Askan Extraordinaire – The Trailblazing Exploits of Berel Koenigsberg

Yisachar Dov (Berel) Koenigsberg

By Rabbi Binyomin Zev Karman

A contemporary Jewish community requires an immense amount of infrastructure: shuls, yeshivos, kashrus, mikvaos, bikur cholim, Shabbos observance and the list goes on. As the frum society experiences expansion, numerous altruistic people constantly step forward to volunteer their time and expertise to maintain and sustain the organizations and institutions needed for a Jewish community to thrive.

At the turn of the 19th century, Jewish life in New York City was quite different than it is today. Poverty among immigrants was rampant, and simple shemiras Shabbos was a challenge that many could not overcome. Communal organizations were sparse, and opposition to maintaining a religious lifestyle was fierce. Parents who provided a solid Jewish education for their children were a rarity, and the younger American-born generation was fast slipping away from traditional Yiddishkeit.

While the Rabbanim fought valiantly to hold down the fort in the face of assimilation, a European-born layperson who rose to a position of prominence in the legal profession dedicated his life not only to raising his family in the ways of his forefathers but indeed worked tirelessly to build the Jewish communal institutions that would ensure that Torah-true Yiddishkeit would eventually flourish in New York City and across the United States.

Sign from Mr. Koenigsberg’s law office on the Lower East Side

Yissachar Dov Koenigsberg was born on 10 Sivan, 5624/June 3, 1884, in Limanov (Limanowa), Poland, to his parents, Reb Yisrael (Hakohen) and Esther Feigel (née Aptergot). Reb Yisrael was raised in the home of Harav Yechezkel Halberstam, the Shinever (Sieniawie) Rav, zy”a, the oldest son of Harav Chaim Sanzer, zy”a. After serving as a shochet for several years, he was sent by the Rebbe to America in order to provide kosher meat for his American brethren. (See “The Road from Galicia to Meron,” Inyan, April 28, 2021)

The Koenigsberg family arrived in New York City from Galicia in 1888 and sent their son Berel to Yeshiva Eitz Chaim, the forerunner of RIETS. He also attended Public School 160, graduating in 1899, and upon passing the CUNY exam, he entered City College without attending high school. He graduated with a law degree in 1904, took the New York State Bar Exam in 1905, and entered a field in which there were no shomer Shabbos attorneys at the time. By 1908, he had opened his own law office at 93-99 Nassau Street, where he practiced for over 50 years. He was an active member of the Sienewer Congregation Anshe Sfard, which his father helped found in 1890, and he eventually served as its president as well.

From a young age, Ben Koenigsberg, as he was known professionally, was community oriented. Already in 1905, he began his foray into Jewish education as he became director of the Downtown Talmud Torah (see “Talmud Torah Equivalency — The Legacy of Torah Education in America,” Inyan, February 22, 2023), a position he held for 60 years. In 1907, he was one of the founders of the Hebrew League (Adath B’nei Israel), which offered classes in Gemara, Mishnah, Shulchan Aruch, Chumash, Rashi,and Tanach for young Orthodox immigrant men of the Lower East Side. It was also a place where they could get together to use the library, play games and socialize in an Orthodox atmosphere. Yiddish was the language of conversation, and only shomer Shabbos individuals were accepted as members.

On 6 Kislev, 5670/November 19, 1909, Berel married Pearl (Vivian) Friedman, the daughter of Arieh Leibish (Louis) and Miriam Devorah (Mary) Friedman. [Berel’s brother, Yehoshua (Shia) Zelig, known as Zello, married her first cousin Helen Friedman, the daughter of Dr. Isamar (Samuel) Friedman (the brother of Miriam Devorah), a staunchly shomer Shabbos physician. He was known far and wide as “Shabbos Friedman” for his strict adherence to shemiras Shabbos.]

Together, Berel and Pearl raised their 10 children at 400 E. Houston St., where they resided from 1909 until 1949, next door to the Downtown Talmud Torah. When the city condemned their property for street improvements, they moved to the Hillman Cooperative Houses at 500 C Grand Street, across the street from the historic Bialystoker Shul. He worked assiduously to convince the management to allow them to build a sukkah. He also delivered shiurim in the Bialystoker Shul on Chumash and Rashi as well as on Pirkei Avos.

Although he was involved in many communal activities, Berel became absorbed in never-ending askanus as the result of a Friday night lecture given by Stephen Wise, the Reform clergyman who led Free Synagogue. Wise tried to make inroads in the Jewish population of the Lower East Side by delivering these lectures at Clinton Hall. While all religious speeches at that time were given in Yiddish, Wise delivered his remarks in English, which attracted many young Jewish participants. He had the audacity to make an appeal for funds, passing around a collection plate on Shabbos. Berel and some friends were incensed by this, which motivated them to rise to the challenge to counteract this treachery.

