Rev. Joseph P. Rakusin

After the disaster of Rev. Goldberg coming on the heels of Rev. Widom’s suicide, the synagogue wasn’t going to take any chances with their next rabbi.  After his try-out in December 1927 (their typical practice for all candidates), they sent Sam Mervis and Bernhardt Hepps, president and vice president of the shul, to Rakusin’s current congregation to see him in action.  He started in February 1928 and served through July 1931, though the contract he signed at the beginning of 1931 was for the full year.  It’s possible that at the height of the Depression money was the issue; he was getting $2400, and his successor, a young, unmarried man, got $1000/yr.  Unfortunately the synagogue minutes don’t mention a thing about his departure.

He stood out for the great performances he elicited from the synagogue’s choir (noted in the minutes), as well as his own musical talent (his musical performances as part of synagogue functions were often mentioned in Pittsburgh’s Jewish newspaper).

Family:

  • rubinoff-rakusinHe was born June 12, 1886 in “Slock, Russia” (now Latvia, near Riga?).  Arrived in NYC 6/25/1906.  Possibly he grew up in Brooklyn, at one point working as a tailor in a shop, as did his father.  Became a citizen 12/4/1916.
  • His wife, Bessie, was born in Paterson, New Jersey to parents who immigrated from Russia.
  • Three children born in Massachusetts:  Freeman Leon (3/23/1914), Lewis Morris (10/4/1917, also a cantor), Chadwick Herman (b. 1920).  I don’t think their names were American enough, unfortunately.
  • Like many of Homestead’s rabbis, he moved around a lot, holding pulpits in many places.  The available sources permit a partial reconstruction, though a Jan. 1933 newspaper article mentions Newark and NYC, which I haven’t found evidence for.
    • 1909:  Falmouth, ME (1910 with his parents and siblings in Brooklyn?) (source?)
    • 1909-13:  Providence, RI
    • 1914-1922: Boston, MA (1917 Dorchestor, 1921 Bangor, ME?)
    • 1925-1927:  Cleveland, OH
    • 1928-1931:  Homestead, PA (they lived at 1210 McClure St.)
    • 1933:  Newcastle, PA
    • 1935:  Brockton, MA
    • 1941-2:  Bangor, Maine (where he married famous pianist David Rubinoff, who had his own Pittsburgh connection)
    • 1948:  Fargo, ND
    • 1954:  Greensburg, PA
  • He died 10/25/1971 in Cleveland, OH.

Homestead history:

Close-up of Rubinoff wedding, courtesy of MaineJews.org

Close-up of Rakusin (right) at Rubinoff wedding, courtesy of MaineJews.org

The following chronology is taken from the 1920-1930 meeting minutes of the HHCRS.  It includes the highlights of his activities, and not run-of-the-mill mentions of his involvement in the Hebrew school or kashrut supervision.

  • 12/12/1927:  “Rev Rakusin of Cleveland Ohio who has conducted services on the previous Saturday, and who seems to be a capable man is to be considered for election as a permanent Cantor, Shochet + Teacher.”  Directors vote to send B. Hepps and S. Mervis to Cleveland to see Rakusin in action (p. 205).
  • 12/18/1927:  Here is the report of the visit to Cleveland (p. 206).  I find it fascinating for the details of what mattered to the synagogue:

The Pres. called upon the Vice pres. to make a report regarding the information received at Cleveland Ohio in respect to Rev Rakusin, who has conducted services the past two Saturdays at Homestead and who is to be considered as permanent Chasen, Shochet, Teacher, for the Cong.

The Report of Mr B Hepps was as follows,

Rev Rakusin held a position similar to the one at Homestead, at Cleve Ohio for past five years. He is married to a very pleasant woman, a pleasing personality, true Orthodox, altho American born, speaks a perfect jüdish. They have three children, who are raised in the orthodox tenets and belief, the boy over 13 years old lays every day tefilin, and the younger ones say their morning prayers every day. Mr Rakusin is a levelheaded business man, in addition to an excellent Cantor, and expert Shochet, and teaching is a hobby with him. He is inclined to accept the position at Homestead for four months as a trial, but after considering the matter more carefully he stated this will not be satisfactory to the Cong. nor to him, as before he could get acquainted the four months would be over. Therefore he is willing to accept the position for a term of two or three years. He is a willing worker, can live economically, they are highly respectable and respected people, and the Cong will not make a mistake in electing him, it is up to the Cong. to make it pleasant for him, and he is willing to conduct services twice a month on Saturdays, in addition to all the Holidays, and if necessary more often. In Boston he conducted services at times five or more weeks in succession, of course he lost nothing thereby. – Leinen – he may consent to, at the Sat. when he does not Dawen. He could not find a blemish on Rev Rakusin and can’t recommend him too highly. Pres Mr S Mervis verified the statement of Vice Pres B Hepps. Dr. Moss asked the Pres. to state the price for which Rev Rakusin is willing to function, and was told in reply the salary to be 240.00 a month plus Shechita. For the 240.00 Rev. Rakusin is to conduct services at least twice a month, and teach children in the Hebrew School, in the tenets of Judaism.

The Pres was further asked why Rev Rakusin is willing to leave Cleveland, and the reply was given, that the Jewish population is shifting from one section of the City to another section and his Cong. is losing in membership and attendance, he held the position there at a salary of $3500.00 and he could retain the position in the future, but the Cong is unable to pay him the salary, while in Hstd the prospects are for him to make an equal amount as he had in the former pulpit

A motion was made by Mr Morris Fogel seconded by Mr B Markovitz to accept the recommendations of the offers and Board of directors of the Cong. and tender Rev Rakusin a call to accept the pulpit of our Cong. at a salary of 240.00 monthly, for a term of two years. This motion was amended by Mr D Jacobson to read three years, the amendment was accepted by the motion maker, and was unanimously accepted by all present, and passed.

