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Our Heroes: Reb Yaakov Moshe Friedman (1924-2004)

by Rabbi Michoel Seligson

Reb Yaakov Moshe Friedman was born in 1924 to Horav Hagan Hachossid Reb Meir Yisroel Isser Hakohen, the Krynitzer Rebbe and Rebbetzin Feiga. Reb Meir Yisroel was the son of the Gaon and kabbalist Reb Ben Zion, who was the Dayan and Rav in Dubetsk, Galicia, and a member of the Kabbalists in the entourage of Horav Hakodosh Reb Tzvi Elimelech of Blozuv, the author of “Tzvi Lazadik”. Rebbetzin Feiga stemmed from the well known Gaon and Kodosh, Reb Chaim Hakohen Rappaport, who was one of the Baal Shem Tov’s students.

During WWII, Reb Yaakov Moshe’s family was amongst the many Jews who escaped from Poland to Russia. As a young bochur, he worked a double shift in a Siberian labor camp to spare his father from working on Shabbos.

With the advent of WWII, Reb Yaakov Moshe wandered until finally reaching Tashkent where he met Lubavitch Chassidim. Reb Meir would say that during this meeting, his son discovered Likutei Torah (Chassidic discourses of the Alter Rebbe), and Chabad Chassidim discovered Polish Chassidim/Chagas. (Referring to the service of Hashem, expressed emotionally as opposed to intellectually, as in Chabad.)

Reb Yaakov Moshe married Mrs. Miriam Tzimel, a descendent of the Baal Shem Tov. Her father was the gaon and posek Horav Hachossid Rev Yosef Boruch Reichwerger, the Rav in Kharkov, Lublin. He had a lot of experience with Halachic questions relating to agunas. Many Rabbonim referred questions to him after WWII, when this issue had particular relevance. His name is also mentioned in the sefer “Otzer Haposkim”, as an editor of these halachos.

During this period of rampant hunger and poverty Reb Yaakov Moshe’s was already demonstrating the Ahavas Yisroel, which he would become known for.  He once walked a long way in ragged shoes, fighting off wild dogs, in order to bring food and blankets to a poor widow and her five children.

After WWII, the famous communal leader, Dr. Jacob Griffel requested that Reb Yaakov Moshe postpone his move to the United States, and remain in Prague to work with the many rescue organizations. Thousands of refugees were streaming into the city and needed exit visas so that they could leave for the United States, Canada, South America and Israel.

This was risky work, necessitating forged documents, the smuggling of people across borders, bribery of government officials and additional tactics.  Reb Yaakov Moshe successfully established contacts with high level officials, and was able to supply documentation and passports to thousands of Jews, including the previous Rebbes of Skver, Nadvorna and many other Rebbes and Rabbonim.

When the Rashag, the Previous Rebbe’s son-in-law, arrived in Prague in order to rescue and transport a group of Lubavitch families to Paris, Reb Yaakov Moshe worked a full night and day to obtain the required certificates and photos. Many years later, the Rashag offered Reb Yaakov Moshe a position in his office in the Lubavitch Yeshiva.

One of his main functions was to rescue abandoned Jewish children, entrusted to non-Jews for safekeeping during the war, whose parents had perished. During one such daring campaign, he successfully transported five-hundred children from an orphanage in Poland to Vienna, and from there to Israel.

As a result of these activities, he was arrested twice by the communist government in Prague and brutally interrogated. Although under great pressure, he did not release a single name or an address.

The government of Poland demanded that Reb Yaakov Moshe be handed over to them and brought to trial. With the energetic efforts of rescue organizations, activists, thousands of dollars in bribery, and the merit of the Previous Rebbe’s brocho, Reb Yaakov Moshe was released and emigrated to the United States with his family.

After Reb Yaakov Moshe’s release from prison, the Previous Rebbe wrote a letter, in which he thanked Hashem for the miracle that took place, and blessed him with a successful reestablishment in the United States [see letter].

