Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

29 Adar 5762 - March 13, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Detroit Jews Bid Farewell to a Father

by M. Samsonowitz

Part I

Rabbi Avrohom Abba Freedman, the longest-serving mechanech in Detroit, who was largely responsible for the renaissance of Detroit as an impressive Torah center, passed away unexpectedly a month ago. The entire community was plunged into deep mourning.

Only rarely does one person have such a huge impact on everyone in a Jewish community, young and old, religious and not-yet-religious.

His passing completed an outstanding life of achievement that few reach. When he went to Detroit in 1944, the Jewish community was comprised of a handful of committed Jews who were struggling to keep the basics of Jewish life. At the end of his life, Detroit was one of the most vibrant religious communities in the U.S., boasting a kollel, yeshiva, day schools and a number of highly successful kiruv organizations.

In the intervening 58 years, the community produced thousands of Jewish mechanchim, Torah scholars, and seminary girls who took a prominent and active role in the resurgence of religious Jewish life in the U.S. and abroad. Responsible for these great accomplishments was a small team of rabbis, students of Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz. Prominent among them was Rabbi Freedman.

Moving to a Spiritual Desert

The young Avrohom Abba was born in 1920 in Brooklyn -- a time when the concept of yeshivas and day schools was virtually nonexistent in America. His father Betzalel had immigrated to New York from Poland.

Avrohom Abba was born a weak and frail child. Throughout his early years, he was under medical supervision and had to maintain a special diet. The family moved to Spring Valley, in the mountains outside of New York City, so Avrohom Abba could breathe the fresh mountain air.

As a child, he studied in Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, under the famed roshei yeshiva HaRav Shlomo Heiman and HaRav Reuven Grozowsky. In his teen years, the young lad was enamored with the dynamic Mike Tress, the leader of Pirchei Agudas Yisroel, who contributed to his sense of mission for Klal Yisroel. He said on several occasions that were it not for Mike Tress's influence, he didn't know if he would have remained a shomer Shabbos.

The young Avrohom Abba was also taken with the immense personality of HaRav Elchonon Bunim Wasserman, the distinguished rosh yeshiva of the Baranowitz yeshiva, who spent two years in the U.S. fundraising for his yeshiva in the 1930s and also guiding the fledgling nucleus of young Torah Jews in New York.

But the main influence in his life was unquestionably HaRav Shraga Feivel Mendelowitz, the legendary principal of Torah Vodaas high school and visionary klal worker who set his sights on conquering America for Torah-true Judaism. A man of immense vision, HaRav Shraga Feivel wasn't daunted by the few students and paltry resources at his disposal. He carefully laid plans to seed disciples across the length and breadth of the U.S. to found schools to save ignorant Jews from disappearing in America's melting pot.

Torah Umesorah's mission slogan, "Committing generations to Torah," was his clarion call, and Avrohom Abba was to be one of his most faithful foot soldiers.

Torah Education in America

Jewish education was founded in Detroit in 1914, when HaRav Yehuda Leib Levin started post-bar mitzva classes for a handful of boys in a room of the Magen Avrohom shul near downtown Detroit. In those days, it was called the Hebrew Free School and later, it became "the Yeshiva." When Rav Levin died in 1926, the yeshiva was named Yeshivas Bais Yehuda in his honor.

In 1944, the head of Congregation Beth Tefilloh Emanuel, Rav M. J. Wohlgelernter, brought in HaRav Simcha Wasserman to turn the "Yeshiva" into a day school. Rav Simcha, who had previously headed Rav Shraga Feivel's Aish Dos program, asked Rav Shraga Feivel to send teachers.

Rav Avrohom Abba Freedman was the first one he sent, and he was the day school's first full-day teacher. Although Rav Wasserman left after 10 years, Rabbi Freedman remained for the following 50 years. For years he taught the 5th grade, at the same time serving as the vice principal of the school.

Rabbi Freedman remained a faithful friend of Rav Wasserman to the end of his life, and he made yearly parlor meetings to help Rav Wasserman's yeshivas in Los Angeles and Israel.

