Like thousands of other couples in the community, Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, A”H, performed my wedding ceremony. I didn’t question it; it was simply a fact that he would perform the ceremony with Rabbi Abraham Hecht at his side. I remember when David and I met with him in the weeks before the ceremony. Rabbi Kassin pulled a logbook from the bookshelf in his office, a wall lined with books, and showed us the page for each of our parents from the day he had married them. His record keeping was impeccable. There were pages where he had letters from rabbis outside the community, proof that the bride or groom was Jewish, or that the person’s background checked out.
In later years, as I became an expert in genealogy and began working on his family tree, I was fortunate and honored to see the very personal side of Rabbi Jacob Kassin, as well as to truly understand his life’s accomplishments, his legacy, and the esteem with which he was held by others.
The Early Years
Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin was born in 1900 in the Old City of Jerusalem. I have traced the rabbi’s family back to the 12th Century, with the father to son rabbinical line beginning in the 16th Century. His father was Rabbi Shaul Kassin who instilled in Jacob and his brothers Abraham and Shelomo, a love of Torah and the importance of learning. Rabbi Jacob attended Yeshiva Ohel Mo’ed, a prestigious Torah academy in Jerusalem that was founded by Rabbi Rafael Shlomo Landau, a great gaon. His rabbis recognized how gifted he was and gave him special attention. He excelled in his studies, and continued his education at the Yeshiva Porat Yosef, a Sephardic yeshiva in Jerusalem, where he established a reputation as a scholar, and later became a teacher.
By the age of 16, Jacob was known in Jerusalem for his knowledge of Talmud. In the midst of World War I, Rabbi Shaul and Jacob’s sister died of typhoid fever. His mother, Altoon, died soon after. Although he continued to study at the yeshiva, Jacob was poverty-stricken. He had little food or money. His clothing became threadbare. In Jerusalem, food was hard to acquire and many people became sick. Jacob worked selling groceries to earn money. The long-term malnutrition left Jacob with a debilitating stomach disease that persisted for years to come.
At age 18, Jacob Kassin was invited to the Jerusalem home of Rabbi Shalom Hedaya, a noted Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar. Rabbi Hedaya was very impressed by Jacob’s voice, learning, and most of all, his extreme modesty. His daughter Mazal wed Jacob in 1919. Jacob was appointed rosh yeshiva in the then-newly-erected Yeshiva Porat Yosef building. He taught classes, often studying Kabbalah late into the night. Word soon spread that Jacob was a student of Kabbalah, which brought him to the attention of Rabbi Shaul Hayyim Dweck, a respected rabbi known for his knowledge of Kabbalah. Rabbi Dweck invited Jacob to become one of a select group of scholars who studied regularly with him.
In early 1922, a leading Kabbalist in Jerusalem was losing his sight. The rabbi refused to leave Jerusalem for the operation needed to cure his eyesight, and he required someone to read to him. Rabbi Dweck recommended Jacob. For the next three years, Jacob read Kabbalah, and, in turn, the rabbi explained the text to him, making Jacob an expert in Kabbalah.
During the course of his life, Rabbi Jacob wrote several books on the science of Kabbalah. In 1925, he published Ohr HaLevanah (Light of the Moon), which consisted of three parts – Ohr HaLevanah, Ohr Hadash, and Ohr HaHayyim – a commentary with novella from the teachings of the Rashash. These works are studied by Kabbalah students today. Jacob also wrote Yesod Ha’Emunah (Foundation of Belief). The latter book included arguments that dispelled doubts about the authenticity of Kabbalah, as well as responsa.
In 1928, Kabbalist Rabbi Rahamim David Shrem, zt”l, was completing a major work on Kabbalah entitled Sha’arei Rahamim. The book is a collection of questions posed to his teachers – Rabbi Hayyim Shmuel Dweck and Rabbi Avraham Ades – on topics in the writings of the Ari and the Rashash. Worried that there might be errors in the book, Rabbi Schrem needed a scholar to review the work. He sought out Rabbi Jacob Kassin, whose knowledge of the subject and whose gift for eloquent writing made him a perfect choice for the assignment.
In 1930, Rabbi Jacob added his signature to a joint approbation about the work, Yad Eliyahu, by the gaon Rabbi Eliyahu Yitzhak Hazan, zt”l.
