Yaakov Ben Zion Mendelson
Rabbi Yaakov Ben Zion Mendelsohn (Hebrew: יעקב בן ציון הכהן מענדעלסאן) (October 12, 1875 – August 5, 1941) was a renowned Orthodox communal rabbi, Talmudist, Halachist, rabbinical author and scholar.
After a rigorous Talmudic education, he received semicha ordination from the Rogatchover Gaon, one of the rabbinic greats of the time. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted into the Russian Army. The army was very harsh for Jewish soldiers, and commanders were well known for trying to break the Jews of their religion. Morein deserted.
After escaping Russia, he had several close calls evading Russian agents throughout Europe. He changed his surname to Mendelson ("Mendel's son,"), to make it harder for the government to track him.
The British years
Eventually, he emigrated to London, England. At age 22, he found a position as the Rabbi/Dayan of Leeds (and of the ‘Chevras Torah’ shul therein). He sent for his cousin, Feiga, who was betrothed to him. They married in Leeds.
In 1905, he took a new position as rabbi of Gateshead, and later, as rabbi of Glasgow, Scotland. In Glasgow, Mendelson demonstrated his community leadership and concern for its well-being countless times. In two instances, he thwarted cartels controlling certain commercial aspects of ritual, to keep prices stable.
When war broke out, Rabbi Mendelson's son Chaim was old enough to be drafted. After Rabbi Mendelson's experience with the Russian Army, he wanted to avoid that, and relocated to the United States in 1915. He would spend the rest of his life, personally and professionally, in Newark, New Jersey. In 1919, he took the Rabbinical position of Congregation Tifereth Israel of Brisk d’Lita. In 1921 he was appointed as the rabbi of Newark, with primary jurisdiction over matters of Shechita and Kashrus, a position he held until his death.
Rabbi Mendelson changed shul positions several times, going to Congregation Adas Yisroel, Chevra B'nai Jacob Anshe Galicia, and eventually founded his own shul, Congregation Beis Hamedrash Hagadol. To do so, he bought the defunct synagogue building formerly run by Rabbi Meyer Isserman. He opened a larger building next door on August 14, 1934, in a large ceremony attended by hundreds of locals along with rabbis from Passaic, West New York, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia. It was commonly known as the Bergen Street Shul.
Distinguished for his scholarship and devotion to the Jewish community, Rabbi Mendelson was a member of Knesseth ha-Rabbanim (the Assembly of Hebrew Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada), where he was considered an expert in kashruth. He became a leader of the organization, presided over its 11th convention (addressing issues of cooperation among Orthodox rabbis, improving education, marital law, religious courts, and kosher meat), On September 10, 1940, at its convention, he made an impassioned plea, to all of American Jewry, for the support of war refugees.
He also composed a collection of zemiros, Sabbath meal devotional songs. He died in 1941, leaving a widow, five sons, four daughters and twelve grandchildren. Another son, Shmuel Dov, died in a scalding accident in Gateshead in 1905.
Rabbi Mendelson was a talented author of Talmudic and Rabbinic works. He wrote six volumes of scholarship:
- Sha’arei Tzion (Leeds 1903) - on the Talmud (with approbation from Rabbi Shlomo HaKohen, Dayan of Vilna)
- Sefer Hatzid (Leeds 1904) - laws relating to ritual slaughter,
- Midrash Yaavetz (Glasgow 1911) - Halacha and Aggadah on the Book of Genesis (with approbations from Rabbi Nosson Halevi Bamberger of Würzburg; Rabbi Menachem Dovber Dagutski of Manchester; Rabbi Refoel Zilberman of Tzfas; Rabbi Eliyahu Posek of Alapolia in Russia; Rabbi Eliezer Dan Yachai of Lutzin and Rabbi Shlomo Yaakov Koton of Leshenov, and with a warm letter from Rabbi Akiva HaCohen Matlon of Heina in Minsk province, then-Russia)
- Mishnas Yaavetz on Chagiga (Leeds 1903) a summary of the final rulings of this volume of Talmud Bavli
- Mishnas Yaavetz (1928) an anthology of three previously unpublished books by the author
Many of his children and grandchildren took leadership positions in national Jewish organizations and local Jewish communities; see Relatives, below.
Rabbi Mendelson's son Harry and his descendants reverted to the original family surname of Morein, though other family members continued to use Mendelson. Harry Morein was a founder of the Young Israel of Newark, and an early advocate to change New Jersey's Sunday blue laws, forbidding commerce on Sunday.
Today, he has many descendants involved in communal life at the national and local levels, including kashruth administration at the Orthodox Union, and the teaching faculty of Yeshiva University's Manhattan Talmudical Academy High School and cantorial leadership.
He arranged for a cousin, Rabbi Dovid Menachem Morein, to come to Gateshead as the town's first Melamed. Morein's son Wolf was rabbi of the North London Shul, while his daughter Bluma married Rabbi Gedalia Schneider, Rosh Yeshiva of London's Yeshiva Toras Emes ("Schneider's Yeshiva"). It was the only Yeshiva in London of the classic Lithuanian mold, and many of its top students moved on to Gateshead, Bluma's hometown, to become early members of the Gateshead kollel in the 1940s.
