sefer, that were published in a journal named “Hametzapeh.”

On the 12th of Iyar 5671/1911, after languishing in bed for eight days, he passed away. At his levaya thousands of people attended. The police knew from years before what happens when a rov of his stature passes away, made sure to keep very tight control over the crowds. He was brought to kevurah to the Bayside Cemetery in Queens, right next to his son Yosef Tzvi, who predeceased him. A large matzeivoh was placed over both of their graves.

The Yiddish language Morgen-Journal had this to say about him after his passing: “He was one of the greatest geonim of his day. He fell ill eight days ago but remained in bed with seforim at his side – never ceasing to study Torah. He was great in Torah but also intelligent and well-versed in worldly matters Great industrialists and businessman would come to him to seek his advice and to settle disputes they may have had.”

His own writings were never published, but his memory lives on in the writings of the Tzemach Tzedek that he compiled, as well as his writings that are scattered in many seforim and archives.

Photo credits: Ivelt

The matzeivoh of Yosef Tzvi and Harav Chaim Yakov Vidrevitch
The New York Times reporting on his passing
A letter from the Rebbe Maharash to Rav Vidrevitch
Stationery as Chief Rabbi of America
Announcement from Anshei Lubavitch & Nyezhin showing him as Rov in 5653/1893
News clip from Philadelphia where he first went to try and get a rabbonus

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