In one of the most sensational hearings ever staged before a Jewish rabbinical court, Judah Elfenbein, rabbi of the Jacob H. Schiff Center, 2481 Valentine Ave. Bronx, charged with being a convert to the Greek Orthodox Church and later one of its priests and also with having furnished the arguments that were used by anti-Semites to send Leopold Hilsner, some twenty years ago to prison in Austria for life on a ritual blood accusation, was unfrocked after the rabbi broke down and confessed.
Elfenbein’s real name, according to his accusers and his own confession, was Judah Elfenbein Tillinger. But coming to the United States in 1920, he found that the name Tillinger, associated as it was with the trial of Hilsner in Austria and with having become an apostate of the faith, had preceded him and did not smack well in Jewish circles. Dropping the name Tillinger and growing a beard, according to the charges, Elfenbein who had been a student of Jewish theological seminaries in Vienna and Berlin easily worked his way into the Jewish pulpit, serving as rabbi at Youngstown, O., Easton, Pa. and Brooklyn and lastly at the new Jacob H. Schiff Center in the Bronx.
Casual gossip at a Second Avenue cafe led to the unmasking of the rabbi, one of the patrons of the cafe dropping a hint that Elfenbein-Tillinger was now serving as a rabbi. The report finally reached the Union of Orthodox Rabbis who convoked a special meeting to prove the charges.
The rabbis who composed the “Beth Din” consisted of Rabbis Margolies, J. L. Selzer, J. Kanowitz, H. Siegel, J. Redelheim, S. Pfeffer, J. Oskolski, A. Premedski, Meyer Berlin and S. J. Yudelson.
Elfenbein was not present at the beginning of the trial, sending word that he could not be present on account of illness. As the testimony of others was being taken however, the rabbi made his appearance. Elfenbein was immediately identified as the Tillinger of the Hilsner incident by Rabbi Alter Pfeffer, a rabbi hailing from the same section of Galicia as Tillinger, and who was in Austtia at the time of the Hilsner trial. In response to the query put by Rabbi Margolis, chief of the Beth Din, as to whether his name originally had been Tillinger, Elfenbein suggested that Dr. Ph. Klein who had dealings with him be consulted.
The session was interrupted at this moment to permit the recital of the Mincha prayer. Elfenbein joined in the litany. “Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned. Pardon us, O King, for we have done wrong.”
Seemingly moved by prayer, Elfenbein arose and with voice choking with grief signed a pledge and statement which he delivered to the chief of the Beth Din.
“I testify and confirm that I am not deserving of being a servant of the sacred profession. I pledge my self never no accept a religious position either as rabbi or teacher in a religious school on account of being unfitted by the deeds of my youth, which are widely and generally known.”
The pledge was signed “Judah Elfenbein, formerly, Tillinger.” In the midst of the uproar which followed the statement, Elfenbein was led away to the home of a nearby friend on the East Side.
Following the signing of the pledge, the Beth Din issued a statement confirming that Elfenbein was Tillinger and that he was the Jew who had figured so notoriously in the Hilsner trial.
According to Gershon Bader, a Jewish journalist, Tillinger was the author of a series of twelve or thirteen articles under the name of Stanislavus Tillinger, in which he charged that Jews use Christian blood during the Passover festival.
“These writings,” Bader continued, “made a strong impression. The paper which was published by anti-Semites had an unusually wide circulation and the anti-Jewish effect was colossal. In the year 1908, he was made professor in the German university at Lemberg. There I saw him in the garb of a priest. Later I was informed that Tillinger had sought to return to the Jewish fold. Some were willing to ‘let bygones be bygones’ but I could not forget all of the pains to Jews that he had been the cause of.”
Leopold Hilsner, who was accused of the alleged ritual murder in which Tillinger was involved, was condemned to death at the first trial. The case was appealed but the conviction was upheld. His sentence was finally commuted to life imprisonment by Emperor Francis Joseph. At the outbreak of the World War he was given his freedom.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.