Selling Judaism

Detroit in those days, like much of the U.S., was a spiritual wasteland. The very first Shavuos that Rabbi Freedman spent in his new hometown, only he and Rav Wasserman were in the beis hamedrash studying Torah through the night. What a far cry it was from the fervent atmosphere in his New York beis medrash and yeshiva!

When he married his wife -- Tema Rappaport of Williamsburg -- later that year, the idealistic young rav was able to increase the effectiveness of his outreach. The Freedman home became an outstanding exemplar of Jewish hospitality to everyone in the city.

Shortly after arriving in Detroit, in 1946, Rabbi Freedman recruited his former chavrusa and close friend Rav Goldstein, to help him run the yeshiva. Other friends from Torah Vodaas soon followed: Rav Nachum Kahn, Rav Chaim Schloss, Rav Shmuel Elya Cohen, Rav Dovid Reese, and Rabbi Yaakov Levy. This dedicated team formed the spiritual infrastructure of the day school and they went to great lengths to recruit more students.

Attending a Jewish day school in the late 1940s was as fashionable as wearing Roman togas. Even religious Jews were reluctant to send their children to a day school because they wanted high quality secular education. Rabbi Freedman had to break through universal apathy and even antipathy to cajole parents to send their children to yeshiva.

Unique Methods

His simple strategy was never to take "no" for an answer. A "no" merely meant that he had to try harder. He was so unyielding that many times parents gave in just to get him off their backs.

He once told his son, "I don't know if I was the most successful rebbe, but I certainly knocked on more doors than anyone I know."

Rabbi Freedman had several methods to get children to attend yeshiva. One was to approach the refugee boards and ask for names of refugees who had newly arrived. Frequently they had grown up in religious homes in Europe and understood the importance of a Jewish education. Another way was to ask parents who already had children in yeshiva for names of friends who might consider sending their children.

Better yet, he reached out directly to youths and tried to convince them of the importance of a yeshiva education. One of the most successful ways he did this was by his "bar mitzva project." He would host a bar mitzva for a young public school boy, and in his speech would challenge the youth to continue his Jewish education. Many times the boy took up the offer and occasionally some of his friends who attended the event did too.

Another tactic taken by the rabbis of the yeshiva was to run an afternoon school. Most Jewish parents understood the importance of Jewish education enough to give it a few hours a day. While they didn't want their children attending a full-time day school, they weren't adverse to the children attending afternoon school. Once the children were in the afternoon school though, Rabbi Freedman was often able to convince parents to switch their children to the yeshiva because their children were clever and had "great potential."

To the stubborn parents who absolutely refused to send their children to the day school, Rabbi Freedman had a winning argument. "Even if they don't go to yeshiva during the school year, let them go to a religious summer camp for free."

Who could say no to such an offer? In many cases, after spending an inspiring two months in a fun religious summer camp, the boys were determined to attend yeshiva in the fall.

Even where an obstinate father refused to send his son to yeshiva, Rabbi Freedman didn't give up.

In one case, a father stubbornly refused to let his son attend yeshiva. Rabbi Freedman advised the boy to do well in school and continue coming to camp in the summer. The boy wore a yarmulke in public high school and kept Shabbos and kashrus with mesirus nefesh. Every summer he recharged his batteries in the religious camp. When he graduated from high school with honors, he promptly left for beis medrash and ignored his father's demands to attend college. Today he is a prominent marbitz Torah in New Jersey.

A boy from a home of Holocaust survivors studied several months in the yeshiva. Once his parents felt his level of English was good enough, they wanted to switch him to a local public school. Upon learning this, Rabbi Freedman came every night for a week to the boy's home to plead with the parents that they let him remain, until the beleaguered parents relented.

Several years later, when the parents registered the youth in a secular summer camp, two rabbis came to the house and announced to the parents that their son had won a free summer vacation. He spent three weeks in Camp Gan Israel and two weeks in Camp Aguda. Today this boy is the Educational Director of a yeshiva day school with an enrollment of 700.

