RICE, ABRAHAM JOSEPH (1802–1862), U.S. Orthodox rabbi and businessman. Rice (Reiss) was born in Germany, where he was ordained at the Wurzburg yeshiva. Since he lacked a university education, he could not be a rabbi in Bavaria, so he taught Talmud at the Zell yeshiva. In 1840, a council of Bavarian rabbis sent him to serve the American Orthodox Jewish community as the first traditionally ordained rabbi in the United States. After trying to revive the venerable Yeshuat Israel congregation (now known as the Touro Synagogue) in Newport, Rhode Island, he became rabbi of Congregation Niche Israel, also known as the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. As one of the few rabbinical scholars in the country at the time, Orthodox congregations all along the eastern seaboard as far north as New York turned to him for answers to particularly complicated questions of *halakhah (Jewish law). In fact, Orthodox communal leaders repeatedly attempted to establish for Rice, who founded the first German-Jewish all-day school in America in Baltimore, the office of "chief rabbi of the United States." In 1849, Rice left the rabbinate to become a merchant and serve as unpaid religious leader of a small congregation he founded, Sherith Israel. He was an active supporter of charitable initiatives; during the Crimean War (1853–56), he spearheaded an emergency drive to help the Jews in the Holy Land. A vigorous defender of Orthodox tradition against the inroads of Reform Judaism, Rice engaged in polemics with Reform leaders, going so far as to excommunicate influential Reform leader Isaac M. *Wise for propagating heresy. Towards the end of his life, Rice resumed his position as rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. He was described in newspapers as the chief rabbi of America, a title he might have felt he merited but did not achieve.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.