Remembering Joseph Karasick

Remembering Joseph Karasick

Looking at the life of the rabbi, lay leader, advocate of American Orthodoxy

Throughout his life, Rabbi Karasick loved to teach.
Throughout his life, Rabbi Karasick loved to teach.

It’s probably accurate to say that the life of Rabbi Joseph Karasick, who died on August 24 at 98, both reflected and shaped modern Orthodoxy in the United States during the 20th century, and well on into the 21st.

Rabbi Karasick’s life reflected the new lived Orthodox experience in America in the ways that he came to America, moved around the country, morphed seamlessly between the roles of rabbi and lay leader, worked with Jews outside Orthodoxy, Orthodox Jews outside the United States, and interfaith leaders around the world, and merged the worlds of Torah and business in ways that arguably improved both of them.

His leadership role is clear; many of these things happened because of the seminal role he had in creating them.

His son, Rabbi Mark Karasick of Fort Lee, talked about his father; more information is available in “Thirteen Steps,” a memoir that Joseph Karasick wrote when he was in his 90s and the Orthodox Union published in 2017.

Joseph Karasick was born in Minsk in 1922. His parents, Jacob and Mariasha, got their young family — Joseph and his sisters, Gertrude and Rebecca — to America the next year, and the year after that they settled in San Francisco, where his grandfather, Rabbi Gershon Katzman, led the local Orthodox community. San Francisco then still was very much the gold rush city it had been in the 19th century, a place where immigrants and outsiders from all over could build new lives for themselves. The Katzmans did. There was a nascent Jewish community there then, but on the whole its orientation was not Orthodox. Rabbi Katzman worked to change that.

Rabbi Katzman’s daughter — Joseph’s mother — married Jacob Karasick, another rabbi, in Minsk; because of the hardships and dangers posed by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the family had been separated. When the Karasicks eventually reunited with Rabbi Katzman in San Francisco, Jacob Karasick became the city’s shochet; he was the community slaughterer who made sure that the Jewish community would have kosher meat.

President Jimmy Carter sits at the head of the table; Rabbi Karasick is the fourth person on the left.

Despite the Depression, which marked his childhood, Joseph had a happy life, he wrote, but there was not enough high-level Jewish education available. His father, who was a remarkable teacher, taught him, he wrote, but still he needed not just a teacher but a school. He needed an environment that was more fully Jewish than his family alone could provide. So when he was ready to start high school, he moved to Seattle. He went to public school, but he could study Talmud with his peers — who had begun earlier than he had, and who were ahead of him — after school.

He never really lived at home with his parents again, he wrote.

After high school, Joseph Karasick and his mother took a train all the way across the United States to New York, where Joseph interviewed to get into RIETS, Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school.

“My grandmother described that trip as if she were Abraham, bringing Isaac up to the mountain, knowing that he would never come back,” Mark Karasick said. “My father was basically on his own after that.”

After that momentous trip, which the entire family assumed would be life-changing, Abraham Karasick did not get into RIETS immediately. His first interview, with the president, Dr. Samuel Belkin, did not go well. But a fortuitous meeting with a European rabbinical leader changed the school’s decision, and he was on his way.

During his time at YU, Rabbi Karasick grew close to his teacher and mentor Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the seminal figures in the growth of American Orthodox Judaism, whose wisdom, counsel, and friendship affected Rabbi Karasick’s life.

During rabbinical school, Rabbi Karasick grew and refined his skills as a teacher and scholar in residence.

When he went back to San Francisco to visit his family, he’d take the train. That was a three- or four-day trip, and he’d break it up by visiting Jewish communities along the way. He grew as a teacher on those trips, and his skills became increasingly in demand.

Rabbi Karasick speaks at a meeting of the Orthodox Union; he was a past president, board chair, and longtime lay leader there.

Part of it was his intellect — “Linda” — Mark Karasick’s wife — “always says that he is the smartest person she’s ever met,” Mark Karasick said. And another part of it was his warmth, he added.

Once Joseph Karasick graduated, he moved to Montreal, where he took the pulpit of Shearith Israel.

