Remembering Rabbi Simcha Krauss, champion of women's rights in Orthodoxy

Upon his passing last month, congregants remember the humble Torah giant at the helm of the Young Israel of Hillcrest for 25 years.

 A MODEL of leadership: Rabbi Simcha Krauss. (photo credit: Mike Gross)
A MODEL of leadership: Rabbi Simcha Krauss.
(photo credit: Mike Gross)

Growing up in Queens, New York, I was fortunate to be enveloped in an environment of true community, warmth and hessed. Much of this is attributable to the way Rabbi Simcha Krauss led his flock of 550 families at the Young Israel of Hillcrest for 25 years.

As other congregants will attest below, I thought it was standard to be guided by a Torah scholar with kind eyes and a modest bearing, who every Shabbat provided a comforting, steady presence and always strove to find the humane Torah way to resolve issues other rabbis wouldn’t dare touch.

While fostering an atmosphere of true Yiddishkeit and love of Israel, he and his wife, Rabbanit Esther, quietly went about their revolutionary ways, bringing bat mitzvah girls up on the bima to be acknowledged in front of the whole shul and at one point, introducing women’s prayer groups – to much flak.

Rabbi Krauss was way ahead of his time. Never was this more apparent than when I grew up and gained a little life experience. I had been shielded from much of life’s suffering by my parents, community and shul, but when I made aliyah, got involved in journalism and began to understand the ongoing problem of agunot, I was shocked to see that so many rabbis seemed indifferent to these “chained” women whose lives were ground to a halt.

Not Rabbi Krauss. As he explained in a Jerusalem Post article I was inspired to commission (“A voice in the wilderness,” October 22, 2015), he had sprung into action after seeing the Israeli film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem in 2014: “I can say it was surrealistic, the image of the callous rabbis. Unfortunately, it was [also] very true, and I say it with a lot of pain about that image of callousness.” 

 SUNDAY-MORNING breakfast at the shul with (from L, back row) congregants Mark Gross, Andy Lipton and Sandy Cohen. (credit: Mike Gross) SUNDAY-MORNING breakfast at the shul with (from L, back row) congregants Mark Gross, Andy Lipton and Sandy Cohen. (credit: Mike Gross)

That same year, having already made aliyah, he temporarily moved back to the US to establish a rabbinical court to try to find halachic solutions to this heartbreaking issue. “We were frozen into thinking that the only thing that will work is extortion,” he noted. “That is a distortion of Halacha, and Halacha never wanted that.”

As a journalist you encounter the gamut of human nature, for better or worse. Seeing his deep empathy and strength in his cause, I admired Rabbi Krauss to the core. He was the epitome of, “Bemakom she’ein anashim, hishtadel l’hiyot ish.” In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person – a mensch. 

On a personal level, when my father came to Jerusalem to bury first his father and then his brother, Rabbi Krauss paid him a shiva call both times despite his already ailing health. He truly cared. 

May his humanity and wisdom shine a light for all of us to follow. 

Young Israel of Hillcrest congregants’ memories

Originally posted on social media:

While I don’t post that much on Facebook – and while I don’t even have that many Facebook friends – I hope someone reads this as I feel that it is my duty to post as a sign of respect for my cherished rabbi who passed away last night, Rabbi Simcha Krauss, z”l. 

Rabbi Krauss was a true gadol hador, a halachic giant. Growing up in the Young Israel of Hillcrest, I didn’t fully appreciate at first the true greatness in my midst. To me, Rabbi Krauss was the rabbi with the smile and the twinkle in his eye. However, as I grew, and developed a true interest in halachic learning and broader questions, I began to appreciate his true depth – the rare combination of a halachic giant with broad shoulders, who was unafraid to wield his knowledge and influence for truly important causes.

As a young Modern Orthodox woman, interested in my broader Jewish identity, it was a true gift to grow up in the YIH and develop a relationship with Rabbi Krauss. Each question I posed was responded to with his typical combination of brilliance, humility and hen [graciousness]. Even more so, he often forced me to question my assumptions and reassess my position. 

As a burgeoning feminist, I was blessed to have Rabbi Krauss, alongside his wife, Esther, a pioneer in women’s Jewish education, serve as a role model of leadership for me – on a communal level, whether it be supporting women’s prayer groups, and later with the establishment of the international beit din; but also on a personal level, encouraging me to take on more learning, be involved in shul initiatives and, most critically, illustrate what a thoughtful, committed Jewish life could and should look like.

