On Shavuos night, 1944, in Detroit, Michigan, two men stayed up the entire night learning. One was Rav Simcha Wasserman zt”l, son of Rav Elchonan Wasserman Hy”d, who had recently assumed the position of menahel of Bais Yehuda. The other was Avrohom Abba Freedman, a 24-year-old bochur from Williamsburg, who had recently left his beloved yeshiva and rebbi to teach Torah in Detroit. For the next 58 years, Rabbi Freedman taught Torah, nurtured families, and realized the vision of his great rebbi, Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitch. It was an uphill climb, yet against all odds and despite the naysayers, he persevered. He knocked on doors, begging Jewish parents to pull their boys from public school and send them to the growing yeshiva. He taught them and he loved them. He was in constant motion. He understood that his responsibility was his effort, and success was granted only by Hashem. He was zoche to see the fruits of his labor in his lifetime. Detroit developed into a city full of mosdos hatorah, and today, they are all filled to capacity with Jews learning on leil Shavuos.
On 20 Shevat, sixteen years ago, Rabbi Freedman’s mission was accomplished. His legacy lives on among his children, grandchildren, and hundreds of talmidim and talmidei talmidim. His devoted talmid, Mr. Gary Torgow of Detroit, wrote the book, “Holy Warrior” about his rebbi, describing his amazing life and accomplishments, coinciding with a hachnosas Sefer Torah for Yeshivas Bais Yehuda in 2007. I had the zechus of speaking with Mr. Torgow, a talmid muvhak of Rabbi Freedman, in honor of his rebbi’s 16th yahrtzeit.
His Rebbi And His Mission
“The best way to describe Rabbi Freedman,” Mr. Torgow begins, “is to describe his closeness with his rebbi, Rav Shraga Feivel Medelovitch zt”l. Throughout my many years of learning and interacting with Rabbi Freedman , it was rare that he would not mention a memory, a vort, or a story from Rav Shraga Feivel. His rebbi and his rebbi’s mission were constantly on his mind. Rav Shraga Feivel was niftar in 1948, only four years after my rebbi arrived in Detroit, while he was still in his twenties. Yet for another 60 years, Rabbi Mendelovitch was constantly on his mind.”
Rav Shraga Feivel had a vision to spread Torah throughout America. In the early 1900s, this was an unrealistic goal. No one thought it could be done. Of course, there were yeshivos serving as hubs of Torah learning in New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, and other major cities, but Rav Shraga Feivel had a vision of planting Torah across the country. He wanted regular American Jews to reconnect with their rich heritage, and he was on a mission to make it happen. In 1944, while Rabbi Freedman was still a bochur in Yeshiva Torah Vodaath in Williamsburg, Rav Shraga Feivel gave him an assignment to travel 620 miles to Detroit, Michigan, to spread Torah to the masses.
Rabbi Freedman arrived in a community where many children attended public school and then went to Beis Yehuda, an afternoon Talmud Torah founded in 1914. Other than that, Detroit was a virtual Jewish wasteland. Rav Simcha Wasserman had recently arrived in Detroit to serve as the menahel of Beis Yehuda, aiming to transform it into a full Jewish Day School. Rabbi Freedman became the first full time rebbi in Beis Yehuda. His longtime chaver, Rabbi Sholom Goldstien zt”l, arrived two years later, joining him on the staff. Rabbi Goldstein eventually became the menahel of Bais Yaakov in the 1960s. In their years in Detroit, Rabbi Freedman and Rabbi Goldstein educated hundreds of talmidim and talmidos, nurtured many families, and helped build a Torah community.
Mr. Torgow explained, “As the years in Detroit passed, and Torah began to grow and flourish, more and more mosdos of Torah opened and thrived. It was not about him, but it was about the opportunity to serve the Ribono Shel Olam and uplift His children. Every step in the road of building Torah was living proof that the vision of his rebbi was absolutely correct.”
Sure enough, the impossible became possible. Kollelim were founded. A yeshiva gedolah was founded. A Bais Yaakov elementary school, high school, and another cheder all opened their doors.
Rabbi Freedman excelled in simchas hachaim. He rejoiced in the chesed of Hashem in every moment. “Not only did Rabbi Freedman rejoice over the building of Torah in Detroit,” Mr. Torgow remembers, “but he rejoiced over the spread of Torah wherever it occurred. Right after a new beis medrash was built for Bais Medrash Govoah, my rebbi came to Lakewood to visit. When he saw it for the first time, he walked over to the wall of the beis medrash, and with tears in his eyes, he kissed the wall! He was not embarrassed to show emotion! He could not contain his joy. I remember traveling with Rabbi Freedman to Eretz Yisroel. As we exited the airplane, he bent down and kissed the ground!”
