My mystery rabbi

My mystery rabbi

In last week’s Jewish Standard, my distant cousin Edward Zizmor provided the answer to the mystery about a photo featured in an earlier edition: Whose hand was the young Rabbi Abraham Zigelman shaking on the day of his installation at Temple Beth Abraham in 1951?

That tall and distinguished-looking rabbi is indeed Alexander S. Rosenberg of Congregation Ohab Zedek in Yonkers, N.Y., where Eddie and I both grew up among many Klein cousins.

The Standard’s accompanying reprint of a profile about Rabbi Rosenberg highlights his illustrious career heading the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union from 1950 to 1972. Kosher food availability would not be what it is today were it not for his courageous and principled leadership. And the worldwide reputation of the OU also would not be what it is today without his expert guidance in its early days.
Letter from Israel
Ohab Zedek, Westchester County’s first official synagogue, never enjoyed the same sort of success. It was always a small congregation and in many ways a Klein family affair; my father’s great-uncle founded the shul in 1887. Rabbi Rosenberg, then just 22 years old, was hired as its spiritual leader in 1925.

To me, he epitomized a pulpit rabbi. He was a gifted orator, a learned scholar, and imposing enough to command respect to the point that if you arrived during his sermon, you would stay in the vestibule rather than cause a disruption. At the end of services he would shake every worshiper’s hand – yes, even the women’s hands – and offer a warm greeting.

In 1944, Rabbi Rosenberg invited my paternal grandfather, Lazar Klein, to become the shul’s cantor and move with his wife and three children to Yonkers from York, Pennsylvania. Like Rabbi Rosenberg, my grandfather was an awe-inspiring, white-bearded Hungarian-born man with a confident personality. The two of them made a good team, proudly upholding an Orthodox way of life that seemed anachronistic and on its way to oblivion in the United States of the 1940s to early 1970s.

It was in Ohab Zedek that my father met my mother, a native Yonkers-ite who already knew her husband-to-be’s extended family thanks to the shul. (Amazingly, my oldest brother and I first laid eyes on our own future spouses in Ohab Zedek, too. His wife-to-be was visiting her grandparents and my husband-to-be was visiting the shul’s final rabbi, Ephraim Kanarfogel, who’d been his youth leader in Bayside, Queens.) Every Shabbat and holiday, my parents walked my three brothers and me three-quarters of a mile to Ohab Zedek, rain or shine.

The number of children at weekly services never topped a dozen, and eight of them were the rabbi’s and the cantor’s grandchildren. Rabbi Rosenberg, a widower, lived with his son’s family. The youngest of their four daughters, Mimi, was six months my senior. Sitting together in the front-row balcony of shul was a highlight of our week. When we were perhaps six or seven, Mimi taught me two boredom-busters, one for shul and one for lunch afterward: how to tie endless knots in a single strand of hair, and how to make a mini salt sandwich (flatten a tiny bit of challah with your fingertip, sprinkle it with salt, roll it up and pop it into your mouth).

The younger Rosenbergs moved to Israel when Mimi and I were around 11 years old, and we lost touch.

Rabbi Rosenberg died in 1972 and was succeeded by Rabbi Noah Goldstein. My grandfather passed away 10 years later, during Rabbi Kanarfogel’s tenure. (My husband and I later followed him to Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Aaron.) The run-down shul building eventually was sold and became a church. What was left of Ohab Zedek merged with the Young Israel of North Riverdale, in which my mother is active to this day.

Meanwhile, Mimi and I were busy raising children across the world from one another. And then, in 2005, my brother in Israel called us with the news that his daughter Chaya was engaged – to Mimi’s son! Whoever suggested the match did not know that the two families had a history, but to the Kleins and Rosenbergs this was a clear case of Divine providence.

And so it is that Mimi is the grandmother of four beautiful Israeli children to whom I am a great-aunt. One is named in memory of her father; another in memory of my father. Mimi lives in Jerusalem, a few miles from my home in Ma’aleh Adumim. We sit together at all family affairs, though we don’t make salt sandwiches because our hands are too busy with our respective grandchildren.

The Jewish continuity our grandfathers struggled to build in Yonkers lives on in Israel as the two families are intertwined forever. The Kleins and Rosenbergs still make a good team.

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