Rabbi Freedman's attempts to convince parents to send their children to yeshiva inevitably chalked up a huge financial debt in the yeshiva, since in almost every case he had to offer the parents a "scholarship." During the first two decades of the school's existence, the vast majority of the children were attending on at least a partial scholarship, and nearly all the children from non-religious or traditional homes were on full scholarships.

The search for funding was a never-ending battle which anyone running a yeshiva in those days struggled with unceasingly. Rabbi Freedman himself lived on the brink of poverty. But he didn't let a lack of funds stop him from making expenditures which could win another child over to Yiddishkeit. "G-tt vett helffen . . . We'll get the money somehow," was his constant response.

Educational Methods

Recruiting children was one challenge. It was an entirely different problem to win children over to Yiddishkeit. These were the days when everyone had a TV in his home, Saturday nights were for going to the movies, every self-respecting Jewish family had a membership in the local library, and most of the relatives and neighbors were unreligious. For Yiddishkeit to overcome the seductions of the local environment, it was not enough to teach it as the truth. It had to be specially-wrapped in a delectable sugar coating of fun and excitement.

The rabbis of the yeshiva understood that and they made an immense effort to ensure that experiencing Yiddishkeit and the subject material of the classes was fun. Inspiring stories of gedolim were frequently told in the classes. Fun activities such as tobogganing, ice skating, bowling or auto shows were sprinkled throughout the year. Special trips were organized for the boys to see New York, Lakewood and the Telz yeshiva in Cleveland. On many of these outings, Rabbi Freedman and his colleagues drove the cars and buses themselves. Even the Shabbos learning groups and the Thursday night mishmar were organized so that they were lots of fun.

One student recalls, "At least once or twice a year, we would pile into Rabbi Freedman's car for the long trip to New York. Rebbe took care of everything. He filled the car with gas and food, arranged for our lodgings in New York with prominent baalebatim, and planned the itinerary."

The New York trips were an unforgettable experience. Rabbi Freedman took his wide-eyed students to the tisch of the Stoliner Rebbe in the lower East Side and then to the Bobover court in Boro Park. They would spend a day experiencing the rarefied atmosphere of the Lakewood yeshiva, and then join HaRav Moshe Wolfson of Emunas Yisroel for an inspiring shacharis. If the trip took place before Pesach, the Detroit lads would get their first look at hand matzoh bakeries. If it was in the summer, they went to see the religious camps in the mountains.

Other stops included the Squarer Rebbe in New Square and the large Jewish community in Monsey. Stunned from seeing the large, vibrant New York religious community, their Jewish studies back in Detroit took on a new, more meaningful and enjoyable mien.

The boys' positive impression of New York was augmented by the other fun things which Rabbi Freedman made sure to include in the itinerary -- a ferry ride, a trip to the Statue of Liberty, eating out in kosher restaurants (non-existent in Detroit) and slurping on kosher ice creams. The message that Rabbi Freedman got across to his young proteges was that a Torah Jew enjoys the best of both worlds.

When the Stoliner chassidim came once a year to celebrate the yahrtzeit of their rebbe who was buried in Detroit, Rabbi Freedman made sure that the yeshiva students joined in the tisch and the dancing.

Students felt that Yiddishkeit was fun, inspiring, and meaningful. Although they had been born into a world where the dictates of Judaism were observed arbitrarily and insipidly, Rabbi Freedman and his colleagues in the yeshiva were able to convey a Judaism that was pulsing, meaningful and challenging.

For the rabbis of the yeshiva, no act was too demeaning if it helped achieve their goal. For many years, one of the rabbis drove the dilapidated Beth Yehuda school bus and collected boys for the morning minyan. Despite their shoestring budget, the entire team of rabbis lived mainly for the sublime goal to further the cause of Yiddishkeit.

Reclaiming Mitzvos

Part of the efforts of the rabbis of the yeshiva surrounded reclaiming mitzvos that were seemingly lost. One such mitzva was eating and sleeping in one's own sukkah. In those days, every shul built a big sukkah, and the congregants went to it to make kiddush after davening and then went home to eat. The most religious families ate some meals there.

