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London Bridge

Rabbi Joseph Freilich lived outreach before kiruv was a livelihood

Photos: David Chesner, Family archives

Back in the 1970s, before “kiruv” was a job with a salary, Rabbi Joseph Freilich a”h gave up his profession as a pharmacist in order to teach the hundreds of secular Jewish students who passed through his portals. Ever charming yet pushy when it came to getting people in the door, he knew that once they tasted Torah, they’d be hooked. Memories of the rabbi who never gave up

Rabbi Joseph Freilich a”h had two great loves: learning Torah and teaching it. Beginning in the 1970s, he was often the first point of contact to a Torah life for thousands of young men and women in London. Charming and unfazed by rejection, he would approach assimilated Jewish students and professionals and encourage them to try out a little Jewish learning, promising that they would know Hebrew after his 12-session crash course and have basic Gemara skills after his beginner’s class. What was the secret of this special rebbi who chose kiruv as a full-time job long before international organizations offered the security of paid employment in the field?

Chaim (Christopher) Phillips, who was an editor at The New York Times for 23 years, is one person who was transformed after taking up the offer of this one-man kiruv institution. Manhattan-born Chaim was 32 when he met Rabbi Freilich in 1983, having arrived in London after spending the last 14 years between Los Angeles, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India and a few other places. He’d arrived in England for his dream job as an editor at The Telegraph Sunday Magazine.

“But today I know that the real reason I came to London was to meet Rabbi Freilich and to start on a proper Jewish education — something I had always wanted but never had,” he says, remembering the man who changed his life ten years after Rabbi Freilich passed away on 29 Teves, 5772 (January 2012).

Chaim discovered that there was a comprehensive Jewish library at the University of London’s Hillel House, and one evening after work, he recalls, he was pawing his way through the shelves “when this very distinguished-looking man walked in and set out his papers at the end of the long table, followed by a flock of students of various ages. Rabbi Freilich’s eagle eye saw that here was fruit ripe for the picking, and the next thing I knew I was sitting next to him at that library table. During that hour or two, I knew instinctively that I had reached a pivotal moment in my life — that a big change was about to happen.”

Within nine months Chaim had left that “dream job” on Fleet Street to learn full-time, in Jerusalem’s Ohr Somayach.

“Rabbi Freilich,” he says, “was that rare combination of warmth and focus. He was determined, but it wasn’t the determination of a locomotive — you felt velocity, but never a fire hose. If he asked you to do something, you knew in your bones you were going to end up doing it.”

(Chaim had an instinct that Rabbi Freilich’s magnetic, compelling shiurim should be captured for posterity, so during those nine months, he taped the classes, which are still available at the  Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Library in New Haven, Connecticut.)

Alon Goren was an Israeli law school graduate and son of a prestigious judge, on his way to earn a doctorate at Harvard, when he made a stopover in London and had an encounter with the broad-minded rabbi who would change the trajectory of his life.

The first time Rabbi Joe Freilich and Alon bumped into each other, Rabbi Freilich sat with him until 2 a.m., discussing and debating anything the young Israeli thought of. His scholarship, his curiosity, his charm and sense of humor won the day for the secular intellectual. Alon put Harvard on hold and remained in London to learn Torah. Forty years later, Alon — today a religious lawyer — says that “not a day goes by that I don’t think of Rabbi Freilich.”

Matching Minds

Who was Rabbi Freilich, and why did he give up his profession as a pharmacist to give shiurim to Christopher, Alon, and hundreds of other secular students?

Joseph Freilich was born in Munich, Germany, where his father, Rabbi Dovid Freilich, an Oberlander Jew and talmid of the Arugas Habosem, served as rav. An uncle had already immigrated to England in the 1930s, and Rabbi Freilich senior had made arrangements for their family to follow. They had already made some shipments of furniture by November 1938, when Kristallnacht super-charged the hate all around them and created a frenzy of Jewish emigration all over Germany. Rabbi Freilich, who attended an early morning daf yomi shiur, arrived at his shul the morning after the pogroms to find fire crews still busy putting out the blaze — after all, they didn’t want the flames to spread to adjacent Aryan properties. A fireman caught him by the shoulder and shouted, “Rabbiner, are you crazy, coming here? You don’t know what they want to do to Jews? If you want to live, run!”

He turned around, went home, and made arrangements to leave for England the same day. (The S.S. would come back to the shul a little later, at the time posted for Shacharis, and arrest the Jews they found there.)

The family arrived in England, but soon moved on when Rabbi Freilich senior took up a rabbinical position in Dublin, Ireland. There, he tutored his son Yosef and a group of boys from Dublin’s tiny frum nucleus, but soon decided that they needed a proper yeshivah and sent them off to Gateshead. While Rabbi Yosef (Joe) Freilich never lost his charming Irish accent, in Gateshead he developed a taste for Torah learning, which captured his heart and soul.

