My mother with Rabbi Sam, at my cousin’s bris in 1988.
Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things that can be experienced. There is so much to be done by those close to the deceased, who may not know which way is up or have the headspace to deal with seemingly trivial matters. One of the first calls made when these events occur, besides to other relatives, is to one’s rabbi, to help pick up the pieces and slowly move forward. When my mother passed away, there was a lot to do, and a few rabbis were consulted and were so very helpful. That’s part of their job.
But what do you do when the lost loved one is the rabbi, the mortal conduit through which one can begin to overcome? What happens when they cannot answer the phone and guide you through the oblivion of grief? Who do you call when the one you’re mourning is the one who is supposed to help you get past the sadness?
Over Shabbat, Rabbi Sam Fraint passed away. He was our rabbi. Granted, our family had not paid dues to his synagogue or even lived in his community for over 25 years, but he was our rabbi. Let me be clear: this is not meant to diminish the impact and amazing relationships that my father, sister, and I share with the rabbis of the synagogues in Cleveland and beyond that we are now affiliated with. Not one iota. But Rabbi Sam was our rabbi and was tremendously revered in our house. And we loved him.
Our relationship begins over 30 years ago, when the senior rabbi of the largest Conservative synagogue in Chicago was looking for a new youth director. He knew of a woman who had taught at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. As she was was finishing a graduate degree in Boston, the rabbi, having heard of her all-star reputation with youth from a previous role of hers, reached out and offered her the job. The synagogue’s young assistant rabbi instantly noted how she had an unbelievable way with kids, himself included, he admitted later.
It was a reality that he remembered a few years later, when the two had both moved on from that shul on the North Shore. She was home raising her children, and he was at the helm of a new congregation, and was in need of a director of education. The rabbi reached out to his former colleague with this opportunity, and she mulled it over, clearly unsure if this was the right move for her. He asked how much money she’d need to make in order to seal the deal, and she responded with a certain amount. The response was “well, I’m going to give you $5,000 more than that.” That woman was my mother, and that rabbi was Rabbi Sam Fraint.
After a few years of working at the Moriah Congregation, our family moved to Cleveland. While this decision was, in my opinion, one of the best that my parents ever made, it’s never easy to say goodbye to a community that means so much to you. Over the years, the Fraint family have been a constant in our lives. Rabbi Sam was at my parents’ wedding. He named me at my bris. I practically idolized his son Zeke (I’m pretty sure we were at his Bar Mitzvah). Rabbi Sam even got a bracha under my sister Dena’s chuppah less than a year ago. We may have lived hours apart, I can hardly recall a time among the many that we visited Chicago when we did not see him, either surprising him in shul on Shabbos/Yuntif morning or going to his house. To visit him at Moriah was a real treat. The warm, lay-led environment of Ramahniks and USYers was (and I assume still is) a magical place. On one occasion, he made my father read Torah unexpectedly, although was an aliyah that he’s lained probably a dozen times. On almost every other occasion, he welcome us back to Moriah as he stood to speak to the congregation. This happened whether it was a regular Shabbos or if there were a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or an Aufruf.
And he and his wife Deena would drive to see us as well. As we were situated on the route between Chicago and New York/New Jersey, our home seemed to be a perfect rest stop location for the Fraints.
Rabbi Sam made me cry twice in my life. The first was when a Moriah congregant passed away the Thursday night before my Bar Mitzvah and he and Deena weren’t going to be able to join us. The second was when he spoke at my mother’s funeral. “Sheila Balk was my friend–my good friend. Since she and Mitchell moved to Cleveland, my wife and I hadn’t seen them very often. Each time I did have the opportunity to be with her over the last 20 years, her condition, an all-purpose euphemism to the torture she was subjected, her condition came to me as a shock. I don’t know anyone else who could’ve maintained herself– her personality, her ability to care for others (especially her children), her sense of humor and sense of self–in the way that Sheila did. She was part of God’s natural aristocracy, a description I’m not certain she would’ve been particularly fond of. But that’s who she was. Some people can be ’tischak leeyom acharon,’ most people cannot. But Sheila could, and she did…”
And boy was he smart. Rabbi Sam was absolutely brilliant, yet his intellect would not stop him from sugar-coating the truth. He was a powerful orator, could, at times, say things from the bimah that were not politically correct. These were items that Rabbi Sam would grapple with tooth and nail, but would never compromise on the truth and how it made him feel.
A few years ago, he made it onto two prestigious lists. The first, was being named as one of the most inspirational rabbis in America. The second, was the secret “blacklist” of rabbis whose conversions were not accepted by the Chief Rabbinate of the state of Israel. I truly believe that these were both placements that he relished.
When he found out I was going to be a rabbi, he was kicking himself about how I ended up at RIETS and not at JTS. He told me that his own synagogue used Artscroll siddurim in addition to the Conservative Sim Shalom, and that it wasn’t too late for me to switch schools! (It was).
But by far the most meaningful thing to me about Rabbi Sam was that he took me, and other kids seriously. He made us feel important. While in high school, I was an active reader and less active emailer to the International USY Listserve. This email list not only went to USYers but to some rabbis and employees of Conservative synagogues as well. Rabbi Sam would take the time to respond to a few of the emails I sent (some of them are screenshotted below). There’s a reason I saved all of them. Never would he talk down to me, or converse with me the way adult would normally interact with a child. Most of the time, his notes were signed “Your friend, Sam Fraint.” And that’s exactly what he was.
I’ll never forget when my 8th grade class went to Israel, he walked over on Shabbat afternoon to the hotel we were staying at. I don’t know where he was walking from in Jerusalem or how long the trek was. What I do know is that we spent two hours talking like equals and old friends. My classmates were a bit puzzled as to who this guest was. Some thought he was an uncle, but none could fathom how the rabbi of a synagogue I used to go to a decade ago, hundreds of miles away from my current home, would come over and shmooze about everything from baseball to Ramah to dogs to any/all facets of Judaism. He treated me with unbelievable respect, and afforded me this same derech eretz when I matured as well.
There were times that his openness referred to earlier got my mother angry. She would tell him how she knows he’s right about x,y, and z, but he couldn’t say such things from the pulpit! They would talk it out, she would bust his chops, and he would smile and laugh it off. I can only hope that they’re doing just that right now in Gan Eden.
Yehi Zichro Baruch.
His reply to an email I wrote about Yom HaShoah to the USY International Listserve in Spring 2006.
An email I wrote mocking the summer trip itineraries of my fellow USYers to the USY International Listserve in Spring 2006
Rabbi Sam’s reply to that email. Sadly, we didn’t meet up in Greenland.