Rabbi Freedman showed that every family could build their own sukkah. He saw his opportunity when the Detroit municipality was undergoing a city renewal project, and hundreds of homes were being dismantled. He gathered a group of boys, rented a truck and drove them to a demolition site where they bought used doors for bargain basement prices. Afterwards, they went to the homes of students, and built beautiful sukkahs from the pieces. "Operation Sukkah Building" made a deep impression on the community, which realized for the first time that each and every one of them could do this mitzvah. As a further incentive, classes were also held during the holiday and part of the program was "sukkah-hopping" to the sukkahs of all boys who had them.

The long summer vacation was a negative influence which the yeshiva staff worked feverishly to counteract. Their solution, already implemented in the early 1950s, was highly original. They formed a compulsory day camp during July where the students studied a light program of limudei kodesh in the morning and enjoyed day camp activities in the afternoon. This entailed substantial sacrifice on the part of the rebbes because they had to give up one month of their vacation.

School was held on Purim to insure that students heard the megilla reading and participated in the other activities.

During the 1950s, circumcisions were often performed in a hospital. The rabbis suspended classes and allowed the boys to be part of this ceremony when a family agreed to perform it at home.

The yeshiva entered a new stage of growth in 1951, when Rabbi Freedman prevailed upon Rav Joseph Elias to accept the position of educational principal. Rav Elias built up the school and developed an improved curriculum and structure. When he came, 200 students studied in the day school and 400 in the afternoon school programs. When he left 11 years later, the figures were exactly opposite.

Rabbi Freedman's Mission

When asked if Rav Mendelowitz had charged him and his colleagues with a specific mission, Rabbi Freedman used to cite a line "'And you shall love Hashem your G-d'. Yoma (86a) explains this to mean `Hashem should become beloved through you.' " Rav Mendelowitz used to bid his charges that all their energies should lead others to loving Hashem more, and the way to do this was to increase love for Torah in the world.

Because Torah study was paramount, Rabbi Freedman and his colleagues preferred to send away their charges to out-of-town yeshivos such as Telz in Chicago and Cleveland, Torah Vodaas in New York, and Lakewood, where their students could reach their greatest potential. They didn't just send their students off either, but they ensured they had chavrusas and proper dorm partners, and were shtaiging in their new environment.

During bein hazmanim, when the bochurim studying out of town came back home, the entire yeshiva's staff awaited them and greeted them with song and dance. Detroit's out-of-town yeshiva students became the pride and joy of the religious community.

This policy was the cause of considerable irritation to some local residents, who didn't want to send their children away from home as young as 13. Some criticized Rabbi Freedman for draining the community of its children instead of keeping them in town to build the local yeshiva's high school. Rabbi Freedman was only vindicated a generation later when Detroit produced a very high number of bnei Torah. At the time when the Lakewood kollel had only 150 scholars studying full-time, not less than 25 of them were Detroiters -- many of them youths from traditional or even non-religious homes. The heads of Torah Umesorah considered Detroit one of the most successful day school in America.

One father wanted his son to go to college after he completed high school. But because of the trips to Telz organized by the rebbeim, the boy decided to study in yeshiva instead of college. The furious father came to Rabbi Freedman and told him, "I have a younger son and he is a lot smarter than the first. I won't send him to your yeshiva! You got the older one, but at least I'll get the younger!"

But the man's younger one drove him crazy to attend yeshiva too, until the father was forced to send him. The next time the father saw Rabbi Freedman, he seethed, "I see you got both of them!"

"No," Rabbi Freedman told him amiably. "They're not mine and they're not yours -- they are the Ribono Shel Olom's!"

The mesirus nefesh of Rabbi Freedman and his colleagues paid off. In the 1950s and 1960s, they captivated the hearts and imaginations of hundreds of children, and slowly brought back the parents too.

