Harry Fischel: Pioneer of American Jewish Orthodoxy, Whose Philanthopy Changed the Face of American Judaism
Only in rare occasions does a person who has made significant achievements and received recognition in his or her own lifetime continue to be remembered years later thanks to sensitive souls who take on the responsibility of reminding their contemporaries of new generations of noble leaders who were recognized in their own lifetimes, and again when an even newer generation arises. Harry Fischel was such a man. He made enormous contributions to a struggling academic achievement, Yeshiva College (later developed as the undergraduate college for young men, the memorable unit of Yeshiva University). in 1928 there was published a volume called Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle celebrating his eminent achievements for the founding of the kernel of what is today Yeshiva University. Fischel was then 63 years old and widely acclaimed for his contributions, and fully deserved achievements. Now his successors have risen to the occasion to broaden the canvas and updated the remarkable story of a determined philanthropist who braved the cynical attitudes of those who did not appreciate the sincerity and genuine commitment of a businessman to the academic and religious betterment of his society ~ Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm
Harry Fischel was a household name in Jewish communities throughout the world during the first half of the previous century, but his impact on Jewish life today is even greater, in some respects, than it was at the time his biography was first published, in 1928. When Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle was originally published, Fischel was already holding his own as a philanthropist with the major Jewish captains of industry, co-founding even such general national charitable organizations as HIAS, which he served as Treasurer from its inception and for over the next half a century. But what set him apart from virtually all the other philanthropists of his era was the percentage of his time and the amount of his fortune that he devoted to Jewish education in America and in Israel, and his roles in both founding and funding many charitable and educational institutions that changed the face of Jewish life for the better.
It was only after his original biography was published, however, that Fischel founded the three institutions that bear his name to this day, in America and in Israel, where a street in Jerusalem also bears his name on the corner of the great educational institution that he founded, the Machon Harry Fischel, which produced more than half of the judges in the entire religious court system in Israel, for decades, and which continues to serve the Torah community with distinction to this day.
It was only after the original edition of the biography was published that he single-handedly saved Yeshiva College from certain dissolution and oblivion during the Great Depression, and that the building he had single-handedly built for the chief rabbi in Israel became the site of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva for 40 years, which set the religious and educational tone of the religious Zionist movement in Israel.
This is a rags to riches story that rises above all others, in some ways, since, as The New York Times put it when the first edition was published, "The volume which is beautifully made, preserves [the story] of a man's rise in America from poverty and obscurity to eminence and material success, a story which has in this case an unusual and distinctive flavor because of its subject's devotion to his religious faith."
Fischel in his lifetime made a positive impact on notables ranging from the President of the United States - whom he convinced to allow HIAS to set up a kosher kitchen on Ellis Island to allow starving immigrants to regain their health and avoid deportation - to Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis - who obtained a letter for him that protected him on his foreign travels. Fischel's impact on rabbinic leaders ranged from his close relationship with Chief Rabbi Kook - who considered him America's top Orthodox philanthropist - to his more limited but also impressive relationship with the rabbi known as the Chofetz Chaim in Europe, who went out of his way to host Fischel on one of the latter's trips to Europe.
Fischel's impact is still very much felt to this day.
The current unanimously elected Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Columbia University Professor Richard B. Stone, is quoted on a flap of the book to have said, "Harry Fischel was a model philanthropist who left a profound and lasting legacy to the Jewish world in general and to the world of Torah education in particular. His biography should inspire our generation."
The original biography was edited by Fischel's eminent son-in-law, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, of blessed memory, when Fischel was 63. Fischel later added a Continuation, more than a decade later, in his own words. The Preface to the new augmented edition was written by the long-time Chief Rabbi of Haifa - now Emeritus - Shear Yashuv Cohen, whose many most appropriate credentials to write about "the Founder" appear in the book. Additional information was added and edited this year, just over 63 years after Fischel's passing, primarily by one of Fischel's great-grandchildren, who bears his Hebrew name, Rabbi Aaron I. Reichel, Esq. Fischel's final years were as impressive as his early years, although in different ways that are sure to astound and inspire.