I was that child. Growing up in a family that attended the weekly Minyan that met in Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky’s, zt”l, basement on Saddle River Road in Monsey, I would watch him exit the shul after davening, his regal bearing bespeaking a dignity and formality that seemed to echo centuries of chinuch and tradition.
And yet, steeped as he was in the culture and values of pre-war
Jewish Germany, he was brilliantly successful in transmitting the eternal verities of Torah to a new generation, in a style and an idiom that would be accessible to Americans inhabiting a far different physical and mental landscape.
Rabbi Joseph Elias was born in Leipzig, Germany, on October 29, 1919. His parents were Dr. Marcus and Breindel Elias. After a stint in Furth, the family moved to Frankfurt, where Dr. Elias assumed the position of headmaster of the Hirsch Realschule, the only Orthodox school in that city.
In 1937, young Joseph left for England on a student visa. Although he arrived unable to speak a word of English, in short order he was accepted at a satellite of Cambridge University, where he excelled at all his studies. (He would ruefully cite music as the one area where he fell flat, quipping that as a Levi, he was destined, upon Mashiach’s arrival, to serve as one of the sho’arim, gatekeepers, and not as one of the meshoririm, the singers, both of those being jobs assigned to Leviim in the Bais Hamikdash.)
As a prominent educational figure, the elder Dr. Elias was an early target of the Nazis, who incarcerated him in Buchenwald in 1938, after Kristallnacht. In those early days, it was still possible to extricate the camp’s prisoners with the right papers and connections. Although he had been sent an American affidavit by Reb Alter Poplack, his roommate in the Telshe yeshivah in 1905, Dr. Elias could not be released without the necessary transit visa and other formalities. Displaying great personal courage, his son approached a leading British-Jewish magnate for assistance, and succeeded in securing his father’s release.
Shortly thereafter, the British began deporting German citizens in their midst, and in 1940, Rabbi Joseph Elias was interned on the Isle of Man, off the British mainland; from there, he was shipped to Canada along with a group of yeshivah boys, where he remained until 1942. Eventually, the Canadian government came under pressure to release those who were obviously refugees and posed no threat of espionage.
It was on a Friday morning that the young men received the glad tidings that an official would bring the papers authorizing their release later that day. However, by the time he arrived, Shabbos had already started, and Rabbi Elias refused to supply the necessary signatures, as the situation was not one of pikuach nefesh. The furious official stormed, “I drove several hours to bring you these papers. If you don’t sign, you can rot here until the end of the war!” Unmoved, Rabbi Elias stood his ground as the official tore up the documents.
It took a few months until his eventual release, during which Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, who was then a Rav in Toronto, expressed a desire to meet the bachur who refused to be mechallel Shabbos. “From that time on,” he would tell the Elias children, “we became like one family.”
Upon attaining his freedom, Rabbi Elias studied with Reb Yaakov, and then attended Yeshiva Merkaz HaTorah in Montreal, where he received semichah from Harav Elya Chazan, zt”l. He also founded an English-language monthly while in Montreal, entitled The Jewish Way, whose mandate was to present current events and issues with a Torah perspective. Although the magazine lasted only one year, it was a portent of things to come.
From Montreal, he taught for a short while in Chicago, before being hired by Harav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, to run a teachers’ training program in Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn. Rabbi Elias headed a stellar staff that included Harav Zelik Epstein, zt”l, and Harav Avraham Pam, zt”l. The program was short-lived, however, and was soon terminated upon Harav Mendlowitz’s passing.
It was during this period that Rabbi Elias also authored the Jewish Pocketbooks, a series of booklets on crucial issues of hashkafah, couched in contemporary language. “Simple Halachah guidesin English already existed in America,” comments his daughter-in-law, “but these were the first intellectual writings explaining the Torah viewpoint on a variety of issues in clear, contemporary English.” The Pocketbooks opened up new vistas to Jews who were limited by their lack of access to the classic Hebrew sources.
In 1947, Rabbi Elias accompanied Harav Elya Meir Bloch, zt”l, to a postwar conference in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, which was convened to discuss the fate of Holocaust survivors. Stopping in England on his way back, he was introduced to Miss Miriam Eisemann, and they celebrated their wedding shortly thereafter.