Rabbi Freedman became one of the first in Detroit to send his daughter to study in a seminary in Israel, in 1967. Following his example, other people began to send their daughters to study in Israel until it became a popular practice. Detroit was known for having the majority of its Bais Yaakov graduates attending seminary in Israel as far back as the 1970s.

The long-term impact was immense. Rav Sholom Ziskind, a graduate of Yeshiva Beth Yehuda who studied in the yeshiva between 1955 and 1961, once commented that from his class of 30-40 boys, ten ended up studying in the Lakewood kollel, and many went into Jewish education. "We once figured out that those working in chinuch today from our class had influence over 10,000 students," he recently commented. Rav Ziskind himself was principal of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, and is today presiding over a large Yiddish cheder in Chicago.

When Rabbi Freedman was asked to take on the position of administrative director in the yeshiva instead of teaching, he did not balk. "If it will help the yeshiva, then it is fine with me," was his reply. And he immersed himself in his new position with the enthusiasm of a young man starting out on his first career.

Many times educators suffer burnout from the constant friction with difficult parents, recalcitrant children and demanding school board members. But that didn't happen with Rabbi Freedman. He taught year after year, and he retained the same level of enthusiasm at the age of 70 as he had at 25. He was always ready to take on new assignments and adventures. Every new Jew he met awoke in him the desire to win another Jew over for Yiddishkeit. People who met him after many years would utter, "This is the exact Rabbi Freedman that we knew 50 years ago when he first came to Detroit!"

Once, he pushed an avreich to accept a position as principal of a new school in Russia. When the young man replied that he couldn't do this to his family, he pressed him to go for a year by himself. To Rabbi Freedman, to whom mesirus nefesh for disseminating Torah was a given, this was a perfectly normal request to which every G-d-fearing Jew should agree.

Regular constraints didn't hamper Rabbi Freedman. On Shabbos he used to show up at a lecture or shiur when others wouldn't come because of the cold or rain.

He attended the Torah Umesorah convention in New York every year. On one occasion he shared a room with a former talmid of his, Rabbi Grossbard, who now teaches in the Detroit yeshiva. Three nights in a row, no matter how late Rabbi Grossbard came back to the room, Rabbi Freedman was still out talking with people. He left the room before Rabbi Grossbard and came back after Rabbi Grossbard had returned at 2 in the morning.

End of Part I

Rabbi Freedman Changed My Life

by Mr. Marvin Berlin

Marvin Berlin was one of many who became religious because of Rabbi Freedman's influence. The CEO of the New York Carpet Company and a nationally-known businessman, Mr. Berlin eventually became one of the pillars of the Detroit religious community. He had a magnetic personality and a generous heart, and he lavishly supported the yeshiva and paid for the tuition of many students. He was responsible for providing jobs for religious Jews in need, and carried out numerous acts of chesed, many of which were unknown to all but a few. Mr. Berlin passed away several years ago.

When Rabbi Freedman was awarded Torah Umesorah's Kesser Torah Award on November 14, 1985, Mr. Berlin gave a talk in his honor, selections from which follow:

Rabbi Freedman changed my life. He changed it profoundly and totally.

He's my inspiration, and I use that word deliberately because it's so often misused. To inspire is to infuse, kindle, awaken something in the mind and heart . . . Rabbi Freedman infused, kindled, awakened the spirit of Judaism in my mind and heart.

And believe me, I wasn't looking to be inspired. I was a cardiac Jew -- and I was happy being a cardiac Jew. I went to the synagogue three times a year.

When my friend Leo Stein first asked me to go to Chumash class, I didn't even know what it meant. I said, "Sure, call me next time." Well, it happened that when he called again, my house was in an uproar, and the kids were driving me crazy so I said, "Yes, I'll go -- anything to get out of the house."

That was 21 years ago -- and I've gone to Chumash class with Rabbi Freedman every week ever since.

I started out stubborn, suspicious and argumentative. I still am. The Rabbi doesn't out-argue me. He doesn't masterfully answer my every question. But sooner or later when I'm working with him, the light goes on. The unclear is made clear. I started to grasp the message of the books. It wasn't enough to practice Judaism at my own convenience. With that understanding came commitment. I embraced it, and in so doing, I gained greater control over my life.