Dr. Judah Magnes, the clergyman at Reform Temple Emanuel, had been urging his congregants to the traditional practices they had abandoned, and left his pulpit after publicly decrying the intermarriage of one of the daughters of a trustee. Realizing the dangers of that movement, he formed the Kehillah, an organization designed to unite all the congregations of New York under one banner in order to promote Jewish education and communal life.

Berel and two friends met with Dr. Magnus in the Kehillah offices on Second Avenue and laid out for him the decline of the youth of the East Side. They formed what was then called the Hebrew Circle and held meetings in the night law office of Mr. Koenigsberg, which he kept in the back of his apartment. Together they set in motion a plan suggested by Dr. Magnus to arrange a series of Friday night lectures to be given in English on religious topics. In a meeting on December 28, 1912, Dr. Magnes suggested to change the name of the group to one that would be more enticing to the youth. He suggested it include the word “young.” Joshua Horowitz suggested “Young Israel,” and with that, a new chapter in Jewish American history was launched.

One of the obstacles to the lecture series was finding a shul that would allow religious lectures to be given in English, which was considered sacrilege at the time. Moses Rosenthal, whose father Reb Leibel owned a Hebrew book shop at 2 Pike St., where many of the trustees of the Kalverier Pike Street Shul congregated, was asked by Dr. Magnes to head the organization because he was also in charge of the junior minyan of the Education Alliance run by Dr. Israel Friedlander. Rosenthal was able to negotiate with the trustees of the Kalverier Shul to allow the first four English language lectures to be held in the shul on the condition that they be repeated the next morning in Yiddish.

The first Friday night lecture was delivered on Shabbos Parashas Bo, 2 Shevat 5673/January 10, 1913, by Dr. Magnes himself. His reputation as an orator attracted a huge crowd converging on the shul, estimated by some to exceed 5,000 people.  Mounted police were needed to maintain order outside the packed shul. As 1,000 people occupied every nook and cranny of the sanctuary, they heard the speaker eloquently espouse true Jewish values.

Education alliance building

In the subsequent weeks, some of the finest English-speaking Jewish orators were enlisted to address the Friday night lecture series, including Dr. Israel Friedlander, Dr. Joseph H. Hertz (later Chief Rabbi of England) and Rabbi Dr. Yosef Stern (later Menahel of the elementary school of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas; see “Surprise Beginnings,” Inyan, February 3, 2021). When a speaker had to be put up for Shabbos, they were hosted in the home of Berel Koenigsberg with grace and hospitality. Many were amazed to hear the Koenigsbergs speaking Hebrew at their Shabbos table and were drawn to return another week just to have that uplifting experience. Some of the lectures took place in the Romanisher Shul on Rivington Street, the Bialystoker Shul on Willet Street, and in the Eldridge Street Shul. For 35 years, Berel Koenigsberg was in charge of the Friday night lectures, which he made sure would start promptly at 9 p.m. He would not tolerate any sort of interruptions.

One of the foremost elements driving the youth away from the shuls was the insistence of the trustees not to allow anyone without a beard to serve as baal tefillah or receive an aliyah. The Downtown Talmud Torah (of which Berel Koenigsberg was director) hired Dr. Samson Benderly to revamp its curriculum. One of his innovations was for Gershon Efros, the music instructor, to teach the children melodies to be sung in shul. Berel’s brother, Itz, gathered some of his friends and formed a junior minyan in the Downtown Talmud Torah building so they could serve as baalei tefillah.

When a storefront shul of elderly men at 205 Broadway asked the boys to join them to complete their minyan, the group insisted on condition that they would have the amud every other week, where they would sing melodies throughout the davening. By the third week, the old timers ceded the amud to the youngsters, and throngs of young men and women began attending the shul. Within three months, it outgrew those quarters and moved to the Educational Alliance building at 195 East Broadway and named it the Model Synagogue.

In order to facilitate an Orthodox shul, the members would hang a silken curtain down the center of the hall as a mechitzah. Dr. Fleishman, the executive director of the Educational Alliance, would tear it down every time it was put up, and given the display of hostility to the Orthodox nature of the minyan, they once again moved and adopted the name of the Friday Night Forum. From that day forward they would be known as Young Israel. In January 1918, a meeting to unify the Young Israel Forum with the Young Israel Synagogue, chaired by Dr. Friedlander, was characteristically held in the home of Berel Koenigsberg.

