In his Psalms, King David refers to 70 years as a lifetime. In that case, Rabbi Dovid Edelman, 89, is currently marking a lifetime as an emissary of two Lubavitcher Rebbes, educating Jewish children since the summer of 1944.
“It was 11 o’clock on Friday morning in the weeks after Shavuot in 1944, and we had been up all night learning Torah, as yeshivah students normally do on Thursday nights,” recalls Edelman, a native of Baltimore, who was then a student at the Central Lubavitcher Yeshivah in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I got a message that the Rebbe [Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory] wanted to see me. Since I had already immersed in the mikvah after learning, I went right into the Rebbe’s study right above the yeshivah study hall. The Rebbe told me that I was to travel to Bridgeport, Connecticut, and found a Jewish school there.”
It had been just three years since young Dovid Edelman had arrived in Brooklyn from Baltimore, together with his friend Yosef Lieb, with whom he had studied Talmud and played baseball in the afternoons once home from public high school.
“Yosef graduated early and was already a student at Johns Hopkins [University]; he would learn every day with Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Axelrod, a prominent rabbi in Baltimore and a Lubavitcher Chassid,” recalls Edelman. “He recommended the new yeshivah, which the Rebbe had just founded in Brooklyn upon his arrival in New York in 1940.”
Right after the Shavuot holiday in the spring of 1941, sitting aboard a bus going north, the two could not make up their minds whether to attend the Chafetz Chaim yeshivah in Williamsburg or the new Lubavitcher yeshivah in Crown Heights.
Since they only had car fare for one trip, Dovid’s decision to take the bus to Crown Heights proved to be pivotal. Upon his arrival to 770 Eastern Parkway—or just “770,” as the Rebbe’s residence and study hall came to be known—he was greeted by students Sholom Chaskind and Yisroel Gordon, who told him of the greatness of the Rebbe, whose private residence sat right above the study hall.
Three days later, the young teen caught his first glimpse of the Rebbe. The Rebbe recited a Chassidic discourse—resplendent in his tall, fur Shabbat hat—and Dovid drank in the sight.
Then, just weeks later, on the 28th of Sivan, the Rebbe’s son-in-law and eventual successor arrived from war-torn Europe. “I was among the first to greet him at 770 and welcome him to America,” Edelman would recall. “For the whole day, people streamed in to greet him and welcome him.”
After the future Rebbe said the prayers for thanksgiving at the Torah reading two days later, he held a farbrengen [Chassidic gathering]. For the first four hours, from eight to midnight, he discussed the intricacies of laws of the “four who must thank G-d” for being saved from danger: One who had been ill, a person released from incarceration, one who returns from a sea voyage, and one who had traversed a desert.
“When midnight came, people thought it would end,” he continues. “But really, that was when he began in earnest, explaining that the incarcerated person is a metaphor for the soul, and the prison is our animalistic side. When the soul harnesses the natural tendencies to live in accordance with G-d’s will, the person is truly free and must thank G-d.”
For the next three years, the young student would devote himself to Torah study and prayer, rarely leaving Brooklyn.
Off to Bridgeport …
But in 1944, after leaving the Rebbe’s study with a new mandate to go to Bridgeport, Edelman met up with Rabbi Eliezer Pinchas Weiler, a traveling emissary of the Rebbe, who was instrumental in raising funds for the growing network of Chabad-Lubavitch schools and in starting new satellite branches all across America’s Northeast.
“With a nickel, we were on the subway to Manhattan, and an hour after that, we were on the express bus to Bridgeport.
“As we drove into town, Rabbi Weiler was looking out the window,” says Edelman, whose memory of events remains as lucid as if they happened yesterday. “When we reached the Jewish neighborhood, we got off the bus right outside a Jewish market, which was full of women shopping for Shabbat.
“Rabbi Weiler asked me if I knew how to draw. When I told him I could, he took a part of a fruit carton and instructed me to draw up a sign announcing that we would hold a Mesibos Shabbos—a Shabbat party for children the following day in the nearby Fraternal Hall.”
They spent the afternoon telling parents and children about the program that would take place on Shabbat afternoon.
Thirty children attended the event. After sharing refreshments, Jewish songs, a story and some Torah thoughts, Weiler announced that a new yeshivah would open in town, and the learning would commence on Sunday morning at 10 a.m. Edelman, all of 19 years old, would be the principal and Judaic-studies director.
