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Semikhah Centennial

Bernard Revel’s Reorganization of RIETS and the Chag HaSemikhah of 1919reveldesk

The 1919 Chag HaSemikhah was the first fruit of Bernard Revel’s reorganization of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), which commenced when Revel was appointed as its Rosh Yeshiva in 1915. Revel ascended to the position at the recommendation of Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies (the Ramaz), who presented Revel to Yeshiva’s Board of Directors as someone he knew personally, an eminently qualified candidate who could fulfill all the Board’s requirements:  a great talmid hakham (Torah scholar), an iluy (prodigy) in our holy Torah - in shas, poskim, rishonim, and aharonim (Talmud, legal rulings, and commentaries); he was also fluent in several languages, including English, the language of the land, and had also taught at Dropsie College.  Ramaz’s pitch carried the day and  the Board of Directors elected Revel as Rosh Yeshiva in 1915.



 Revel created a structured educational program for the school, outlined in: The Rabbinical College of America: Register 5678 (1917-1918), a sixteen page catalog issued by the school a century ago in 1917.  A number of new faculty members were noted in the catalog, including Rev. Dr. H. Pereira Mendes, who became chair of homiletics at the Rabbinical College in August 1917. Revel, who had studied at yeshivas in Eastern Europe, was heeding student requests for training in homiletics, since the subject was not traditionally part of a yeshiva education. As described in the catalog, the course would  cover: “The composition and delivery of sermons. History,  theory, and practice.  In the synagogue of the College building and the New York synagogues, pulpit opportunities are afforded to the students.”


Rev. Dr. H. Pereira Mendes, spiritual leader of  The Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue (Shearith Israel), the oldest congregation in the United States, must have offered the Synagogue’s elegant premises on Central Park West and 70th Street to Yeshiva as the setting for the Chag HaSemikhah in 1919,  the first to be celebrated since Revel had become Rosh Yeshiva. The sanctuary was filled to overflowing on March 23, II Adar 21, 1919 (the Chag HaSemikhah is traditionally held around the yahrzeit of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector for whom the yeshiva was named. Rabbi Spector died on Adar 21 [1896]).  Five graduates, the first RIETS musmakhim to receive most of their rabbinic education at the school under Revel’s new program, received rabbinic ordination at the ceremony.  The Jewish press covered the rabbinic graduation and made particular mention of the one  American born student,  Sol Freedman, who also held L.L.B. and M.A. degrees.

Revel spoke at length at the event. He focused on the devastating effects of World War I, which had ended only a few months earlier, on the Jewish communities and yeshivas of Eastern Europe, and thanked God for the opportunity to establish a home for Torah study in the United States.  He addressed the graduates, “worthy sons of Yeshiva,” “servants of the Torah,” who will need divine aid to decide complex religious problems. He reminded them of the sons of Aaron, who were consumed by a heavenly fire, for bringing “strange fires” which the Lord had not commanded, and cautioned the students that “’strange fires’ are very alluring at times, but they are indeed destructive.” “Remember that our holy Torah is perfect and complete. It needs neither additions nor embellishments from the outside, from other cults and cultures,” even today, when humanity is on “the threshold of a new life.”


After the ceremony, a dinner in honor of the event was held at the Hotel Savoy, and a handsome printed menu featuring a variety of dishes by Danziger caterers was distributed.  The menu and venue were worlds apart from Revel’s inaugural dinner as Rosh Yeshiva, held downtown on the Lower East Side only a few  years earlier on  Chanuka 1915.  At the time, an observer commented on the “long rough tables … unwieldy plates and rusty flatware” at the 1915 dinner.  Typical food  at Yeshiva “simchas” at the time was herring and schnaps.  Indeed, even within the world of the Yeshiva, times and styles were changing. Revel’s students were ready to meet the challenge.

Source: Bernard Revel : Builder of American Jewish Orthodoxy / by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff.

Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger