In The Media
The Oldest Active Pulpit Rabbi Tells All
- The Jewish Week

December 16, 2003
By Steve Lipman

At 90, David Hollander is still feisty after all these years.

There’s a bare minyan this Friday morning at the Hebrew Alliance of Brighton by the Sea. It’s an old minyan, with a Russian accent.

Ten men, most pensioners from the former Soviet Union, all of them with white talleisim draped over their heads, sit at tables in the basement study hall of the synagogue, in the heart of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn’s gateway for emigres. Siddurim in hand, they quietly recite their Hebrew prayers.

At the end of Shacharit, one of the worshippers helps the shaliach tzibur, who stood at the front of the room leading prayers, remove his tallit.

The prayer leader is the oldest man in the Hebrew Alliance this morning — Rabbi David Hollander just turned 90.

Rabbi Hollander, who came to Brighton Beach 22 years ago after serving as spiritual leader of a congregation in the Bronx for 36 years, is thought to be the oldest active pulpit rabbi — the fulltime rabbi of a synagogue, not emeritus with part-time duties — in the New York area.

He still teaches, delivers Shabbat sermons, answers congregants’ questions, and writes his pair of weekly columns, for The Jewish Press and the Yiddish-language Forward. “I am serving as a rabbi, like any other pulpit rabbi,” he says.

Services over, he says a few words in English about the 10th of the Ten Commandments, wishes the departing men a good day in Yiddish, calls his wife at home, gives a few coins to a beggar who walked into the hall, and sits down to a glass of hot tea and plate of vanilla cookies.

His health is good for a man his age. His reading glasses are tucked away. His hearing is a little weak; “I walk with difficulty,” he says.

But, no complaints.

“I know the score,” Rabbi Hollander says — God has blessed him with years, but only He knows how many.

The rabbi shows a visitor a letter he recently sent to this newspaper. It’s an attack on Orthodox recognition of non-Orthodox denominations. “The very word ‘denomination’ is a heretical concept,” he wrote, “for it implies that there can be a legitimate Judaism outside the laws of the written and oral law given by God at Sinai.”

Without prompting, he starts describing his life-long, often lonely, crusade against the leaders — “I don’t blame the laity” — of Conservative and Reform Judaism. He tells about declarations issued and speeches given, about Conservative and Reform leaders debated on radio talk shows.

He took up the cudgels against non-Orthodoxy six decades ago, when he became spiritual leader of the Mount Eden Center in the Bronx’ Grand Concourse area, and has never put them down.

“I represent the right wing,” he says. “I took a very strong stand. I carried on the fight for the last 60 years.

“I am,” he says, “not a moderate in any way.”

That said, he talks more about his background, part of which would seem at odds with his ferbrennte persona. He learned at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, bastion of the Modern Orthodox movement, and received his ordination from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, for decades the spiritual head of Modern Orthodoxy. Rabbi Hollander speaks only in glowing terms about The Rav. “Rabbi Soloveitchik was my teacher, my friend.” A poster with Rabbi Soloveitchik’s photo is posted near the shul’s front door.

Rabbi Hollander served a single, two-year term in the 1950s as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s major organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis. He is, he says, “a very hot Zionist.” He supports not only Eretz Yisroel, the land of Israel, as many haredi Jews do, but “Medinas Yisroel,” the state — or government — of Israel.

And the rabbi has some nice words to say about Reform and Conservative people he has met over the years.

How does he explain the two sides of his personality?

His battles, he says, are not personal. “My fight is against fraud and deception and ideology.”

“He’s a very principled person,” says Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, who has known Rabbi Hollander for several decades. “He has almost an obsession with Reform and Conservative.

“While his friends [in the Orthodox rabbinate] disagree with his approach, they all respect him,” Rabbi Schonfeld says. “He has not changed — absolutely not. I heard him speak the other day — he’s as fresh as ever, and as innovative. He’s a marvelous preacher and speaker.”

Rabbi Hollander’s crusade against non-Orthodox movements has had no discernable effect on their operations or influence, says Rabbi Bernard Zlotowitz, a veteran official and currently senior scholar at the Union for Reform Judaism (previously known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations). “He was just [considered] an ‘agin’er,’ ” a perpetual opponent, he says.

Rabbi Hollander was in the audience when Rabbi Zlotowitz gave a lecture several years ago at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Manhattan. During the question-and-answer period, Rabbi Hollander had a question. “He would not address me as ‘rabbi,’” Rabbi Zlotowitz says. “He would say ‘Dr. Zlotowitz.” Rabbi Zlotowitz does not remember the subject of the question, but he remembers the tone. “He was always respectful. He was civil. He was not rude at all.”

Rabbi Hollander, who came to the United States from Hungary with his family at 9, says he did not intend to make the rabbinate his career. “I wanted to be a lawyer; it seemed like the proper thing to be.” He finished Brooklyn Law School while going to YU, but during the Depression, offers from synagogues were more plentiful, and better paying, than legal clerkships.

His sermons during rabbinical internships attracted several congregations. “God gave me a certain gift — I was able to speak,” he says.

He went to the Bronx, and stayed there until the neighborhood changed, until his congregants moved up to newly built Co-op City, until there was no minyan at Mount Eden.

“I wanted to retire,” he says. But the Hebrew Alliance, a 60-year-old synagogue that was also losing members, beckoned. He and Fay moved to Brighton Beach.

Most of the worshippers at the Hebrew Alliance are from the former Soviet Union. The Lubavitch movement’s F.R.E.E. project (Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe) sponsors several educational activities at the Hebrew Alliance.

Attendance at services there has increased in recent years, Rabbi Hollander says, but no membership figures are available; many emigres come to shul without formally becoming members.

On Shabbat, there are two morning minyans. Upstairs, in the main sanctuary, for the “Russians,” who’ve arrived in the last 20 years. Downstairs, for the “so-called Americans,” who came from the Old Country 60 or more years ago. The rabbi davens downstairs. That’s his crowd. “Some of them only understand Yiddish. So I speak in Yiddish, I speak in Yiddish. Two separate sermons” — one for each minyan.

“There are probably a lot of people who come because they hear what he has to say,” says Ira Nosenchuk, a vice president of the Hebrew Alliance and synagogue member for 30 years. “You don’t fall asleep when he speaks.

“If it wasn’t for him,” Nosenchuk says, there wouldn’t be a shul. He came here and he really revitalized the community. He has the spirit of a teenager. He has a sharp mind.”

Rabbi Hollander’s only concession to age is a driver who takes him to the synagogue from his house six blocks away twice a day. “I don’t drive any more.” On Shabbat, he walks.

During a meeting several years ago with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Hollander said he was thinking about retiring. “The Rebbe got very angry. He said, ‘I am older than you are, and I am taking on additional burdens. By what right do you retire?’” Then the Rebbe gave Rabbi Hollander a brocha for continued success in the rabbinate.

So Rabbi Hollander isn’t retiring. “Bli neder, no.” That’s Hebrew for without a vow; but he plans to keep working at the Hebrew Alliance.

“I have to daven somewhere every day,” he says. “Where should I daven? I teach and I preach and I give advice to people. I don’t do anything that’s a burden.”

He’s been at work for a long time on his memoirs, which he calls “Truth is Stronger than Friction.” It’s about his battle for Orthodox supremacy.

“It has to do with my soul. It has to do with my Boss,” he says.

Has he mellowed over the years? The rabbi shakes his head. No. “I’m principled, not stubborn,” he says.

“I am willing to say I was wrong,” Rabbi Hollander says.

Has he ever admitted he was wrong about an important principle?

“No. But I could be.”


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