When I made aliyah and married, it was a source of true joy to me that Rabbi and Esther Krauss moved to Jerusalem at the same time – where Rabbi Krauss educated another generation of students, but also allowed me to maintain that special relationship with “my” rabbi. 

Over the years I have noted with curiosity, and maybe a touch of envy, some of my friends’ posts when certain leaders or mentors passed away – for some of them it was as if a member of their family had passed away – and I couldn’t relate to that feeling. Well, unfortunately, I can now. I truly feel, on a visceral, emotional level, the void that has been created with Rabbi Krauss’s passing. As I said to my husband, Matt – while I never articulated it before, it truly comforted me knowing Rabbi Krauss was in this world.

Rabbi and Esther Krauss created a beautiful family and have passed on that legacy of leadership, in its various forms, to many of them. But Rabbi Krauss also has left behind legions of talmidim and talmidot, or just admirers – I am but one of them. 

I feel so privileged for having had the sheer luck and opportunity to grow up in his [community’s] midst, but am also so very devastated to wake up tomorrow to a world where he is no longer in it. Yehi zichro baruch.

Yael Bitton

Her sister’s memories follow:

Growing up with Rabbi Krauss as my shul rabbi, I did not fully appreciate the extent to which I was being led by such a talmid hacham with such a breadth of Torah knowledge and, importantly for my own growth, someone who took that Torah knowledge and used it to understand a more inclusive and tolerant understanding of Halacha, especially as it pertains to women.

I knew how much my father respected him and had become a true talmid of his, but I personally had not had much to do with him at that point. Frankly, I was intimidated as I’d hear my father and Rabbi Krauss speak after shul.

Before I got married, Rabbi Krauss sat with me at the pizza shop while I asked him a range of questions, from hair covering to family planning, and it was the first time I had my own extended dialogue with Rabbi Krauss. I got to appreciate the way his mind knew Halacha and yet spoke with realities of the lived human experience at the forefront.

That first year of marriage, we lived in Jerusalem not far from the Krausses. Davening at the Ramban shul was the place to be and was often at max capacity by 20 minutes in. Rabbi Krauss sat in a section with other retired shul rabbis from the States. Every week, Rabbi Krauss would save a seat for my husband, Michael – so it was retired rabbis and Michael. 

That year, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein gave a shiur on Wednesday nights at the Caroline & Joseph Gruss Institute of Yeshiva University, Jerusalem campus, where Michael was studying. Rabbi Krauss and another friend would drive to join the shiur, and they gave Michael rides each week. Michael would come home so energized by the conversations and the palpable Torah knowledge emanating from those car rides.

Knowing about Michael’s interest in academic Jewish studies, the Krausses invited us to a Friday night meal with Uriel Simon, professor of Bible at the Hebrew University.

When we got there, it turned out that the Simons’ daughter had gone into labor and they were on grandparent duty. So it would just be the four of us – Rabbi and Rabbanit Krauss. I’ll admit, we were nervous as to how the dynamic would be, given the age difference. And yet, that meal became a highlight of our time in Jerusalem that year. It was such a breath of fresh air to speak comfortably and freely about Torah, the state and future of the Jewish community with such knowledgeable Torah scholars.

Over the years, Michael has had much to do with Rabbi Krauss – when Michael taught at SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox day school, Rabbi Krauss had come back to New York to work at his beit din [to free agunot] and his office was at SAR. It was special for me to watch their relationship grow.

As I grew into my own feminism and progressive understanding of Judaism, my pride in our family’s close personal relationships to the Krausses grew with it. Furthermore, I look back in awe at how ahead of the time Rabbi Krauss was, a real trailblazer when it came to women’s involvement in organized Jewish life. He took a lot of flack for approaches that today are generally accepted in many Orthodox spaces.

Since we made aliyah two-and-a-half years ago, it was always a treat running into the Krausses and feeling their genuine interest in what we were up to.

The loss of Rabbi Krauss is a big one – for our family personally and for the multitudes of students from his many decades of service to the Orthodox Jewish community. Yehi zichro baruch.

Adina Bitton

As I process Rabbi Krauss z”l’s petira, I am hit with feelings of tremendous loss, both personal and communal.

