Any parent in Bais Yaakov in 1999 will remember the peanut revolution. Overnight, peanuts were no longer allowed in school. Why? Because one child in the school had a deathly peanut allergy. Today, peanut-free schools are commonplace. Back then, it was unheard of. The parents protested: “What are we supposed to send in our kids’ lunches?” they asked.
But Rabbi Mendel Freedman, z”l, the principal of Bais Yaakov Elementary School from 1979 until 2015, stayed firm. “It’s pikuach nefesh,” he said, “and every child needs to be able to learn in a safe environment.” He had consulted with several rabbanim and wasn’t afraid to stand behind the new policy. To the teachers in the school, he said, “If it were my own child, I would do the same thing.”
This sums up Rabbi Freedman’s attitude to everything in Bais Yaakov. If he felt something was important, he did it, no matter the opposition he received.
A Mechanech’s Mechanech
Rabbi Freedman has been called a mechanech’s mechanech, an educator’s educator. As principal of Bais Yaakov of Baltimore Elementary School for 36 years, he was a familiar face to thousands of girls. Yet his son, Rabbi Paysach Freedman, says, “Mechanech was just one of his facets. Maybe it’s the most well known, but really, at his core, he was an eved Hashem (servant of G-d).”
A child of Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Freedman had a very strong sense of responsibility to klal Yisrael. His father, the sole survivor of a large family, told him once, “I figure if Hashem made me, of all people, survive, it must have been for a reason. I wasn’t going to let Hitler finish the job.”
This attitude was passed on to his son, who approached everything in life with a measure of seriousness: We have to act for klal Yisrael, no matter what situation we find ourselves in.
After five years of teaching in TA, Rabbi Freedman was hired as English principal of Bais Yaakov Elementary School in 1979, eventually becoming both English and Hebrew principal of the elementary school when his father-in-law, Rabbi Hirsch Diskind, z”l, retired. Even in the early years, his love and care for every student was manifest. His teachers recall how he knew each student by name. He would go around the hallways giving out Winkies to any girl who looked sad but cheered up when he spoke to her.
“I remember him coming into my classroom and playing the piano for the kids,” remarks Morah Marcia Bitman, a preschool teacher in Bais Yaakov who worked under Rabbi Freedman for 34 years. “He always strove for excellence in the classroom. He would comment if he saw something that he felt needed upgrading, telling us, ‘Get whatever you need and don’t worry about the cost.’”
As a principal, Rabbi Freedman was creative and original. “He loved out-of-the-box ideas,” says Morah Judy Salfer, another longtime preschool teacher. “If we came to him with an idea of something that had never been done before, he’d get just as excited as we did.”
One example is the end-of-year learning carnival in the preschool, which focuses on the skills the girls learned during the year. When Morah Salfer approached Rabbi Freedman with the idea, he loved it and told her to go for it. The carnival tradition continues to this day.
“He was always looking for new ways to use technology,” adds Morah Esti Greenstein, a preschool school morah who worked under Rabbi Freedman for 36 years. “He wasn’t content to rest on his laurels. He kept striving for more and more. And he passed this on to his teachers, too. One day he came into the office and saw me typing my newsletter on the typewriter. He said, ‘Mrs. Greenstein, you should be doing this on a computer!’ Well, now I do,” she concludes with a chuckle.
He instilled his love for Eretz Yisrael in the students too. When his father-in-law, Rabbi Diskind, moved to Eretz Yisrael, they created a program called “From Yerushalayim to Yerushalayim.” It was a reference to Baltimore, which Rabbi Diskind referred to as “the Yerushalayim of America.” Rabbi Diskind would prepare audio addresses for the elementary school in Eretz Yisrael, and Rabbi Freedman would have them played over the intercom for the entire preschool and elementary. “I don’t know of any other school that had a program like that,” says Mrs. Greenstein.
For the teachers, there were inspiring video hookups with mechanchim in other cities. “At the opening session in August each year, he had people from Eretz Yisrael speak to us by video conference,” says Mrs. Greenstein. This was about 10 years ago, before teleconferencing and video conferencing were as common as they are today.
In his office, Rabbi Freedman had what he called his “torture board” – a board that he used for analyzing class dynamics for the incoming first grade each year. “He would write the name of each incoming first grader on a tag and hang the tags on the nails hammered into the board,” says Mrs. Greenstein. “Then he would spend the entire summer moving the tags around, figuring out which combination of girls would work well, so he could create a classroom that would have the best chance of success.”
Another preschool teacher, Morah Chayke Karp, remembers that there was once a child entering the school midyear after her family moved to Baltimore from Eretz Yisrael. Rabbi Freedman called Morah Chayke to ask if the little girl could come over to her house to meet her so the girl would feel comfortable walking into class the next day. “He thought out-of-the-box to make people feel comfortable,” she says. “It was like family to him.”
Doing What He Needed to Do
Everything that Rabbi Freedman did was for the benefit of his students – and for his teachers, who testify that he was always there for them.
“Early on, I was known as the teacher with all the classroom games,” says Morah Tova Taragin, who taught in Bais Yaakov under Rabbi Freedman for 29 years. “I was into individualized learning and created a lot of learning centers and games. One time, I came into school on the last day of the year and realized that my games, which I had packed up in a box to take home, had been thrown into the dumpster! Rabbi Freedman climbed into the dumpster, in his white shirt and black pants, and fished them out.”
