Following the recent loss of Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz z”tl, I asked Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman, who knew Rav Pelcovitz for many years, to share his thoughts with us. Rabbi Leiman, author of “Rabbinic Responses to Modernity,” teaches at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University and is professor emeritus of Jewish history and literature at Brooklyn College.
It is appropriate that you honor Rabbi Pelcovitz at this sad moment with a tribute to his memory. You already know what I’ve said about him on previous occasions.
I think it is important to stress Rabbi Pelcovitz’s enormous impact not only on the Far Rockaway Jewish community and its many Jewish educational institutions, but on the Five Towns and its many Jewish educational institutions. Jews came first to Arverne, at the turn of the 19th into the 20th centuries. During the summer months, they were escaping from the sweltering heat of their tenements in New York City, seeking respite at the beaches of Arverne in the pre-air conditioner age.
From Arverne, they made their way to permanent residency in Far Rockaway. It is in Far Rockaway that Rabbi Pelcovitz would leave an indelible imprint on Orthodox Jewish life. Prior to his arrival in Far Rockaway in 1951, Orthodox Jewish life barely existed in the Five Towns. But as members of the Far Rockaway Jewish community began moving into the Five Towns, Rabbi Pelcovitz’s teaching, and the ambience of the White Shul, spread throughout the Five Towns as well.
Those who attended the levayah saw an incredible tribute paid to Rabbi Pelcovitz. The moving and eloquent eulogies by Rabbis Feiner and Neuburger, and by the members of the Pelcovitz family, and the presence of distinguished rabbonim and Jewish educational leaders from all over New York – all on very short notice – will long be remembered.
But nothing impressed me more than the huge crowd of lay Jews, young and old, the ba’alei batim of the White Shul, who attended the funeral.
As indicated, Rabbi Pelcovitz assumed the rabbinate of the White Shul in 1951. His funeral took place almost 70 years later. Virtually no one was left of the many tireless ba’alei batim who were his closest associates and who helped build the Far Rockaway and the White Shul that one sees today. Yet Rabbi Pelcovitz touched so many lives, that second, third, and fourth generations of White Shul ba’alei batim came to pay tribute to their mentor and teacher.
The main sanctuary of the White Shul, large as it is, and even with the opening of additional side rooms, could not contain the massive crowd that came to honor for one last time the Rabbi Pelcovitz they loved and admired. Yehei zikhro barukh!
—Rabbi Dr. Shnayer Leiman
• • •
In December 2016, on the occasion of Rav Pelcovitz’s celebrating 65 years of service at the White Shul, I published in the Kosher Bookworm two columns focusing on his career, which I’m pleased to excerpt here:
During a communal tribute at the White Shul, Rabbi Leiman devoted a large portion of his Shabbos Toldot presentation to the career of Rabbi Pelcovitz, who was ordained by Yeshiva Torah Voda’at in Brooklyn and served several out-of-town synagogues before coming to the White Shul in 1951. He “was part of a long tradition of dedicated rabbis who not only transmitted Torah teaching from one generation to the next, but who also was particularly sensitive to the needs, spiritual and mundane, of his congregants,” Rabbi Leiman said, adding a personal note:
“I was present in the White Shul 65 years ago, in 1951, when Rabbi Pelcovitz gave his first sermon. He was the first rabbi of the White Shul to speak regularly in the vernacular. The two previous rabbis delivered their sermons in Yiddish.
“Derashos, sermons in English! And, every sermon had a beginning, a middle and an end. Every sermon had a message based upon the teaching of our sages. He was articulate, and sweetened his presentations with stories and parables and even aphorisms from the wisdom of the nations. He taught us Torah — not with fire and brimstone, but with love, sensitivity, and tolerance.
“He learned from the teachings of the gedolim of the past, from the likes of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, and transmitted that teaching to thousands of young men and women here at the White Shul, and to audiences throughout the U.S.”
Rabbi Leiman outlined the mesorah that Rabbi Pelcovitz represented as a teacher of the Jewish tradition:
“In one of the presentations, I detailed some of the connecting links between Rabbi Pelcovitz, and the graduates of the Volozhin Yeshiva, the founding yeshiva, the eim ha-yeshivos of all the yeshivas that exist today.
“Briefly: Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, a graduate of the Volozhin Yeshiva and the rabbi of Vilna, was rabban shel kol bnei ha-golah at that time. In 1935, when the rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Voda’at in Brooklyn, Rabbi Dovid Leibowitz, and the yeshiva’s menahel, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, parted ways, a new rosh yeshiva had to be appointed. Rav Shraga Feivel consulted Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski who selected the rosh yeshiva of the R’Mailles Yeshiva in Vilna, Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, to succeed Rabbi Leibovitz. By sending Rav Heiman and his wife to America in 1935, Rav Chaim Ozer almost certainly saved their lives. Vilna Jewry was decimated during the Holocaust.
“Rav Shlomo Heiman served with distinction as Rosh Yeshiva at Torah Voda’at from 1935 until his passing in 1945. During that period, he produced a cadre of distinguished disciples, among them, Rabbi Ralph Pelcovitz, who received his semicha from Rav Heiman. …
“Just as Rav Heiman brought new life to Mesivta Torah Voda’at, so too Rabbi Pelcovitz would give life to the Far Rockaway Jewish community. Under his watch, Far Rockaway became an “ir ve-em be-Yisrael (a metropolis of the Jews).”
It was from Dr. Zev Eleff’s recent anthology, “Modern Orthodox Judaism” (Jewish Publication Society) that I first learned of Rabbi Pelcovitz’s observations concerning his view of the future of Orthodox Judaism and especially that of the Orthodox shul and its youth.
With the valued assistance of Rabbi Simon Posner of the Orthodox Union, I was able to obtain the full original essay by Rabbi Pelcovitz, titled “The Yeshiva Alumnus and The Synagogue,” which is excerpted here:
“A careful study of various communities where a concentration of yeshiva alumni is found will reveal some strange and startling facts. True, a goodly number of yeshiva-trained laymen, among them some former practicing rabbis, are congregants of synagogues and do take an active part in community affairs.
“A sizable group, however, carefully avoid the synagogue and are conspicuous by their absence in many areas of community endeavor. They establish smaller private minyonim or patronize a local shtibel. They avoid the synagogue, both as congregants and participants, though it should be noted that many are members in name only for reasons best known to themselves and/or the energetic membership chairman of the local synagogue.”
Further on, Rabbi Pelcovitz notes that “the hands of the rabbi would certainly be greatly strengthened in guarding the pristine traditional character of the shul if there were but a nucleus of strongly committed and articulate Orthodox laymen in the congregation.”
Lastly, consider the situations we currently face with at-rise youth — as well as at-risk adults — in our community:
“What is so often overlooked by yeshiva graduates is the effect of their detachment upon their own children. What attitude toward the kehillah, its rabbi, communal responsibility, and unity is fostered when children are withdrawn from the mainstream of the Jewish community in which they live? Certainly this is an integral part of chinuch, on a par with formal academic education.”
Rabbi Pelcovitz asks: “What guarantee is there that those of the next generation will be properly trained to take their places in the Jewish community of their choice, once they leave the homes and shtibelach in which they have been reared?”
And lastly: “Where shall they turn in their shtibel-less suburbia for anchorage, affiliation and identification?”
My dear reader, these are the words of a very wise and scholarly rabbi, reflecting the situation still current in many spiritual venues unto this very day.
And consider that these teachings by Rabbi Pelcovitz were written in October 1960!