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Rülf, Isaak

(1831–1902), rabbi, journalist, and author. From 1865 to 1898, Isaak Rülf served as rabbi to the Jewish community of Klaipėda (Ger., Memel) in East Prussia, on the border between Prussia and the Russian Empire. Through his philanthropic and journalistic activities on behalf of the Jewish communities of Lithuania, Rülf attained the status of a spokesperson for Russian Jewry. He was also among the minor intellectual fathers of modern Zionism.

Isaak Rülf came from a poor family of rural Jews in Hessen. In 1863, he received rabbinical ordination and earned his doctorate in 1865. As rabbi in Memel, he tirelessly pursued a range of local and regional relief activities. His assistance efforts on behalf of the starving Jews of Lithuania, in support of whom he mobilized the German Jewish public, were particularly successful and earned him the nickname “Dr. Hülf.” In subsequent years, he collected donations for Jewish victims of fires and pogroms, particularly in 1881 and 1882. In addition, he interceded on behalf of Russian and Polish Jews who had been expelled from Prussia in 1885–1886 and, through his activities on various committees, supported Jewish immigration from Russia. In Klaipėda, Rülf founded a hospital in 1870 and a school for poor children in 1894, both of which primarily benefited Russian Jews.

Rülf combined his assistance activities with numerous publications in which he informed the German Jewish public about the living conditions of Russian Jewry. The first of these was Meine Reise nach Kowno um die Übersiedlung nothleidender Glaubensgenossen aus den Grenzbezirken nach dem Innern Russlands zu ordnen, sowie die in der dortigen Synagoge gehaltene Predigt (My Journey to Kovno to Organize the Resettlement of Suffering Coreligionists from the Border Regions to the Russian Interior, as Well as the Sermon I Delivered in the Synagogue There; 1869). His Drei Tage in Jüdisch-Russland. Ein Cultur- und Sittenbild (Three Days in Jewish Russia: A Sketch of Culture and Manners; 1882)—one of the first examples of a German Jewish romanticizing of the world of East European Jewry—evoked a great response.

At this time, Rülf cooperated closely with Rabbi Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor in Kovno; both men painstakingly sought to inform the international public about the consequences of the Russian pogroms for the Jewish population. Rülf was among those who were instrumental in smuggling to England eyewitness accounts of pogroms; his information formed the basis of a two-part article in the Times of London in January 1882. In Die russischen Juden. Ihre Leidensgeschichte und unsere Rettungsversuche (The Russian Jews: Their Sufferings and Our Efforts to Save Them; 1892), Rülf offered a clear and substantial critique of the often ineffective assistance measures of Western European Jewish circles and organizations on behalf of Russian Jewry. In particular, the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in 1881–1882 drove him to write his work Aruchas bas-ammi. Israels Heilung. Ein ernstes Wort an Glaubens- und Nichtglaubensgenossen (Aruchas bas-ammi: A Remedy for Israel; A Serious Word to Coreligionists and Others; 1883), an early text of political Zionism that inspired a number of future leading Zionists. He greeted the formation of the Zionist movement under Herzl with great enthusiasm. Beyond his monographs, Rülf composed a number of philosophical writings of extremely limited influence, as well as large number of articles, pamphlets, appeals, and shorter brochures.

Suggested Reading

Michael Brocke, Julius Carlebach, and Carsten Wilke, eds., “Rülf, Isaak,” in Biographisches Handbuch der Rabbiner, pt. 1, Die Rabbiner der Emanzipationszeit in den deutschen, böhmischen und grosspolnischen Ländern, 1781–1871, vol. 2, pp. 760–761 (Munich, 2004); Israel Oppenheim, “The Kovno Circle of Rabbi Yitzhak Elhanan Spektor: Organizing Western Public Opinion over Pogroms in the 1880s,” in Organizing Rescue: National Jewish Solidarity in the Modern Period, ed. Selwyn Ilan Troen and Benjamin Pinkus, pp. 91–126 (London, 1992); Julius H. Schoeps, “Briefe Leon Pinskers an Isaak Rülf: Zur Vorgeschichte der jüdischen Nationalbewegung,” Zeitschrift für Religions- und Geistesgeschichte 34.3 (1982): 220–241.



Translated from German by Deborah Cohen