Rabbi Freedman appreciated every minute he had, and used all his time for the service of Hashem. Mr. Torgow says, “He did not waste a moment of time. He used every opportunity to learn, grow and teach. His son Reb Yankel told me that once, his father was planning a drive from Detroit to New York. Not wanting his father to drive alone, he flew into Detroit to accompany his father on his drive. Rabbi Freedman planned on picking up his son from the airport, about 45 minutes into the trip, and they would continue on together to New York. As soon as Reb Yankel entered his father’s car in the airport, his father turned to him and said, ‘We have to turn around and go home. It’s Tuesday already, and I wasn’t ma’avir sedrah yet! I forgot to bring along a chumash. Let’s return home to get a chumash so I can be ma’avir sedrah during the trip.’”
He saw every occurrence in the world as way to appreciate Hashem’s goodness to Klal Yisroel and to himself as a yochid. Mr. Torgow told a few stories to illustrate this. “During the depression in the 1920s, his parents moved from Boro Park to Williamsburg, seeking a more affordable housing option. He ended up attending the local cheder in Williamsburg, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. He emphasized many times that he believed the reason Hashem caused the depression to happen was so that he could meet his great rebbi, Rav Shraga Feivel, at Torah Vodaath. He said this seriously, and he believed it to be true.
“There was a highway in Detroit that the city planned on building, called Highway 696. It would connect the east side with the west side, and would provide a more direct and efficient route in the city, and out of the city. The highway project was held up with lawsuits and red tape for many years. After the freeway finally opened, Rabbi Freedman told me that the reason the 696 opened was to make it easier for travel to yeshivos and mosdos hatorah! He was as serious as serious could be.
“Any achievement he saw in the modern world would prompt him to say, ‘Hashem allowed this to happen because it was good for Klal Yisroel.’” He was an optimist about the Jewish people. He would not tolerate any criticism of other Jews. He saw greatness in every person/
Rabbi Freedman had a unique ahavah for Eretz Yisroel and especially gedolei Eretz Yisroel. “I was zoche to accompany him on one of his trips Eretz Yisroel,” Mr. Torgow remembers. “He mentioned to me that he wanted us to visit Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter, one of the leaders of Breslov in Yerushalayim. He had never met him before. We arrived on Thursday, and on Friday night, after eating the seudah at the home of Rav Yitzchok Scheiner, rosh yeshiva of Kamenitz, we were walking through Me’ah Shearim. We stopped to experience a few moments of the packed tischim of the various chasidishe rebbes, and as we were just about finished for the night, Rabbi Freedman remembered that we had not yet met Rav Yaakov Meir Shechter. ‘Rebbi,’ I said to him, ‘it’s already midnight, and we don’t even know where he lives!’
“‘Don’t worry. We will find him,’ he assured me. He immediately stopped the first passerby on the street and asked him to guide us to Rav Shechter’s home. About 15 minutes later, we finally arrived at his building. ‘Rebbi,’ I protested, ‘we can’t go up. It’s too late. How can we knock at someone’s door so late at night?’
“‘Don’t worry,’ my rebbi responded. ‘We have to chap arain. We are leaving on Sunday, and if we don’t go visit him now, we won’t have a chance to see him.’ He grabbed my arm and pulled me up the stairs. We got to his door, and my rebbi knocked on the door. I looked at my watch. It was 12:25 am. I was quite embarrassed. Sure enough, Rav Shechter opened the door. I still remember the scene. There was a big Gemara open on the dining room table, with a hot tea right next to it, steam slowly rising out of the glass.
“‘You see, Gary,’ Rabbi Freedman whispered. ‘He was waiting for us!’
“We enjoyed the words divrei Torah and chizuk until nearly three in the morning.”