Young Yosef Freilich wanted to have a profession, though, so he could be self-supporting. After spending his late teen years learning diligently in Gateshead, he attended university in nearby Sunderland  and qualified as a pharmacist. Once he had that degree in hand, he went on to learn, this time in Yeshivas Ponevezh in Bnei Brak.

He returned to Gateshead and married Eva (Pinnick), a child of the Kindertransport, brought from Bratislava to Wales and educated in Gateshead Seminary. Her entire family was murdered by the Nazis, while she was safe, but alone. Yet her love for Torah matched Yosef’s ideals, and his learning meant the world to her.

For four years, Yosef and Eva lived in London, while he worked as a pharmacist, supporting his wife and family, and even purchased a family home. Then, they gave it all up to return to their first love. Back then in the 1960s, the concept of kollel was in its infancy in England, but that didn’t deter the Freilichs. With Eva’s encouragement, her husband entered the Gateshead Kollel, although he refused to accept a stipend; the growing Freilich family lived off the income from the house they rented out in London.

“We were little kids, and those years in Gateshead created the loveliest memories,” says their daughter Esther Rosenbaum. “We lived so simply — no car, no phone, chicken served only on Shabbos, but I remember the happiness in that simplicity, my father coming home from kollel with his Gemara under his arm.”

(In later years, someone asked Rabbi Freilich why he kept his thick Gemaras, filled with notations from his kollel years, right next to the window in his home. He replied that they were his most precious possession, and in case of fire, he wanted to be able to throw them to safety.)

During that time, as Rabbi Freilich sat and learned in the small, sheltered enclave of Gateshead, someone was observing him and making note of his unique talents. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, who would later become machgiach ruchani in Gateshead, recognized the young man’s gift of clarity, the way he could engage with anyone, and his power of persuasion, and encouraged him to leave kollel from time to time and travel to England’s great universities in the country’s south. And so, Rabbi Freilich reached out to the Jewish societies at Oxford and Cambridge universities and arranged to give lectures. He was a good match for these bright young adults, and the lectures and debates often continued late into the nights.

At some point, it occurred to Rabbi Freilich that these university students might gain from the immersive experience of spending a week of their mid-winter break in the Torah community of Gateshead. Those who accepted his invitation were put up in people’s guestrooms, and suppers for the entire crowd were cooked by Mrs. Eva Freilich.

Two of those students expected a vacation resort, and when they saw the narrow streets of Gateshead, they announced that they were taking the first train back in the morning. But after supper at the Freilichs, followed by an evening lecture and discussion that stretched into the wee hours of the night, they changed their minds. (Both are roshei yeshivah in Jerusalem today.) The students found there was simply nothing of substance that Rabbi Freilich, broad-minded and self-educated in a variety of areas, was not interested in. And as thought-provoking as his shiurim were, they were also entertaining, peppered with his Irish humor.

For the sheltered Freilich children, exposure to these secular students was quite a shock. “I remember that there was one student who was a bit of a hippie who ate the Shabbos seudah with us. My father told us that this man might look a little funny to us, but where he comes from, the minhag is for men to have long hair, so we shouldn’t laugh or make him feel bad,” Esther remembers.

See You in Shiur

After eight influential years, it was time to move on to a larger community with more educational options. The Freilichs, now with seven children, returned to Golders Green, London. But Rabbi Freilich would never go back to his profession, now that he had realized he could use his gifts to teach Torah. He took a teaching job at Hasmonean High School, while beginning to devote his energies to adult education.

This was 1973, and London’s prestigious universities attracted students from all over the world. The Hillel House in the Euston area provided a library and kosher dining facilities, and it was there that Rabbi Freilich set up shop to attract Jewish passerby. He offered to give a Thursday night lecture on Judaism, and over the years, that shiur morphed into a full-time, single-handed kiruv center.

Naturally persuasive, he didn’t hesitate to be pushy when it came to getting people through the door. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer, because he felt that once people tasted Torah, they would love it,” explains his daughter. “He would meet students hanging out in Hillel and say, ‘would you like to come to my class?’ and they’d say, ‘No, not now, thanks, we’re just waiting for the Israeli dance class to begin.’ My father would answer, ‘In Israeli dance, you’ll just go round and round and finish up back where you started. Come and try one class — we don’t go round in circles, we go up and up.’”

One student remembered being asked if he was coming to a Sunday morning shiur. He replied, “I’d love to, but I’m playing golf with a friend.” Rabbi Freilich didn’t miss a beat. “Well, bring him along as well, see you both later!”