In 1931, Rabbi Jacob published Pri Eitz Hagan (Fruit of the Tree of the Garden), which included biographies of prominent tzadikkim, including the Rashash, and discussions of their ethical teachings, solutions to problems posed by the gaon Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad, and the order of prayers for Rosh Hashanah, along with explanations.
From 1928 to the end of 1932, Rabbi Jacob served as a dayan in the Supreme Bet Din of the Sephardic Community of Jerusalem. In 1931, Jacob received his rabbinical ordination from the Great Rabbis of Israel, where he was established as a Talmudic and Kabbalistic scholar. He was also a master of shehitah and an expert mohel, performing the circumcision of his sons.
Rabbi Jacob Comes to Brooklyn
Rabbi Shaul Hayyim Dweck saw Jacob’s success and sent him to Brooklyn, New York in 1931, to raise money for Sephardic orphanages in Palestine. At that time, Rabbi Haim Tawil was chief rabbi, and was moving to Israel. A committee led by Raymond Beyda, along with Rabbi Yitzhak Shalom and Shlomo Grazi, offered Rabbi Jacob Kassin the position of Chief Rabbi of the Syrian community in Brooklyn. Rabbi Kassin, a humble man, said he would have to ask his wife in Palestine before making a decision. He promised the committee that if he took any rabbinic position outside of Palestine, he would accept their offer, and he signed a contract to that effect.
Rabbi Jacob left New York and went to Mexico City, where his elder brother Abraham was an esteemed community leader. Rabbi Jacob raised money from the Sephardic community in Mexico City as well. He was sent on a similar mission to Egypt and was offered positions in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and Cairo.
In the meantime, letters from New York continued to urge Rabbi Jacob to take the position of Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Jacob soon became convinced that taking the position in New York would enable him to widen his horizons.
On August 16, 1933, Jacob, Mazal, and the eldest four children – Shaul, Shulamith (Charlotte), Abraham, and Itzhak –
arrived in New York where Rabbi Jacob assumed his position at Magen David Congregation in Bensonhurst. The Kassins did not know English, so community members assisted them in making routine arrangements as they settled in their new home.
Responsibilities of Chief Rabbi
As chief rabbi of the Syrian Sephardic community, Rabbi Kassin ran the synagogue, the Talmud Torah, and prepared boys for their bar mitzvahs. His presence was required at brit milahs, funerals, and numerous other occasions. Prior to every wedding, he took the time to meet with each couple in the small study in his home and gave them books on family purity.
Rabbi Jacob ran the Bet Din and formed the community’s Rabbinical Council. Brooklyn’s Syrian community grew by leaps and bounds, and Rabbi Jacob was their spiritual leader. Over the years, Rabbi Jacob brought the community together. He reorganized the kahal and provided the various Jewish institutions with a firm and stable foundation.
During his tenure, Rabbi Jacob gained an international reputation as an expert on Jewish Law. Learned men from all over the world sent him questions of law. He settled issues involving such things as business transactions and weddings, and he provided valuable religious guidance. Rabbi Jacob merged a style of rabbinic leadership which resisted modernization yet accommodated American conditions.
Rabbi Shaul Kassin, who was his father’s secretary, wrote of his father, “A large community usually has many problems, opinions, and ideas. However, they may be resolved with understanding, respect, and tolerance. My father excelled in respecting rabbis and laymen, young and old, rich and poor, individuals who observed the mitzvot or not. He did not discriminate against anyone. His special way of leadership brought rabbis, leaders, and others for guidance, advice, and resolution of problems for the purpose of arriving at fair and just decisions.”
In the 1930s, people were enduring the economic trials of the Great Depression and many earned a living as peddlers or in retail, which required them to work long hours, including on the Sabbath. Over time, Rabbi Jacob’s influence led many members of the community to enter the wholesale business, which allowed them to observe the Sabbath. For those who remained in retail business, economic success permitted a few to close their doors on the Sabbath.
Edict Against Marrying Converts
Rabbi Jacob was also concerned about the non-Jewish influences to which the community was exposed. In 1934, there were
15 intermarriages, either to converts or non-Jews, something rarely seen in Aleppo. In response, in 1935 Rabbi Jacob and the Rabbinical Council of the Syrian Community issued a takana (edict) against marriage to converts, holding that such marriages were not to be recognized by the community. Children of such marriages could not attend community yeshivot, and rites of passage such as bar mitzvahs, weddings, and the right to be buried in the community’s cemetery would be denied.