Rabbi Freedman was very devoted to the plight of Russian Jewry. “He quoted a medrash,” Mr. Torgow tells me. “The medrash that tells us that during makas choshech in Mitzrayim, many Jews passed away. Suddenly, overnight, there were thousands of yesomim! These yesomim became the yesomim of Klal Yisroel. It became Klal Yisroel’s achrayus to take care of them. He felt the same way about Russian Jewry during our generation. They are our yesomim, and he believed it was our obligation to take care of them. My rebbi and his wife were involved in a terrible car accident in Canada which left them both in a coma. With tremendous open nissim, he and wife completely recovered, with no lingering health issues stemming from their injuries. He shared with me why he felt the accident had occurred. ‘Hashem is not happy with me because I am not doing enough for the Russians,’ he said. ‘I have to do more.’ Since that day, for the rest of his life, he devoted himself to the Russian community in Detroit. He would take care of them, worrying about their ruchniyus and gashmiyus. He travelled to Russia many times on missions to assist and provide for the Russian Jews. There was a big Russian community in Detroit. He would take them on trips to New York, shlepping their luggage himself onto the bus. He took them to Boro Park to visit the vibrant Jewish communities, as well as the great chassidishe rebbes and rabbonim. He wanted them to see what Yiddishkeit is and how beautiful it is.”
He was extremely devoted to his talmidim in Yeshiva Beis Yehuda, where he served as a rebbi. He would expend every effort to ensure that his talmidim would attend the finest yeshivos. He would travel with them by plane, bus or car, accompanying them to take fahers in various yeshivos. He would not rest until each boy found the perfect mesivta. No effort was spared for his beloved talmidim.
Mr. Torgow wrote the following story in his book: “One talmid, shortly after his enrollment in high school, was caught by his rebbi 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, but Rabbi Freedman was relentless. Each and every 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 that Rabbi Freedman should desist, because they were firm in their decision. As a final effort, Rabbi Freedman made one more attempt. He told the rosh yeshiva that he, too, when he was a young man in Torah Vodaath, 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 chashuvim. The rosh yeshiva who reported this story after Rabbi Freedman’s petirah explained his decision on that fateful night. ‘After all,’ he said, ‘either Rabbi Freedman was telling a fib to save this young neshomah, denigrating himself at his own expense by telling such a ridiculous story, or, in the alternative, maybe the story was true and I might have been expelling a future Rabbi Freedman from my yeshiva.’”
“To my rebbe, every child was extremely choshuv. He did everything he could to save even one child,” says Mr. Torgow. “He cared about all his talmidim, and kept up with them throughout their entire lives, with constant encouragement and guidance. What he lacked in charisma, he made up for many fold in dedication and love. He did not only teach children. He said shiurim for adults as well. He said a weekly chumash shiur with the teachings of Rav Hirsch in the home of his beloved friend and student, Marvin Berlin z”l. The shiur was well attended by ba’alei batim and yeshivaleit alike. He was a talmid chochom and a true manhig.”
Simplicity And Gadlus
I remember hearing from my zeida, Rav Binyomin Kamenetzky zt”l, that anyone who saw the holy Chofetz Chaim described him like this: “If you knew who you were looking at, you saw gadlus. But if you did not know who he was, you only saw a poshute Yid.” Rabbi Freedman was the same. “After my rebbi’s petirah,” Mr. Torgow reminisces, “we made a sheloshim in Detroit, and invited Rav Matisyahu Salomon to say divrei hesped. After his drosha, he visited with us in my home before he returned to Lakewood. I asked the mashgiach, ‘What made Rabbi Freedman so great? Why was he zoche to have so much hatzlocha in his mission on this world?’ Rav Matisyahu thought for a minute and answered, ‘I think it was because no one was mekaneh him.’ He was not a public person who received any honor. He did not look for kavod. He did everything in the quietest and most unassuming way possible, seeking to only promote Toras emes, and never to aggrandize himself. He did not look to make himself more prestigious, nor did he seek credit for his accomplishments.”
Today, Detroit has a large and growing kehillah, filled with wonderful bnei Torah, ba’alei batim and beautiful families of all stripes. There are yeshivos, kollelim, Bais Yaakovs, shuls, and a vibrant kehillah with many talmidei chachomim. “Was Rabbi Freedman responsible for all of it?” I ask Mr. Torgow.
“No,” he answers with a smile. “No one person or individual can take credit for all the growth and the wonderful community that Detroit has become, but certainly his imprint is felt in many ways.”
“My rebbi was undoubtedly a man fully dedicated to the Ribono Shel Olam’s children,” Mr. Torgow concludes. “He lived his life to uplift and encourage every person he met. He was fully dovuk to the Almighty. He was a guide, inspiration and a holy warrior. We owe immense gratitude to Rav Shraga Feivel and his holy soldiers for so much of what Detroit has become.”
Yehi zichro boruch.
Anyone who would like a copy of “Holy Warrior,” written by Mr. Gary Torgow, should email Editor@yated.com.