At the turn of the 20th century, Jews across Eastern Europe sought refuge in the West in great numbers. America emerged as an enticing beacon of hope for thousands of impoverished and battered Jews who were facing violent pogroms, economic suppression and relentless persecution at home.

Armed with visas and passage aboard ships, millions of Jews embarked on a one-way journey to the United States, eager to forge fresh beginnings. Yet, while the physical persecution ceased, America presented its own array of spiritual hurdles, leading many to assimilate.

Even those who bravely clung to their faith preferred to keep a low profile, striving to fit into the panorama of America.

But there were notable exceptions, among them the famed first rabbi of the Chabad community in Baltimore, Reb Avrohom Elya Axelrod, who cut a striking figure with his oversized kippah, untrimmed beard, and flapping tzitzit—a visual reminder to all that a Jew remains a Jew in all circumstances.

Early Life

Avrohom Elya Axelrod,1 the eldest of five children, was born on 3 Nisan, 1893, in the city of Kobylnik, which is located in modern-day Poland. His father, Reb Aharon Shlomo, hailed from the city of Borisov, located not far from the city of Lubavitch, and his mother, Rochel Baila, came from the city of Zhembin, a place with a well-established Chabad community as well. Reb Aharon Shlomo’s father, Reb Meir, held a respected position as a scribe in the city of Borisov.2

Separation From His Parents

In 1906, at bar-mitzvah age, his parents enrolled him in the central yeshivah in Lubavitch, where he was known as Avrohom Elya Kobylniker (“from Kobylnik”).

A year later, in 1907, his parents immigrated to America. Throughout the subsequent decade, Reb Aharon Shlomo dedicated himself to serving various Jewish communities, initially in New Jersey3 and later in Marietta, Ohio.4 Meanwhile, the young Avrohom Elya had made a firm commitment to remain at the yeshivah in Lubavitch, aware that he might never see his family again.

He remained there for 14 years. In 1916, when the German forces fighting in World War I approached Lubavitch, the Rebbe Rashab and numerous Chassidim relocated to Rostov-on-Don for safety. The yeshiva, however, continued its operations in Lubavitch for two additional years. Eventually, in 1918, the students left to reestablish the yeshivah in Kremenchuk.

Reb Avrohom Elya was placed in charge of a group of younger students for the duration of the journey from Lubavitch to Kremenchuk. While passing through Poltava they faced false accusations of espionage and were promptly arrested. Fortunately, after the rabbis of Poltava intervened by signing a letter advocating for the students’ release and denouncing the baseless charges, they were set free.5 They continued their travels, arriving safely in Kremenchuk.

After completing his studies there, Reb Avrohom Elya went to Rostov-on-Don to study in the court of the Rebbe Rashab. It was there he received rabbinic ordination from the prominent rabbis of Minsk and Lubavitch.

He married Bracha Nesha Lieberman of Zhembin on 2 Nisan, 1921.

Migration to America

In 1924, the Sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, also known as the Rebbe Rayatz, sent Reb Avrohom Elya to America to join his family in Ohio. He was, quite possibly, the first person explicitly sent by the Rebbe Rayatz to America.6 The Rebbe wrote to the Chassidim in America praising Reb Avrohom Elya, whom he described as “a G‑d-fearing, great person, and a servant [of G‑d].”7

After his arrival in America, Reb Avrohom Elya received many letters from the Rebbe Rayatz, encouraging and supporting him in his mission. Several months after arriving in Ohio, Reb Avrohom Elya moved to Baltimore, Maryland.

At that time, Baltimore boasted a long-established American Jewish settlement dating back to the 18th century. The arrival of thousands of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century bolstered the Baltimore Jewish community, leading to its expansion throughout the city. This growth caused many to depart from the immigrant hub of East Baltimore, giving rise to new Jewish neighborhoods in Northwest Baltimore. By the 1920s, Baltimore was home to numerous American-born Jews, who began to form their own congregations which reflected their more modern and assimilated lifestyle. By the time the Immigration Act of 1924 was implemented, vastly limiting immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, the city’s Jewish population numbered 65,000.

The Chabad congregation, Congregation Tzemach Tzedek, was built in 1922, prior to Reb Avrohom Elya’s arrival. While Tzemach Tzedek and other Baltimore synagogues such as Anshei Babroisk followed the Chabad liturgical tradition (known as Nusach Ari), their congregants were increasingly not religious but maintained some traditional practices. Many worked on Shabbat and were lax in observing kosher, but still participated in synagogue services.

Soon after he settled down, Reb Avrohom Elya was elected rabbi of the Tzemach Tzedek synagogue, quickly becoming a greatly respected figure. Although he conducted himself in a way that was drastically different from the modern lifestyles of his constituents, they were proud of their rabbi, albeit sometimes frustrated with his religious determination.

