At the urging of his Rebbe, Rabbi Mendlowitz, in September of 1944 Rabbi Freedman left the warmth of his surroundings in Williamsburg, New York to set out for Detroit, Michigan to lay the foundation for a vibrant and growing Orthodox community. In every sense of the word Rabbi Freedman was ready for the challenge of community building and kiruv rechokim (outreach). He was a guided missile loaded with love and commitment to bringing every Jew he could find into the fold.
During Rabbi Freedman’s first year in Detroit, he returned to New York temporarily where, on February 3, 1946, he married his life’s partner, a woman of valor, Temma Rappaport who, together with Rabbi Freedman, raised eight wonderful children all steeped in the same devotion to our people as their remarkable parents. All five sons are talented and successful Rabbis and the three daughters are wives of Rabbinic scholars and Jewish activists. Each child is imbued with the passion, dedication and values espoused by their parents. By the end of his life, Rabbi and Mrs. Freedman had over sixty five grandchildren, all fully committed to the ideals illustrated by their holy grandfather.
As Rabbi Freedman and his Rebbetzin settled into Detroit, he was confident and comfortable that with G-d’s guiding hand anything could be achieved. This conviction instilled in him a drive and ambition to reach for lofty goals. Every Jew was a prospect no matter how distant they were from a Torah way of life.
Yeshiva Beth Yehudah
He chose as his vehicle a fledgling day school called the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah where he recognized that there was gold in the streets of Detroit, gold in the form of holy neshamos (souls) that if reached and encouraged could populate the halls of his Torah mossad (institution). Rabbi Freedman became Yeshiva Beth Yehudas first full time teacher. Two years later he was joined by his Torah Vadas Chavrusa (learning partner) Rabbi Shalom Goldstein. Until Rabbi Goldsteins tragic passing in 1984 the two Rabbis were a dynamic partnership working tirelessly to raise the level of observance in the community. Also partnering in their Kiruv Rechokim efforts was Rabbi Yaakov Levi, an outstanding teacher who was also a student of Rabbi Mendlowitz. In 1981 Rabbi Levi departed Detroit to move to Jerusalem to join the faculty of Neve Yerushalayim. Rabbi Freedman was so disappointed with Rabbi Levi’s decision to leave Detroit that he summoned him to Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky in an effort to pressure him to remain in Detroit. After Rabbi Kaminetsky gave both Rabbis an opportunity to present their case, he decided that Rabbi Levi should move to Israel because his elderly parents lived in Jerusalem and they needed him.
As Rabbi Freedman repeated often, Detroit in 1944 was truly uncharted Jewish territory. The illustrious Rosh Yeshiva Rav Simcha Wasserman zt”l and Rabbi Freedman found themselves as the only two Jews awake and learning in the Bais Medrash on Shavuos night, 1944. This was, to both of them, a disappointment but even more importantly a reminder of how much was needed to instill greatness in the Detroit community.
He enlisted in his army many compatriots, including Rebbes, teachers and neighbors who could help canvass the community for potential students. Every family was a prospect and no effort was spared to infiltrate the hearts and minds of Yiddishe Neshamos. He paid special attention to the many Shearis Haplaitah, the remnants of the world left behind in Europe, who had made their way to Detroit. Most were beginning the process of rebuilding their tattered families and foundations, victims of the Nazi Holocaust, bereft of parents, grandparents and any form of significant livelihood. To Rabbi Freedman, they were beloved members of Klal Yisroel who needed a spiritual reawakening. He infiltrated their homes and their hearts with promises of free education and long lasting healing from the scars of Hitler’s Holocaust. Rabbi Freedman and the other dedicated Rabbeim worked constantly to find new avenues to excite and interest the young students in attending the Yeshiva. They would organize ice skating and tobogganing excursions and trips to Matzah baking factories and Tzitzis and Tefillin workshops, all in an effort to bring them closer to the Yeshiva and Torah study. Rabbi Freedman and his colleagues would escort their students to other yeshivas, Lakewood, Telshe, Torah Vodos, in an effort to encourage their connection to other Torah Mosdos (institutions). Rabbi Freedman’s ultimate goal was to create an atmosphere where his students would embrace their Yiddishkeit, living it and loving it.
Rabbi Freedman was totally comfortable with himself; he assessed and understood his purpose and responsibility in life. He felt lacking in nothing and his desires were spiritual not physical. He was a man who portrayed a happy and contented countenance and was therefore able to convey the life of a Jew in a most favorable light.
Today’s Detroit is filled with children and grandchildren who were born to these families that Rabbi Freedman snatched from the grips of American assimilation. Many of them are the foundation of the Torah community of Detroit and of varied cities across America.
The stories of these families and the remarkable effect Rabbi Freedman had on them would become the foundation of legends. Once a child was enrolled in Beth Yehudah, he was a Rabbi Freedman project for the rest of his life. Their high school and post high school arrangements, shidduchim, kosher kitchens, Pesach arrangements, sukkah construction, and financial and spiritual well being were all within Rabbi Freedman’s purview.
Mrs. Freedman was a true partner in her husband’s efforts. She allowed and encouraged Rabbi Freedman to become fully immersed in the holy work at the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. His devotion extended far beyond the classroom and therefore required sacrifices for the entire family.
