During the 19th century, the American Jew was a rare species in EretzYisroel. Although American aliyah to EretzYisroel began in the mid 19th century, few Jews arrived. It took a long voyage to sail over the Atlantic and Mediterranean and there were relatively few Jews in America until the great emigration from Russia that began in the 1880s. By 1878,only
119 Americans were registered at the Yerushalayim consulate and by 1899 the number rose to about 800 people including non-Jews. Many of these “Americans” never lived in the states — they were Europeans who had placed themselves under the protection of the American
Their Own Kollel
One of the first sign of American-Jewish autonomy in Eretz Yisroel was the fight to create their own kollel. At the time, most chaluka hfunds (charity moneys for the poor of Eretz Yisroel) were distributed by the Central Committee fund (Ha’va’ad Haklali). However, a number of groups had created “kollels,” smaller organizations that collected funds from their specific home towns or districts. By the end of the 19th century, about eighty-seven Jews with American citizenship lived in Yerushalayim. Some were wealthy, but most were poor and reliant on the charity of the Central Committee. A few of them became interested in creating an independent kollel and talked the others around to their way of thinking. Back in America, the idea was supported by the wealthy Yehuda Dovid Eisenstein (later editor of the Otzar Yisroel Encyclopedia) and Rav Moshe Tzvi Hochstein, Rav of the Zichron Toras Moshe shul in New York, both with relatives in Yerushalayim. Of course, the Central Committee strongly opposed the idea of a tiny number of Americans gaining control of the huge proportion of funding arriving from the United States. But at the urging of Rav Yaakov Orenstein, one of Rav Yehoshua Leib Diskin’s most brilliant disciples, Rav Yehoshua Leib lent his support to the idea. The kollel was incorporated in New York as “The Kollel America Tiferes Yerushalayim” and became active in Teves 1897 in the courtyard of Rav Yehuda Leib’s home, and when the kollel appointing Rav Yehoshua Leib as its rov, the American consul granted him official American citizenship.
In 1898, the kollel printed a pamphlet of its rules and regulations prefaced with an explanation of why its leaders had seen fit to split off from the Central Committee and strike off on their own.
“The reasons that led to the foundation of all the separate kollels in Yerushalayim also led to the founding of Kollel America,” the brochure said. “This was because of the incorrect way the appointees of the Central Committee distributed the charity they collected from countries all over the world for the poor of the Holy Land. They did not support them properly and spent much money on wasteful expenses. Because of this, various kollels were placed under the management of their townspeople and exist specially to help the poor of their towns who have precedence to
other poor people according to our holy Torah.”
The pamphlet goes on to give an interesting example of this individualistic trend:
“Even though Pinsk is right next to Karlin with only a strip of land separating the two towns, nonetheless, they separated and each one has its own kollel. The money collected from the Rabi Meir Baal Haneis pushkes in one town is used for the poor people of that town and not for those of the other town. Due to this trend, nineteen separate kollels have been established in Yerushalayim and Kollel America is now the twentieth.”
The booklet went on to claim that it was only right that the Americans in Eretz Yisroel have first rights to the funds of their country, which donated more than all the rest of the world combined! According to General Committee reports, the booklet said, the Central Committee collected $18,876 from the states in 1896, while from the rest of the world during that year, the sum of money collected was only $12,197. This meant that America was contributing 61% of the yishuv’s total income of $31,073.
Yet despite this, the brochure complained, only 35 American families were receiving support all the time, while 11 families were receiving support from time to time. Altogether, they received a total of $1,770 in 1896, only one twentieth of the funds collected in America that year.
On average, these families received $25.44 each, or 51 cents per family per week. 300 families of American origin deserved help, the pamphlet claimed.
The rules and regulations of the pamphlet were long and technical. For our purposes it is enough to mention that every pushkahof the new organization was to bear the words: “No pushkah of the Charity of Rabi Meir Baal Haneis of Kollel America Tiferes Yerushalayim, founded with the sanction of Rav Moshe Yehoshua Leib Diskin in the holy city of Yerushalayim for the poor of Eretz Yisroel from America in particular, and from other lands in general. Also to help Talmud Torahs, hospitals andorphanages, and other chesed and charity organizations in Eretz Yisroel with no distinction between one Jew and another, and to increase the Jewish settlement of Eretz Yisroel as explained in the Kollel’s rules.”
