The Torah of Rabbi Isaac Klein
January 5, 2024
By Ezra N. Rich​

This week we begin the Book of Exodus and we meet Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses), the greatest teacher in Jewish history. The story of Moshe’s improbable journey to leading the Israelites to freedom begins with his survival of Pharaoh’s decree to kill the sons of the Israelites. He becomes a shepherd and is summoned by G-d at the Burning Bush to rise into leadership and demand that Pharaoh free the Israelites from slavery.

Moshe responds with humility: “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the Children of Israel out of Egypt (Exodus 12:11)?” Before we learn of any of Moshe’s strengths as a leader, we encounter his humility. The Torah teaches a valuable lesson that the virtue of humility is an admirable trait in a leader, among all the other qualifications at a leader must possess.

The Torah of Rabbi Isaac Klein - Rabbi Isaac Klein buffaloJewish Buffalo was once blessed with a leader known for his humility, among his other traits of wisdom and chesed (kindness), and I would like to help us remember him this Shabbat. Today (24 Tevet 5784) on the Jewish calendar marks the 45th yahrzeit of arguably the greatest rabbi in Jewish Buffalo’s 200-year history, Rabbi Isaac Klein – Mareinu HaRav Yitzchak ben Shmuel, Z”L (1905-1979).

Reflecting on Rabbi Klein this week, his devoted son-in-law, Dr. Gerald Berkowitz, noted Rabbi Klein’s modesty. “In terms of who he was, he would say, ‘I’m just a Jew, a rabbi, I provide a service.’” The correspondence he received from rabbis and lay people from across the country and beyond, as well as the high esteem his congregants held of him did not impact how he carried himself humbly before G-d.

Jewish Law in the 20th Century

Rabbi Klein was a key authority on Jewish law during the Conservative Movement’s major decades of growth in the post-War era. He was an influential member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s (RA) Committee of Jewish Law and Standards from 1935 until his passing, he was the president of the RA from 1958-1960, and served on the Joint Bet Din of the Conservative Movement. His legacy continues to inspire rabbis and he was fondly noted in the inaugural issue last winter of Masorti: The New Journal of Conservative Judaism, as well as many articles on Jewish law and practice.

During his lifetime, Rabbi Klein authored nine books, including his magnum opus, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. “The Klein” as it is fondly known by generations of JTS students can be found in the study of nearly every Conservative Rabbi. Built upon his lectures at JTS and requests from his students and rabbinical colleagues for pamphlets on how to properly live a Jewish life, the book covers many facets of Jewish living.

Today, Temple Beth Tzedek—the successor congregation of Rabbi Klein’s pulpit—proudly gifts the book to all Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrants.

A Bridge from the Old World to the Greater Niagara Frontier

Born in the shtetel of Várpalánka in 1905, Rabbi Klein emigrated to America as a teenager and after earning his B.A. at The City College of New York, he studied at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and switched to the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America shortly before ordination and became a Conservative rabbi. A brilliant thinker, he later earned a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

Rabbi Klein’s rabbinic career began at Kadimoh Congregation in Springfield, Mass., from 1934 to 1953, during which time he honorably served as a chaplain during World War II and its aftermath.

In 1953, Dr. Selig Adler and others successfully recruited him to Buffalo where he led Temple Emanu-El on Tacoma Avenue in North Buffalo and later Temple Shaarey Zedek—created by the merger of Emanu-El and Temple Beth David-Ner Israel—as it moved to Getzville Road in Amherst in 1968. Rabbi Klein became Rabbi Emeritus in 1972 and remained a pillar of Jewish Buffalo until his passing on January 23, 1974. He is buried at Temple Shaarey Zedek’s section in Elmlawn Memorial Park in Tonawanda.

A Comforting Chaplain

The Torah of Rabbi Isaac Klein - IsaacKleinUniformAs Dr. Berkowitz notes, Rabbi Klein spoke seven languages and as someone who himself was raised in the Alte Heim (old country) and saw the horrors of the Holocaust, he had a special bond with Survivors. In his role as U.S. Army chaplain during World War II and later as President Truman’s adviser on Jewish Religious Affairs to the U.S. High Commissioner of Germany, he helped to resettle displaced persons and reorganize Jewish communities in Germany after the Shoah.

I was humbled to hear of Rabbi Klein’s level of chesed firsthand a few months ago. While sitting Shiva for his dear sister Eva Blum, Z”L, last fall, Holocaust Survivor Miklos (Manya) Wallenfels recalled arriving in Buffalo as a refugee from Hungary in the 1950s. Upon hearing of their desire to get married, Rabbi Klein arranged a special wedding with hundreds of guests who were strangers for Miklos and Manya. He helped them start their Jewish home and a few years later, Rabbi Klein encouraged them to send their children to the nascent Kadimah School, of which he and his beloved rebbetzin, Henrietta, played key roles in establishing. Later, Rabbi Klein’s late daughter, Rivke Klein Berkowitz, Z”L, and his granddaughter, Talia Berkowitz, carried on his Kadimah work and his embrace of Jewish youth for many decades.

Another couple Rabbi Klein married (and Jewish Buffalo is blessed with a number of them in our community today) recalled meeting with him in advance of their wedding. “We were in Rabbi Klein’s office, and he asked, ‘If I were to enter your home, how would I know it’s a Jewish home?’” recalled James Steinhorn. His bride of over 53 years, Linda, also fondly recalled that discussion. “He knew our families, and he also wanted to know us. He always had a smile and a twinkle in his eye,” she adds.

Just as Rabbi Klein was a key figure during a transitional period of Jewish history, in 2024 we find ourselves in an era of transition. While our world is changing in so many ways, we are blessed with the eternal inspiration of our holy Torah heritage. Rabbi Klein tirelessly studied, taught, and lived a richly Jewish life. Let us emulate his holy legacy in our own way. This can be through exploring a new class or book on Jewish thought, exploring some of our 613 Mitzvot (commandments) and how we can observe them, or being kind and caring for those around us, as Rabbi Klein lovingly tended to those countless Holocaust Survivors.

May Rabbi Klein’s legacy continue to inspire all of us in this new year.

 

Ezra N. Rich is the inaugural rebbetziner (rabbi’s husband) as the spouse of Temple Beth Tzedek’s first woman rabbi, Rabbi Sara Rich. He enjoys praying and learning beside many of Rabbi Klein’s former congregants and students whom he meets in shul and across Jewish Buffalo.

 

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