Another telling story occurred on a snow day. “I had an overwhelming fear of driving in the snow, and I almost never let myself drive to Bais Yaakov if there was even a 10 percent chance of snow,” Mrs. Taragin says. “I always got rides on those days. One day, I was caught by surprise when it started to snow during my class. Rabbi Freedman, knowing how scared I was, drove my car up the long, winding driveway to Park Heights in the snow. Park Heights was a snow lane and was already being plowed. After making sure I was okay with driving, he walked back down to the school.”
He took pride in his teachers and even created special programs for them. “He would video master teachers and send the videos to Eretz Yisrael for seminaries to use,” recalls Mrs. Greenstein. “For five years, he had a summer program for the teachers in the elementary school – including the preschool teachers! You could submit your name to a goral, and if you won you went to a specially designed session for Bais Yaakov of Baltimore morahs in Eretz Yisrael.
“I won the goral one year and I was flown to Eretz Yisrael with five other teachers for the program. We sat in a classroom and had a real seminary experience with amazing teachers. I still remember those classes today. Rabbi Freedman felt that if we were growing, it would spill over to our talmidos.”
“Every Girl Has a Place Here”
One of the most significant things that Rabbi Freedman accomplished in his years at Bais Yaakov was allowing children with special needs to attend a mainstream school. “He faced opposition from within and without,” says Rabbi Paysach Freedman frankly. “It’s hard to imagine 30 years later, but there were parents who said things like, ‘I don’t want my kid in class with a deaf kid,’ or ‘I don’t want my kid sitting in class with a kid with Down syndrome.’”
But Rabbi Freedman wasn’t deterred. “He was way ahead of the curve on special ed,” says Rabbi Yochanan Stein, Rabbi Freedman’s son-in-law and the current principal of Bais Yaakov Upper Elementary School. “Special education only really started to take root in the early 1990s. He was a pioneer. Not just for the obvious cases, but also for the hidden disabilities, like learning issues and attention disorders. He was always trying to reach those students. He put systems in place to help them. He never settled; he understood when a boundary should be pushed and a door should be opened.”
Rabbi Freedman taught the teachers to extend themselves as well. “Because of his willingness to accommodate any and all disabilities, he stretched the school in ways that were never heard of before,” comments Mrs. Greenstein. “When we had children who had hearing impairments, he taught the teachers how to use FM receivers so the children could hear the lessons. There was a girl with physical disabilities who couldn’t use a regular desk. He got the janitorial staff to create a special desk for her. He bent over backward and did whatever had to be done to help a kid learn.”
When Sora Mindy Cook (now Cynamon), who is blind, entered Bais Yaakov, she needed extra help as well. “He was so excited to help her,” recalls Sora Mindy’s mother, Mrs. Esky Cook. “We heard that there was a blind girl in a frum school in New York. Rabbi Freedman wanted to see what he could learn from the staff there, so my husband and I drove to New York with him, together with Mrs. Renee Bienstock, head of P’TACH, to see what they were doing!
“His attitude was, ‘We will do anything to help her.’ For a few years, she had to attend public school because there was no government funding for private schools for the help she needed. Rabbi Freedman told me, ‘If ever she has a day off, she will always have a class in Bais Yaakov.’ And that’s what we did. Every vacation day in public school, she went to Bais Yaakov.”
After third grade, Sora Mindy became a regular full-time student in Bais Yaakov. “Rabbi Freedman did everything possible to make things perfect for her. I can’t imagine another principal who would be like him,” Mrs. Cook declares. “And all the kids gained. The other girls were exposed to a kid who was blind, and they learned from her as well.”
What gave Rabbi Freedman the ability to do what he did for these students? “He saw potential for anyone to succeed,” explains Rabbi Stein. “He didn’t look at these children as any different from a typical child. It was part of his mission. In fact, he got a second master’s degree in special education. He did a lot of research to make sure what he did would be viable within the community. His attitude was always to make Bais Yaakov as inclusive a school as possible.”
After his heart transplant 10 years ago, Rabbi Freedman returned to Bais Yaakov with renewed energy – to the amazement of his doctors, who said that most people his age would have simply retired at that point.
“He had a lot more physical energy after the transplant,” says Rabbi Paysach Freedman. “And he also felt a special hakaras hatov to Hashem for the added years to his life. After the transplant, he said Modeh Ani three times a day. He knew he had to keep going, to keep giving to the klal.”
“He went through so many things,” concurs Mrs. Greenstein. “Any one of those things would have made a different person retire and give up. But he wouldn’t give up. He just found a way to meet each challenge head on. His legacy to the children of Bais Yaakov is that the limitations other people put on you shouldn’t hold you back.”
After announcing his retirement in the 2014-2015 school year, Rabbi Freedman waited until appropriate replacements were hired before he actually stepped down. Some people were surprised that he was retiring; after all, he was only in his mid-60s, and there are those who stay in chinuch long after that point. But he wanted to retire while he was still doing a good job, says Rabbi Paysach Freedman. “He didn’t want to stick around until he had become irrelevant.”
The mark Rabbi Freedman left on Bais Yaakov will not be quickly forgotten. And in the halls of Bais Yaakov, his presence is still felt, even though he hasn’t been an active part of the school for close to a year. “We always knew he was there,” says Rabbi Stein. “It’s a void that isn’t going to be easily filled.”