In February 1918, the Young Israel of Brooklyn opened in Williamsburg at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Rodney Street, and Dr. Friedlander was scheduled as the first Friday night speaker. Despite the blizzard conditions, Berel Koenigsberg accompanied Dr. Friedlander as he made his way by foot over the Williamsburg Bridge.

Berel Koenigsberg helped Young Israel expand its activities to include a Shabbos observance campaign. He joined Rabbi Dov Ber Drachman of the  Park East Synagogue in his work with the Jewish Sabbath Alliance. The Alliance encouraged shemiras Shabbos and ran an employment agency to help Jews find jobs in which they would not have to work on Shabbos. In 1940, he supported the Hart Bill in the New York State Legislature, which limited the number of hours a Sabbath observer could be docked on Saturday to only those hours that his place of business was actually open. Under the auspices of the Orthodox Union (OU), Koenigsberg became chairman of the Joint Committee for a Fair Sabbath Law in 1948. It advocated for legislation (finally passed in 1963) to permit Sabbath-observing merchants to operate their small businesses on Sundays.

Around 1917, Berel began his half-century association with Rabbi Jacob Joseph School (RJJ), becoming the senior vice president and chairman of the Board of Hebrew Education from 1923 onward. He worked hand in hand with Mr. Yitzchak Meir (Irving) Bunim, who served as chairman of the board. During that time, disagreements arose between various factions as to what the focus of the school should be. While some parents and students wanted to stress secular studies, Mr. Koenigsberg came down squarely on the side of Mr. Bunim in his struggle to emphasize Torah education.

Rav Aharon addressing the first chag hasemichah at Yeshiva Rabeinu Yaakov Yosef. Seated on the left is Mr. Ben Koenigsberg. To the right is Harav Mendel Krawiec.

Harav Aharon Kotler, zt”l, who enjoyed a close relationship with Mr. Bunim through their hatzalah work during the Holocaust, later urged him to elevate the Torah level of the yeshivah. When he informed Rav Aharon of the difficulty of convincing parents and talmidim to pursue Torah learning, Rav Aharon recommended he hire his talmid Harav Mendel Krawiec (Kravitz), zt”l, and institute a semichah program. Rav Aharon then told Rav Mendel, “Shick mir talmidim (Send me talmidim).”

In a letter included in the journal of the yeshivah’s 54th Annual Dinner on November 21, 1954, Mr. Koenigsberg proudly details the participants in the semichah program and announces the recent formation of a group of talmidim who received not only semichah but also kabbalah on shechitah. To address the problem of a dearth of mohalim, he noted that a class to train a group was being formed as well.

His interest in chinuch issues brought him to be director of the Hebrew Teachers Training School for Girls from 1930 onward, and in his dedication to fortifying Orthodox shuls he served as senior vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. He also served as chairman of its membership committee.

Kashrus was another area in which Berel Koenigsberg took special interest. In 1930, he worked with others who tried to install kosher cafeterias in those New York City high schools with a large Jewish student body, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson High Schools in Brooklyn, and De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Seward Park High School, located in the heart of the Lower East Side, did install a kosher cafeteria in 1922. In 1934, Koenigsberg wrote a “Plan for the Enforcement of the Kosher Law” for the mayor’s kashrus committee. He ultimately served as chairman of the Kashruth Committee of the OU in 1942. In 1941, in his determination to spread taharas hamishpachah, he founded a mikveh on East Broadway.

Like his father, Berel Koenigsberg was intimately involved in the Colel Hibath Jerusalem, the tzedakah of Reb Meir Baal Haness, which funded Galician families living in Eretz Yisrael. Through his work in this organization, he helped hundreds of people escape from Nazi-held lands and signed over 180 affidavits — many for total strangers — guaranteeing lodging and financial aid for all those people to allow them to get into America. He worked tirelessly to save Harav Benzion Halberstam, the Kedushas Tzion of Bobov, Hy”d, but was not successful in that endeavor. Following the immigrants arrival on these shores, he assisted them with interest-free loans and helped them get settled in America. (See “Postscript” in Inyan,August 11, 2021.)

Berel Koenigsberg stopped practicing law at the age of 87 and passed away on his birthday, 10 Iyar 5735/May 20, 1975. He is buried in Eretz Yisrael.

•  •  •

Torah, avodah and gemilus chassadim. Yissachar Dov Koenigsberg dedicated his life to all three, and through his askanus, was able to save countless Jewish lives — both physically and spiritually — and lay the groundwork for today’s thriving Jewish communities.

With great appreciation to the Koenigsberg family and Altie Karper for their assistance. Photos courtesy of YI Reporter, March 3, 1962 edition and the Koenigsberg-Prero family.

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!