DelVal Trustee Sussman lectures on founder Krauskopf

Apr 12, 2010

By Edward Levenson

In 1894, American Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, on a mission to help the oppressed Jews of the czarist empire. He hoped to meet with the czar and convince him to allow Russian Jews, who were barred from owning land, to set up their own farms in Siberia.

When the czar refused to see him, Krauskopf met instead with famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy at the author's country estate.

 Rabbi Lance Sussman

At a Jewish service this past Friday night on the Delaware Valley College campus, Rabbi Lance Sussman paraphrased Tolstoy's reaction to Krauskopf's plan: "Mister, you're a meshuggener" (Yiddish for crazy man).

The 50 or so people who attended the Shabbat (Sabbath) service in the tiny Ida M. Block Chapel broke into laughter.

Sussman, senior rabbi of Congregration Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, explained that Tolstoy supported the goal of teaching Jews how to farm, but felt Siberia would be a dead end. Instead, the writer suggested that Krauskopf start such a farm school in America.

After returning to the United States, Krauskopf used some of his savings plus donations to buy a 118-acre farm in Doylestown. He raised another $10,000 to erect an academic building and chartered the National Farm School in 1896. The first 10 students enrolled in September 1897.

That humble school was the origin of today's Delaware Valley College.

"It would probably please Dr. Krauskopf greatly to know how well his college is doing," Sussman said at the first annual alumni Shabbat, sponsored by the college Hillel, or Jewish student group. Services were held in the Spartan chapel, built in 1899 and named in memory of Krauskopf's sister-in-law.

The event was part of an effort to revive awareness of and appreciation for DelVal's Jewish roots. Only a few dozen of the 1,600 students attending the college are believed to be Jewish.

"When you go to a Catholic university, you know it was founded by the church," Sussman said after the service. "I do think there's a need for the college community and students to know their context."

The founder's name is preserved in the Joseph Krauskopf Memorial Library, which includes a replica of the study from his Germantown home. Above the main entrance is a bas relief of the bespectacled Krauskopf, striking a pensive pose with his right hand against the side of his head and his left hand resting on a closed book.

But Sussman would like people to know more about the man, who was born in 1858 in what was then Prussia and is today Poland.

Sussman, a DelVal trustee, told the congregants that Krauskopf emigrated to the United States in 1872 and wound up in Fall River, Mass., where he had some relatives. Krauskopf later befriended the wife of the high school principal, who heard about a new rabbinical school opening in Cincinnati. She wrote the founder, Rabbi Isaac Wise, that the young Krauskopf would be an ideal student because "he has all the Christian virtues."

 Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf circa 1884

Krauskopf graduated from Hebrew Union College in 1883 and became a rabbi in Kansas City, Mo. "He was instantly recognized as a great orator," Sussman said, and earned a doctor of divinity degree in 1885.

Krauskopf's national reputation grew after he was named rabbi at Keneseth Israel, then in Philadelphia, in 1887.

Sussman said Krauskopf took up the cause of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who were pouring into the United States because of pogroms (violent anti-Semitic attacks) and poverty in their homelands. Others also sought to get immigrants out of crowded cities by setting up Jewish agricultural colonies in Southern New Jersey, the Deep South, the Great Plains and other locales, but Krauskopf's contribution was launching a farm school to teach those immigrants scientific methods of farming.

"He looked to create a paradigm for all of society, using the Jewish community as a vanguard," Sussman said. Krauskopf hoped the National Farm School would serve as a model that would inspire similar schools elsewhere in the country.

"He had a messianic vision of what the school stood for. He was determined to make this school work," said Sussman, who has done preliminary research for a possible biography of Krauskopf (a previous one was published in the 1970s).

By the time Krauskopf died in 1923 at age 64, the National Farm School had celebrated its 25th anniversary and acquired a solid reputation. The school became Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture in 1960.

"I think he would be thrilled to see how the college has grown," said Kay Krauskopf Brylawski of Elkins Park, the founder's granddaughter who attended Friday's service. She never knew her grandfather, who died before she was born, but is proud of him and his legacy.

"The family's always been involved" with the college, she said, noting that her nephew, Joseph C. Krauskopf of California, is on the board of trustees.

Rabbi Krauskopf literally remains at DelVal. His ashes are contained in an urn enshrined in the library.