The takana had its roots in a similar ruling issued in 1927 by Rabbi Shaul David Setton of Aleppo, who became rabbi and head of the rabbinic court in Argentina in 1912. Jews of Syrian descent in Latin America continue to observe this ban. In New York, the takanaspecifically addressed those who converted to Judaism for the purpose of marriage, not as righteous converts.
In 1965 Rabbi Jacob moved from Magen David to Shaare Zion in Bensonhurst, where he assumed his rabbinical duties. As the community grew and more synagogues opened, Rabbi Jacob became the leader of the community’s many rabbis. While each rabbi led his own congregation, it was Rabbi Jacob whose word was law. As new issues arose, Rabbi Jacob kept peace and maintained unity.
“He was a master diplomat and he kept the community in the middle road in accordance with the philosophic guidelines espoused by Maimonides…dedicated rabbinic leadership, blended with a love for his people in an atmosphere of pleasantness and sanctity were his hallmark,” said Rabbi Dr. Zvulun Lieberman.
A Humble Man
Congregants had profound respect for Rabbi Jacob’s knowledge and wisdom. Yet Rabbi Jacob was an extremely humble man. Rabbi Ezra Labaton, a”h, of the Congregation Magen David of West Deal told a story from the 1960s about when Rabbi Jacob appeared late to synagogue, after the reading of the “Baruch Sheamar,” a prayer for which people must stand.
“I was somewhat upset, even indigent. How could a rabbi come so late to shul? A number of weeks later, I raised the issue with a more mature and senior member of the synagogue. He explained to me that the rabbi always waited outside the sanctuary until the kahal(congregation) was already standing. Once standing, he would enter. He did not want the kahal to all stand collectively for him – an expression of the rabbi’s profound modesty.
No matter how ‘chief’ a rabbi is, no matter how powerful, he must always remember that humility and modesty are the hallmarks of a Jewish leader. Rabbi Jacob Kassin was a walking symbol of modesty. Every step he took, with head bowed, ever respectful of his kahal, demonstrated the dignity and grace of his modesty.”
During the 62 years that Rabbi Jacob led Brooklyn’s Syrian community, he revived its Sephardic heritage, culture, tradition and customs, as well as an awareness of Sephardic identity, which remains unique and authentic.
Rabbi Jacob accentuated the importance of serving and attending to the needs of everyone in the community. He was guided by the principle of respect for fellow men and acceptance of every member of the community, regardless of their level of observance or wealth. By accepting the less observant, Rabbi Jacob attempted to bring them into the fold.
Over the course of his life, Rabbi Jacob brought many that had strayed from Torah observance back to the path of observance. His inspiring sermons, personal example, and private counseling facilitated the return to the traditions and practices of Sephardic Judaism.
On the world scene, the community became known as the largest group of Syrian Jews in the world. Chief Rabbi Jacob was the undisputed leader, not only in Brooklyn, but in Syrian Jewish communities worldwide. His decisions on halachic matters received international recognition. Realizing his influence, Rabbi Jacob maintained a firm handle on the religious affairs of other Syrian communities, encouraging them to attain higher spiritual standards.
Rabbi Jacob died of heart failure on December 6, 1994, at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. His funeral service was attended by thousands of mourners from inside and outside Brooklyn’s Sephardic community. As rabbi after rabbi told of Rabbi Jacob’s virtuous nature, generosity, and his hesed (kindness), people stood in the streets outside Magen David Synagogue on 67th Street in Bensonhurst, with tears streaming down their faces. He was buried at Har Menuhot in Jerusalem. Yihyeh zichro baruch.
Community member Sarina Roffé is author of Branching Out from Sepharad
(NY, Sephardic Heritage Project, 2018), which outlines the community from Spain to Aleppo to the Americas. She is also the author of Backyard Kitchen: Mediterranean Salads (NY, Sephardic Heritage Project, 2016), the cooking app Sarina’s Sephardic Cuisine, as well as hundreds of articles published in journals, newspapers, and magazines.
She is a recognized academic expert in Sephardic history and a professional genealogist.