Building an Empire of Torah and Chesed
By Rachel Stein
A man of few words and vast actions, Rabbi Yaakov Friedman zt”l was a pillar of our generation. A ben Torah who was also a businessman, he built an empire of Torah and chesed in Los Angeles and around the world.
Born in 1926 to a loving family, his entire family, except for one brother, perished in the horrors of the Holocaust. Young Yaakov was torn from his home and incarcerated in Auschwitz and many other concentration camps, where everyone and everything that was precious to him was ripped away. When the war ended, he was completely alone; he didn’t even know that he had a surviving brother. And yet, he never gave up. With majestic strength and fortitude, he went on to build his family, his community, and mosdos across the globe.
After liberation from Bergen-Belsen, Yaakov was taken to a DP camp in Sweden. He was debilitated, so sick that he couldn’t walk, and he remained there for two years of recuperation. During that time, his brother would go to the train station to meet traveling refugees, hoping to find out some news about his family. One day, his brother got a letter from Sweden: Yaakov was alive!
“Whoever reads this letter from my family,” Yaakov wrote, “I want you to know I am well, I am alive, and I am not sure where I want to go. But I want to go learn Torah. I want to go back to yeshiva. I was ripped out of the yeshiva, I was taken away from the Gemara, and I am going back to yeshiva. Maybe I will go to Eretz Yisroel, maybe I will go to America.”
He was nineteen years old, sick, sad, and broken. But he would not allow himself to stay that way. In 1946, he was offered a visa to go to Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore along with a group of thirty refugees. Rav Naftoli Neuberger met the bochurim at the boat and welcomed them to the yeshiva with warmth and love. Immediately, Rabbi Neuberger went out and bought them some clothing; they only had what they were wearing.
Within two weeks, only ten bochurim of the original group remained. They were Chassidishe bochurim in an American yeshiva, and they wanted to go out to work and get married. But Yaakov stayed for seven years and became an integral part of the yeshiva. Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman took him in as a son, and Rav Ruderman and the mashgiach, Rav Dovid Kronglas, infused Yaakov with a passion for building Klal Yisroel.
Reb Yaakov did well in the yeshiva and was well liked by everyone. Every Friday night, he would go to the home of Rav Aharon Feldman and learn with Rav Aharon’s father and his older brother. With his passion for learning, he became one of the choshuve bochurim in the yeshiva.
After teaching himself English, Reb Yaakov went on to teach in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then, in 1959, became the first menahel AT the Rambam High School of L.A. Reb Yaakov worked there for six years, pouring his kochos into building that mosad.
Reb Yaakov was very regimented and maintained a tight schedule. He woke up very early in the morning to attend a Daf Yomi shiur and go to davening before work, and he gave a shiur every Shabbos. Always the first to arrive in shul, he was also the one who opened the shul every erev Shabbos. He was the chazzan for Mincha on Erev Shabbos, and he was the chazzan for Pesukei Dezimrah. Reliable, accountable, prioritizing avodas Hashem – this was the example he set for his family and community.
He was an exceptional talmid chochom and embodied Torah im derech eretz. Torah was his primary life force, and his derech eretz, the parnassah aspect, was merely a means to enhance his Torah goals.
A man of few words, Reb Yaakov excelled in listening. He understood people and cared about them.
When his future son-in-law, Rav Shmuel Notis, was a chosson, someone who had moved from L.A. approached him. He and another man had been partners in running an institution and they separated.
“Your shver was the only one of all the baalei batim in the city who understood me,” the man exclaimed. “He was able to solve the issue and make sure that the machlokes was settled peacefully.”
Reb Yaakov always stayed focused without allowing distractions to disturb him. Whether he was immersed in Torah, building bnei Torah, or his family, each matter received his full concentration. As a father and grandfather, he gave his full attention to the needs of each child, caring about every stage of their development and what the child was going through at any given time. Family was everything to him, and he took great pride in watching his family grow. He also created a culture of achdus within his family that spread to his sons, daughters, grandchildren, and cousins.
His children remember Erev Yom Kippur with a depth of emotion. Reb Yaakov had a card with Birkas Habonim prepared near every phone so that when a child called, he wouldn’t have to run to get it. He would give the brocha slowly, fervently, with poignancy and feeling.
As the children grew, their home was a bustling place. There were frequent parlor meetings, meetings of mosdos haTorah, and heads of organizations who came to speak to their father, seeking his advice, encouragement, and financial aid. Yet, while he set this sterling example of caring for the klal, his family always felt his constant love and support.
Mrs. Friedman was his willing and devoted partner, supporting him and respecting what he was trying to create. She tended the family, and together they worked to love and build their children and give them what they needed. At family gatherings, he often bentched his wife with the brocha of “Ilan, ilan…shekol netiyos shenotin mimcha yihiyu kemosach.”