A motion was made by M.D Weis, second by Mor Fogel, to authorize the officers and directors to draw up a contract with Rev Rakusin stipulating all the conditions in the Contract as heretofore stated. Motion carried.

Upon request of all those present Rev Rakusin was sent for and requested to conduct Mincha servies, all went up to the main auditiorium of the synagogue and Rev Rakusin complied with the request of the members.

  • 2/6/1928:  “The School was reorganized and Rev. Rakusin is taking charge as principal teacher with an enrollment of 36 children” (p. 209). Motion passed to pay his moving expenses from Cleveland up to $100.  More discussion about service times:

Mr S. Rosenthal made a motion to conduct Friday evening services at 8 o’clock P.M. Rev. Rakusin to be in charge. This, not to deprive the older folks from holding early Friday evening services, but in addition to the early services, to have later services which can be attend by all who may have a desire to attend, this motion not acted on, but held over until such time as may be possible in inaugurate such services.

  • 5/2/1928:  “A motion was made to have a banquet and installation for Rev. Rakusin + wife the assessment to be 1.00 per plate.”  (p. 211)
    • The banquet happened before 7/8, but there is no mention of it in Pittsburgh’s Jewish newspaper
  • 8/12/1928:  Discussion of working with Rakusin for meshorim (choir singers) for the coming holidays. (p. 216)
  • 8/30/1928:  Regarding the choir for holidays, Rev Rakusin training the boys.  Choir improving rapidly. (p. 219)
  • 10/31/1928:  Success!  This is the first time that I’ve seen that they’ve been this excited about a rabbi’s performance.  Didn’t even see anything like this during Winkler‘s time.

In recognition of the splendid series rendered by Rev Rakusin during the high holidays and as an incentive to future activities to give him an extra honorarium of 250.00 and in addition to allow 25.00 to his two boys, and 25.00 for the rest of the choir boys who have participated in the services on R.H. + Y.K. 1928.

  • 7/28/1929:  “request Rev Rakusin to have the same kind of a choir as he had last year for the high Holidays the cost to be no more than 50.00.” (p. 236)
  • 1/6/1930:  “Pres. Grinberg report Rev. Rakusin refused to conduct late Friday evening services. Dr Moss suggested a com of 3 officers to see Rev. Rakusin in regards to this matter.” (p. 252)
  • 3/3/1930:  “Mr M.I.Grinberg wanted to know why there are no Friday eve services held this year.  Mr. M Fishel and Sam Margolis were appointed to interrogate Mr. Rakusin.” (p. 255)
  • 3/9/1930:  “The Com. is regards to Friday eve services report, they have spoken to Rev. Rakusin and he stated it is too late in the season to start Friday services now.” (p. 256)
  • 10/5/1930:  “The Secretary was instructed to notify Mr. Rakusin of the expiration of his contract.” (p. 275)
  • 11/2/1930:  “Letter from Rev. J. Rakusin applying for renewal of his position as Rabbi, Chazan and Shochet…Committee consisting of B. Hepps and Dr. Moss appointed to see Mr. Rakusin and arrange for new contract and report for approval.” (p. 297)
  • 12/7/1930:  “Dr. Moss reports having seen Mr. Rakusin, together with B. Hepps, and discussed a new contract with him. No definite price was agreed upon. The committee recommends that the Board recommendation to the Cong. that a Chazan be engaged at a salary not exceeding $2000 per year.” (p. 283)  Note that he was getting $2880/yr, but of course, by this point the Depression had been going on for a year.
  • 12/21/1930:

Comm. consisting of B. Hepps and Dr. Moss report on Mr. Rakusin’s application for position as Chazan and Shochet. They report he is willing to remain in these capacities, but no definite salary was agreed upon. The Comm. recommends that a Chazan be engaged at a salary of $2000 per year. Fr. Fischer reports that at a salary of $2400 a year for this position the Cong. faces a deficit of $1600.

Motion by B. Mermelstein, second by J. Kardon to engage Rev. J. Rakusin as Chazan & Shochet at a salary of $2400 per year. Amendment by S. Siegal, second by Fishel that same be engaged for one year subject to term of contract. Amendment passed. Motion passed.

Commit. consisting of Pres; Vice Pres; and Secty; be empowered to enter into a contract with Mr. Rakusin, subject to the approval of the Board of Directors, and that said contract constitute the basis on which the abovementioned motion and amendment to engage Mr. Rakusin is founded. Passed.

  • 1/4/1931:  “The Secty read copy of contract with Mr. Rakusin, drawn up by the Comm. same was accepted and the Comm. empowered to sign same on behalf of the Congregation.” (p. 288)
  • 2/1/1931:  His new contract was read and approved.  One year starting 1/1/1931 at $2400/yr. (p 6)
  • 2/13/1931:  Friday night services finally happen, and they are awesome:

The Jewish Criterion, 2/13/1931, p. 24

  • 8/2/1931:  Records the last payment to Rakusin.

Ancestry.com records consulted:

  • 1910, 1920, 1930 census
  • Naturalization records
  • WWI draft card
  • 1929 & 1931 Homestead city directories and numerous other city directories
  • Obituary listings, SSDI
  • The Evening Review from East Liverpool, Ohio; September 22, 1942; p. 12 for Rubinoff wedding (and many other sources reported on it as well)
  • New Castle News from New Castle, PA; Friday, January 27, 1933; p. 26

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