CHIEF RABBI, HACHAM SHAUL KASSIN 5681 – 5779 / 1921-2018

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By: Sarina Roffé

Shaul Rahamim J. Kassin, the firstborn son of Mazal Hedaya Kassin and Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin,

was born in 1921 in Eretz Yisrael. He spent his elementary years in yeshiva and his first language was Hebrew. He grew up in a religious environment, and knew already from a young age that he would grow to be a rabbi, following a centuries-old Kassin family tradition of Torah greatness and leadership, which dates back to the 16th century.

His mother, Mazal, was the daughter of Rabbi Shalom Hedaya, zt”l, and his maternal grandmother was a descendant of the Labaton rabbinical family.

In 1933, Shaul’s father, Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of the Bensonhurst community. Shaul was 12, already a young adolescent, when his parents brought him and his siblings – Charlotte, Albert, and Isaac – to New York.

Early Struggles

With no Sephardic yeshivas in Brooklyn, all of Rabbi Jacob’s children attended public schools. Shaul wore a yarmulke and found the English language difficult. With no English skills, Shaul struggled mightily in school. In a 1999 interview with this author, Rabbi Shaul said:

The principal gave me a math problem and she put me in the fifth grade. But I didn’t know English and I couldn’t understand anything. So, I left the school and I didn’t go for a few days. The truant officer came to the house, so I ran up and got into bed with my clothes on. The truant officer and the principal went to my room and pulled down the cover and dragged me back to school.

Finally, his father enrolled him in Yeshiva Ohel Moshe, at the Jewish Community House on Bay Parkway in Bensonhurst, where he was initially placed in a third grade English class. He was promoted every few months, until he caught up to his peers in secular studies. Shaul eventually graduated from Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy, the high school of Yeshiva University, and he later attended Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary, receiving rabbinical ordination in 1948. He studied as well under his father, Rabbi Jacob, who also conferred upon him ordination.

During his time at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Shaul served as editor-in-chief of Nir, yearbook of the university’s Teachers Institute, and of the school newspaper, for which he also wrote Hebrew articles. Rabbi Shaul was an excellent mathematician, and he typed his own speeches in both Hebrew and English.

After becoming a rabbi, Rabbi Shaul Kassin taught for over 32 years at the Magen David Talmud Torah, and then at Magen David Yeshiva.  He taught hundreds upon hundreds of students. Among his most prominent students were his brothers, Rabbi Isaac Dweck, Rabbi Moshe Shamah, Rabbi Benjamin Seruya, Rabbi Shlomo Diamond, Rabbi David Cohen, Dr. Robert Matalon, Dr. Eddie Sutton, and Dr. Leo Sultan.

Family First

While teaching at the Talmud Torah, Shaul caught the eye of Abraham Seruya, a traveling salesman from Chicago and owner of Joyvel Stores. Abraham visited New York often, and his brother, Benjamin, lived in Brooklyn. He would occasionally visit the Magen David Talmud Torah, where he gave students prizes. Leon Levy, one of the community’s leaders at the time, introduced Mr. Seruya to Rabbi Jacob Kassin, and the two men arranged the marriage of Shaul to Freida, Mr. Seruya’s second daughter, when she was 16 years old. The couple married in 1945, and lived in Bensonhurst. Three years later, they purchased a home at 2108 67th Street in Bensonhurst for $5,000. They lived there for 20 years before moving to the Shaare Zion community in 1968.

Rabbi Shaul always stood at the side of his father, the Chief Rabbi, serving as his most trusted assistant, secretary and advisor. As Rabbi Jacob’s secretary, Shaul wrote his articles, and also managed the Bet Din, which met Monday and Thursday mornings, and which was comprised of Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, Rabbi Matloub Abadi and Rabbi Eliahu Husney.

During the summer months, Rabbi Shaul, who was a teacher during the school year, spent quality time with his children.

“We used to go to a bungalow colony in the Catskills,” his son, Isaac Kassin, recalled during an interview. “We didn’t go to camp, but we went swimming and fishing with my father. In the morning, we studied, and then in the afternoon, he took us fishing and we did things together. When I was about ten, we started going to Bradley Beach.”

Isaac Kassin added, “He taught his children the value of money and hesed. He bought boxes of candy and at the end of the week we would tell him things we did. If we did good deeds, then he would let us buy the candy for five cents. If we did more deeds, we could buy the candy for four cents or three cents.”

Rabbi Shaul often took his children to Prospect Park to feed the pigeons. Family was the paramount value that he communicated to his children, teaching them the importance of respect for their elders and that family always came first.

In 2001, this author interviewed Barbara Assoulin Kassin, Rabbi Shaul’s daughter-in-law, who said:

My father-in-law is a very caring and giving person, a very selfless person. One day a poor person came to his house crying for food. He personally went to the grocery store to buy her fruits, vegetables and groceries. He made it his business to visit her often. He does many acts of hesed that people don’t know about. He’s a big believer in shalom bayit (family harmony). He takes care of his family and is always questioning how everyone is. He visits his children and grandchildren whenever they are sick. He is a pillar of strength. With good news or bad, he’s always the first person we turn to, and he listens with a sympathetic ear.

Rabbi Shaul’s countless accomplishments include his scholarly work, Light of the Law: Guideposts to Biblical Commandments and the Commentaries (Shengold Publishers, 1980). He also assisted in building numerous mikvehs both in the United States and in Israel, and established the Nivat Yisrael school for girls, which boasts over 700 students.

“He has nothing negative to say about anyone,” said his son, Abraham S. Kassin, in a 2000 interview. “He doesn’t only try to help people, but he actually feels their pain and sorrow.”

Exceptional Attributes

Named Chief Rabbi after his father’s death in 1994, Rabbi Shaul was widely respected for his exceptional humility, kindness, and objectivity, and for carefully assessing all different angles of every issue before reaching a decision. These qualities, coupled with his remarkable scholarship, made him well-suited for the challenge of leading a burgeoning community as it completed its transplantation on American soil, and presiding over its emergence as the prosperous, thriving, close-knit Torah community that we have today.

Community member Sarina Roffé is the author of Branching Out from Sepharad (Sephardic Heritage Project, 2017), which outlines the biographical history of the Kassin rabbinical dynasty and the community.