Monday, January 28, 2008

Shabbos, Torah, and a New World - the story of Ephraim Finkelstein

Somebody must have been praying hard in the City of Hartford Connecticut on the day that Ephraim and Leah Finkelstein got off at the wrong station. The Finkelstein’s would have made it to Boston eventually had they stayed on the train. But for some unknown reason, they disembarked in Hartford. Maybe as new immigrants, Ephraim and Leah did not fully understand the conductor’s rapid-fire station announcements. Hartford in 1898 was an increasingly popular destination for Jewish Eastern Europeans, and Ephraim said to his wife, “Well, if Hashem wants to provide me with parnassah, He can do it inn Hartford too.” Moving to Boston was a decision born of the Finkelsteins steadfast commitment to shmiras Shabbos at all costs.

Born in 1870 to parents Shlomo Yosef and Nechama in Firstig, Glaicia, Ephraim Finkelstein was orphaned as a young boy. He was taken in and raised by his kind older sister Sara and her husband, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua Amsel, a student of the Rebbe of Dinov, the towering Bnei Yissaschar. Upon arrival in America just after his marriage to Leah Leff, at age 18, the young couple settled on New York’s lower east side. The extreme financial strain that was placed upon the new immigrant would have been difficult enough to shoulder even if he could have kept a steady job. But for the Shabbos observant, there were few employers who would be understanding and amenable to their religious needs. Assimilation was seen by many as the only route to daily bread – keeping Shabbos in the shtetl of old was one thing, but in America, it would devastate a person. But the Finkelstein’s knew that the true devastation was not in physical suffering but in spiritual decline.

Ephraim refused to work on Shabbos, and when he realized that New York would offer him little opportunity, he moved to Jersey City. But neither his fortunes nor his employers smiled upon him there any more than they had in New York, and the Finkelstein’s thus found themselves in Hartford Connecticut.

New Jewish immigrants were settling on the eastside of the city in cramped tenement buildings. But as the Jews have always managed to do, the flourishing Jewish community of Hartford began to blossom. Ephraim opened his Tailors Shop on State Street, and it was to become the most successful men’s clothing store in Hartford. But the road was not an easy one. At that time, the “blue laws” were strictly enforced. These laws mandated the closure of all business of Sunday, the day of rest. Weekends are busy times in the clothing business and being closed on Saturday was already a tremendous sacrifice. Being closed on Sunday was proving to be a financial catastrophe. It was a great show of love for God and His Torah, and an enormous Kiddush Hashem to all who saw his store closed on the Shabbos. His children recalled the dinner times in their small apartment above the store when there was no food at all on the table. Nearly all of the Finkelstein’s descendants are Shomrei Torah Umitzvos, something that most of their religious neighbors unfortunately cannot claim. The complete sacrifice for Shabbos that they displayed is no doubt one of the underlying reasons. As his grandchild, Rabbi Ephraim Eisenberg Zt”l former Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Blatimore once said, “I am convinced that our family is blessed with so many brachos (blessings) because of the mesiaras nefesh (personal sacrifice) of our grandparents for shmiras Shabbos (Shabbos observance.”

Ephraim was not simply content with working around the blue laws. He soon organized with others in forming a lobby to appeal the blue laws. This was quite a feat; for his understanding of the inner workings of the Connecticut legislature was as meager as was his command of the English language. But his great capacity for leadership and his deep belief in what he was doing helped the group to eventually make a change in the Connecticut law whereupon any business closed on Saturdays for religious reasons would now be allowed to open on Sundays.

Ephraim’s business began to flourish. He purchased much real estate and amassed much wealth. But his beautiful family was always predicated on the principles of the Torah. As time went on, the Finkelstein’s were the only Shomer Shabbos family in their neighborhood. With no religious day schools, costly tutors had to be hired every day to learn with the children before and after school. At times the days activity would begin at six o’clock in the morning! In 1912, Ephraim established the Pleasant Street Talmud Torah which by 1915 had already taught over 300 students, and eventually became the Yeshiva of Hartford.

About ten years later, Ephraim took upon himself to correct the problems that were facing the Mikvah of Hartford. In 1907, the Mikvah was founded due to Ephraims persistence. Until the mikvah has been established, the Finkelsteins would travel a few hours in a horse and buggy to use the mikvah in a far off town somewhere else in Connecticut. But the Mikvah was now in a bad neighborhood, and had deteriorated greatly. The neighborhood that had once had more than forty kosher butcher shops was no longer a Jewish neighborhood. Many women were frightened and uncomfortable using the facility. Ephraim assumed leadership of a campaign to build a new Mikvah, in a residential section of Hartford. But many felt that their property value would suffer with a Mikvah in the neighborhood, and other quite possibly simply did not like the Jewish Community. Ultimately after many years of lobbying and fundraising, the new mikvah was built on Magnolia Street in 1930. But the work was hard and the hours were long.

Maintaining a Torah lifestyle in pressing circumstances is no small feat. But building Torah in a small New England neighborhood is something truly great. It is the story of Torah pioneers like Ephraim and Leah Finkelstein that are the heritage of all those privileged to live in Hartford and indeed of us all.


kovkov said...

Very nice. I always liked your red head ideas...

Dov Daniel said...

Thank you for filling in many detail in this story!
My grandfather, Shlomo Yosef Finkelstein Z"L said the intention was to go to Yonkers but his grandfather fell asleep and missed the stop, though he was not nearly born so there may be different versions of the story...

Rabbi Joel Finkelstein said...

I believe that he stayed with the Thailers, his mom's family, not his sister who was married to Rabbi Eisenbach, not the rabbi you say. Otherwise very good. And how did you come to this story?