Rabbi Mendelson's son, Cantor Nechemya "Chemmy" (Nathan) Mendelson was a founding member and president of the Cantors Assembly. He served as Chazzan of Montreal's Congregation Shaar Shomayim from 1938 to 1973.
Brothers Jacob "Jackie" Mendelson and Solomon, or Sol, "Tucky" Mendelson are grandchildren. Both have been active leaders in the Cantors Assembly, with Jackie serving as president in 2003-2004, and Sol leading many events on behalf of the organization, including:
- 1983 recruitment seminar at University of Hartford Hartt School of Music
- 1987 annual convention
- 1996 annual convention
- 1992 lay meeting
- 1984-1988 committee membership on the approach to Hazanot
- 1989 joint project with National Coalition Supporting Soviet Jewry
- First Gulf War Israeli support trips (together with brother Jackie), and organization of the trips
- Shoah remembrance project
Louis Skui (later Sky) was Rabbi Mendelson's brother-in-law and chief shochet. Upon Rabbi Mendelson's death, due to the previous dispute with Rabbi Konvitz, Sky was unable to work as a shochet. He opened Sky Hebrew Books (later SkyBook), a large supplier of books and esrogim to congragtions across the United States for over 50 years.
Joseph Gross was president of Mendelson's Bergen Street Shul, administrator of the Mendelson-lead Vaad Hakashruth, and later mechutan to the Mendelsons, after the marriage of children Samuel Gross and Leesa Mendelson. Samuel was later a president of the shul, in the 1940s and 1950s.
Communal advocacy and disputes
In Glasgow, Rabbi Mendelson defied business interests to bring down communal costs for Passover Matzah and Mikvah use. At one point, to prevent price gouging, he rented the production facilities of Consolidated Biscuit, kashered it, and ran Matzah production, causing the prior bakery cartel to lose all business for the year.
In Newark, he published a controversial ruling regarding the permissibility, under certain conditions, of using a Shochet who is not Sabbath-observant. The opinion is cited and argued against by Rabbi Shimon Shkop.
In 1921, he succeeded Rabbi Dov Ber Halperin as the kashruth authority for Newark, on consensus of most local rabbis, ritual slaughterers, lay leaders, and kashruth supervisors in the city. The position included responsibility for Jewish slaughterhouses, butchers, and the kosher operation of Swift & Co., and effectively made him chief rabbi of the city. Around 1925, Rabbi Joseph Konvitz created a rival kosher supervision in the city. He won the Swift & Co. kosher division's contract, displacing the incumbent city kashruth agency, and attempted to become the sole kashruth authority for Newark. The two parties and their organizations brought allegations, rebuttals, and counterallegations against each other. Konvitz filed a lawsuit in religious court (Beth Din), while Mendelson got a consensus of leading rabbis to back his position. There resulted a permanent rift in the city over rabbinate, with competing Vaadei Kashruth.
- Semi-autobiographic introduction to Midrash Yaavetz (pages 8-9)
- American Jewish Year Book Vol. 44 (1942–1943)
- New York Times Archives
- Unpublished memoirs of son Harry Morein and son-in-law Dr. Sam Gross.
- Harry Morein. 99 44/100 Years: A Memoir. Unpublished.
- "City of Leeds, Municipal Records, Marriage Entry".
- "News Brief". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. March 12, 1934. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- "Newark Jews Dedicate Orthodox Synagogue". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. August 14, 1934. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- "Old Newark Houses of Worship (1920, 1925, 1930, and 1935)".
- "Rabbis Ask Hindenburg to Continue Protection for Jews". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. August 19, 1932. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- "11th Annual Convention of K’nesseth Ha’rabonim". Jewish Daily Bulletin. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. May 12, 1926. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- "Two Rabbinic Bodies in Joint Session Consider Problems of Orthodoxy". Jewish Daily Bulletin. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. June 20, 1928. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- "Demand Creation of Supreme Religious Body for Orthodox Jewry". Jewish Daily Bulletin. Jewish Telegraphic Agency. June 21, 1928. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- "Orthodox Rabbis Plan to Waive Exemption from Military Service". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. September 11, 1940. Retrieved 28 August 2013.
- Mendelson, Jacob Ben-Zion. Mishnas Yaavetz [Teachings of Y. B. Z [Yaakov Ben-Zion]] (in Hebrew). 3. Newark, NJ. Title page; page 74. Retrieved 2013-08-27.
Translated excerpt: ...volume 3... Yaakov Ben-Zion (the Cohen) Mendelson ... author of 'Shaarei Tzion [Gates of Zion],' 'Sefer Hatzayid [Book of the Capture],' 'Midrash Yaavetz [Homilies of J. B. Z.],' 'Mishnas Yaavetz (on Chagiga) [Teachings of Y. B. Z. on Chagiga],' and now an additional book of the same name.
- "Morein v Weldon".
- "Previous Cantors". Congregation Shaar Shomayim.
- "History of CA 1973-98". The Cantors Assembly. Retrieved 27 August 2013.
- "Clergy". Temple Israel Center. Retrieved 27 August 2013.
- "Weiss Rebukes Rabbi Konvitz over Kashruth". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. May 1, 1934. Retrieved 27 August 2013.