Returning to New York as a newlywed, Rabbi Elias was hired to teach fourth grade in Yeshiva Zichron Moshe in the Bronx (the yeshivah later relocated to South Fallsburg, New York). In 1951, at the recommendation of Harav Simcha Wasserman, zt”l, Rabbi Shalom Goldstein and Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman, zichronam livrachah, traveled from Detroit to New York to convince Rabbi Elias to accept the principalship of Yeshiva Bais Yehuda of Detroit.
“During those years,” comments his son, Rabbi Dovid Elias, Rosh Kollel of Kollel Kesser Torah of Montreal, “the Bais Yaakov had no high school. My father convinced many of his teachers to donate their time to create a ninth grade. Once it was a fait accompli, the upcoming ninth grade requested equal time, and the community came to the realization that a high school for girls was necessary.”
In 1963, the Eliases moved to Monsey, and Rabbi Elias became the principal of Breuer’s high school in Washington Heights. Tasked with the additional mandate of re-opening the night seminary, it grew under his guidance into a full-day program, which he led with wisdom and distinction for over 40 years. Through his influence on generations of young women, he left his distinct imprint on countless Jewish families.
It was not only his classes in Chinuch in the Rika Breuer Teachers Seminary that prepared young women to become the educators of the next generation. He also instituted the “Letter Box,” in which talmidos could leave anonymous questions on anything under the sun. Once a week or so he would extemporaneously respond to these queries, helping to shape his students’ hashkafos most profoundly.
He also had a class on Contemporary Jewish Problems that introduced these young minds to a variety of issues and explained the Torah outlook on them. Additionally, he was available for appointments, in which, as one talmidah recalls, “He helped me prepare a lesson plan for my Talmud Torah class, as I was completely lost. I would ask how to handle various situations I would be encountering on my visit home out of town. When I began shidduchim (which I only did after he sanctioned it), he was the one I consulted about my questions and doubts.
“He was our rebbi.”
A Mighty Pen
As a brilliant scholar and thinker, Rabbi Elias influenced the Jewish world through his distinctive writing style as well as through his educational endeavors. As both an author and former editor at the influential Jewish Observer, which was founded by his brother-in-law, Dr. Ernst Bodenheimer, z”l, he was given every article of each issue to review by, ybl”c, Rabbi Nisson Wolpin, the editor, before it went to print. From his first article, “A Voice From the Past,” dated January 1, 1964, to his final submission in December 2006 on Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and evolution, his literary scope encompassed a broad swath of issues relevant to the Jewish community he served so devotedly. Rabbi Moshe Kolodny, Agudath Israel’s dedicated archivist, for whose work Rabbi Elias expressed great appreciation (even to the extent of donating part of his considerable library to the archive), crowned him “the ideologue of Agudas Yisrael.”
A kollel yungerman (and husband of an alumna) who was trying his hand at writing asked Rabbi Elias to review a sample of his. He was astounded when Rabbi Elias sent it back completely marked up — he had read every word! And he included a note saying that he looked forward to the piece being published. This man, who today is a successful author, still marvels at how much chizuk he derived from those kind words.
His translation and commentary of Harav Hirsch’s Nineteen Letters opened up that seminal work of traditional Torah hashkafah for the English-speaking public. (He invested so much time and energy into the work that his family dubbed it “The Nineteen Years.”) As author of the classic ArtScroll Haggadah, which was translated into French and Russian as well, his influence was profound.
“Someone once said to me on the first night of Pesach,” reflects Rabbi Michoel Elias, “‘tonight, your father is the biggest rebbi of Klal Yisrael!’ There are thousands of copies of his Haggadah in print. People who are new to Yiddishkeit and who don’t have family traditions can buy it, and it will take them through the entire Seder — content and halachah as well.”
Rabbi Elias’s commentary on Perek Chelek of the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud is a valuable component of that monumental project, and underscores the mutual appreciation between him and Rabbis Meir Zlotowitz and Nosson Scherman of ArtScroll.