Shabbos guests of every stripe were part of the Freedman household. Trips to New York with talmidim were a very regular part of the family schedule. Rabbi Freedman felt strongly that every young student needed to experience the warmth and greatness of the New York Torah community. A good vacation to Rabbi Freedman was escorting a busload of kids to Camp Ohr Shraga (Yeshiva Torah Vodaas’ summer camp) in the Catskill Mountains. Prior to leaving for any out of town trip, Rabbi Freedman would take his family valuables and place them in a safe location at the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. The jewels he was safeguarding though, were his Rebbe, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz’s papers and notes. Those and only those, were the Freedman family’s diamonds and jewelry.
Devotion To His Students
Rabbi Freedman was amazingly devoted to each and every student at the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah. When a parent would threaten to send a child to public school after a few years at the Yeshiva, Rabbi Freedman would consider it a tragedy in the making. He would go to great lengths to illustrate to these parents the disaster that would occur if their child would leave the Yeshiva environment.
Rabbi Freedman would guide his Talmidim to Yeshiva high schools across America. If necessary, he would travel with them by bus or plane to their respective cities to begin their Yeshiva career out of town.
One such student, shortly after his arrival, was caught by his Rebbe stealing from another student in the dormitory and subsequently, ejected from the Yeshiva. Upon the young boy’s return to Detroit, Rabbi Freedman began a campaign to encourage the out of town Rosh Yeshiva to allow the delinquent young man to return. The Rosh Yeshiva refused and Rabbi Freedman was relentless. Each night, Rabbi Freedman would cajole and beg but the Rosh Yeshiva was firm and adamant in his decision. After a few weeks of nearly nightly phone calls back and forth, the Rosh Yeshiva (who was very fond of Rabbi Freedman) insisted nonetheless, that Rabbi Freedman should desist, because they were firm in their decision. As a last-ditch effort, Rabbi Freedman made one final call. He told the Rosh Yeshiva that he, too, when he was a young man at Torah Vodaas, was caught stealing. The Rosh Yeshiva was speechless and after a few moments of contemplation, acquiesced and allowed the young man to return promptly to the Yeshiva. Many years later, this young man became one of his community’s Talmidei Chachomim (Torah scholars). The Rosh Yeshiva who reported over this story, after Rabbi Freedman’s petira (passing), explained his decision on that fateful night to allow the young man to return. “After all,” he said, “Either Rabbi Freedman was telling a fib to save this young neshoma, denigrating himself at his own expense by telling such a ridiculous story, or, in the alternative, maybe the story was true* and I might be rejecting a future Rabbi Freedman in my Yeshiva.”
Rabbi Freedman was a man in constant motion. He was a person who understood that his responsibility was the effort, the undertaking, not the ultimate success.
He was stubborn and unreasonable with all those he loved. He saw himself as a physician who needed to be a spiritual healer. What he lacked in charisma he made up for many fold in dedication and perseverance.
He loved his Talmidim and his Talmidim loved him. His devotion to their growth knew no bounds and no sacrifice was too great to bring them closer to the Ribono Shel Olam.
Because it was clear he had no personal agenda and no selfish interests his sincerity was believable and his aggressive encouragement was tolerable. Nothing was ever enough in terms of personal growth in the eyes of Rabbi Freedman; he calibrated his relationship with his students by what he thought one should and could achieve. An individual’s interest and level of commitment were absolutely no factor in his pursuit of one’s soul!
He knew or appreciated no luxuries; food, clothing and personal effects were necessities to be tolerated, but never indulged. Actually, Rabbi Freedman’s idea of a gourmet dinner was french fries and ice cream and that was about the only physical indulgence he allowed himself.
Visitors who he invited to his beloved Camp Ohr Shraga saw a third class physical facility with absolutely no luxuries of any kind. Rabbi Freedman’s view of the very same camp was of a spiritual heaven on earth, an opportunity to bask in a luxurious and glorious Jewish environment. He simply could not see the physical defects and only recognized the beauty in a holy spiritual outpost.
Rabbi Freedman was an amazing optimist. No matter how bleak things appeared, he always saw the positive and the potential. He would encourage his students to read “The Earth is the Lord’s” so that the shtetl and European Jewry would appear in the most positive light.
His deep reverence for Rabbinic scholars led him to amass a worn and handwritten book filled on every page and in every corner with the phone numbers and addresses worldwide of Rabbeim, yeshivas and contacts to allow him access to everyone who could help him achieve his goals and ambitions to uplift the Jewish people. No Jewish thinker alive could escape his reach and each needed to hear Rabbi Freedman’s ideas and suggestions.
He pursued relentlessly a well known and scholarly author on Jewish history in an effort to dissuade him from writing anything which might shed a negative light on Jewish life in a historical context.
His devotion to a myriad of less fortunate souls was legendary. His own children used to refer to the many guests who used the Freedman home as an extended-stay inn as “their brothers and sisters” who were given family status and became another of the Freedman charges and responsibilities.
The Freedman family Bar Mitzvahs and weddings were occasions for outreach. No Simcha was complete without new “family’ members adopted by Rabbi Freedman.
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