On a personal level, from even before I can remember, I knew that Rabbi Krauss was revered in my home. My parents had so much respect for Rabbi Krauss, spoke of him so respectfully and lovingly. Some families have a habit of sitting around the Shabbat table and criticizing the rabbi’s speech from that morning. Not my family. Rabbi Krauss’s speech was recounted with admiration like one would a lesson from a favorite teacher.

My parents advised with Rabbi Krauss on halachic and personal matters; after his passing, they reflectively shared that Rabbi Krauss made them who they are today, and shaped our family in indescribable ways. 

 THE SHUL in Queens, NY, he led for 25 years.  (credit: Mike Gross) THE SHUL in Queens, NY, he led for 25 years. (credit: Mike Gross)

Rabbi Krauss was always present in my childhood memories of shul. Physically, he was a gentle giant. With twinkly eyes and a shy smile, he sat on the bima in a chair that certainly unintentionally (but me being a child…) resembled a throne. With his hand on his forehead, as a young child, I thought he was always napping. I later understood he was simply always deep in thought, likely tackling the world’s biggest halachic challenges in his head at all times. 

As a terribly shy kid, I would only mumble Shabbat Shalom to him when my parents made me. But as I grew up and formed more of an identity for myself, he and Rabbanit Esther became role models to me, as they exemplified a true Torah U’mada (incorporating general culture into a Torah lifestyle) way of life. Their curiosity and brilliance, devotion to learning, kindness, hessed and service to the community modeled for me the life that I wished to pursue. 

I, of course, took growing up in their midst for granted and figured every rabbi and rabbanit had this influence on their community. It was only when the boundaries of my life started expanding beyond Hillcrest did I understand how renowned Rabbi Krauss was on a wider scale. When traveling to other communities and asked by my friends’ parents or my teachers, “Which shul do you go to? Who is the rabbi?” and I would answer Young Israel of Hillcrest and Rabbi Krauss, there was instant recognition and wide eyes of respect. It was then that I learned that I had been gifted something unique.

I suppose it’s not surprising that from our small community of Hillcrest there have emerged many talmidei and talmidot hachamim, devoted public servants and olim to Israel.

This life that he and Esther modeled clearly wasn’t lost on their children. Though they were a few years ahead of me, and not necessarily my peers, Rivka, Bini and Aviva and later their spouses all exemplified these qualities, too. As I encountered them each in different parts of my adult life, it was clear that devotion to Torah and community service had become their instinctive way of life as well. 

I would be remiss to not mention the love and respect Rabbi Krauss had for his dear wife, Esther. A talmida hachama with a warm and charismatic presence, she, too, was and still is a passionate leader in the Modern Orthodox world. Esther was a pioneer for women’s learning opportunities, and Rabbi Krauss was both beside her and behind her, beaming with pride every step of the way.

As giant as Rabbi Krauss was physically, he was also a giant figuratively, in his influence in the larger Modern Orthodox world. He was a highly respected talmid of Rav Hutner zt”l and Rav Soloveitchik zt”l and gained his own recognition for his teachings and psaks [halachic rulings], including contested topics such as women’s prayer groups and agunot.

These psaks were met with opposition by many, and as devoted congregants we felt privileged to support Rabbi Krauss during those difficult times.

As was mentioned in many of the eulogies and memories shared, Rabbi Krauss fought these halachic fights courageously, for the sake of truth, and with utmost humility. He was only looking to share the truth of the Torah as he understood it, and thereby alleviate the suffering of those in need. 

What a role model he was in so many capacities. In his public service he embodied the values of Torah, study, loyalty to one’s truth, courage, humility, perseverance, kindness, compassion and inner strength. 

I often remark with friends that living a life of extremes is simple, clearly defined. In contrast, a life of moderation, less so. The Modern Orthodox life is complex and ambiguous, open to interpretation. It’s no surprise that it’s a dwindling sector of Judaism, with few gedolim who support its way of life.

Rabbi Krauss – who genuinely believed and supported its values – was our gadol, and he was for us a beacon of hope. It was very comforting knowing that there was a brilliant leader with clear vision steering our ship, who would help us make it through any storm; knowing that that leader didn’t question the legitimacy of its movement like so many others, who instead supported it and the State of Israel with much conviction and love. 

