Despite the many public eulogies and testimonials to Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman, zt"l, who passed away leil Shabbos parashas Beshalach, I feel the need to add one of my own. Precisely because our relationship was not always an easy one, I want to describe how I came to appreciate Rabbi Freedman as the most totally ruchani person whom I ever met.
Rabbi Freedman’s great project over the last two decades of his life was perpetuating the memory of his beloved rebbe, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz. In his eyes, Reb Shraga Feivel was the greatest builder of Torah since Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and he viewed it as a tragedy that two generations of American Jews had already grown to maturity without a biography of this seminal figure that would carry his legacy forward.
I think it can be fairly said that there was scarcely a waking moment when the image of Reb Shraga Feivel was not before Reb Avraham Abba. He loved to tell how one day he and another bochur were alone with Reb Shraga Feivel. Reb Shraga Feivel told the other bochur, ``This na’ar," nodding towards Reb Avraham Abba, ``thinks I have ruach hakodesh." The rest of his life Reb Avraham Abba cited that remark as proof of Reb Shraga Feivel’s ruach hakodesh, for that is precisely what he had been thinking at that moment.
Due almost entirely to the efforts of Rabbi Freedman, two biographies of Reb Shraga Feivel were published in the last ten years. For the Hebrew biography, Rabbi Freedman chose Rabbi Aharon Sorasky to be the author. This writer was his choice for the subsequent English-language biography.
The first time we met to discuss the project, Rabbi Freedman gave me a list of fifty paragraphs from Chovos Halevovos and Sha’arei Teshuva that he wanted translated and included in the book. Reb Shraga Feivel, he explained to me, had always said that to teach something one had to be holding at that level. Since Reb Shraga Feivel had taught all these sections, they therefore reflected his own spiritual level.
My first reaction was to think that Rabbi Freedman must be kidding and to assure myself that he would be easily dissuaded at some later stage. ("Besides the potential copyright problem, Rabbi Freedman proposal would have added more than a hundred pages to the book.) I would discover that Rabbi Freedman seldom joked – certainly never concerning his rebbe – and that once he had made up his mind there was no hope of changing it. In the end, he would hold up publication of the book for four years because he did not think it did justice to his rebbe.
In the seven years from the time we first discussed the biography until its eventual publication, I became something of a student of Rabbi Freedman. I learned that he was as single-minded and determined about everything he did. Once he had honed in on a goal, nothing could deter him.
That determination was a major factor in building a vibrant Torah community in Detroit. When Reb Avraham Abba first arrived in Detroit in 1944, Yeshivas Bais Yehudah was still an after school Talmud Torah. He went door-to-door urging parents to send their children to a Jewish day school. His canvassing even took him into hospitals where he would go from patient to patient asking them whether they were Jewish and where their children went to school.
Most of those he approached laughed or shut the door in his face, but he was oblivious. Ridicule rolled off his back. To be embarrassed, one must first have an ego, something Reb Avraham Abba lacked entirely. Others might shout at him, but he never raised his voice in return or became angry. Anger, our Sages teach, is a function of pride, and pride was utterly foreign to him.
Little by little, Yeshivas Bais Yehudah grew. Rabbi Freedman lived to see grandchildren of his first students teaching in Bais Yehudah, and in his latter years, he supervised putting the kindergarten children (some of them great-grandchildren of those original students) on the school bus. No task was beneath his dignity.
In the first decades of Bais Yehudah, few of the students came from religious homes. Rabbi Freedman and his fellow rabbis invited them to their homes for Shabbat, kept the school open on Purim and Sukkot so that they would observe the mitzvos of those holidays, foraged with them in abandoned housing projects for material to build sukkot, and ran a summer camp for them. Three times a year, they packed all the students into buses for bus rides to Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland or to Williamsburg so that they could celebrate the festivals in a religious community.
Rabbi Freedman was still leading those bus trips until the end. Only now, the passengers were fifty or sixty recent Russian Jewish immigrants. Somehow he convinced them to join him for Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot in Brooklyn. Like so many before them, they simply could not resist his relentless pressure.
