During a trip in Poland in the mid-1920s, Jacob Kret, a teenage yeshiva student from the northeast part of the country, found himself in the town of Radin, home of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, an aged Talmudic authority who was known as the Chofetz Chaim and was regarded as the Torah leader of his generation.
Unable to get home in time for Shabbat, the young man stayed in the home of the Chofetz Chaim, sleeping on a straw bed, eating and praying and discussing religious topics with the sage.
Rabbi Kret, who succumbed to renal failure in the Bialystoker Home for the Aged on the Lower East Side, had served for 48 years as spiritual leader of Chevra Talmud Torah Anschei Maravi, also known as the Old Broadway Synagogue, in Harlem, a few blocks north of Columbia University, and as kashrut supervisor at the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary. Before stepping down from the pulpit, a concession to the infirmities of old age, he arranged Shabbat dinners, coordinated lectures and concerts, and maintained the congregation’s online Web site.
His congregation, the last remaining one in the neighborhood, is still known informally as “Rabbi Kret’s shul.”
The rabbi retired in 1997, moving to the Lower East Side, where he continued to study Torah and give Chumash lessons.
At the Old Broadway Synagogue, Rabbi Kret had befriended Jewish students from Columbia and JTS.
“He meant so much to generations of students,” said Rabbi Charles Sheer, Jewish chaplain emeritus/director of Hillel at Columbia and Barnard College. “The students saw him as a slice of life from another world.”
The youngest of nine siblings, all of whom died in the Holocaust, Rabbi Kret was born into a family of Gerer Chasidim. He studied at the Navardok yeshiva, which emphasized ethics and self-improvement, and received private ordination. Considered a prodigy, by 22 he was teaching an advanced Talmud class in the Bialystok yeshiva.
After the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, starting World War II, Rabbi Kret was eventually captured by Russian troops — Germany and Russia agreed to divide Poland at the start of the war — and was shipped to a labor camp in Siberia, where he met his future wife, Hanna Lichtenfeld.
The rabbi’s family lost 124 immediate relatives in the Holocaust.
After the war, Rabbi Kret opened a yeshiva in a DP camp in Germany before migrating to the United States in 1947.
“He walked into America with zero, totally empty pockets,” said his son, Norman Kret.
The rabbi learned English at Columbia and Yeshiva University before beginning his job at the small Harlem congregation. At first, he ministered to the large number of Holocaust survivors who had settled in the area. After they moved out, he developed activities at the synagogue for a younger, American-born following.
“This was his home,” Norman Kret said.
His wife would tell how the rabbi persuaded Jewish merchants on 125th Street, who kept their stores open on Shabbat, to come to services before going to work.
After he left the synagogue, former students were “constantly coming” to the Lower East Side for visits, his son said.
“He felt what he was doing was God’s work,” Rabbi Sheer said. “He had a smile for everyone.
“Simchat Torah was a unique moment,” Rabbi Sheer said. “Although he was not a feminist, he would invite the women to come down from the balcony to occupy one side of the sanctuary proper since that was the long-standing OBS custom. Personally, he might not have been comfortable with this Simchat Torah practice; however, his vision of outreach and hospitality enabled him to affirm the shul’s practice. He was proud of the traditions of his shul and the positions it had adopted to welcome all, within the guidelines of Orthodox tradition.” In addition to his son and wife, Rabbi Kret is survived by a daughter, Miriam Mezei, of Staten Island, eight grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.