With time, the yeshivah grew, and older students joined Edelman at its helm. Wishing to return to his own studies, he wrote a letter to the Rebbe requesting permission to leave the institution in the hands of the senior students. The response was not long in coming. The Rebbe replied that when you devote your energies to teaching others, “your heart and mind [benefit] a thousand-fold.”
While on Passover break in with his parents in Baltimore, Edelman received a letter that the Rebbe wanted him to travel to Pittsburgh, where he remained for a year before being sent to Buffalo, N.Y., where he would direct the Chabad school there until being replaced by Rabbi I.D. Groner. His next posting—this time with his wife, Leah, whom he had married in 1948—was in Boston, where his in-laws lived.
Leah (nee Zuber) was born in Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union. Her father, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Zuber, had been sent there by the Rebbe to strengthen Torah education and observance among the local Jewish population. Her family had spent the war years in neutral Sweden, where her father served as a community rabbi and proved instrumental in saving many lives.
It was just three weeks before the Rebbe’s passing in the winter of 1950 that the Edelmans were called to their final, permanent post: Springfield, Mass. The yeshivah there had been founded by Rabbi Sholom B. Gordon in 1945, and had been successively directed by Rabbis Zalman I. Posner and Yosef Goldstein.
When Rabbi Edelman arrived, Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy had an enrollment of several dozen students and an annual budget of $40,000. The following fall, he attended a Chassidic gathering with the new Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—together with the treasurer of the school. “At one point, the treasurer asked the Rebbe for a blessing that we should be able to cover the budget,” recalls Edelman. “The Rebbe responded that we should do our work, and he would supply the blessing. With that, we went back home and paid up back pay to our teachers—some of whom we owed 10 weeks of salary.”
For many decades, the rabbi’s duties ranged from bringing the children to school in his station wagon in the morning to making payroll late at night—and everything in between.
The Edelmans’ youngest daughter, Esther (the rabbi and his wife have eight children), recalls how her parents devoted themselves to the well-being of their school. “There was one day when the rug disappeared from my parents’ bedroom,” she says, “and I thought my mother must have decided she did not like it. A few days later, I saw it in the school office. When the school needed something, there was nothing that they would not do. Anyone with less inspiration and faith would never have lasted through the many lean years.”
Indeed, the yeshivah weathered many storms, including demographic shifts, assimilation and a devastating fire during the Sukkot holiday of 1977.
Following that, the Rebbe blessed them to reopen “in a new building in a new neighborhood.” At that point, the school relocated from Springfield to the suburb of Longmeadow, and another chapter began.
Off to Longmeadow …
The campaign to rebuild was spearheaded by Jeffrey Kimball, gabbai and a very active member of the shul; and the Edelmans’ two eldest sons-in-law, Col. Jacob Goldstein, a chaplain in the U.S. Army, and the late businessman Rabbi Zalman Deitsch.
In 1984, the rabbi was joined by Esther’s husband, Rabbi Noach Kosofsky, who has taken the role of principal, allowing the older rabbi to devote his energies to development as dean—a position he holds today, raising the million dollars needed annually to run a school that caters to 100 students from preschool to eighth grade.
In its Longmeadow home, the institution developed into more than just a day school. It has added a Hebrew school and day camp, as well as an active synagogue that offers prayer services, Torah classes for adults and the full gamut of programs normally offered by Chabad centers, including the rabbi’s long-running Talmud class. Five Chabad emissary couples serve the school and the community.
In 1999 it received accreditation from the prestigious New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), and became a “Leader in Me” school in 2011. These marks of recognition have allowed it to broaden enrollment in an area where the Orthodox core of 60 years ago has largely dwindled.
Now educating a third (and even fourth) generation of students, the rabbi remains a very visible presence in the academic institution.
According to Rabbi Chaim Kosofsky, who teaches there, “Rabbi Edelman loves every student in the school; it is felt by everyone. He will bend over to hear a 3-year-old say a blessing, so he could answer ‘Amen.’ He still visits the hospital, goes to many shiva houses and meets people at work. He has an amazing ability to remember people, their parents, their grandparents—and shares his stories with whomever he meets.
“He often stops into the classrooms to speak to the children about upcoming holidays or the Torah portion of the week—not because the teachers are not teaching, but because he loves teaching Judaism to children.”