Thursday, October 13, 2022

Reb Shlomo Freifeld - remembering his greatness and how he inspired others to be great

Rabbi Mendel Horowitz wrote an amazing article about growing up in Shor Yoshuv. It was just published  in Mishpacha for the 25th Yahrzeit of Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld. However I think it is difficult for someone who wasn't there to properly grasp the significance and the allusions and implication in Mendel Horowitz' rich emotional prose. I am including a few paragraphs (click the link for the full article).

To help get a richer glimpse of Reb Shlomo's unique sensitivity and personality I am offering a few stories from my 10 years in Shor Yoshuv. After reading them reread the article.

Rebbe Of My Past, Pillar Of My Forever

By Mendel Horowitz, Mishpacha Magazine, Succos 5776

According to my father, life for me in Shor Yoshuv began on Erev Rosh Hashanah, when still unredeemed, I lay on his shtender throughout Minchah at the coming of 5732. After Yom Tov, my pidyon haben happened in the basement of the “old” building. The deli platters were from a Brooklyn caterer who opened special for the occasion and the lemon meringue pie was my bubby’s who, until her end, spoke regrettably of the bochurim transporting those pastries upside down so the meringue stuck to the foil packaging. Twenty-five years later I would redeem my own son in the dining room of the “new” building, making me an incidental detail in a matter of Trivial Pursuit.

From the modest yeshivah he founded in 1967 and in the brotherhood that from there evolved, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld "revived the spirits of the lowly and the hearts of those contrite." These words from Isaiah appear on his tombstone and in that way I experienced him in life. As a tower of passion and sincerity, Rabbi Freifeld influenced countless students throughout the 70s and 80s, religious from birth and baalei teshuva alike. Under his leadership, Shor Yoshuv became a haven for idealistic young men who found in him their mentor, model, and cornerstone for living.

My father was among those initially attracted to their rebbe’s vibrant manner, and with my mother, toiled to develop the yeshivah into a community. For as long as I can remember Rabbi Freifeld was our master and Shor Yoshuv was our muse. There was never uncoupling the two. Our teacher’s scheme was not aimed at scholarship nor was it limited to scholars. His surprising coalition of styles met a startling combination of needs. We trusted in our master because he believed in everyone first. In our rebbe we found incentive. In his yeshivah we discovered our worth.

Long before “at risk” was cliche, Rabbi Freifeld won the affection of uninspired youth from ordinary, Orthodox homes with his smile, honesty, common sense, and concern. Never a pioneer of any movement, the New York-born son of immigrant parents attended first to others like him, capturing the attention of unresolved yeshivah students who had nowhere else to go. In his rebbe, my wary father discovered a figure he could trust; and in Shor Yoshuv, a faith he could esteem. If you are an Orthodox Jew in America, you conceivably have experienced effects of Rabbi Freifeld’s magnanimity. In Far Rockaway, Rabbi Freifeld made possible a generation of families living inspired, inventive lives. In the hearts of his talmidim and in the methods of modern educators, my rebbe’s original influence endures.[...]

 ============Some of my personal memories  of Reb Shlomo - DT =============
I never remember him pulling rank as a rosh yeshiva or even as an older person. Nor do I ever remember his criticizing me - though I gave him ample reason. He was always focused on eliciting growth from everyone. Especially from those who felt they had nothing to offer. He never said anything because we deserved it, but rather what we needed to hear to continue our struggle to greatness. He was always smiling

At my first meeting with him - at the suggestion of Rav Bulman - I explained that I had many questions about Yiddishkeit that I had not gotten answers for and had been told that many of my questions were inappropriate to ask He said simply, "All questions are legitimate. The gemora is organized around questions. There is nothing wrong with asking questions. All I ask from you is to be patient about getting answers. I'll try and arrange private time for us to discuss your questions." In fact after 10 years he addressed very few of my questions. Some were dealt with by other rebbeim in the yeshiva. But his major contribution to me was to legitimize my questioning. I eventually wrote a sefer "Daas Torah" that deals with many of the issues that bothered me. Thus he ended up giving me the ability to answer the questions - myself.

update: Reb Shlomo not only had a great sensitivity and skill dealing with others but he also had a strong physical presence and charisma. I hadn't realized how much his physical presence was part of the "message" until I started transcribing his speeches for someone. When compared to my memory of what he said or even a hearing a recording - the paper record just sat there. The electricity and awesome power of his words simply weren't captured by the transcript. He once told me that he had trouble writing his thoughts and wished he could just commanded the pen to write. (This was before voice activated computer transcription programs). But the bottom line is the impact of what he said was strongly dependent on the personal experience of seeing this giant of a man expressing his heart felt words with his entire being.

