This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.
A young student under the charge of Yisroel Friedman once left a Talmud study session to do his laundry. The boy’s action so distressed Rabbi Friedman that he fretted aloud to the other students for half an hour.
Rabbi Friedman, the longtime dean of Oholei Torah, a leading yeshiva of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn, rarely let worldly matters intrude on his service to God. He was pious and sincere; even sugar in his coffee was a frivolity.
“It was one consistent life of devotion,” said D. Maimon Kirschenbaum, a former student of Rabbi Friedman’s and an employment lawyer in Manhattan. “He studied intensely. He prayed intensely. He didn’t let up.”
Another former pupil, Mendel Rubin, called Rabbi Friedman “an internist,” adding: “He wanted us to internalize our learning, make it part of our life. Not close the book at the end of the day, but make it shape your perspective.”
Rabbi Friedman died on April 1 at N.Y.U. Langone Health in Manhattan. He was 83. Nosson Blumes, director of development for Oholei Torah, said the cause was the novel coronavirus.
Rabbi Friedman had a razor-sharp intellect and an argumentative teaching style. He would call out students in class for one knowledge lapse or another. Yet he also had a “soft underbelly,” said Rabbi Rubin, and was known to display humor and a paternal sensitivity.
“When I was a student, I didn’t pay attention to my appearance because I was so immersed in my studies,” said Rabbi Rubin, who is now co-director of Shabbos House, a Chabad student center in Albany. “He asked my study partner if I could use money for clothes.”
Such purchases came out of a fund that Reb Yisroel, as his students called him, kept for students in need, whether the need was for shoes or tuition. Not that Rabbi Friedman cared much about material things. One acquaintance speculated that he might have worn the same coat for 30 years.
Yisroel Friedman was born on Nov. 28, 1936, in Beshenkovichi, a town in what is now Belarus but was then Byelorussia, a part of the Soviet Union. His mother, Gittel Friedman, was a seamstress. His father, Yaakov Friedman, was a graveyard worker and unofficial rabbi for the local Jewish community. He was conscripted into the Russian Army during World War II and killed in action.
According to Chabad.org, Rabbi Friedman’s mother fled her homeland with her three sons, going first to the Central Asian city of Samarkand and then to Germany and France before settling in Israel.
He moved to New York in 1956 and three years later began teaching at a Chabad yeshiva in Newark. He took up a position at Oholei Torah in 1965. His home in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn was a few blocks from the school.
Rabbi Friedman’s wife, Chana Luba (Gurkov) Friedman, died in 2014. He is survived by a daughter, Rochel Friedman.
After his death, former students and others gathered on a Zoom call for a virtual remembrance that lasted nine hours. Another online memorial took place through Chabad.org. Mr. Kirschenbaum, the Manhattan lawyer, was one of the mourners there.
“He would read a text 100 times and think about it,” Mr. Kirschenbaum said in an interview. “He would see things in a way that most of us didn’t perceive. You’d see his face, he’d stroke his beard, and he’d be in the zone.”