He also got married; his wife, Mark Karasick’s mother, Pepa Wakmann, came from a family that had survived the war in Europe and managed to thrive in Portugal while hiding their Jewishness. Their survival is an extraordinary story that Rabbi Karasick told in his memoir. Pepa’s father, Yitzchak, started a watch business; he worked with the British, who eventually were able to get them out of Portugal and over to New York. They settled on the Upper West Side, which became the family’s home. Both they and the business flourished there.

The story of Rabbi Karasick’s decision to leave the rabbinate — or at least the pulpit rabbinate, because he always retained the core identity of rabbi as teacher of Torah — is a quintessentially modern one. In his memoir, he writes about how he was torn between the pulls of two different kinds of lives, how his wife, whom he obviously adored, longed to go back home, how his father-in-law wanted him to join the family business, and about how he knew that he had much to contribute to both worlds.

He makes clear in the memoir that he wondered about what would have happened had he made the other choice.

His son Mark knows that decision firsthand; he also is a rabbi but chose to leave the professional rabbinate for the business world. “I can identify with his decision a little bit,” he said. “You think, ‘How much could you accomplish in a small town of a start-up community?’ and you’re working 24/7. But you can’t do the same things when you have a business life. As a volunteer, you can make a tremendous contribution, but it always gnaws at you.

Rabbi Karasick, center, and an undentified man with the Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Nissim.

“But he could look back at an extraordinary career helping the klal,” the community.

Joseph Karasick had to face a YU tribunal when he decided to leave the rabbinate; it was a hard-fought decision, but he was given the right to go and still retain his ties to the school and the Orthodox world.

Dr. Belkin, one of the panel members, “voted no,” Mark Karasick said. “He said, ‘We invested so much in him! How can we let him go?’ But Rabbi Soloveitchik also was on the panel, “and he said, ‘Let him go,’ Mark Karasick said. “‘He will contribute in other ways.’ And he did. He did things as a layman that he couldn’t have done as a rabbi.”

The vote was two to one.

When Rabbi Karasick writes in his memoir about his work in the family business, Wakmann Watch Co. — whose presidency he assumed about seven years after returning to New York — it’s also with great passion. It was a fascinating business to be in. During the war, the company’s timepieces provided the precision that the war effort demanded. That’s why the British took such good care of him. They needed his work. Once the war was over, watches continued to become more and more complicated and also more and more accurate; Wakmann Watch stayed on top of those trends for many years, until the move away from extraordinarily detailed, miniscule mechanics and into computerization changed it too much.

During his many decades at Wakmann Watch, Rabbi Karasick traveled across North America and all over Europe, making contacts and friendships; those networks not only helped his business but also gave him access to the highest levels of Jewish leadership around the world.

Rabbi Karasick sits with Rav Yehuda Leib Levin, the chief rabbi of Russia.

As soon as he got back to New York, Rabbi Karasick started giving shiurim, classes, first at the Jewish Center, an imposing shul on the Upper West Side, and then in his apartment building on West End Avenue. “That went on for many decades,” Mark Karasick said. “At 98, my father was giving a class every Sunday through Thursday between mincha and maariv; he’d talk for 10 to 15 minutes on a halachic question. And he’d speak at least one out of four Shabbeses, and if they didn’t have someone at the last minute, my father could pull a speech out of his hat in a minute. His content was either text or from one of his teachers. And he also was creative; he could make his own hiddush; his own Torah.

“I can see him, every Friday night, falling asleep on the books he was using to prepare,” he added.

Joseph Karasick was instrumental in persuading his own great teacher, the Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik, to divide his time between Brookline, Mass., where he lived, and New York, where he’d commute to teach. The two men spent a great deal of time together, and Rabbi Karasick acted as a gatekeeper for the Rav, his son said.

Once he returned to New York and began to live the life of a layman — albeit an extraordinarily well educated and well connected layman — Rabbi Karasick began his work as a lay leader at the Orthodox Union. He was its president from 1966 to 1972, and chaired its board from 1972 to 1978. In the role, and throughout the rest of his life, he worked to strengthen American Jewish Orthodoxy. He chose to use his hard-earned title, Rabbi, in that lay position, because it allowed him to talk to other leaders more directly. “When he was dealing with other rabbis — it could be the Lubavitcher rebbe or the chief rabbi of France of or Israel, the title gave him some gravitas,” Mark Karasick said. “He didn’t look at himself as meeting rabbi-to-rabbi, but having that title helped him.”