Rabbi Freedman's conviction and dedication run so deep, and he lives the Torah life so absolutely that he doesn't have to preach. His example is enough.

The community grows stronger every day. And over the past 45 years, Rabbi Freedman has had an impact on countless lives . . . on returnees like me, and on my children who are dedicated to the Torah life, and my grandchildren who are growing up comfortable, naturally, as part of the Orthodox community.

I can't bear to imagine what my life, my children's lives or the lives of all Jews in Detroit would have been like without him.

M.'s Story

My parents are Greek Jews from Corfu and Janina who survived the Holocaust. After the War they returned to Greece and discovered that they were the only survivors of their entire families.

They married erev Rosh Hashonoh in 1945, and struggled to eke out a living. When the Jewish Federation and Joint offered to send them to Detroit to get a job in the burgeoning auto industry, they decided to take up the offer. They moved with my brother and me in June, 1951, and another brother and sister were born once we were already living in Detroit.

There was a small Sephardic community in Detroit from France, Italy, Tunisia and Greece. We got together for the High Holidays, Yomim Tovim, and family celebrations. We also had community picnics. There were another 10 Greek families who came to Detroit at the same time as we.

My parents enrolled my older brother in public school when they came. I don't know how Rabbi Freedman got our name, but he came to our house to convince our parents to send us to the yeshiva. My father had a religious upbringing, and he was the chazon and baal koreh of the Sephardic community. He accepted Rabbi Freedman's offer, reassured that there was no tuition cost involved. I joined the Yeshiva in kindergarten. All of us ended up attending the Yeshiva.

Growing up, we were shomer Shabbos while our parents were at most traditional. We ate at our rabbis' houses for Shabbos meals, and walked the long way from home to shul. Rabbi Freedman made sure we had a kosher seder to attend and we often spent holidays with a frum family.

There were other Greek families who sent their kids to the Yeshiva, but they took them out after a few years. Our parents weren't too keen on us staying in the Yeshiva either. Somehow they agreed to let us stay for elementary school, but we really got into wrangles with them when the rabbis convinced us to continue our high school studies in New York and St. Louis yeshivas.

My parents realized their good fortune only much later, when they saw that the children of their Greek friends eventually intermarried. Our parents were the only ones who had Yiddishe nachas.

Rabbi Freedman never took credit for anything he did. All he wanted was to see you succeed with the spark he instilled in your heart. He didn't care how that spark flourished as long as it was going in the right direction. Some groups make you religious and then feel they have the right to tell you what to do because they made you frum. But Rabbi Freedman didn't look for congratulations, a pat on the back or even a simple thank you. If another rebbe could take care of you, that was fine with him. The important thing was that you were going in the right direction.

Throughout my life, Rabbi Freedman was always there for me. If he was in town, he would come to my affairs. He didn't have to come up to me and hug me. I just saw his eye and knew he was happy with me.

About six years ago he wanted to make an alumni association of all Detroiters who lived on the East Coast. He thought it was a way of collecting money and fostering camaraderie between us. I could never turn him down, even though I'm not the PR type. I made several hundred phone calls and arranged the get- together. It was very successful and at least 100 Detroiters showed up.

Quote me on this: We all are going to miss Rabbi Freedman but the ones who will miss him the most will be those who never met him. They never will benefit from his exceptional personality.

During the shiva, I phoned up the Freedman family and spoke with all of them. After I hung up, I told myself -- this is not enough! I have to see them. So I got into my car at 5 in the morning and zoomed off to Detroit. I spent Shabbos with the Freedmans -- after all, they were like family. We spent the time relating anecdotes and telling old stories that spanned decades.

With the years, my parents became strictly religious and today all of us are frum -- 60 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren spanning 4 generations. Our family had a special relationship with Rabbi Freedman that I don't think any other family had. My mother was sobbing uncontrollably at his funeral. She told me, "It's because of this man that you are all faithful Jews."


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