When history books discuss immigration to the land of Israel at the beginning of the twentieth century, the waves of immigrants to which they refer were, for the most part, Ashkenazim (Jews of central/eastern European ancestry). The truth is that there were Jews already living in the Promised Land, and they, for the most part, were Sephardim (of Spanish-Portuguese and Near-Eastern ancestry).

Because of the differences between Ashkenazim and Sephardim, which, while small, are still significant, there are two chief rabbis in Israel. The first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi was Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a man whose name is well known to those who are familiar with Israeli history. Less well-known is the name of Rabbi Benzion Meir Hai Uziel (1880 – 1953), the first Rishon L’tzion (the title of the Sephardi Chief Rabbi).

Born in Jerusalem, where his father was Av Bet-Din (chief judge), Rabbi Uziel opened a small yeshiva when he was a mere 20 years old. At 31, he was appointed Chacham Bashi (head rabbi) of Jaffa. Interestingly, Rabbi Kook was the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jaffa during the same time period.

During World War I, Rabbi Uziel’s leadership qualities were tested as he interceded with the Ottoman government for persecuted Jews. Alas, his efforts stood-out too well, and he was temporarily exiled to Damascus. Shortly after he returned, the territory of Palestine was ceded to the British.

The only other time Rabbi Uziel resided outside of the Land of Israel was when he accepted a three year position as Chief Rabbi of Salonika (Greece). After serving as the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Palestine (later of the State of Israel) in 1939, and he maintained this position until his death on 24 Elul, 1953.

Copyright © 2012 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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