A Man on a Mission

Rabbi Yosef Friedenson, z”l, was known as a great historian, and deservedly so. His knowledge of pre-War Jewish Europe was encyclopedic; his chronicles of the War years, unparalleled; his writings about post-War rebuilding, keenly insightful.

But Rabbi Friedenson was far more than a historian. He was, in his own right, a major historical figure, one of the special yechidei segulah whom Hakadosh Baruch Hu entrusted with a critical role at a critical juncture in the life story of the Jewish People.

I had the zechus to work with Rabbi Friedenson in the offices of Agudas Yisrael for nearly 30 years. He was a brilliant man, book smart and street savvy. He was a courageous man, never afraid to stand up for principle and speak out for truth. He was a talented man, a skilled writer and gifted orator. And he was a good man, devoted to family and loyal to friends.

But what stood out most about Rabbi Friedenson was that he was a driven man, a man on a holy mission.

At a time when so many of his contemporaries, their lives shattered, redirected their hopes for a Jewish future to movements and lifestyles with no moorings in the Jewish past, Reb Yosef believed in the capacity of Klal Yisrael to rebuild from the ashes of Churban Europe upon the very same foundations that have sustained the Jewish People since Sinai. Indeed, he knew it could not be otherwise.

Rabbi Friedenson understood that Jewish nationalism divorced from Jewish history, Jewish values and Jewish faith — with the object of creating a new Jewish “nation like all other nations” — was foolhardy and unsustainable. He understood, also, that efforts to redefine Judaism — whether by totally “reforming” our faith or by making certain “conservative” adjustments to reflect modern-day realities — were a corruption of our historic mission and a ticket toward Jewish oblivion.

Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Friedenson understood that he and his fellow she’eiris hapleitah Yidden — those who survived the War, broken and penniless, orphaned and uprooted — were essential to the success of the rebuilding efforts, and to the continuity of the Jewish People as the eternal Am Hashem. Yes, Jewish life would have to be recreated, almost from scratch, on new shores, under new circumstances, with new challenges and new opportunities — but the nature of such Jewish life had to remain faithful to the ways of the old.

And so Reb Yosef took it upon himself, with the assistance of leaders of Agudath Israel of America such as Reb Elimelech Gavriel Tress and Rabbi Moshe Sherer, to reach out to the she’eiris hapleitah, to rally them to the cause of Klal Yisrael and the banner of Agudas Yisrael, to remind them of the glory of the “alter heim” and the importance of keeping alive its beautiful way of life. He did so primarily through the pages of Dos Yiddishe Vort, 430 issues — 430 issues! — over approximately 60 years, each one a treasure chest of historic photos, insightful articles, historical essays, inspiring stories and incredible messages of chizuk.

Dos Yiddishe Vort — and the man who stood behind it — made a real difference. I have heard personal testimony from numerous she’eiris hapleitah Yidden, men and women who rose to positions of prominence in the American Torah society, that the magazine, written in their own mama loshon and emphasizing their own masores avos, created a sense of continuity and community that gave them the strength to raise their families as loyal Torah Jews in a challenging new world.

It became apparent, after a while, that Rabbi Friedenson’s message resonated not only with the Yidden of the she’eiris hapleitah, but also with their children and grandchildren. It was incredible to see, in recent years, how Reb Yosef would enthrall high school students and young adults from all backgrounds with his stories about pre–War Europe and his reminiscences of the War years. He became the star speaker for groups like Project Witness, whose mission to educate a new generation about the horrors of churban Europe and the eternity of the Jewish People was most effectively achieved whenever he would highlight their program.

Chazal teach that a person is obligated to say “Masai yagi’u ma’asai l’maasei avosai — when will my actions approach those of my ancestors?” Rabbi Friedenson, more so than any other person of his time, has bequeathed to us a clear picture of ma’asei avoseinu, the glorious way of Torah life of our bubbes and zeides. Thanks to him, we know what we must emulate.

Who knows what the Torah community in America might look like today had Reb Yosef Friedenson not devoted his life to the mission of giving chizuk to his fellow survivors and connecting all of us to our glorious past? Clearly, Hakadosh Baruch Hu placed this giant in our midst for a purpose — and, just as clearly, Reb Yosef recognized that purpose and accomplished his historic mission with great distinction.

Yehi zichro baruch.

Rabbi Friedenson (R) dancing with Rabbi Moshe Sherer (L) and, ybl”c, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel standing behind in the center.
Rabbi Friedenson (R) dancing with Rabbi Moshe Sherer (L) and, ybl”c, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel standing behind in the center.
R-L: Harav Yaakov Kamenetzky, Harav Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Yosef Friedenson (at podium).
R-L: Harav Yaakov Kamenetzky, Harav Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Yosef Friedenson (at podium).