If a prospective student was indecisive about whether he should come to the class or not, Rabbi Freilich’s typical answer was, “I suggest that in the meantime you should come — afterward you can decide.”

Once Rabbi Freilich had a person in his sights, he was unstoppable. Mrs. Chaya Jason*, currently living in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, remembers Rabbi Freilich’s determination to get her to attend a class. “My brother was attending the Rabbi’s shiurim and encouraged me to go. But I lived in South London, which was too far to return home alone after the class, so that was the end of it… But not as far as Rabbi Freilich was concerned. He kept calling me. Eventually, I gave in. Every Monday night for the next four years I ate supper and stayed overnight with a family Rabbi Freilich found for me. Those shiurim, together with the Hebrew program, Yomei Limmud, Melaveh Malkahs, and shabbatons, were like stepping through a door into a spiritual oasis. I couldn’t get enough.”

She attributes that incredible persistence over 40 years ago to where she is today, living a Torah life in Eretz Yisrael. “Today our son learns in a yeshivah gedolah in Jerusalem, a world away from where I started out,” she says. “All my nachas belongs to Rabbi Freilich.”

One night, when the usual room in Hillel House was unavailable, Rabbi Freilich’s shiur moved into a smaller room. Rabbi Freilich asked someone to fold a table, then remarked, “Now we have space for the whole world.” One student opened the door, announcing out to the hallway that inside there’s “place for the whole world!” when a German Jewish violinist who was looking for the Israeli folk dancing class happened to be standing there, and came along to see what was happening. “This way, this way,” called Rabbi Freilich’s student. The violinist crowded in, bemused, and sat through the class, mesmerized. After some discussion, Rabbi Freilich asked if he would like to come for Shabbos. “What is Shabbos?” he asked. But soon, he’d accepted Rabbi Freilich’s invitation — and was hooked on Yiddishkeit for the long haul, eventually attending yeshivah full-time.

Keep It Light

Rabbi Freilich was like a fish in water when learning and teaching Torah. “It didn’t matter who was around or whether he was standing in front of a class — my father just wanted to teach about Hashem and Torah,” says Esther Rosenbaum. “He was constantly teaching us around the table, and if students were there, he taught them too. He shared his excitement and they could appreciate it.”

The Hebrew course he produced, a twelve-session crash course after which his students could read and understand the words they were reading in the siddur and learn Chumash, was taught with colorful cards and pictures and based on the most commonly used words in the Tanach — and it’s been adapted for adult learners around the world. But it was no grueling, dry memorization. Mr. Danny Grunfeld, who hosted the course in his house for many years, remembers how “we always heard bursts of laughter coming from the room. We also saw the way he stayed behind after the shiur to interact with his students, showing his love and concern. He was a wonderful listener.”

The classes eventually evolved into a framework Rabbi Freilich named Yeshiva Dvar Yerushalayim. Although he was the ultimate idealist, always wanting to teach, he had a great sense of how and when to reach people. Mr. Ralph Ullman, a scholarly balabos in Golders Green whom Rabbi Freilich tapped to give a weekly halachah shiur, explains how “he’d put concepts down in ways that made sense to newcomers and kept things straightforward and pleasant, so they’d enjoy it. ‘Don’t bombard newcomers with Shabbos during the shortest winter Fridays, and don’t teach about tzitzis on the hottest days of the summer,’ he’d advise.”

Still, because Rabbi Freilich wanted his students to get acquainted with frum family life, he arranged for them to be hosted around the Golders Green community, so that family meals, warmth, and the children’s sincerity would speak for themselves.

The formula worked. Mr. Arnie Frishman of Minneapolis, who received a scholarship for independent study and travel abroad after graduating from the University of the South, an Episcopal liberal arts college in Tennessee, arrived in London in 1985.

“I landed in London with a backpack. My chosen study project included researching family life in Jewish communities in Europe, but none of the congregations I had reached out to answered my request — until someone suggested I try a Rabbi Freilich in Golders Green. We met, and before I knew it, I was attending Rabbi Freilich’s 12-session Hebrew course, and his Gemara course. But what really moved me was those family Shabbos tables where he set me up. I considered myself an educated person, but when I saw these kids, eight-year-olds learning Chumash-Rashi with such proficiency, I decided I wanted that for myself.”

Of course, the Freilich family didn’t only rely on others – the hosted students constantly too.

“The Freilich home will forever be engraved on my mind,” Alon Goren says. In addition to the Torah and Eva Freilich’s gracious hosting, there was an impromptu choir. “Rabbi Freilich seemed to have trained the entire family to sing together — it was an incredible musical experience. We all shared the language of music.”

(Rabbi Freilich himself had a beautiful tenor voice and served as an inspiring baal tefillah, a talent passed on to his sons, and most notably Chazzan Avromi Freilich of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue.)