According to the rules, needy American families who had lived in Eretz Yisroel for six years were eligible for a weekly 75 cents per adult, 50 cents per child, and 25 cents per infants under five-years-old. Any funds left after this distribution would be used for the benefit of poor people of other communities and for other causes.
At the very end, the pamphlet appended a haskomah from the famous short reigned Chief Rabbi of New York, Rav Yaakov Yosef. Due to Rav Yeshoshua Leib Diskin’s support for the project, he urged all “to help Kollel America and give all one’s support to make it a success, for it was founded according to Torah principles and justice. Signed, Friday, bein Kesehl’asor, 5657.”
In 1899, Nachum Harris, a retired American living in Yerushalayim passed away and left his Yerushalayim home to be used as a shul. This Tiferes Yerushalayim shul in Meah Shearim was the only American shul in Yerushalayim for the next 60 years.
Forced to Share
The Kollel America’s independence did not last very long. In 1901, the Central Committee made an arrangement with Kollel America whereby two-thirds of the funds it collected from the U.S. and Canada would go to the General Committee. Only a third to Kollel America. According to the Otzar Yisroel encyclopedia, this agreement guaranteed 50 cents a week to Americans in need and 25 cents to each of their children.
The partnership was broken some time later by a member of the famous Porush family, Rav Naftoli Tzvi Porush-Glickman, a well known activist of the old yishuv and cofounder of Yerushalayim’s old Shaarei Chesed neighborhood. In his memoirs (printed as Three Generations in Yerushalayim), Rav Naftoli Tzvi described how he personally put an end to the deal.
“For many years there was an arrangement between the General Committee and the directors of Kollel America founded some time later, whereby the income of Kupas Rabi Meir Baal Haneis from the U.S. was divided giving two thirds to the Central Committee and one third to Kollel America,” his memoir states. “The directors of the General Committee were afraid to compete against Kollel America in the U.S., assuming that a separate collection under the same name might cause financial harm to the Central Committee. I spoke to the directors of the General Committee destroying this assumption to the core. I said that the Jews of the U.S. were sufficiently smart to know that an American Jew coming to live in Yerushalayim generally needed no charitable support. I also pointed out that it was absurd that the Central Committee that supports tens-of-thousands should receive two-thirds of the income, while Kollel America that counted at the most a few hundred should get a third. The arrangement was gradually changed and ended up with Kollel America arranging its own fund collection. Both sides benefited from the annulment of the partnership.”
However, good days still lay ahead. According to another memoir (Yitzchok Shiryon, Zichronos, Yerushalayim 1943), Kollel America gained back much of its power after World War I.
“After World War I, people began coming from America to live in Yerushalayim,” the memoir states. “This included an impressive number of Orthodox Jews from there, rabbonim, talmidei chachomim, old, young, and plain poor people. Through the influence of these people on rabbis and charity gabba’imin big American towns, the kollel grew. From then onwards, the gabba’im of Rabi Meir Baal Haneis send most money collected in America to the management of the kollel in Yerushalayim, and only give a certain part of the total sum to the management of the Central Committee of Yerushalayim… Needy people here from America receive more or less proper support from the kollel.”
All for the Boss by Rebbetzin Ruchama Shain mentions that her father Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman became a head of the organization after moving to Eretz Yisroel in 1939. By 1956, Kollel America advertised support of “about 500 people in Yerushalayim and other towns.”
Rabi Meir Baal Haneis
Why are Kollel America and either Eretz Yisroel charities named after Rabi Meir Baal Haneis?
The idea of having pushkes for the support of the poor of Eretz Yisroel begin in the generation of Rav Yosef Karo and his talmidim, especially Rav Moshe Alshich. Among those who encouraged the idea were the Mabit, the Radbaz, and the Arizal and his talmidim as the Alschich writes in the introduction of the 1601 Venice edition of his Torah commentary. At that time, the pushkes were called ChosamTochnis, or Sukkas Dovid.
One explanation of the name’s origin is that during the time of Rav Yeshayah Halevi Horowitz, the Shaloh Hakodosh there were persecutions in Yerushalayim and he moved to Teveriah, which then became an important center of fundraising for Ashkenazi Jews in Eretz Yisroel. At that time, the Shaloh Hakodosh established that the pushkes should be named Kupas Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis after Rav Meir who is buried close to Teveriah. This is why so much tzeddokah is given in his memory.