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6 Adar, 5781 - February 18, 2021 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Bearer Of The Undying Torch: An Appreciation of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman zt'l, in the Seventy-fifth Year Since His Petirah

By Moshe Musman


The story of Rabbi Dr. Bernard Drachman, who passed away fifty years ago, contains important lessons for understanding about the survival of Torah in the spiritually barren and desolate land that America was a hundred years ago. Rabbi Drachman grew up in a thoroughly American environment, but he nonetheless became firmly and deeply committed to Torah true principles that were, in his person, completely at ease with his all-American heritage.

Rabbi Drachman saw, with a fresh and open American eye, the deep and sincere emunah and shemiras mitzvos of the Jews of a small German town, the flowering of HaRav Hirsch's Frankfurt, as well as the vitality of eastern Europe. His fascinating story helps us understand some of the important roots of the American Jewish community.

Almost all the material in this article is based on Rabbi Drachman's autobiography The Unfailing Light.

Part IV (Final Part)

Other Rabbinical Activities

While maintaining his position with Zichron Efraim, Rabbi Drachman also accepted a call from another synagogue, Ohev Tzedek, composed mostly of Hungarian Jews, to become its rabbi. He held this position from 1909-22.

His role as rabbi was not limited to delivering sermons and answering questions. On many occasions he was approached by congregants who were in need of advice, moral support, mediation or material aid and assistance.

Old Yeshiva University Building

He was also the president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America for several years. Around 1915, he began what was to be a thirty year period of tenure as an instructor at Yeshiva University. As well as teaching German language and a range of Jewish subjects, he also used to officiate at the installation of yeshiva graduate rabbis in out-of-town communities and represent the yeshiva at the celebrations of out-of-town institutions.

In 1912, he received an official letter from England's United Synagogue inviting him to visit England and speak in a number of synagogues, with a view to becoming a candidate for the office of Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, which had become vacant with the passing away of Dr. Hermann Adler earlier in the year.

Despite reluctance at the prospect of departing from his beloved America, Rabbi Drachman accepted the call and arrived in London in October 1912. His addresses over the course of a few Shabbosim in some of the large London synagogues were extremely well received. He met the leaders of the Anglo-Jewish establishment, Lord Rothschild, Lord Swaythling and the members of the Board of Deputies and in the course of his discussions with them, Rabbi Drachman received the impression that his views and policies were very well received.

The one mishap of his London visit took place when he was invited to the home of a certain minister who was known to tend towards reform in his religious views, and the kashrus in whose home, Rabbi Drachman had reliably been informed, could not be relied upon. When asked by his host why he wasn't eating, Rabbi Drachman replied that he had no appetite but he would rather that it not disturb the enjoyable character of the evening. His host, however, probably suspecting the real reason, took this as an insult.

While neither regretting his action nor hearing anything further about it, Rabbi Drachman speculated in hindsight upon the influence of this incident on future events. In mid-November, Rabbi Drachman began a brief tour of the English provinces, in the course of which he visited Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. He was enthusiastically received by rabbis and laymen alike, all of whom were more than pleased to make the acquaintance of the learned, eloquent and sincerely orthodox rabbi. On two occasions however, he was confidentially informed by friends that `certain gentlemen connected with a certain institution,' had a feeling that his principles were `too orthodox' and his views `too strict.' His informants had strong feelings on the matter — after all, one of them remarked, wasn't that what a Chief Rabbi was for? — but Rabbi Drachman preferred to let matters run their own course.

Arriving home in mid-January 1913, Rabbi Drachman found that considerable interest had been aroused there at the prospect of the impending elections for what was possibly the world's most prestigious rabbinical post at the time. As he understood it, what transpired was that, although a majority of the electors were in favor of his election, his opponents, who were in the minority, made skillful use of legal difficulties to block his selection.

Rabbi Drachman's position, which reflected his true feelings, had always been that, while he did not actively seek the appointment, he would have duty bound to respond favorably to a call from the Jewish community of Great Britain. With the very worst misuse of the British tendency to stick to the rules, those opposed to his election secured a ruling from the United Synagogue's legal counsel that such a call could not be issued, since the constitution only provided for the selection of a Chief Rabbi from candidates who applied for the post. Thus, since Rabbi Drachman had not and would not apply, he could not be a candidate and another choice was made.

The wider circle of Rabbi Drachman's acquaintances reacted with surprise to this outcome, having understood that his election was a matter of certainty. His own reaction was mainly one of relief. While there was a certain degree of humiliation as well, due to the circumstances, he reflected that his lack of success, due as it was only to his having really been too successful, was really a tribute of honor and esteem. Indeed, he always remained grateful to Anglo Jewry for the honor it had conferred on him in inviting him to become a candidate.

A Changing World

The outbreak of the First World War came as a shock to many Americans and to Jews in particular, who knew that as usual their coreligionists would be the first to suffer, even though the conflict in no way involved them. At the beginning of October 1914, the first meeting to set up some organized relief for the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe was held in Rabbi Drachman's home. As a result, the Central Relief Committee and the Joint Distribution Committee were set up.