In recent years, he devoted himself to Russian immigrants. Neighbors watched him in his ‘70s run down the block in a torrential downpour to wish a recent Russian immigrant, ``Good Shabbos." Some years ago, Reb Avraham Abba was in a terrible car crash and in a coma for days. When he emerged from the coma, to the shock of his doctors, he attributed the tragedy to his failure to do enough for Russian Jews.
His last night was typical of the way he lived his whole life. He insisted on walking nearly a mile each way, on a cold winter evening, to the shalom zachor of a Russian Jew, just to say mazel tov and recite Shema next to the crib of the newborn boy. His last words to his wife, after reciting vidui when he suffered a heart attack in the middle of the night, were instructions to give $1,000 to SHUVU.
We tend to use the term tam in a vaguely pejorative fashion – naïve, otherworldly – while forgetting that that the Torah enjoins us, ``Tamim tihiyu im Hashem Elokecha – Be whole with Hashem." No doubt Rabbi Freedman was otherworldly, but that was a function of his complete connection with Hashem. Nothing else existed in his world.
He had virtually no physical needs, and to the very end ran from place to place with the energy of a teenager. Once he brought a successful businessman with him to Israel for a three-day trip. The man gave Rabbi Freedman his credit card, and told him to make all the arrangements. He was more than a little shocked to find that the ``hotel" Rabbi Freedman chose was a hostel in Meah Shearim with one bathroom for ten rooms and no telephones. Since they were coming for spiritual uplift, Rabbi Freedman reasoned, they might as well be as close to the action as possible.
Rabbi Freedman was always encouraging others to join him for a Shabbos at Camp Ohr Shraga, where he felt the spirit of Reb Shraga Feivel still burned. One of those who succumbed to his entreaties arrived at the room they were sharing to find a bare mattress that might well have been from Reb Shraga Feivel’s day. When he inquired whether there were any sheets and blankets, Rabbi Freedman assured him that they were unnecessary – the ruach would keep them warm. He was completely serious, and, at least as far as he was concerned, right.
There was nothing that Rabbi Freedman would not do for the spiritual benefit of another Jew. Once he heard about a certain author whose writing showed an awareness of man’s need for purpose in life. Reb Avraham Abba decided the author was a potential ba’al teshuva, and he immediately flew to Europe in order to mekarev him.
I, too, was one of Reb Avraham Abba’s ``projects." He decided that I lacked a sufficient appreciation of Chassidus, which I would have to rectify in order to understand that Chassidic aspect of Reb Shraga Feivel. (Though Reb Avraham Abba was of Lithuanian stock, he inherited from his rebbe an enthusiasm for every legitimate Torah approach.) To rectify this failing, Reb Avraham Abba pressed me whenever I was in America (he somehow always found out) to spend Shalosh Seudas with Rabbi Moshe Wolfson at Shomrei Emunim in Boro Park, or to join Rabbi Wolfson on one of his many visits to Eretz Yisrael. He seemed genuinely puzzled whenever I demurred for reasons that simply didn’t enter into his ruchnios calculations – like the desire to spend Shabbos with my family after a long trip abroad or a reluctance to walk on a hot summer Shabbos from Har Nof to the Old City of Yerushalayim.
Even after the Reb Shraga Feivel biography was published, and Reb Avraham Abba no longer had the pretense of helping me understand my subject better, he did not stop worrying about my spiritual development. Just a few weeks ago, I returned home one night to find Reb Avraham Abba waiting patiently outside my door. He had taken a bus across Jerusalem to convince me to join him the coming Shabbos at the Shalosh Seudas of Rabbi Tzvi Meir Silberberg. In his hands was the latest volume of Rabbi Silberberg’s ma’amarim. (Surely no one ever gave away as many seforim to those he thought would benefit as Reb Avraham Abba did.)
Somehow I did not make it to Rabbi Silberberg’s, for Rabbi Freedman’s last Shabbos in Eretz Yisrael. But I was there last Shabbos, in part to pay tribute to the bond that had grown between Rabbi Freedman and me, but also in the hope that I too could partake of the same inspiration as Rabbi Freedman and become a Jew more like him.