On Rosh Hashana night, during the first year of his tenure as Rabbi, he prayed at great length, extending his supplications until nearly the entire congregation had gone home. While not a rare sight in the old Chassidic synagogues of Europe, this bewildered the people watching, who came to the obvious conclusion that his salary wasn’t to his satisfaction, and he was merely praying to G‑d for more money. This, unfortunately, was the mindset of the 1920’s Baltimorean Jew.

Reb Avrohom Elya stayed steadfast in his disinterest in America’s glitz and glamor. The Rebbe Rayatz once remarked, “I can testify that Avrohom Elya Kobylniker never once lifted his eyes to see the tall buildings of New York!”8

He was a sight to behold on the streets of Baltimore. While most Jewish men were clean-shaven, dressed in sharp suits, ties, and fedoras, and the women in the fashion of the roaring ‘20s, Reb Avrohom Elya could be found wearing a long coat, an old hat, his tzitzit proudly on display, sporting a full beard on his face.

Years later, at the engagement celebration of Reb Avrohom Elya’s daughter, the father of the groom—Rabbi Reuven Gruzovsky, a Talmudic genius, former dean of the great Kamenitz Yeshiva, head of Torah Vodaath, and leading activist in Agudath Israel of America—remarked, “Although he has lived here for over 20 years, Reb Avrohom Elya still hasn’t ‘arrived’ in America.”9

A Chassid in Baltimore

Mount Royal Station, Baltimore
Mount Royal Station, Baltimore

In 1924, the Rebbe Rayatz initiated the establishment of Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the United States and Canada, marking the first Chabad organization in North America. This endeavor aimed to provide organization and cohesion to the various Chabad communities across the country. As part of its mission statement composed by the Rebbe Rayatz, the organization prioritized children's education, advocated for regular Torah-study gatherings in synagogues and study halls, encouraged the support of Torah scholars, and emphasized unity within the Chabad movement on a national level. Reb Avrohom Elya played a pivotal role in founding Agudas Chasidei Chabad and was appointed as a secretary, his name appearing on the organization’s official letterhead.10 With representation all across North America, Agudas Chasidei Chabad paved the way for Chabad’s presence on the continent, especially after the relocation of its headquarters to Brooklyn with the Rebbe Rayatz’s arrival in March of 1940.

The spirit of Chabad’s home city of Lubavitch coursed through Reb Avrohom Elya’s veins even in his new home in America. He pushed for the establishment of a yeshivah in the late 20s at meetings of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, a dream that was only realized after the Rebbe Rayatz’s eventual immigration to America in 1940. In the meantime, he initiated the idea of annual gatherings of Chassidim in the United States, providing a platform for those who grew up in the old country to reconnect and inspire one another.

Hosting the Rebbe in Baltimore

The Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, (left) meets mayor of Baltimore, William F. Broening
The Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, (left) meets mayor of Baltimore, William F. Broening

Reb Avrohom Elya’s dedication to the Rebbe Rayatz was remarkable. Upon learning of the Rebbe’s arrest in Russia in 1927, he promptly sprang into action, tirelessly lobbying government officials and raising awareness throughout the Baltimore Jewish community and beyond.

When the Rebbe Rayatz visited America in 1929, his itinerary included visits to several cities with sizable Jewish populations. The purpose of his trip was twofold: to raise funds for Jews enduring hardships in Soviet Russia, and to bolster and invigorate Jewish communities across America. Reb Avrohom Elya, along with representatives from numerous other Jewish organizations in the Baltimore area, extended invitations to the Rebbe to visit their city. These efforts bore fruit, as the Rebbe honored Baltimore with his presence in January of 1930, marking a significant event for the local Jewish community.

The Rebbe traveled from Philadelphia to Baltimore, arriving at Mount Royal Station, his visit heralded nationally in Yiddish newspapers. He stayed for three weeks at 234 Utah Place, with hundreds visiting the great leader every single day from early in the morning until late at night.11 Der Tag, a New York Yiddish newspaper, recounted the hundreds of Jews, including many non-religious men and women “as distant from traditional Judaism as the North Pole,” dressed in the latest fashion, who arrived at the Rebbe’s residence in their fancy chauffeured cars. As recorded in the article, “The Rebbe inquired after their Jewish observance, and as I hear, some women told him that from then on they would conduct themselves like good and pious Jewish women.”12

During the visit, the congregants of the Tzemach Tzedek synagogue sang Reb Avrohom Elya’s praises to the Rebbe. They did, however, have a few complaints. He refused to cover his tzitzit (fringed garment) with a shirt, as was the American custom; his English was abysmal; and they feared their children would turn from their newfound American influences and embrace the Rabbi’s antiquated traditions.

