One by one, the rabbanim of Englewood ascended the podium at Congregation Shomrei Emunah on February 7 to talk about what Rabbi Yosef Strassfeld, zt”l, former rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Simcha, meant to his students and the broader Englewood Jewish community. The program marked Rabbi Strassfeld’s shloshim with a siyum and the announcement of a new scholarship fund in his memory. The Rabbi Yosef Strassfeld Memorial Scholarship fund has been started with a commitment of $75,000 toward a goal of $350,000.
Still reeling from the loss, Englewood’s Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, Rabbi Menachem Genack, Rabbi Chaim Poupko and Rabbi Zev Reichman shared stories about Rabbi Strassfeld’s unique ability to reach out to everyone who came to him with warmth and caring. Rabbi Menachem Strassfeld began the program by explaining how his father’s childhood pain formed his dedication to teaching Torah with love. It is the ultimate story of turning lemons into lemonade. “My father was a child of divorce; he had a hard childhood,” Rabbi Strassfeld said. “But he chose to use that experience to do something positive. He wanted to make sure no one else felt unloved and uncared for.” Two people can have the same traumatic experience, yet one can rise above it while the other doesn’t recover, he said. “My father said he wouldn’t trade his childhood if he could; he wouldn’t be the same person.”
Rabbi Goldin called Rabbi Strassfeld “a leader who will be sorely missed.” He recalled the levaya, where he saw two men in the parking lot, graduates of the yeshiva, consoling each other on their loss. “That captured what Rabbi Strassfeld meant to us, the community and the talmidim,” he said. “Real sanctity comes from a handshake, a smile, the heart. That kedusha endeared him to all of us. He won everybody over. All you had to do was meet him.”
Rabbi Reichman formed a very personal bond with Rabbi Strassfeld, recalling how the yeshiva sold the building that was its first home to East Hill Synagogue. “He was a giver, always looking to give, even when he was in pain,” Rabbi Reichman said.
That giving, loving spirit came out in numerous ways. Rabbi Genack said he recently met a parent whose son had been a talmid at the yeshiva when it was still fairly new. The parent recalled that in those days, a cell phone was still a rarity and calls were more expensive. Yet Rabbi Strassfeld gave the parent his cell phone number and said, “Call any time you need me.”
Even in the dark days, he had simchat hachaim (joie de vivre), said Rabbi Genack. And he had “extraordinary love and caring for his talmidim.” His attitude was visible to all. “He had a luminous look; he glowed with simcha. His love and chesed will remain in our hearts.”
Before Rabbi Poupko learned the final mishna out loud to make a siyum, he talked about the community coming together to learn in Rabbi Strassfeld’s memory. It was a tribute to how he could interact with so many people from all different backgrounds.
As his son related at the beginning of the evening, he was an outsider who worked his way into people’s hearts. And they worked their way into his. All his chavrutot thought they were his best friends. And they were.
To make a donation to the Rabbi Yosef Strassfeld Memorial Scholarship Fund, visit http://www.yeshivaohrsimcha.org/communityfund.
By Bracha Schwartz