Reb Yaakov Moshe never discussed his activities, but in reference to those days he once said, “We worked day and night, and we merited a heavenly success”.

After WWII, an article was published in Jerusalem by Harry Goodman of the Aguda, in which he described Reb Yaakov Moshe’s activities that saved so many people. When this reached Reb Yaakov Moshe, he wrote a comment in the margins of the article, “I did not authorize this article, and I would like that no one should publish in the future”. [See article inset].

At a certain point, the Guatemalan and S. Salvador governments granted him the status of a government employee and he was given the consul’s official stamp to use as he wished.

In the United States, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe would have been able to receive great honors and the title “The Rescue Hero”. He chose to modestly remain in a corner of the shul, in simplicity and humility, as an ordinary person.

In New York, he accepted work in the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim, where he had numerous responsibilities for forty-five years.

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But the central focus of his life was doing chesed. The daily visits to the bank on behalf of the yeshiva were also utilized to help people. An indication of the respect in which he was held, was that bank would open a window exclusively for him and have a teller serve him

People in need of a small loan, to cash a check, or obtain a guarantor’s signature would stand in line to speak to him. There were times that Rabbi Friedman’s line was longer than the lines of people waiting to see a bank officer. His word was worth gold, both to bank officials and to the Jewish community.

One of the people who benefited from Reb Yaakov Moshe’s assistance was Reb Shaya Boymelgreen. After the shiva, he wrote a letter to the family.

“I was one of the many who waited for Reb Yaakov Moshe in the bank, in order to cash either my checks or someone else’s. He always greeted me with affection and a glowing face as if I would be doing him a favor. I always felt that he had a special relationship with me and that was why he was so warm to me.

Over the course of time I realized that he was pleasant and sweet to others as well. But I will always have this special feeling for affection that he showed me.

Looking back, it seems that other people also assumed that they had a personal and warm relationship with him.”

During the shiva, a woman told the family that when she moved into the community she tried to open a bank account, and was unable to because she was new to the neighborhood and didn’t have anyone to vouch for her. Reb Yaakov Moshe, in the bank at the time, approached the bank officer and told him, “This woman is my relative. Everything is in order”.

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On one occasion, someone whose checks had caused Reb Yaakov Moshe problems numerous times, approached him with another scheme. One of Reb Yaakov’s relatives commented that this person had already proven himself untrustworthy and that Reb Yaakov should avoid dealing with him. Reb Yaakov responded, “Fulfilling a Mitzva is not so easy”.

People would approach Reb Yaakov Moshe in shul and would come to his house. He never told anyone to return at a more convenient time.

Once he was given forged checks to cash, with serious results. Federal investigators were led to Reb Yaakov Moshe. He was summoned to court and cross examined. One of the questions that the judge asked him was, “What did you receive for cashing these checks?” Reb Yaakov Moshe answered, “Many blessings, your honor, many blessings”.

The words engraved on his Matzeva included the following, “He was uniquely special in doing a Jew a favor”. Indeed, work that he did on behalf of others was something normally undertaken by an organization with many employees. He was a one-man project of generosity, working without interruption day-after-day, with a warm greeting, a sweet smile, in a low-key and unassuming manner.

When Reb Yaakov Moshe once came to receive a dollar from the Rebbe, he had a big smile on his face. The Rebbe commented, “I wish that everyone would come as you do, with a radiant and joyful face.”

Reb Yaakov Moshe had a custom not to enter a store if he did not plan to buy any thing. If he did buy something, he would never return it.

He also excelled in kibud av, honoring one’s parents. Everyday he drove to Borough Park to visit his father. He was always at his side, assisting him in all of his affairs.

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Reb Yaakov Moshe’s son recalled that over the years, a group of people would get a ride to Boro Park with his father every day. After Reb Yaakov Moshe’s father was nifter and the shiva was over, they waited for him in front of the house as customary. When Reb Yaakov saw the people waiting, he drove them to Borough Park and continued doing so every day.