The Rebbe convinced Reb Avrohom Elya to start covering his tzitzit with his shirt to appease the people, but from that day forward, he wore a larger yarmulka that protruded from behind his hat, ensuring his Jewish identity was constantly showcased for all to see.

On the 24 Tevet, 118 years to the day since the passing of the first Chabad Rebbe, the Rebbe Rayatz delivered a Chassidic discourse in the Tzemach Tzedek synagogue with over 1,000 people in attendance.

International Activism

An issue near and dear to Reb Avrohom Elya’s heart was the fact that the Chabad Library—an extensive collection of thousands of books and manuscripts curated by the Rebbe Rayatz—was (and still remains) held captive in Moscow by the Soviet government. On November 16, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt made the decision to end nearly 16 years of American non-recognition of the Soviet Union after a series of negotiations in Washington, D.C., with Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs. During these talks, Reb Avrohom Elya lobbied various government officials to influence Secretary of State Cordell Hull to bring up this issue to Litvinov, to no avail.

But Reb Avrohom Elya didn’t give up, as evidenced by further correspondence surrounding the matter.13

Although Reb Avrohom Elya responded to questions of Jewish law and conduct from those within his community and outside of it, not many of his writings remain, with the exception of several letters written to his close friend and fellow founder father of Chabad in America, Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson.14

Another significant priority for Reb Avrohom Elya was raising funds to assist Jews in Soviet Russia, facilitating their acquisition of visas or tickets for immigration to the US, and providing support to chassidim there in general.15 Additionally, he actively participated in fundraising efforts for the Radin Yeshiva, an esteemed non-Chassidic institution led by the renowned 19th-century Torah scholar, the Chafetz Chaim.16

Visits to Brooklyn

After the Rebbe Rayatz immigrated to the United States in 1940, Reb Avrohom Elya would occasionally visit him at his residence in Brooklyn, New York. On Simchat Torah in 1942, the Rebbe addressed Reb Avrohom Elya, who was then suffering from a respiratory illness, saying, “May G‑d grant you recovery, and may you conserve your strength for spreading Torah to others.”

Whenever Reb Avrohom Elya visited New York, the young students at the central Chabad yeshivah eagerly requested that he, a legendary chassid who embodied the timeless values of the old country, address and inspire them at a Chassidic gathering. Often he declined, saying he came to New York “to listen, not to be listened to.”17

In 1944, Reb Avrohom Elya embarked on a journey through Chicago, Milwaukee, and Sheboygan, sent by the Rebbe Rayatz. During his travels, he reviewed Chassidic discourses in synagogues and conveyed the Rebbe's directives to the communities, urging everyone to dedicate daily time to Torah study and to arrange public classes encompassing both Talmudic and Chassidic teachings.

He maintained a close relationship and continued correspondence with the Rebbe Rayatz until the latter’s passing in 1950.

Legacy

In a letter following the Rebbe’s passing, Reb Avrohom Elya wrote, “We can clearly see that it has been determined in heaven that the Ramash (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn) will merit to succeed the Rebbe, of righteous memory.” He quickly became an avid chassid of the future Rebbe, even participating in the famous 10th of Shevat farbrengen in 1951, during which the Rebbe officially accepted the position of leadership with the traditional recitation of a Chassidic discourse.

In 1951, Rabbi Moshe Groner was sent to Baltimore by the Rebbe, with instructions to “station himself in the home of Reb Avrohom Elya.” After praying the morning services in the Tzemach Tzedek synagogue, Reb Avrohom Elya ushered his guest into a room and unveiled a chair hidden beneath a blanket. “Upon this chair,” revealed Reb Avrohom Elye, “the Rebbe Rayatz sat and delivered a maamar.” He then broke into tears, the memory of his Rebbe’s visit to his city just over two decades earlier fresh in his mind.

Reb Avrohom Elya passed away on 4 Adar, 1952, in Baltimore, where he was laid to rest in German Hill Road Jewish Cemetery. At his funeral, Rabbi Michoel Forshlager, an accomplished Torah scholar and rabbi in Baltimore at the time, proclaimed, “Baltimore has lost her rabbi.”18

Regardless of affiliation, everyone respected and admired Reb Avrohom Elya Axelrod. He remained unwavering in his adherence to tradition amidst the challenges of American modernity, educating and teaching thousands of Jews, chassidim and non-chassidim alike. He was a pioneer of Chabad Chassidism in America, helping to set the stage for the bright future the movement would see in the United States. His dedication and commitment to his Rebbe, his fellow chassidim, and his congregation serve as an exemplary model for generations to come.