Rabbi Rivkin’s passing marks ‘end of an era’

Rebbetzin Paula and Rabbi Sholom Rivkin are pictured in a Jewish Light file photo holding photographs of their respective mothers, in whose honor the Rivkin-Zuckerman Shabbat Mikvah was named.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rabbi Sholom Rivkin, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the Vaad Hoeir/United Orthodox Jewish Community, died just after Shabbat, Saturday evening, Oct. 1, at McKnight Place Extended Care in University City. He was 85, and had struggled for years with Parkinson’s disease, which forced him to retire as Chief Orthodox Rabbi in 2005, a position he had held since 1983.

Rabbi Rivkin was widely praised for his internationally recognized rabbinic scholarship, for his warmth and sense of humor and for his dedication to serving the needs of the entire Jewish community. His passing was described as the “end of an era” by speakers at his funeral service attended by an overflow audience Sunday at Young Israel Congregation.

“Rabbi Rivkin’s stature as a Torah scholar of the highest caliber is well known,” recalled Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion Congregation in Olivette. “However, over the years I observed many occasions where Rabbi Rivkin interacted on an interpersonal with the non-Orthodox Jewish public and non-Jews. Rabbi Rivkin consistently demonstrated an uncanny knack for putting people at ease and treating them with the utmost of respect. An encounter with Rabbi Rivkin left you feeling as if you were a person of great importance.  Only a person who was truly humble and chashuv (important) could leave others with such a feeling.”

Barry Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis reflected the sentiments of many within the Jewish community in response to the passing of Rabbi Rivkin. “The St. Louis Jewish community and Jewish people have lost a treasure,” Rosenberg said. “As a renowned scholar and its Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Rivkin helped shape the growth and increasing vitality of the St. Louis Orthodox community…at the same time, Rabbi Rivkin and his late Rebbetzin (Paula Rivkin) reached out to touch and embrace the larger Jewish community, building bridges of understanding and cooperation that have enriched us all. This gentle, humble man will be greatly missed.”

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

For the Rivkin family, as well as for the Jewish community, the passing of Rabbi Rivkin was especially painful, since his beloved wife, Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin, also a widely admired figure in the community, died on Jan. 7 of this year.

Among those offering words of eulogy and tribute at Rabbi Rivkin’s funeral were Rabbi Moshe Shulman of Young Israel in University City; Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik of Congregation Beth Shalom Ahazas Achim in Chicago; Rabbi Yosef Landa, director of Chabad of St. Louis and chairman of the St. Louis Rabbinical Council and Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt of Agudas Israel of St. Louis. Rabbis and community leaders from all streams of Judaism were present to pay their respects to the late rabbi, who often stressed that to him “a Jew is a Jew” irrespective of labels or formal affiliation.

“The community has come together to express their respect and their gratitude to Rabbi Rivkin,” said Rabbi Shulman. He noted that traditionally “there are certain things one may not do in a synagogue, and among them are offering a eulogy at a funeral. There is one exception – a eulogy may be offered for one who is a leader of a city, of a community. Rabbi Rivkin was such a person-a Talmud Chochem, a Gaon, the head of the Bet Din, and he served all of us as our Chief Rabbi.”

He continued, “It has been said that when one experiences the passing of a Talmud Chochem, it is as if he has witnessed the burning of a Sefer Torah. Just as Yom Kippur is a day that brings atonement, the death of a a tzaddik, a righteous person brings atonement to an entire community.”

In his remarks, Rabbi Soloveichik, who only months before had spoken at the funeral of Rebbetzin Rivkin, expressed the appreciation of the Rivkin family for those who came to the service. Rabbi Soloveichik also offered special thanks on the family’s behalf to two physicians who cared for Rabbi Rivkin, Dr. Gary Goldstein and Dr. Joel Perlmutter, “who showed their great dedication to his well-being.”

Rabbi Soloveichik said that even though he was aware of Rabbi Rivkin’s illness, which had left him severely incapacitated for the past few years, he was still “stunned” to hear of his passing. “The Torah always remained within. When we visited him and discussed the Torah, his face would light up, just as it did when we put tefillin on him. He was also blessed to hear the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. It is said that when we hear the sound of the shofar, the soul wants to return to its source,” he said.

Rabbi Landa said that Rabbi Rivkin expressed his love of God by causing others to love God. “There was a sweetness about Rabbi Rivkin and a warm sense of humor. He had bucket loads of charm and could use his gentle humor to defuse any tense situation with his warm smile.” Landa said Rabbi Rivkin sought to rise above parochialism in the Jewish community. “He wanted to be a rabbi without a label, and saw himself as an ambassador to the entire community.”

Rabbi Greenblatt said that he approached the task of offering remarks on Rabbi Rivkin’s legacy “with great trepidation, just as we feel on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. There are so many aspects to Rabbi Rivkin’s life and work. There are some Torah giants whose work is confirmed in study. There are other great rabbis blessed with an affable demeanor and the ability to make each person feel comfortable and welcome. In Rabbi Rivkin, you had the complete package.”

From Jerusalem to Brooklyn

Rabbi Sholom Rivkin was born June 6, 1926 in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, the son of Russian Jewish parents who had fled to Palestine. His father, Rabbi Moshe Dov Ber Rivkin, was dean of a rabbinical school in Jerusalem, and later, when the family moved to America, was rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn.

His mother, Nacha Rivkin, was a renowned educator and textbook author who pioneered Jewish day school education for girls. Rabbi Rivkin was “the scion of a line of 42 generations of rabbis,” wrote Linda Matz Mantle in a 2005 Jewish Light article on Rabbi Rivkin’s retirement.