When he was 80 years old, Rabbi Elias conceived the need for a Holocaust education program from a Torah perspective, under the auspices of Torah Umesorah. When Harav Elya Svei, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of the Philadelphia Yeshiva, was consulted about the project, he told Rabbi Elias that “if you are in charge, then the program should go forward.” Thus was born Zechor Yemos Olam, which, in addition to a comprehensive teacher training program, eventually engendered a widely lauded volume (co-authored with Yaakov Astor): Tragedy and Rebirth: Transmitting the History and Messages of Churban Europa to a New Generation, completed two years ago when its author was 92 years old.
“He loved Hashem and His mitzvos,” exclaims his daughter-in-law. “He had no sense of self, no personal desires. The man had no taavos. There was only retzon Hashem.
“As a diabetic, Pesach was a challenge for him. I remember once when his blood sugar was low on Pesach, and he had to eat a piece of chocolate to get it back up to normal. You had to see how he ate that chocolate — like medicine. For him, it was not an opportunity to indulge, but rather, a way to fulfill the mitzvah of taking care of his health.
“I remember the joy with which he would sit in the sukkah. A few years ago, my in-laws decided that they had to downsize their huge sukkah. They weren’t having big family gatherings there anymore, and it was heavy and hard to put up. So they bought a smaller lightweight sukkah.
“I came in a few days before Sukkos, to find my mother-in-law standing next to the dining room table, which was covered with all the old sukkah decorations. She said to me, ‘We said we’re downsizing — but he can’t help himself. The sukkah has to be beautiful!’”
She marvels at his concern for the klal, which manifested itself in myriad ways on many occasions. “And with all that, he was such a caring, involved parent. We relied on his wisdom and his eitzos. No detail was too small. You’re traveling to Brooklyn? Who’s going; do you have enough cars to get everyone there?”
The Elias marriage was a magnificent partnership, with Mrs. Elias standing loyally behind her husband in his manifold endeavors. Mrs. Elias, shetichyeh, is an accomplished artist and author, and her husband supported and was proud of her literary and creative output. A daughter-in-law recalls a visit her in-laws paid them when the younger Eliases lived in Yerushalayim. “One afternoon, while he was visiting us, one of the grandchildren mentioned that he was stopping by the apartment my in-laws were staying in. ‘Tell Oma I asked after her,’ my father-in-law said.”
The levayah was held at the Yeshiva of Spring Valley, whose Dean, Rabbi Yehuda Frankel, opened the ceremony with the recitation of Tehillim. He then commented on the venue, telling the assemblage that as Yoshev Rosh of the Vaad Hachinuch (Chairman of the Educational Committee), Rabbi Elias was a critical presence steering the yeshivah through crucial years of its growth.
He was eulogized by Harav Meir Levi, Rav of K’hal Adath Yeshurun of Monsey; Rabbi Shaya Schechter, a son-in-law of Harav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, who represented Rabbi Elias’s close ties to Harav Yaakov, zt”l; Harav Menachem Dov Beck, in whose shul, Khal Zichron Avrohom D’Moda, Rabbi Elias davened in his final years; his son, Rabbi Dovid Elias, Rosh Kollel of Kollel Kesser Torah of Radomsk in Montreal; and his sons-in-law, Rabbi Yechiel Blitz, R”M in Yeshiva Gedolah Ateres Mordechai in Detroit, and Harav Raphael Moshe Gettinger, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshiva Midrash Chaim of Lakewood.
Dayan Yaakov Posen, shlita, of K’hal Adath Yeshurun, addressed the mourners at the cemetery. “Your father was a great man who accomplished great things,” he told them. “And I have a personal hakaras hatov to him as well. When I taught at Breuer’s seminary, I knew what I wanted to teach, but your father urged me to teach Halachah. When I started preparing Hilchos Shabbos, I couldn’t find a sefer I was comfortable with, and so I ended up authoring my own.” Dayan Posen credited Rabbi Elias with spurring him to write the widely accepted Kitzur Hilchos Shabbos. “When he gets to Shamayim, that will be yet another accomplishment to his credit.”
Like his ancient namesake, Rabbi Yoseph Elias was truly the multifaceted mashbir. With his wide vision and trans-generational perspective, he was uniquely equipped to supply the educational, religious, and spiritual needs of his time.
Yehi zichro baruch.