This is a very difficult article to write but one that must be written because I owe a tremendous “hakaras ha’tov” to two Rabbis whose names send shivers down people’s spines. These two Rabbis have recently been indicted, pleaded guilty and were just sentenced to prison in totally unrelated cases. One of them was the principal in YHSQ when I was in 10th and 11th grades and the other taught me Chumash, Navi and Halacha – also in YHSQ – in 12th grade. In all my years of Yeshiva, no Rabbis had more of a positive effect on my life, my learning and my connection to Hashem as these two Rabbis. Their names are Rabbi Dovid Cohen and Rabbi Barry Freundel.
Before going any further I must state – loud and clear – that in no way am I commenting about what they did nor am I condoning their actions. I have no idea about any matter of their cases, except for what I read in the newspapers. I am simply telling you about my positive experiences with these two men, experiences that helped mold me into the Jew I am today. Does that make what they did good and just? Of course not! My goal is not to minimize their actions, nor to make light of a very serious situation. Rather, my goal is to be similar to a character witness who testifies – not to the case at hand – but to first hand experiences from a person who knew them in completely different circumstances. Here is my story.
My brother is seven years older than me and he had the good fortune of attending the Yeshiva High School of Queens (YHSQ) which was led by an incredibly charismatic tzaddik named Rabbi Simcha Teitelbaum. My brother used to tell me stories about Rabbi Teitelbaum and as I grew older and closer to attending YHSQ, I became excited at the thought of spending 4 years in a Yeshiva led by this great man. Unfortunately, however, Hashem had other plans and Rabbi Teitelbaum suffered a major heart attack and an untimely death just prior to my beginning high school. I entered YHSQ in the fall of 1975 and the school had not yet found a replacement. During my entire 9th grade, there was no official Principal – or Rosh Yeshiva (as he should have been called) – there was just an “interim” Principal who meant well but had zero connections to the students. Baruch Hashem this changed in the summer of 1976 when Rabbi Dovid Cohen was hired. The students instantly took a liking to him and he was exactly what YHSQ needed. He was friendly, down to earth and interested in the success of every boy and girl in the school. He spoke to us, taught us and even played basketball with us… the first time a Principal ever did THAT! We loved him, respected him and followed his every word.
I will never forget the Purim of 1978. Rabbi Cohen invited me and 2 other students to his home for the seudah. We had the time of our lives! He allowed us to drink – champagne only – and kept a close eye on the amounts we were drinking. He then drove us to Brooklyn where we attended a tish at some Rebbes house (sorry, but I do not recall who it was). Please remember that we were all very modern Queens boys who were interested in basketball and girls at the time (and sometimes that order was reversed). We never had an experience like this before and we all enjoyed it immensely. When it was all over – very late at night – Rabbi Cohen personally drove each of us home, assuring that we were safe. During the entire night he didn’t drink even once as he kept saying that he is driving and responsible for our safety. All three of us had an unforgettable Purim, one which we will always remember and all because of a caring and very special Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dovid Cohen. After getting to know him, I pledged that I too would one day be an inspiration to Jewish youth. It was that motivation that led me to become a Youth Director in Forest Hills and I owe that motivation to Rabbi Dovid Cohen.
By the time 12th grade rolled around, we were all focused on graduating, the yearbook and our final year as a member of the YHSQ Cougars basketball team. I was also looking forward to spending time in a Yeshiva in Israel, which was not so popular during those days, but which got me and about 8 of my friends excited enough to go. We were all planning on coasting through 12th grade on some kind of student “auto-pilot” when all of a sudden, we were introduced to a new Rabbi who took us all by surprise. His name was Rabbi Barry Freundel, a young Rabbi – just 28 at the time but very energetic and daring. I say “daring” because on the first day of class he told us that we were all obligated to write a Navi term paper. A WHAT??? A Navi TERM PAPER?? Who ever heard of that before? Is that even allowed? We screamed bloody murder but it fell on deaf ears. This was going to happen or we would not graduate. Yes, it is true… I had to write a Navi term paper.
I have to admit that when the smoke from my nostrils cleared and my blood pressure came down to below 1,000, I actually enjoyed this project. I can still remember what I wrote about. Rabbi Freundel challenged us all with this assignment and he made the Navi come to life. Until then, learning Navi was a passuk-by-passuk task with little enjoyment. The previous teachers I had did not make it interesting nor enlightening. All that changed with Rabbi Freundel. He opened our eyes to the exciting world of the TaNaCH. He sat with each student and carefully selected a topic which suited his personality. My topic was “Jewish Resistance” and he gave me a long list of heroes to study and investigate. These included Avraham, Esther, Mordechai, Chananyah, Mishael, Azariah, Daniel and more! I studied their lives and compared their battles. I found it so fascinating that today – 37 years later – I am still feeling the excitement of that report. Yes, I dreaded the thought of writing a Navi term paper, but when it was over and the report was done, I had finally grasped the meaning of what treasures were contained in TaNaCH.
But there was more to Rabbi Barry Freundel. He wasn’t just young… he was about 40 years younger than any Rabbi I had in high school. No joke. The Rabbis we had were all talmidei chachamim who came from Europe and whose knowledge of Torah was second to none. On one hand, these were great men who had studied in the finest Yeshivot – my main Rebbe for 2 years was part of the Mirrer Yeshiva that escaped to Shanghai – but on the other hand they were completely disconnected with myself and my friends. They had no idea of what 17 year old boys were going through in the 70’s and thought that our love of Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny were the silliest things they ever heard. Rabbi Freundel did not have this problem. He connected with us immediately and made learning Torah exciting. I have to admit that for the first time in my life I was actually looking forward to coming to class! He made the Torah come to life by challenging us, not simply spoon-feeding us. I will never forget his enthusiasm nor his positive motivation.
When the stories broke about these two Rabbis, I cried. I cried because I witnessed the famous words; “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” To see pictures of them standing in court and to hear horrible tales of what was done – things that were inexcusable – I simply broke down. When stories came out about the lives that were ruined, communities that were shattered and trust that was broken… I had no words and this article was not an attempt to excuse any of their actions. I simply felt that it was my obligation to share the positive experiences I had with these two Rabbis, since to me, they were people who truly impacted me in good and proper ways.
May Hashem open the gates of Teshuva to all those who seek it.