Over the course of the years he maintained a shtibel, where the minyan would enjoy his sweet voice as Baal Tfila and Baal Koreh and from where he conducted his charitable business. People knew that they could always find him there and he rarely left the shul without helping someone. He was known for the Shabbos zmiros, accompanied by his six sons.

Approximately forty-five years ago, Reb Yaakov Moshe and his family lived at 1414 President Street and shared a backyard with Rebbetzin Chana, who lived in the next building in 1418. The Rebbetzin once remarked to her son, the Rebbe, that she enjoyed hearing Reb Yankel sing zmiros with his children. Recently, his family released a CD containing all the zmiros that was sung at his table.

The lyrics to an old Yiddish song allude to a “paper bridge” that Jews will cross when Moshaich comes. The papers refer to the pages of Chumash, Mishna, Gemoro, and Tehillim that the Jewish nation has learned over the course of the generations. On this “Bridge of Paper” Moshiach will arrive.

Family members commented, “Our father always worked with paper; first with visas, then with transport certificates and passports, and afterwards with checks. All these papers will surely create a strong bridge leading straight to Gan Eden”.

Reb Yaakov Moshe was nifter on the tenth of Nissan 5764 (2004), shortly before Pesach.

He left his wife, Mrs. Miriam Tzimel Friedman; his daughter Mrs. Faige Kranz-Green, a shlucha residing in Florida; his son, Reb Menachem Manis, a shliach in Minnesota and a prominent lecturer; his daughter, Mrs. Ita Marcus, a shlucha in California; his son, Reb Benzion, a shliach in Kansas; his son, Reb Alter Eliyohu, shliach in Tzfas and author of many sforim; and in Crown Heights, his sons, Reb Mordechai Shlomo, the administrator of the Lubavitch Youth Organization; Reb Yosef Boruch, director of Kehot Publications; Reb Avrohom Shabsi, the famous Chassidic singer.

A gemilas chesed fund, “Keren Yaakov Moshe” has been established in his name by his family. In addition, the family established “Yad Lshliach”, a fund to help shluchim with their personal expenses. To date, they have dispersed over three-hundred-thousand dollars. The family requests that Crown Heights residents contribute to these funds in their father’s memory.

Yehi Zichro Boruch! May Reb Yaakov Moshe’s life as a Kohen and “Ish Hachesed” who selflessly helped anyone that turned to him at any time, serve as the inspiration to greet everyone with a warmth and friendliness that makes them feel special, particularly when doing them a favor.

We should speedily witness “The ones who dwell in the dust will awaken and rejoice” and Reb Yaakov Moshe with amongst them.

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5 Comments

  • 1. No argument here wrote:

    A very special man I used to go meet him to cash checks for my father alway a smile never lost his cool or made you feel small. I’m sure he’s right up there in gan Eden smiling down

  • 2. Grateful wrote:

    I am grateful to ch.info for putting up these articles.

    I remember r’ Yankle Friedman well. Ish hachessed is so true. But it doesn’t fully capture how special a person he was. Absolutely extraordinary.

    The gemach and even more the Yadlshliach.org fund are such befitting tributes.

  • 3. A Very Special (Young) Man wrote:

    Evan as young Bachur R’ Yakkov (Fetter Yakkov) was involved in Ahavas Yisroel in a very dedicated way by putting himself out to help other particularly an almana and yesomos..

    Yehi zichro baruch

  • 4. verification wrote:

    in your story you write “He once walked a long way in ragged shoes, fighting off wild dogs, in order to bring food and blankets to a poor widow and her five children.”

    I am a child of one of the children..BTW it was 7 not 5 children

  • 5. family wrote:

    If anyone would like to donate to the gmach in his name, can do so by sending a check to keren Yakov Moshe
    701 Montgomery st 11213

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