Both Rabbi Rivkin’s mother and mother-in-law were descendants of notable Talmudic and rabbinic scholars. Rabbi Rivkin was three years old when his family moved to Brooklyn, where his father’s duties included bestowing rabbinic ordination on candidates who completed their requirements at the Mesifta Torah Vadaath.

Rabbi Rivkin himself studied at Torah Vodaath, where he received his smicha, or rabbinic ordination. In a 2005 interview, Rebbetzin Rivkin said her husband was considered a prodigy – becoming rosh yeshiva at Yeshivot Chayim Berlin in Brooklyn by age 21.

When Rabbi Rivkin received his ordination, he was praised by Rabbi Moshe Binyomin Tomashoff, the famous Rav of Slutzk, as “among the most gifted of his generation.” Rabbi Rivkin often praised the role in his education, of his father, Moshe Dov Ber Rivkin, and his father-in-law, Rabbi Dov Berish Zuckerman.

First days in St. Louis

At the request of the sixth Chabad Lubavitch Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, Rabbi Rivkin came to St. Louis in 1949, at the age of 23 to become rabbi of Nusach Hari Congregation (before it merged with B’nai Zion), which was then located on Blackstone Avenue in St. Louis. He also served as Jewish chaplain at the Veterans Administration Hospital at Jefferson Barracks, and was invited by the late Rabbi Menachem Zvi Eichenstein, his predecessor as Chief Rabbi, to serve on the local bet din, or rabbinical court.

During the period when Rabbi Rivkin was serving Nusach Hari, he made a trip to Buffalo, N.Y., where he met Paula Zuckerman, the only child of Rabbi Dov Berish Zuckerman and his wife, Hinda. In 1954 the couple married. Five years later, Rabbi Rivkin became rabbi of Bikur Cholim Synagogue in Seattle, the largest synagogue in the Pacific Northwest.

After 12 years in Seattle, Rabbi Rivkin became rabbi of Young Israel Synagogue in Far Rockaway, N.Y. At that time he was tapped as one of three chief judges of the national Beth Din of the Rabbinical Council of America, second in size only to the Beth Din of Tel Aviv.

He served in that post for 15 years. In 1981, after the death of Rabbi Menachem Zvi Eichenstein, who had served as Chief Rabbi of the United Orthodox Jewish Community/Vaad Hoeir for 40 years, the community sought his replacement. In 1983, the post was offered to Rabbi Rivkin. At a Jewish Federation reception in his honor 10 days after his arrival in St. Louis, Rabbi Rivkin, in his good-humored manner, put everyone at ease by telling the gathering, “I’ve already made a real difference in St. Louis. The Cardinals have won the World Series for the first time in a long time!”

In the 22 years from 1983 until his retirement due to illness in 2005, Rabbi Rivkin indeed made a difference in the local Jewish community. His wife, Rebbetzin Rivkin, was his partner in many of his most significant accomplishments.

In addition to the duties of providing dependable supervision of kashrut, the Jewish dietary and other laws, he presided over the addition of two additional Orthodox Jewish day schools; the creation of eruvs in both Chesterfield and University City, a legal boundary in which observant Jews can perform certain tasks on Shabbat, and a second Yom Tov mikvah in the Young Israel Synagogue, which is available to the whole community.

Rabbi Greenblatt recalled how Rabbi Rivkin would visit each of the synagogues affiliated with the Vaad Hoeir to dance with congregation members on Simchas Torah, and how he would personally distribute prayer books and other texts to children and other members of the community.

At the time of Rabbi Rivkin’s retirement, Heschel Raskas, a past president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, praised Rabbi Rivkin in an interview with the Light, as “my teacher and rabbi since I was 13 years old. His warmth and intense desire to better the life of every Jew made it possible for him to engage and bring together individuals with a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and perspectives.”

Both Rabbi Rivkin and the Vaad Hoeir had unique roles in North American Jewish life. Founded in 1923, the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis (which literally means “Council of the City or Community”) brought together the Orthodox and traditional Jewish community under a single umbrella, which was responsible for assuring standards of kashrut and other Jewish laws in the community. The Chief Rabbi position was officially established with the appointment of Rabbi Hyim Fischel Epstein (after whom the H. F. Epstein Hebrew Academy is named). He served until 1942, when Rabbi Eichenstein was named to the post, which he held until his passing in 1981. Rabbi Rivkin held the position from 1983 until his retirement in 2005, when he became Chief Rabbi Emeritus. With his passing, the title of Chief Rabbi of the Vaad Hoeir/United Orthodox Jewish Community comes to a formal end. The position will not be filled.

As Rabbi Greenblatt and several others commented last week, Rabbi Rivkin’s passing is for the St. Louis Jewish community, truly “the end of an era.”

Rabbi Rivkin will be buried at the ancient Mount of Olives Cemetery in Jerusalem after three memorial services: the first was Sunday in St. Louis; the second was Monday in New York City and the third was Tuesday in Jerusalem. Rabbi Rivkin was to be buried next to his late wife and soulmate, Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin, described by Rabbi Greenblatt, as “two souls again reunited as one.”

Survivors include a daughter, Jacqueline Rivkin Rubin (the late Edward) of New York City; a son, Rabbi Ben Zion Rivkin, of St. Louis; two grandchildren, Nacha Rubin and Levi (Sarah) Rubin; two great-grandchildren, Bracha and Jacob Rivkin and a sister, Ella (Rabbi Aaron B.J.) Shurin.