This past weekend members of the Baltimore Jewish community and congregation Shearith Israel, in addition to the Rosenbergs of Monsey, N.Y., gathered to commemorate and dedicate newly created headstones for Rabbi Abraham Yosef Rice and his wife, Rosalie, who are buried in the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation cemetery on Belair Road.
Rabbi Abraham Rice (1800-1862) first arrived in Baltimore from Germany in 1840 with his wife and sister to be the first rabbi of the Nidche Yisroel, later Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, and consequently the first ordained rabbi in the United States. The events, in planning for more than a year, marked cooperation between members of the Orthodox Shearith Israel Congregation, leadership at the Reform Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Steve Venick of Fram Monument and members of the Rosenberg family, who are sixth- and seventh-generation descendants of Rabbi Rice.
For Alexander Brett Weil, this project had been on his mind for more than a year.
“The day of the yahrtzeit, when I went out to the actual kever to daven, for the first time it kind of hit me that the kever area is in very bad shape,” he said, while recounting the events surrounding the 150th yahrtzeit of Rabbi Rice last year. “The stones were illegible, and I had the idea that night at the 150th Yahrtzeit gathering to launch a new project that would be a tikkun matzeiva.”
Rabbi Rice, as the first ordained rabbi in the U.S., faced not only the challenges to inspire and lead a community, but he also quickly became the address for every issue of Jewish law in the country. Rabbi Yonah Landau, an author and leader of trips to various graves of great rabbis in the United States, related that Rabbi Rice’s services were highly sought all over the country.
“There was a shaila [question] in New York. They bought a new shul for the Beis Midrash Ha Gadol (great synagogue) — a big shul. They had to make a chanukas habayis [building dedication], and they called to Rabbi Rice. He came from Baltimore to make the chanukas habayis,” said Rabbi Landau with a thick Yiddish accent. “For all shailos that came up in New York and the United States, they used to call up to Rabbi Rice. He was the posek ha dor (major authority of Jewish law) in the states.”
However, Rabbi Rice’s main focus was in Baltimore. Rabbi Andy Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation sees the legacy of Rabbi Rice as a part of the history of the congregation, which he tries to instill in the members by taking a religious school class each year to the cemetery to visit the grave of Rabbi Rice and his wife. He said that this is in order to have his congregants continue “respecting Rabbi Rice and feeling the connection to the deep roots of the congregation.”
Displayed in BHC are a prominent photo of Rabbi Rice as well as a Megillat Esther, believed to have been owned by the rabbi.
After a frustrating experience as the leader of BHC, where his efforts to bring more traditional Orthodox Jewish practices were met with resistance by its Reform movement members, he established his own congregation, which eventually became Shearith Israel. He also presided over the establishment of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, a small Jewish school and the first ritual immersion bath in the city.
He never compromised his beliefs, and it was this unwillingness to compromise that remains as his legacy in Baltimore’s Orthodox community today.
“I think the fact that Rabbi Rice came to America and had all of the challenges that he had, the fact that he was able not to compromise and to hold the line against tremendous forces of challenge, that was really the source of what Baltimore has become today,” said Eli Schlossberg, who sponsored the Saturday evening melava Malka.
Schlossberg is of German (Ashkenazi) decent and said he feels a special affinity for the heritage that Rabbi Rice established in the Baltimore.
“He planted a seed. His legacy is that he planted the seed not only for Baltimore, but for all of Klal Yisroel because he was the only rav in America.”
In addition to the rededication of the headstones, a generous donation of original artifacts was made by Harry Green of Los Angeles to Shearith Israel, which includes letters, pictures and an original line drawing. Green acquired the estate of Rabbi Rice from his biographer, Rabbi Harold Sharfman, also of Los Angeles. Green’s hope was to find the right place for the artifacts.
“I was entrusted with a large estate of Judaica, and my primary concern was to identify what was in it and find the places where they belong,” he said. “It’s sort of like completing a puzzle, putting things back where they belong.”
The donation will become part of an exhibit that Weil hopes to begin putting together soon.
“Rabbi Rice was the one who transmitted, transported and transplanted the complete truth of Torah here in Baltimore,” Weil said. “Baltimore is the capital of our mesora and our tradition in America, and I felt it fitting to remember him and publicize his great works.”
Gabriel Lewin is an area freelance writer.