On the other hand, “he understood that he was a lay leader, and when he met with other lay leaders he didn’t look at himself as above them.”

Rabbi Karasick cared deeply about Jews around the world.

The Karasicks flank Vice President Al Gore.

“My father always said that when he comes before the Almighty at the day of judgment, one of his greatest accomplishments would be that he helped save French Jewry,” Mark Karasick said. That was through his involvement in the World Conference of Synagogues; that might have been the organization he cared about most deeply, but he was greatly involved in a range of Jewish groups.

As head of the OU, his father decided to join the Synagogue Council of America, “which was made up of Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox groups,” Mark Karasick said. “The question was, ‘Should we interact with Conservative and Reform groups?’ The right-wing Orthodox world felt that we should not, but he thought that there was much to be gained from working together with them.

“We were not interested in or prepared to — nor would he consider — talking about halachic issues, but there were so many other concerns. So the OU joined, and my father took the heat for it.”

Next, Joseph Karasick worked with the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, otherwise known as the IJCIC. (That’s pronounced Idge-kick.) “Forget about Conservative and Reform!” Mark Karasick said. “This is dealing with Catholics and Protestants. They did not talk about religion, but my father felt that it could be helpful to the world.

“Almost until his dying day, he was active in IJCIC,” he continued. “He was on the phone with them. That is part of his background and his training, and what he learned from Rabbi Soloveitchik. He was a little bit of a maverick, and wasn’t always fully endorsed by the right-wing community. He was willing to take positions that other rabbis were not.”

The Karasick name is familiar in New Jersey for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most obvious reason is the names one some of the Sinai Schools. Sinai is the organization that runs schools for children and teenagers with special needs; its transformative use of inclusion and careful personalization sets its programs inside day schools and yeshivot and helps its students navigate through them.

Pepa and Rabbi Joseph Karasick

The Sinai Schools runs eight programs in elementary and high schools, six in New Jersey and two in New York. Three of those programs carry the names of Mark Karasick and his wife, Linda; Mark and Linda were acting in consonance with Joseph Karasick’s teaching and legacy as they endowed those programs and support Sinai.

“My father appreciated Sinai,” Mark Karasick said. “He admired it. He took pride in it.”

Looking back at his father’s life, Mark Karasick read part of a note he’d written to his father on Joseph Karasick’s 90th birthday. “I have always benefitted from being the son of Joseph Karasick,” he said. “To the one constant in my life, I say that it is an honor for me to be known as your son.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood also is the CEO of OU Kosher. He and Rabbi Karasick were good friends as well as colleagues. “Joe always played an important role,” Rabbi Genack said. “He was really very involved in Jewish communal life in a leadership position.

“He played a very important role in the OU, even into his 90s, until covid. He was a very distinguished and respected leader for decades after he served as president.

He also was good company — “he had a ton of stories.”

Linda, Rabbi Mark, and Rabbi Joseph Karasick sit in a restaurant in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Genack remembers his friend also as a gifted teacher. “I have a tiny shul in Englewood, and maybe five, six years ago I asked him to come speak as a scholar in residence. He was in his 90s at the time. He was phenomenal. Articulate, interesting — phenomenal.

“And he was a very optimistic person. I sent him an email on his 98th birthday, and he answered, saying, ‘I am well on my way to 99, and I am looking forward.’”

Stephen Savitsky of Woodmere, like Rabbi Karasick, is a former OU president and board chair. He has fond memories of his friend. “He did many different things — he was a very innovative, creative person.” Mr. Savitsky talked about Rabbi Karasick’s interfaith work — “I think that he was involved in some of the movement that eventually ended up in Nostra Aetate,” the revolutionary Vatican II document that Pope Paul VI signed in 1965.

“He was a very good president for the OU,” Mr. Savitsky continued. “He helped expand the kosher division. He was a business person, so he understood and gave more structure to that division.”

Personally, “he was charming, warm, gregarious; he was a very knowledgeable, very worldly person. The Torah was always at the center of his life. His conversation revolved around the Torah.”

Rabbi Karasick’s wife, Pepa, died in 2010. He is survived by his children and their spouses; Rabbi Mark and Linda Karasick, George and Denise Karasick, and Bernice and Rabbi Benjy Mandel; and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.

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