Inkwells, Chalk Boards and Slide Rules — Yeshiva Beth Yehudah of Detroit

Beth Yehudah talmidim in front of Beth Tefilo Emanuel Synagogue on Twelfth Street circa 1935. (Courtesy of YBY Archives)
Harav Yehudah Leib Levin, zt”l, founder of the yeshivah.

“Detroit is one of the secret treasures of Yiddishkeit in America. A shidduch from Detroit is certainly worth looking into,” a prominent Rav once said. The path from being an outpost of Yiddishkeit to a metropolis of Torah passes through Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, thanks to the valiant heroes who have served as its administration and staff over the past century.

Yeshiva Beth Yehudah began as an afternoon Talmud Torah in August 1914, when Harav Yehuda Leib Levin, zt”l, a renowned European talmid chacham, gathered some boys five days a week in the Mogen Avrohom Synagogue on Farnsworth Street to teach them Torah and the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit. In 1923, it moved its 35 students to Beth Tefilo Emanuel Synagogue on Twelfth Street.

The Yeshivah relocated several times until 1940, when they settled into a new building on Dexter and Cortland. By this time, 162 children were being taught at six grade levels. Harav Simcha Wasserman, zt”l, was the dean and transformed it into a full-day Hebrew day school.

Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman, zt”l.
Rabbi Shalom Goldstein, zt”l, circa 1946, when he joined Yeshiva Beth Yehudah of Detroit.

When Harav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt”l, the legendary Menahel of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas founded Torah Umesorah to establish day schools throughout North America, one of the first cities to take advantage of this venture was Detroit. Rav Shraga Feivel sent Rabbi Avraham Abba Freedman, zt”l, to Detroit to help Beth Yehudah grow and flourish. A short time later, Rabbi Shalom Goldstein, zt”l, joined him, and with their dedication, indefatigable spirit and mesirus nefesh, they created a model for successful Torah institutions.

Rabbi Freedman spent his entire career with the image of Rav Shraga Feivel before his eyes. He never accepted that anything was impossible, and with extraordinary determination he worked hand in hand with Rabbi Goldstein and others to build up the Yiddishkeit of the community. He was the inspiration for the growth of the yeshivah and actively recruited new students to join the yeshivah and Torah community.

Several months after his arrival, Rabbi Goldstein traveled to New York for Yom Tov and was crestfallen when he saw his chaveirim learning in the beis medrash. “He longed to rejoin them, and poured out his heart to Rav Shraga Feivel,” his son Rabbi Yosef Goldstein says. “His Rebbi showed him the beis medrash and declared, ‘You see all these bachurim? If I had the power, I would send them all out to the countryside to spread Torah like you are doing. All, that is, except [Harav] Simcha [Schustal] and [Harav] Don [Ungarisher], who are destined to be Roshei Yeshivah. As for the rest, we could accomplish so much if they, too, would embark on a career of chinuch, teaching and building Torah as you are doing.’”

Yeshiva Beth Yehudah on Dexter Avenue circa 1945. (Courtesy of YBY Archives)

Heartened by these words, Rabbi Goldstein was emboldened to return to Detroit and together with Rabbi Freedman built the infrastructure for Yiddishkeit to thrive. When he complained to Rav Shraga Feivel that he lacked chalav Yisrael for his young children, Rav Mendlowitz replied, “Shalom, you should go to the farm and supervise the milking of the cows.”

“My father did just that, and the four families who wanted chalav Yisrael took turns supervising the milking,” relates Mrs. Chaya Fleisher. “As time went on, he began importing it from New York with a small surcharge of three cents per quart, but the grocer was hesitant that it wouldn’t be bought. My father pledged to purchase any leftover milk.” Each week, he collected the unsold milk from the grocery.

“Our freezer was filled with frozen milk, which my mother, a”h [Rebbetzin Goldstein née Scheiner was a sister of, ybl”c, Harav Yitzchak Scheiner, shlita] converted into cheese, yogurt and other dairy products,” says Rebbetzin Rochel Felder.”

Rabbis Freedman and Goldstein realized that transforming the Jewish community of Detroit into a bastion of Torah would be a process, and sought the advice of Gedolei Torah each step of the way. “The Vaad Hachinuch was led by Harav Leizer Levin, zt”l, a talmid of the Chafetz Chaim who headed the Vaad Harabbanim, and Harav Leib Bakst, zt”l, who served as Rosh Yeshivah for older bachurim, ,” Rabbi Yosef Goldstein says.

Over time, Rabbi Freedman and Rabbi Goldstein would consult with Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l, when they felt it was time to upgrade the level of observance. “The classes were slowly separated, and eventually the girls’ school moved away from the boys’ school,” Rivky (Goldstein) Mendlowitz says. “My father, the principal of the girls’ school, instituted a rule that he would not attend the wedding of a student if the seating was not separate. The girls admired him and ultimately changed their weddings to conform with his rule.”

Although involved in what may be called kiruv rechokim, Rabbis Freedman and Goldstein did not approach it in the conventional way. “Instead of giving speeches, they exposed their students to the beauty of Yiddishkeit and imbued them with a desire to live as bnei Torah,” a talmid, who became a Rebbi and is now a Menahel, remembers. “One of our fondest memories is that there was school on Purim morning to ensure that all of the students heard the Megillah, which was followed by a costume show and delivering mishloach manos,” Rabbi Goldstein’s daughter recalls.

“An unusual agreement existed between Rabbis Freedman and Goldstein; if they disagreed on something, the one with weaker feelings would yield to the one who had stronger feelings,” Reb Dovid, a close talmid, shares. “When Rabbi Goldstein felt it was important for Rabbi Freedman’s daughter to go to Eretz Yisrael for seminary in order to blaze a path for future students, Rabbi Freedman yielded, even though he had planned to send his daughter to seminary in New York.”

Their caring and concern for a talmid knew no bounds. Rochel Fleisher shares, “Young Reuven took a job as a counselor in camp in order to pay off a $100 debt he had accumulated, but Rabbi Goldstein felt he would be a perfect choice to join Harav Simcha Wasserman as he established Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon in Los Angeles. An envelope arrived with two checks: one to pay off the debt and one to purchase a bus ticket to LA. Sure enough, Reuven traveled to LA. He eventually settled in Chicago where Rabbi Reuven Levinson, shlita, led Arie Crown Hebrew Day School for 50 years.”

After decades building Torah in Detroit, Rabbi Freedman once visited Lakewood and stepped into Beis Medrash Govoha. “I observed how he kissed the wall, and then he told me of the time when he first came to Detroit and spent Shavuos with Harav Simcha Wasserman. They ate a quick seudah and went to learn in the beis medrash and were disappointed to find it empty,” a talmid shares. “There was barely a minyan for Shacharis and Rav Simchah turned to me and cried, ‘Vu zenen di kinder — where are the children?’ Rabbi Freedman paused, and after surveying the Torah being learned, he said, ‘This will one day be Detroit.’”

Passion, determination, and untiring energy. The devotion of the Hanhalah, Rebbeim and Moros produced fourth and fifth generation Detroiters who are today true bnei Torah. Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s student body consists of nearly 1,200 students, including a boys’ school (grades 1-8), a girls’ school(grades 1-12) and a preschool. Its kollel of 30 yungeleit (one of seven kollelim in Detroit!) learns on the boys’ campus and, keeping with the legacy of kiruv of Rabbis Freedman and Goldstein, it maintains a program to attract not-yet-affiliated Yidden to the beauty of Yiddishkeit.

Please send any memories of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah or of Rabbi Shalom Goldstein to chfleisher@gmail.com.