They had a beautiful relationship that spanned sixty-five years. They rarely went on vacations. One time, when they were preparing to visit Eretz Yisroel, Reb Yaakov left a list for his son, Reb Aaron Dov, to take care of while he was gone. On top of the list, before his business responsibilities, was the name of a cousin, Leeba Friedman, who lived in L.A. “Make sure that you go to her house and get her the type of bed or wheelchair that she needs. And she might need some other things.” No matter what was going on, family was his unwavering priority.
During visits with his grandchildren, he never let them leave empty-handed. He would give them a tie, a pair of shoes, a wallet – he was always interested in their needs. For years, he would give them haircuts, another way he showed how much he cared for them.
His words were always said b’neimus.
“Close your lips,” he would say, so the hair wouldn’t go into their mouths. “Close your mouth” was not a refined expression, and he took great care with his manner of speech.
His ainiklach were his treasures.
“When it was time for me to put on tefillin,” Reb Motti Lehmann remembers, “he brought me to Eretz Yisroel to put them on. We all felt very loved, and he was involved in all our growth.”
Reb Yaakov always conducted himself with tremendous dignity. In his later years, when his daughter once took him to the doctor, she noticed that he hadn’t eaten in a while. She had a bag of pretzels in the car and asked, “Ta, do you want to have something?”
“We don’t have a table,” he responded. “How can I eat?”
Eating was avodas Hashem. When he wanted to eat, he sat down and ate or drank with appropriate decorum.
Reb Yaakov did tremendous chassodim for yesomim, almanos, and kallos. His caring and generosity extended to kollelim, yeshivos, and buildings that he built for yeshivos. He refused to wallow in his past, but moved forward to establish Torah, mishpacha, and bnei Torah.
Toras Emes of Los Angeles, among many mosdos around the world, is a beneficiary of Reb Yaakov’s building. Rabbi Yaakov Krause, dean of Toras Emes, remembers being in Reb Yaakov’s home and spreading out one of the architectural drawings of one of their buildings. Reb Yaakov looked at it carefully and marveled.
With tears in his eyes, he said, “Boruch Hashem, I was zoche to be able to do this. Years ago, I didn’t think I would see the light of day. Now I can see the architectural drawings of binyonim where children can learn Torah.”
Bais Yaakov of L.A. also became Reb Yaakov’s focus. Forty years ago, he and Mr. Yaakov Kasirer asked Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn to become principal of Bais Yaakov. They gave the new menahel tremendous encouragement and took concern for every aspect of the school.
“Bais Yaakov was my husband’s baby,” Mrs. Friedman used to say.
Reb Yaakov treated the school like his beloved child, and he treated Rabbi Bursztyn as part of that family, too. Anytime Rabbi Bursztyn called Reb Yaakov about Bais Yaakov, there was never any hesitation. It was always, “Come right over.”
Reb Yaakov devoted himself to fundraising for the school. He and Mrs. Friedman, Mr. and Mrs. Kasirer and Rabbi Bursztyn would go to Reb Yaakov’s office, where there were more phone lines available. Night after night, for weeks, they made phone calls and begged people to come to Bais Yaakov events and support the school. Reb Yaakov asked his business associates to give money for the school, following up with a letter and a call. And all this mesirus nefesh took place while Reb Yaakov was building an empire, building a mishpacha, and building cities for Klal Yisroel.
When Rabbi Bursztyn was marrying off children, it became Reb Yaakov’s concern. If he needed a larger home, that was also Reb Yaakov’s concern. He had a special place in his heart for Rabbi Bursztyn…and for everyone in Klal Yisroel.
“It is fitting that our school be called Bais Yaakov,” Rabbi Bursztyn said, “after the two giants who were moser nefesh to build our mosad.”
All his descendants are following the right path – his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. They are known to be metzuyonim in their yeshivos and mekomos, a zechus surely resulting from his giving to the klal.
Someone once asked Reb Yaakov, “How were you zoche to such beautiful children?”
“I don’t know,” Reb Yaakov replied, “but maybe because I never discussed business on Shabbos.”
His children absorbed the concept that money is not significant; what is important is Torah, mitzvos, and gemillus chassodim. He didn’t speak that lesson. He lived it.
Reb Yaakov was niftar on Erev Shabbos, hey Shevat, at the age of ninety-five.
At the levayah, Rav Tzvi Kaplan said, “The walls of the bais medrash, where every brick and window is kadosh in kedushas bais hamedrash, and each brick has kedusha of she’arim hametzuyanim b’halacha, are the ones that will follow him up and testify in Shomayim.”
He was the quintessential Yid, exemplifying courage, resilience, and the flaming desire to serve Hashem.
“Hakadosh Boruch Hu needed to give the she’airis hapleitah arichus yomim because we needed them to build, and we needed them to show us what it means not to give up, what it means to have emunah and bitachon in Hakadosh Boruch Hu. And despite all the challenges, to continue to build,” Rabbi Yaakov Krause said.
Emor me’at v’asei harbei. He cared. He did. And he changed the world.
Yehi zichro boruch.