Our leader is gone. What a loss to me and my family. What a loss to his beautiful and loving family. What a loss to his loving students, congregants and members of his community. What a loss for klal Yisrael. 

Yehi zichro baruch.

Rena Landman (née Fruchter)

By nature Rabbi Krauss was a quiet and reserved individual; he was a man of a few words. However, when he would get up to speak publicly in shul, or anytime he would discuss a topic in Torah learning, he would be transformed into an animated and dynamic orator. “Simhat hatorah” (yes, his name was Simcha) propelled him into a different world. He could not hide his excitement and joy, and he reveled when he could share it with others.

During one of our last visits with Rabbi Krauss a number of weeks ago, he was quite despondent, as he was in pain and unhappy that he was not feeling better. Suddenly, the conversation turned to the European rabbanim who assumed positions in various cities around the US post-World War II, and his face lit up, and a broad smile engulfed his being as he recounted how these men were able to transform the American Jewish landscape.

We miss our very dear and cherished friend.

Shulamith & Joel Cohn

I’m grateful for this opportunity to speak about a truly great rav, a Torah scholar who learned simultaneously with Rav Hutner and Rav Soloveitchik, a man of enormous humility who although never seeking self-aggrandizement, did not hesitate to speak out about important communal issues, and was passionate that these issues were debated and adjudicated based on Halacha. 

He was a rav who exemplified the concept of hazak ve’ematz, possessing both the strength that accrues from the knowledge of Torah and the strength and courage to act on this knowledge. Most people know what is the right decision but do not have the strength to publicly act on their knowledge. Rabbi Krauss was not afraid to publicly apply halachic decisions to the very difficult but incredibly important communal issues of get and agunot. 

Finally, he urged and encouraged members of his congregation to present divrei Torah by giving the members the opportunity to speak from his pulpit. This was not limited to the adults, but included high school and college students who received their first opportunity to present divrei Torah publicly. 

His scholarship, modesty and integrity will be missed.

Jonathan Halpert

My own personal anecdote: I was a regular attendee at Rabbi Krauss’s weekly Gemara shiur. The amount of knowledge he had at his fingertips was truly amazing. What impressed me the most was how he encouraged everyone to ask questions and complimented everyone and made all the attendees feel like they were contributing so much by asking questions. 

He particularly made me feel special by encouraging me to learn and teach by asking me to give the shiur a number of times in his absence. His confidence in my abilities has stayed with me and helped me until today.

Tehei nafsho tzrura b’tzror hahayim – May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.

Sol Gelernter

Rabbi Krauss’s total command of Torah was evident in the Gemara shiur to which we periodically invited him to guest-teach, which he did graciously. What surprised me was that he never asked what we were learning. After sitting down he would first ask what page we were on, then proceed without pause to give a brilliant shiur, quoting from all over Shas – with no preparation. He was one of few people I know who could respond to “Isn’t there a Gemara or Tosafot somewhere that says…” with a definitive “No – there isn’t” or a “Yes, it’s in...”

His personal network was incredibly broad. When I traveled to places from which I couldn’t return before Shabbat, wherever it was, Rabbi Krauss always had a close friend whom he would gladly call to arrange accommodations for me.

Once, in the Phoenix airport, I was surrounded by 30 hassidic mashgihim, mostly Satmar, who had just come back from inspecting the Passover wheat crop in Yuma. After davening Maariv with them and mentioning that I was in Rabbi Simcha Krauss’s shul, I found they also were in his network.

He was open and trusting to new ideas. When I first took charge of the shul’s library, I asked Rabbi Krauss if he wanted to review my proposed acquisitions. He didn’t see any need to censor. People should not be afraid of ideas, and he supported me when some people complained about my choices. He invited a wide range of speakers to our shul – and got quite upset when asked about the appropriateness of women speaking from the pulpit.

He was instrumental in my increasing my learning with his encouragement, even setting me up for a weekly havrusa with his brother – Rabbi Mordechai Krauss a”h, who was at the time a rosh yeshiva at Ohr Hachaim. His brother had a whole different method to learning. But to Rabbi Krauss it was all Torah.

Rabbi Simcha Krauss had the gift to quickly get to the core of issues, with nuance and common sense. He felt it unconscionable for women to feel they need to work so hard to prepare a house for Passover. His response to a typical cleaning question, that “hametz doesn’t have feet,” said it all. I will miss his quick wit.

Mark Gross 