The following summer, one of Rabbi Drachman's congregants from Ohev Tzedek suggested to him that the two of them undertake a cross continent fund raising trip to aid the relief effort for the Jewish sufferers of the War. Thus in the summer months of 1915, Rabbi Drachman travelled the length and breadth of the United States visiting and addressing a number of communities to raise money.


In April 1917, America entered the fray on the side of the allies. Rabbi Drachman's three oldest sons were assigned to work on behalf of the war effort. The Jewish Welfare Board was organized to provide support for Jewish conscripts and their families. Rabbi Drachman served on the boards of both the national organization and the New York branch and took a leading part in arranging an abbreviated order of prayers for conscripts who did not have enough time to complete the full service. In addition to this, Rabbi Drachman met and spoke to many individual soldiers and delivered addresses to assemblies in army camps before their departure for the war.

With the entrusting to Great Britain of the Mandate for Palestine, Rabbi Drachman witnessed the wave of emotion that swept over the Jewish masses of America, which found expression in a spontaneous parade which spilled over from New York's Jewish ghetto areas into the main thoroughfares. His views on Zionism coincided with those of the religious Zionist cause and while he took no active part in the political workings of the Zionist Movement, he was a founding member and one time President of the American Mizrachi.

In 1925, Rabbi Drachman lost his wife after a brief illness. Plunged into loneliness, he considered accepting a position in another city and paid a visit to Toronto, where he had been invited to speak with a view to becoming rabbi. Although he was offered the position, he had a change of heart and did not wish to be separated from his children and from the city in which he felt he had been placed to fulfill his life's task. Two years later, he married Hadassah Levine, a teacher, whose loyal devotion to Orthodoxy and efforts in the cause of educating Jewish girls to follow its path singled her out as a zivug sheini whose deeds perfectly matched those of her new husband.

On a trip to Eretz Yisroel in 1926, Rabbi Drachman was able to witness the growth and development of both the old yishuv and the new one. While reacting with sadness and emotion to the sights of the barren Judean Hills and upon his arrival in Yerushalayim, to thoughts of the glory of the beis Hamikdosh, he was heartened by the proliferation of Jewish institutions, yeshivos, talmudei Torah, schools, hospitals and homes for the aged and infirm.

In 1930 he paid his last visit to Germany as a delegate to the World Congress of Sabbath Observers in Berlin. Writing in 1944, he noted with grief that the brutal Nazi savages had been responsible for the almost complete obliteration of the communities represented at the Berlin gathering. In 1941, Rabbi Drachman was honored by Colombia University with its Medal for Excellence. One of his classmates had risen to become the University's President and a year later, he invited all the surviving members of the class to his home for a reunion on the occasion of the University's sixtieth anniversary. Rabbi Drachman, who was then eighty one, recalled that a touch of pensiveness was added to the gathering by the thought that all those assembled would probably never meet again in the same way.

Rabbi Drachman died in 1946, having lived through all of the Second World War and witnessing the fate of European Jewry. The world in general and the Jewish world in particular were very different from how they had been eighty five years earlier, when he was born.

The contrast is heightened by comparing the warmth with which he describes the Germany he knew as a young man with his numerous references to the barbaric regime that had come to power at the time he recorded the story of his life. The spirit of intellectual liberality that he found prevailing in Germany and the absence of any noticeable antisemitism in the German countryside when he spent several years there, gave no auger of the horrors that Germany would perpetrate upon European Jewry within his own lifetime.

Originally, his warm feelings for Germany were such that prior to America's entry into the First World War on the side of the Allies, he advocated supporting Germany. (At the time, the issue was hardly a clear cut one for American Jews who often had relatives on both sides of the lines. Germany still enjoyed the reputation of being a highly civilized and fundamentally liberal country while on the side of the Allies was bitterly antisemitic Russia.)

For most of us, born and raised in the post war world, these sentiments help us to understand the sense of betrayal and despair that gripped many Western European Jews during the nineteen thirties and forties after Hitler ym'sh came to power. Indeed, the Jewish outlook has become so altered since the War that one doubts whether any Jew today would express the same warmth of feeling for any gentile country of adoption or birth.

Rabbi Drachman led a long, full and active career. To characterize him simply as an Orthodox rabbi is somewhat insufficient in that it misses his uniqueness. He was not born to the Orthodoxy he later espoused, but arrived at it by a process of independent search, having repudiated Reform and Conservatism, the forms of Judaism that were almost completely dominant in America at the time.

He set out on his own lonely path to defend genuine Orthodoxy and to help it adopt a contemporary form to allow it to take hold in the spiritually hostile American environment. He always understood that his Germanic background and education made him suited for the Westernized class of new American Jews and it was in this community that he chose to work. The massive influx of Jews from Eastern Europe and their own attempts to place their religious life on a steady footing ran along a parallel track to Rabbi Drachman's work.

It may be argued that his work had little direct link to the eventual phenomenal success of American yeshiva education but this again misses the point. He achieved the most that was possible in his time. To stand up where Reform held sway on the religious scene and proclaim the truth of Torah took courage. To rally Orthodox Jews and further Torah education and observance was as revolutionary at the time as the idea of kollelim would be fifty years later. In a sense, Rabbi Drachman can be said to have received the torch of Torah in America from the individuals who battled before him to keep it alight, and to have passed it on, burning even more brightly, to those who would really light up the country with it.

Click here for Part III


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