Israel's History in Pictures: Rav Kook in the USA - 1924

The Library of Congress collection has a picture of Rabbi Kook in the USA in 1924.

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Lenny Ben-David,

Rav Kook in the USA
Rav Kook in the USA

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was a renowned Talmud scholar, Kabbalist and philosopher.  He is considered today as the spiritual father of religious Zionism, embracing the Zionist movement as a manifestation of Divine Will and the beginning of the redemption of the Jewish people.

Born in what is today Latvia, Rabbi Kook moved to Ottoman-ruled Palestine in 1904 to take the post of the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa.  He appears in many of the historic pictures taken by the American Colony photographers, usually as a bystander, without being identified.  One photograph, from the Library of Congress' larger collection, identifies the rabbi, but the surroundings do not appear to be in the Land of Israel and actually look incredibly like a street scene in the United States.

In fact, the picture was taken in Washington DC before or after Rabbi Kook met with President Calvin Coolidge in the White House. 

It's a historic fact that Coolidge was in Washington on April 15, 1924, the same day Rabbi Kook's photo was taken.  On that day Coolidge threw out the first ball at a Washington Senators baseball game where Walter Johnson shutout the Athletics.  Coolidge also spoke at the dedication of the "Arizona Stone" in the Washington Monument.

The picture of the rabbi appears in a larger set of unaccredited pictures taken that week of well-known Washington politicians including Coolidge, the White House press corps, Senate leaders William Borah and Burton Wheeler, the Federal Oil Reserve Board, and more.

But why did Coolidge meet Rabbi Kook, and what was the rabbi doing in Washington?


Rabbi M. M. Epstein,
apparently on a ship

According to an article by Joshua Hoffman in Orot in 1991, Rabbi Kook, then Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi in the Land of Israel, headed a delegation of rabbis to the United States in March 1924 to raise funds for yeshivot in Europe and Eretz Yisrael. He was joined by Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein (pictured left), the head of the Slabodka yeshiva in Lithuania, and Rabbi Avraham Dov Baer Kahana Shapiro, the Rabbi of Kovno and president of the Rabbinical Association of Lithuania. The three rabbis were brought to America by the Central Committee for the Relief of Jews Suffering through the War, better known as the Central Relief Committee (CRC). 

According to Hoffman, "The rabbis had originally planned to stay in America for about three months. However, because their fund-raising efforts were not as successful as had been hoped, they remained for eight months. In the end, they raised a little over $300,000, far short of the one million dollar goal which the CRC had set."

Hoffman described the April 15 conversation between the president and the rabbi:  "Rav Kook thanked the President for his government's support of the Balfour Declaration, and told him that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land will benefit not only the Jews themselves, but all mankind throughout the world.... The President responded that the American government will be glad to assist Jews whenever possible."

Readers Send a Picture from Rabbi Kook's Meeting at the White House


The caption reads "Central Relief Committee at the White House"

"Yitz" and "Menachem" sent the following comment and photograph:

"I actually have an original of photo of Rabbi Kook and his committee including my Great-Grandfather who served as a translator outside the White House after meeting the President. I had never seen this image until recently when I found it among his son's possessions when I cleaned out his apartment."

Their grandfather, Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, played an important role in the meeting, according to this account.

At the meeting, Rav Kook thanked the President for his government’s support of the Balfour Declaration, and told him that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land will benefit not only the Jews themselves, but all mankind throughout the world. He quoted the Talmudic sages as saying that no solemn peace can be expected unless the Jews return to the Holy Land, and therefore their return is a blessing for all the nations of the earth. Rav Kook also expressed the gratitude of Jews throughout the world towards the American government for aiding in relief work during the war. He said that America has always shown an example of liberty and freedom to all, as written on the Liberty Bell, and that he hoped that the country will continue to uphold these principles and render its assistance whenever possible.

The speech, written in Hebrew, was delivered in English by Rabbi Aaron Teitelbaum, executive secretary of the CRC. Rav Kook answered “Amen,” and explained that since he wasn’t fluent in English, he had Rabbi Teitelbaum read his message. By answering “Amen,” he indicated that he consented to every word that had been read. The President responded that the American government will be glad to assist Jews whenever possible. Before leaving Washington, Rabbis Kook and Teitelbaum held a meeting of local rabbis and community leaders to raise money for the Torah Fund

The New York Times' Report on Rabbi Kook's 1924 Visit to the United States and Canada

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief of Rabbi of Palestine, began his journey to America in March 1924.  Joined by two prominent rabbis from Lithuania, the delegation was met in New York with great respect and ceremony.
Rabbi Kook's boat was met in the New York Harbor by hundreds of Jewish leaders. The rabbis were escorted to a meeting with New York's Mayor John F. Hylan by a "squadron" of police motorcycles and a 50-car procession. 

The Mayor welcomed "the distinguished Jews from the old world.... We are privileged," he continued, "to greet teachers and spiritual leaders whose intellectual achievements are in themselves worthy of special recognition."

The Canadian Jewish Chronicle reported on May 2, 1924 on the rabbis' pending visit to Montreal:

"Rabbi Kook and his companions have undertaken the long and fatiguing journey to the United States and Canada to deliver in person a message to their co-religionists [that] unless the Jewish schools and seminaries in Eastern Europe and Palestine continue to receive ... the support of the American Jews, hundreds of ...educational institutions will have to be closed in 1,300 Jewish communities in the war-stricken lands of Europe.  A half a million children... will grow up without religious and secular education..."

British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel and Rabbi Kook
visiting a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem (1925). In the
white suit is the mysterious Mendel Kremer,
known as a German and British spy
  (Central Zionist Archives, Harvard)

"Rabbi Kook of Palestine... is a man of rare mental attainments.  He is a renowned theologian, poet, philosopher and humanitarian.  At the age of 18 he had already several books on ethical and philosophical topis to his credit for which he received a doctorate degree from the Berne University.  From his youth Rabbi Kook was enamored with the Holy Land.  At the outbreak of the world war Rabbi Kook happened to be in Switzerland.  Owing to his pro-ally sentiments, the Germans refused him permission to return to Palestine... When General Allenby liberated Palestine, Rabbi Kook returned to Palestine and was immediately elected Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land and officially installed in this high office by the High Commission, Sir Herbert Samuel..."

More historical pictures and essays at Descriptions based on photo-essays by Lenny Ben-David.