By: Yosef Lemel  | 

Hillel Rogoff and the Fight for Secular Studies in RIETS

For the past 49 years, Yeshiva University has held an annual lecture series titled the Hillel Rogoff Memorial Lecture. Not many students, however, are acquainted with the life story of Rogoff. Rogoff, an early alumnus of Yeshiva, was a consequential figure in American-Jewish history. Fortunately, Rogoff’s time in RIETS is detailed in “The Story of Yeshiva University” by Rabbi Gilbert Klaperman. 

According to Klaperman, Hillel (Harry) Rogoff — after emigrating to the United States at the age of 13 from Minsk, Belarus — was one of the first three students — Akiva Matlin and Aaron Abromowitz being the other two — of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). These students wished to continue their Torah studies after their graduation from the Etz Chaim elementary school, an institution which later merged with RIETS in 1915 into the Rabbinical College of America under Dr. Bernard Revel. Matlin’s father, Rabbi Moses Meyer Matlin, assembled and personally taught the three young men in his apartment in 1896. This informal assembly grew into a yeshiva that was officially founded in 1897 by Rabbi Yehuda David Bernstein at the Mariampol Synagogue and named after the late Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor. 

In the following year, Rabbi Nahum Dan Baron arrived in America from Slutsk, Lithuania to be the mashgiach for the young yeshiva. The 45-year-old, short, red-bearded rabbi took care of the basic needs of students, providing them with food and clothes. Rabbi Baron was also an early advocate of secular education in the yeshiva. At the time, the directors of RIETS did not allow students to attend high school and college while pursuing their religious studies; however, some students, including Rogoff, wished to expand their secular knowledge base. Rogoff appealed to Rabbi Baron who granted him permission to attend high school and college. 

During his time at City College, Rogoff veered away from Orthodoxy and neglected his religious studies. He joined a Socialist club in 1905 in the East Side of Manhattan; a movement which was — as Klaperman put it — “for the Orthodox Jew was synonymous with all evil.” In the following year, Rogoff joined the editorial staff of The Jewish Daily Forward — a Socialist-leaning newspaper — after the Editor-in-Chief, Abraham Cahan, heard about Rogoff’s leadership in the Socialist movement. (Cahan was previously one of the first teachers in the English Department of Yeshivas Etz Chaim before being ousted when his Socialist sympathies were discovered. He certainly had much in common with the young Rogoff.) 

Meanwhile, in 1906, the directors of RIETS threatened to withhold stipends from students engaging in secular studies. The students consequently went on strike which only ended after a change in leadership, when Rabbi Moshe Zevulun Margolies — a man sympathetic to the pursuit of secular knowledge — was appointed head of RIETS. The directors of RIETS then made promises to initiate a secular curriculum. In 1908, however, 15 student protesters were expelled after demanding the actualization of the directors’ promises. The expulsions only caused more students to walk out of the yeshiva. The yeshiva, in danger of being shut down, asserted that its mission was the pursuit of Torah and hokhma (secular knowledge) “according to the spirit of the times.” Klaperman relates that throughout these altercations a slogan often used by those opposed to the study of secular knowledge was, “Look what happened to Rogoff.” 

According to Klaperman, Rabbi Baron “in all probability… sided with the students in their struggle against the directors.” He was subsequently replaced in 1908 and returned to Slutsk never to see the yeshiva again. Klaperman suspected that Rabbi Baron was forced out by the directors due to his association with the Rogoff. 

Rogoff continued to be one of The Forward’s most prolific writers, penning articles on topics ranging from the Yiddish theatre to Socialism to American history, sometimes using the pen-names Yitzchak Elchanan or Ger Toshav. He even ran for Congress on the Socialist Party ticket in 1926 and lost. He later was appointed the Editor-in-Chief of The Forward, a position he held from 1951-64. Rogoff passed away on Nov. 20, 1971. At the time of his death he was the second-oldest Yeshiva alum. (The oldest alum at the time was Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.)

On Dec. 14, 1971, with funding from the Rogoff family, Dr. David Mirsky, Dean of Stern College for Women, directed the Hillel Rogoff Memorial Lecture Series, inaugurated with a lecture on Yiddish poetry by Dr. Irving Howe of Hunter College. Ever since, the lecture has been a YU tradition, attracting speakers such as Elie Wiesel, Abba Eban, Robert Alter and Chaim Potok. Last year, the tradition continued with a presentation by Ezras Nashim, an all-female emergency medical services agency based in Brooklyn. Over 100 years after the RIETS protests, the presence of Hillel Rogoff is still felt at Yeshiva University. 

Photo Caption: Hillel Rogoff
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