Rabbi Freilich made sure that newcomers didn’t feel Torah was burdensome and restrictive, taking advantage of special times to talk about life and keep things light, arranging shabbatons at a grand manor house in Essex, and rambles in the countryside. Chaim Phillips remembers what Rabbi Freilich called his “Matzah Digesting Rambles” on Chol Hamoed Pesach in the British countryside. “We’d stay at a grand manor house in Essex, his elegant homburg hat would be replaced by a cloth cap, and off we would go — it was the closest I’ve ever felt to being an Irish boy scout.”

While Rabbi Freilich’s way was humorous and unpressured, if he felt his students were up to it, he would encourage them to continue their Torah learning at mainstream Orthodox yeshivos.

“My time in London was difficult but life-changing,” Arnie Frishman reflects. “When I arrived, I had a non-Jewish fiancé, and when I left, it was to Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem.  Rabbi Freilich’s words to me were ‘You’re here to research the Jewish continuity, but you’re breaking the chain; your children won’t be Jewish.’ My entire observant family is to Rabbihe Freilich’s credit. I don’t know where I would be today if not for him.”

As a pioneer, Rabbi Freilich wrote his own script for kiruv. He could occasionally be seen sitting in the cafes in upper-class Hampstead to pick up unaffiliated Jews, and other times, he’d arrange Melaveh Malkah evenings with guest speakers who could attract a crowd. He travelled to the USSR twice to teach Torah and bring Jewish necessities to trapped refuseniks. Behind him were a supportive community who helped fund Dvar Yerushalayim and a select few who delivered additional shiurim.

Mr. Ralph Ullman, whose shiur continues until today, relates that because of Rabbi Freilich’s unlimited dedication and forge-ahead personality, in the community, people knew that “you can’t say no to Rabbi Freilich.” He remembers the time that Rabbi Kupetz from Manchester was supposed to fly to London on Motzaei Shabbos to speak at a Dvar Yerushalayim Melaveh Malkah. “The flight was canceled due to fog, so at the last minute, Rabbi Freilich got Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, a brilliant speaker, to step in. Rabbi Bernstein said he would never have come for anyone else. Another time a rav from Stamford Hill, who never spoke to mixed audiences, agreed to come, ‘only for Rabbi Freilich.’ ” Then there was the shul hall that couldn’t be rented for mixed functions, that was given to Rabbi Freilich, with no one batting an eyelash. He had a kind of unique immunity.

Nameless Savior

For her part, Rebbetzin Eva Freilich hosted students, cooked suppers, Shabbos meals, made sheva brachos and hosted Melaveh Malkahs. Alon Goren remembers how she once accompanied him to the emergency room. Her children remember that when their father was immersed in preparing his shiurim in his office and was pressed for time, Rebbetzin Eva would prepare his supper and then cut it into small pieces so that he could eat easily with one hand while he learned. Ten years after Rabbi Freilich’s passing, the rebbetzin still loves hosting classes in her home.

But part of being a kiruv wife in the 1970s and 1980s was the waiting. Rabbi Freilich would stay on after a lecture as long as people wanted to talk. Sometimes it was a spirited debate, at other times just genuine listening. With no cell phones to check his whereabouts, Eva would be patiently waiting.

Chaim Phillips says the most important lesson he learned from Rabbi Freilich is that sometimes it’s the seemingly insignificant things that are actually there to change your life around. “One day at Dvar Yerushalayim, we were sitting waiting for Rabbi Freilich to come in for a Chumash shiur.  Well-mannered as we were, we had our notebooks, our Chumashim, and our pens all neatly lined up on our desks. But then in walks Rabbi Freilich. He stops for a moment and says, ‘One thing I’ve never understood is…  how can anyone sit in front of a closed Chumash? Open it up to any page and you might see the one word or the one pasuk you were waiting your whole life to see.’

“I thought about that in another shiur, when Rabbi Freilich asked the following question: ‘Who was the single most important person in all of Chumash? Hint: It is someone without a name.’ He was referring to Bereishis Chapter 37, when Yaakov Avinu sends Yosef off into the fields to look for his brothers, ‘and a certain man found him.’ The man says, ‘They are gone from here, for I heard them say, Let us go to Dothan.’

“It sounds so simple, but on that phrase hangs all of history. What that made me realize is that we think we’re doing one thing, but we are often also doing something else entirely — something that might have huge implications, for individuals we know or don’t. The person who offered me the job at The Sunday Telegraph thought he was hiring an editor.  But what he didn’t even know was that he was in fact my crucial link — to bring me to London so I could find a proper Jewish education and open a whole new chapter in my life.”

One word… one encounter. And that’s how Rabbi Freilich lived his life, too.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 892)

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