Mission & History
In 1886, the seeds for the survival of the Jewish heritage on American soil were planted by a group of impoverished immigrants when they joined to form Yeshiva Eitz Chaim [Tree of Life] on New York’s Lower East Side.
Housed in an tenement, founded in a quest for spiritual enrichment, the yeshiva was an experiment, a tentative answer to a question of the day: how to reconcile the study of Torah and observance of mitzvot with the pursuit of a general education that was essential to advancement in American society?
The pioneers and trailblazers in the founding of Yeshiva Eitz Chaim—an extraordinary educational venture—were a remarkable group of immigrants. As Rabbis, teachers, tailors, peddlers, clothes dealers, publishers, they were deeply concerned about the Jewish education and identity of their children’s generation. They became the backbone of the young school, enrolled their children in the new school and contributed to its leadership.
These immigrants forged a formula for survival in an unfamiliar culture—a distinctive philosophy of synthesis that laid the groundwork for the Western Hemisphere’s major center of Torah learning and leadership.
Through the application of and reapplication of this formula, by holding fast to the ways of Torah while exploring the paths of modern society, the emerging American Jewish community was able to respond to the questions and conflicts of each new generation.
While Yeshiva Eitz Chaim was a crucial and important experiment in Jewish education, critical needs still existed—the need for advanced Torah studies and service; for educated laymen; and for qualified, trained rabbis to lead the American community. To address these needs, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) was established in March 1896. "Several lads who wanted to improve themselves in the study of Torah" were enrolled. RIETS would be the first Orthodox rabbinical seminary in the United States.
The seminary was named for Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor (1817–1896) noted rabbi of Kovno, Lithuania, and one of the outstanding rabbinic scholars and poskim [decisors] of the 19th century. Pronounced an iluy [prodigy] at the age of eight, he became an extraordinary spiritual leader, earning the love of and respect of colleagues and all Jews throughout the world. Rabbi Spektor’s greatness in learning was matched by personal piety and a deep sense of humility.
RIETS was named after Rabbi Spektor as the ultimate tribute to his scholarship and noble deeds, a legacy of learning. Yet the individuals who founded RIETS and Eitz Chaim were also establishing a legacy for themselves and institutions that would help to transform Jewish education and Jewish life.
Today, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary continues to carry forward the legacy of its founders. Standing tall as a Tree of Life within the Jewish community, RIETS is flourishing and nurturing scholars who will contribute creatively to the strengthening and preservation of the Jewish people and heritage.