It was one of the rules of the yeshiva that any stranger who walked in was to be greeted. That this is unusual was revealed by bochurim who left to go to other yeshivos and reported how strange and insensitive their new yeshivos were. One bochur who went to Lakewood reported that someone had come from Australia and went unnoticed in the Beis HaMedrash. He also told the story of another bochur who had an important phone call but didn't have change. He was ignored in the beis hamedrash where everyone was learning with great hasmoda. Suddenly he felt someone link arms with him. It was the mashgiach Rav Wachtfogel. The mashgiach announced to everyone, "your fellow student is in need of change - who can provide it for him."

Once I criticized the way Reb Shlomo dealt with a certain individual. Instead of being offended he said the following immortal words. "I never claimed to be infallible and I make mistakes. But the most important thing that I have done is create a tzibur. Most of what happens here is due to the tzibur - not to me."

Reb Shlomo told me that he was jealous of his devoted talmid - Benjy Brecher - who readily cried  during davening. I was astounded that the rosh yeshiva would reveal to a bochur that he felt he lacked something that someone else had.

When I started Shor Yoshuv I didn't know how to learn gemora. Most of the other guys had come up through the yeshiva system and had no trouble with the gemora. I was once sitting in the beis medrash feeling depressed about my incompetence an difficulty keeping up with the others. As usual he not only picked up that something was wrong - but he came over to try and deal with my issues. When I explained my serious problems, he said. "Is that all that is bothering you? You feel that everyone is far advanced of you and you will never catch up? You are in fact in a superior position to most of the other guys in yeshiva. They have spent years developing a strong hatred for Torah learning. You have a head start because you simply have to learn gemora. They have to first overcome their hatred for it in order to advance."

After Shabbos morning davening we had a kiddush in which he gave insights into the parsha. He once spoke about the gemora in Shabbos which says one should not ask a talmid chachom questions about a gemora that he is not currently studying because he might be embarrassed to admit the he didn't understand it and he would make up an answer. My chavrusa and I had just made a siyum on Shabbos and we both looked at each other when he gave an explanation for what the gemora meant. It clearly went against the intent of the gemora. After the kiddush we went over to him and asked him to explain why he gave an explanation which was clearly not what the gemora said. He looked at us both and said, "What do you expect from someone who hasn't looked at that gemora in 25 years." His unflinching honesty in admitting to his students that he was wrong served the purpose of not only showing his tremendous concern for the truth - even if it caused him embarrassment - but also reinforced the gemora. Most talmidei chachomim would have in fact attempted a rationalization to conceal their error.

There was a student in the yeshiva who had done the unforgivable. It had become public knowledge that he was living his with girl friend. Obviously he was going to kicked out of the yeshiva and we were all sure that he would be given a very harsh lecture from Reb Shlomo. I was sitting in the beis hamedrash when he came in for his meeting for Reb Shlomo. He sat next to me and said, "Well it looks like I am leaving and I am sure Reb Shlmo has some choice words which I deserve - but I really don't care what he says."
He was calm and acted as if he was glad his stay in yeshiva was over. A few minutes later he was called into Reb Shlomo's office and we waited for the yelling and screaming to start. But there were no sounds coming from the closed office. When he finally came out he was white and shaking. "
I asked him what did he say to you?" It must have been incredibly harsh to penetrate his confident sneer. He replied, "Reb Shlomo simply asked me for personal forgiveness - that he wasn't big enough to influence me properly." That was the only thing he had no defense against and it penetrated his defenses like a cruise missile.

I was one of Reb Shlomo's principle drivers - since I had access to a car. I once drove him to Williamsburg to get a new wide rimmed hat which had been custom made for him. When he tried it on he saw that it was not what he had ordered. I was amazed that he didn't directly criticize the man. Instead he said, "I am embarrassed that I have to say that this is not what I ordered."

