Top photo: (c) Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau
Dear Grand Rabbi Korff, could you tell us a little bit about where you were born and something about your background?
I was born and grew up in Boston, in a family very much involved in public service. My grandfather, previously Chief Rabbi of Russia, appointed by Czar Nicholas II, was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts and Mayor of Boston when he moved to Boston in the early 1900’s after having ‘commuted’ between Boston and Kiev for many years. From a very young age I was encouraged to follow in his footsteps and succeed him as Grand Rabbi and Chaplain of the City of Boston. Our family philosophy, going back through an uninterrupted, successive 72 generations of rabbis, was to be committed to public service, but, in the interest of remaining independent and not compromising goals and ideals, not to earn a livelihood from it. Thus, my father was involved in business and investments as an entrepreneur besides serving as a community rabbi, and I was encouraged to study law. So I embarked on a dual education, attending university (B.A. degree from Columbia University and BJE from Hebrew College) and rabbinical seminary at the same time. I then earned two law degrees (JD and LLM) as well as two ordinations (Smicha, DD), and spent a year in residence at Harvard Divinity School examining the intersection of law and religion, and pursuing an interest in dispute resolution. Simultaneously, I was serving as a Special Assistant Attorney-General for Massachusetts, and as a special consultant to the Norfolk County (Massachusetts) District Attorney, organizing and staffing one of the first White Collar Crime Units in the country. My involvement in international affairs began after lawschool atThe Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts-Harvard Universities) where I earned an M.A. in international relations, an M.A.L.D. in international law and diplomacy, and a Ph.D in international law. Already serving by that time as a community rabbi, along with a growing law practice, and recently appointed to succeed my grandfather and uncle as Chaplain of the City of Boston, I then also began to serve as a consultant in international relations and public and private international law, and for a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C.
How long have you been serving as the Austrian Honorary Consul in the Boston area and how did that come about?
I have had the honor and privilege to serve as Austria’s Honorary Consul in Boston since 1987, which came about through a confluence of circumstances. The election of Kurt Waldheim as President of Austria led to some controversy, and a period of difficult relations between Austria and the world in general, and Austria and the United States in particular. Indeed, as a direct result the Consulate in Boston was closed in 1986 and the post left vacant. As part of restoring normal friendly relations it was suggested by people I had worked with in the U.S. State Department, and recommended by Thomas Klestil (then Austrian Ambassador to the U.S. and subsequently President of Austria succeeding Kurt Waldheim), and subsequently Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, that were I to accept appointment as Austria’s Consul in Boston and re-open the Consulate, it would achieve both a symbolic and a practical purpose. My service thus began at a very difficult time and certainly prepared me for the occasional ‘bumps’ and the public relations and representation issues that we have encountered from time to time since then.
What are some of your favorite places in Boston?
That is a difficult question to answer in that Boston is such a diverse and historic city, at once both a major city and a small neighborhood. I would be remiss, however, not to mention the city center area in which the Consulate is located. We are on the “Freedom Trail,” steps from Boston’s Old City Hall and the Massachusetts State House, just around the corner from the Old State House (in front of which the Boston Massacre foreshadowing the American Revolution took place in 1770, and from the balcony of which the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1776), and down the street from the waterfront, the modern aquarium,museum of science, and so much more.
Would you like to share some aspects of your work as an Honorary Consul; are there any special stories to tell?
We, of course, fulfill the same functions as Austria’s other consulates and diplomatic posts – the requests (and referrals) for tourist, business, and legal information, the inquiries from visiting Austrians, or Austrian expats who have lost their passports, need a new driver’s license, ID card or other information, and from others in the New England area who need visas, certifications and other services, as well as the occasional Austrian who has run afoul of the law, or has been detained by the authorities (thankfully only six or seven times in the 26 years or so that we’ve been serving). Most recently, because of our Rabbinical post and position with the City of Boston and the Boston Police Department, when the Boston Marathon bombings took place we were able to quickly secure the list of Austrians running in the marathon and ensure that none of them were involved or injured or needing assistance, relaying that information through the Consulate General in New York, the Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the Foreign Ministry and authorities in Vienna so that they could extend assurances to concerned families and relatives in Austria. And of course, last but not least, I am sure we’re not the only Austrian mission in the world which has to continually refer the many incoming calls for Australia to the Australians.
How much time do the tasks as an Honorary Consul take out of your professional day?
There is really no way to estimate or to predict. There are times (though these are becoming less frequent over the years) when a week or two can go by with little if anything required, while at other times it will take our full time efforts for days at a time to catch up and complete what needs to be done to respond to the requests, meetings, correspondence, applications, certifications, etc.
Since 1990, you have also been the publisher of the newspaper The Jewish Advocate, how did that come about?
That came about much the same way, at the behest of others, when I was asked by the head of the local Jewish community federation to take over the paper. It is the oldest English language Jewish weekly in the U.S., which serves the greater New England area but has subscribers in all 52 states and 14 countries and was long an influential voice in the Jewish community throughout the world for more than 100 years. There were modernization and financial issues with the paper at the time, and the President of the Jewish Federation initiated discussions with the owner/publisher for a change that would be acceptable to both of them, after which they both drafted me to serve.
Are there any Austrian traces in Boston?
Unfortunately not really, with the notable exception of the well-known Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont established by the von Trapp family in 1942.
How about Austrian expatriates in the Boston area? Are you in touch with any of them?
There are several hundred Austrian expatriates scattered throughout the greater New England states, from at least one pastry chef to scientists, researchers, professors and others. We do try to maintain contact (especially with the help of the new online registration opportunities provided by the Consulate General in New York and the Foreign Ministry), but we mainly get to see them only when they come into the Consulate for something or other. We do have a very vibrant local Austro-American Association (founded in 1944) mainly with members who have lived in the U.S. for quite some time, but actively interested in attracting younger members who have more recently moved to the United States.
Apart from Boston, what are some of your favorite places in the U.S.?
As a frequent visitor to both Washington, D.C. and New York I am very fond of both, as well as of Miami, Florida where we have had a family home for many years. Los Angeles is also a favorite, though I do not often have the opportunity to travel there.
Grand Rabbi Y. A. Korff has been serving as the Austrian Honorary Consul for the Greater Boston area since 1987. A graduate of Columbia University, Harvard University, Hebrew College, Brooklyn Law School, and Boston University School of Law, he holds B.A., B.J.E., J.D., and LL.M. degrees. In conjunction with The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Harvard Law School International Law Center, he received an M.A. in international relations, an M.A.L.D. in international law and diplomacy, and a Ph.D. in international law. He also served as Chaplain of the City of Boston. He is the owner and publisher of the weekly newspaper The Jewish Advocate.