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Standing Tall

Elisheva Appel

Rebbetzin Sara Freifeld, wife of Rav Shlomo ztz”l, possesses a sparkling intellect and a regal bearing. Memories and stories of her life with the Rosh Yeshivah

Monday, October 02, 2017

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Instead of the melancholy that I expect when discussing the demise of her husband, who passed away in his prime just a few short years after their marriage, every mention of Rav Shlomo elicits a smile. “We had such good times,” the Rebbetzin reminisces. “He just loved people. He enjoyed life. He was the most normal person you could ever meet”

S ara E. Schyfter, PhD, Associate Dean of Humanities at SUNY, Albany, and mother of three teens, was the model of professional success and sound judgment when she arrived at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Proud awardee of the prestigious Fulbright scholarship, one of the world’s most coveted academic awards, she was embarking on a two-year journey of research and education. So it came as quite a shock to her colleagues when, barely three weeks after her arrival, she announced that she was leaving.

“I’ve found someone I need to marry, so I’m returning to the US,” she explained matter-of-factly.

“But you’re not a 16-year-old!” they spluttered, astonished that someone would forego such an opportunity.

Undeterred, she politely but firmly returned the grant, hopped on a plane to the United States, and in short order began a new chapter in her life as Rebbetzin Sara Freifeld, wife of the legendary Rav Shlomo.

Now, in the elegant dining room of her Far Rockaway home, Rebbetzin Freifeld exudes a self-effacing graciousness that belies her evident sophistication. Tall and willowy, with a ready smile, she carries herself with a nobility that somehow complements her down-to-earth friendliness.

The most striking thing about our encounter is the joy and laughter that punctuate the conversation. Instead of the melancholy that I expect when discussing the demise of her husband, who passed away in his prime just a few short years after their marriage, every mention of Rav Shlomo elicits a smile. “We had such good times,” the Rebbetzin reminisces. “He just loved people. He enjoyed life. He was the most normal person you could ever meet.”

A Giant among Men

Rav Shlomo Freifeld ztz”l, the son of an immigrant shoe salesman, grew up in East New York in the days before a yeshivah education was recognized as the right of every Jewish child. His parents originally planned to send him to public school, but when they were told that in Yeshiva Toras Chaim their son would be occupied and supervised into the late afternoon, while his parents worked, they opted to send him there.

Later on, as a student at Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, a powerful, lifelong bond was formed between young Shlomo and the rosh yeshivah, Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz”l. “He taught me everything I know,” Rav Shlomo used to say. Rav Hutner returned his student’s affection, drawing him close and singling him out for important charges, such as representing his rebbi in the founding of P’eylim, the organization devoted to rescuing Jewish children who’d been placed in anti-religious institutions in the early years of Israeli independence.

Long before the baal teshuvah movement existed, Rav Shlomo was drawing lost souls close to Torah with his fiery love for them and for Yiddishkeit. (Photo: Family archives)

Rav Shlomo relocated to Far Rockaway along with Rav Hutner, where Rav Shlomo served as the principal of Chaim Berlin. When the yeshivah moved to Brooklyn, though, Rav Shlomo remained in Far Rockaway. It was time to strike out on his own, and build an institution in his own distinctive mold.

Sh’or Yoshuv, the yeshivah that Rav Shlomo founded, became a magnet for thinking Jews of all stripes. There, skilled talmidei chachamim toiled alongside disenchanted youth who had never learned to read Hebrew. Products of mainstream yeshivos shteiged alongside long-haired newcomers. All were united by the drive to uncover truth — and by the force of their rebbi’s personality. Story after story tell of how, despite Rav Shlomo’s brilliance, he was able to meet a talmid on his own level. Indeed, many beginners were taught the very basics of learning.

“It wasn’t about quantity, but about mastery. He would tell his students, after they had completed one daf, that the next daf wasn’t harder, just different. Once they had learned one daf, they could conquer all of Shas,” remembers the Rebbetzin. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 562)

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