When one of the supporters of the yeshiva who lived in Washington D.C. was niftar, he asked me and a few other bochurim to drive down with him to see the family who were sitting shiva. The man's children were all below the age of 8. What do you say to young children who have just lost their father?
He sat down with them at a small table. He didn't try to give them words of comfort - they meant nothing to them. What he did do was to talk to them as if he one of them. And he entertained them by making various faces. In short he comforted them on their level - something he was the master at doing. I learned that the mitzva of nichum aveilum is not  to make yourself feel righteous - but rather is to do what is needed to comfort the mourner.

 We were once driving to Brooklyn and he mentioned that according to the gemora in Berachos it is prohibited to mention Torah in the presence of a dead person - because the dead person no longer had the ability to learn Torah. He told me in the name of Rav Hutner, "It is not only for the dead that one should avoid shaming because of their inability to participate. This is a lesson for everyone. For example one should not have a spirited Torah discussion in the company of the ignorant who can not participate. One needs to be sensitive to the feelings of others."

When I moved to Brooklyn after 10 years in Shor Yoshuva, it was quite disconcerting. No one took the initiative to greet me or other newcomers. But perhaps the greatest change was the lack of community. In Flatbush there was no community to belong to. I once mentioned this to Rabbi Shimshon Scherer. His response was, "You have lived in a fantasy world for ten years. You will never find another community like it. Just be glad that you had a chance to be part of it."

When Rav Feivel Cohen shul's had a melave malke in Flatbush. Rav Feivel Cohen was hoping to form a genuine kehila like Shor Yoshuva.  Reb Shlomo was the guest speaker. I'll never forget the words, "As I was driving across the Marine Channel Bridge linking the Rockaways and Flatbush I knew that I was stranger entering a strange land. A land without a sense of community as we have in Shor Yoshuv. Fortunately Reb Feivel is working to correct that problem and with G-d's help he will succeed in building a genuine kehila here in Brooklyn.

 Reb Shlomo was down to earth and had a solid sense of humor. I spent a lot of time with his family, doing errands and well as spending time with his children. Once his 7 year old daughter took a vice grips pliers that I was using to fix something in the house and removed the screw and threw it out on the roof adjacent to their kitchen. I was very upset at losing a valuable tool. Reb Shlomo came in and sized up the problem. How to get the screw that was lying on the roof? Obviously no one was going to climb out the window to retrieve it. He thought a moment and asked his daughters for several pieces of bubble gum which he proceeded to chew. He then stuck the wad on the end of a broom stick and stuck it out the window and retrieved the screw.

At the yeshiva we occasionally had visiting talmidei chachomim give a shiur to the entire yeshiva. On one occasion, the distinguished talmid chachom spoke about Bava Kamma regarding the difference between a tam and muad ox. What was interesting was that the roshei yeshiva constantly interrupted him and disagreed with him. After the shiur a number of us stood around discussing the shiur. We concluded that it couldn't have been correct since the roshei yeshiva disagreed with it - so why was he asked to speak. Reb Shlomo sensed our question and noted, "You are probably wondering why we asked him to speak if we disagree with what he said. What I wanted you to note was not so much the content of the shiur but how he relates to Torah. Most of us have a very formal relationship with Torah. A distance is maintained with proper attitude. However I hope that you noted that for Rav Plontchik there is no distance. He relates to the Torah as if he were in a comfortable bed. Torah is something personal and intimate. I wanted you to experience a talmid chachom who has such a relationship to Torah - even if I disagree with his conclusions."

When I left Shor Yoshuv for Brooklyn, the final meeting I had contained one message. "Doniel don't forget to be normal. Far Rockaway is still normal - only one family has a chandelier." In fact saying that someone was normal was one of his highest praises.

Just before I left America to move to Israel, I drove to Far Rockaway from Brooklyn with my young sons. At that time Reb Shlomo was dying from spinal cancer. He was in constant pain and he was in constant danger from catching a cold or worse because of the medication that suppressed his immune response. Because one of my sons had a cold I left them in the car to run in and get his bracha and run out. He didn't have the energy for more than that.
However things didn't go as expected. He wanted to talk and we did. I realized it wasn't a good idea to leave my young sons alone in the car and so I stood up to say goodbye - explaining the problem.
When he heard that my sons were in the car he insisted that I bring them in - even though he was exposing himself to danger. He not only greeted them but insisted on talking with each one - including asking them to solve mathematical puzzles. Finally he gave them individual berachos and we departed. His literal mesira nefesh for others was astounding.

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