“He listened to me.”
“He understood me.”
“He opened the door to my soul and I made the decision to change my life.”
Again and again, these are the words women use to describe the impact Rabbi Manis Friedman has had on their lives. Since the 1970s, women seeking spiritual meaning and direction have been turning to Friedman whose gift for listening is matched by his gift for teaching in clear, simple, blessedly platitude-free terms.
When he co-founded Bais Chana Institute in Minnesota over 40 years ago, Rabbi Friedman turned his attention to a neglected demographic: women with little or no tethers to traditional Judaism who either had no substantive Jewish education, or had been turned off by what they did learn. Four decades later, the number of Bais Chana alumnae reaches into the thousands. The soft-spoken rabbi with the deadpan humor is the quiet inspiration behind the revolution that has empowered Jewish women to take control of their lives.
Though there are life-transforming gurus a gogo, Rabbi Friedman's influence remains unimpeachable. Hinda Leah Sharfstein, a one-time student now Executive Director of Bais Chana, said Rabbi Friedman's strength is knowing how to feed a "generation fed spiritual and cultural junk food," whether it was the post-hippie of the early seventies, the disenchanted yuppie of the Reagan era or the over-texted, iPathetic teen of today.
Nachshon Zohari, LCSW, a therapist who helps advise the 1000 women who attend Rabbi Friedman's Bais Chana retreats each year, explains: "Rabbi Friedman's success is not complicated. He never dilutes his message. He understands the essence of the person in front of him and speaks straight to the essence of a person's soul."
Rabbi Friedman's gifts for encapsulating Jewish thought and compelling delivery were recognized early. He was on his first lecture tour for the Lubavitch Youth Organization age as a shy 16 year-old. With his knack for slicing and dicing a Chasidic concept right down to its core, Rabbi Friedman's choice to devote his career to the teaching of women was thought by some to be a soft option.
Not Rabbi Friedman: "Teach a woman, you teach a world." Women not only start and guide families, they shape generations and have the power to compel men to be their best selves, he explains. On the subject of relationships, he looks to the simple and obvious, often overlooked in favor of complicated, fancy solutions: "If women expect respect and commitment, then men will give it to them. Most men will do anything to make women happy."
On family, Friedman, the father of 14, observes a complete breakdown in the parent-child dynamic and insists on the tried and true of basic parenting: “Behave like a mother, assert your role as a moral guide in the life of your child, and your children will respect you, and grow up to be morally responsible adults.”
When Rabbi Friedman married and moved to work with Chabad of Minnesota's senior representative Rabbi Moshe Feller, the prospects for success of a program like Bais Chana were uncertain at best.
Four decades ago, America was a country transitioning from imagining all the people living in harmony to "I am woman hear me roar." Donna Reed's cookies and milk as the feminine ideal were dumped in favor of power suits. Girls who reached womanhood in the '70s were the first raised with the Pill as a viable option, and in the world before AIDS, women were the guinea pigs living in the fallout from new sexual mores. Against a backdrop of casual relationships, Rabbi Friedman promoted traditional Jewish values and spoke up for preserving intimacy, creating boundaries.
Critics sniffed the heady scent of the times and sneered. "Americans will never respond to traditional Judaism," Rabbi Friedman recalls being told.
He persevered. A first season summer retreat to give college women the opportunity to catch up on Jewish learning before moving on to study programs in Israel grew. Women flocked to this rabbi whose wise, unassailably sensible answers to their fraught questions were culled directly from Chasidic teachings impeccably translated into modern syntax. A typical night at Bais Chana had Rabbi Friedman answering questions from women until the sun glinted off of Minnesota's ever-present snow.
Recently ranked one of the top nonprofits empowering women by GreatNonprofits and GuideStar, Bais Chana Institute now draws 800 women a year. The Bais Chana experience has diversified. There are teen programs, retreats for single moms, and now couple retreats. Rabbi Friedman boards an exhausting number of airplanes each year to lecture in too many time zones to count. His book Why Doesn't Anyone Blush Anymore: Reclaiming Intimacy, Modesty, and Sexuality, a HarperCollins imprint in its first incarnation in 1990, has been re-released to inspire today’s over-exposed, precociously sexualized generation.
Rabbi Friedman has done nothing less than change the way rabbis presented Jewish wisdom, said Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a TV-radio personality who regularly ranks among the top ten of Newsweek's list of 50 most influential rabbis. Rabbi Friedman's "insights into mystical thought and application of its ideas to human relationships has pioneered an entire industry of using Jewish teachers to enrich love between husbands and wives."
In classic Friedman understatement, he puts his devotion to his life's work this way. "How can you not want to help people when you know there is no need to suffer?"
Nominated as a Jewish Community Hero, Rabbi Friedman is in the top five. Voting ends on November 10.
Click here to vote for Rabbi Friedman
By Rebecca Rosenthal and Miriam Davids. Yedida Wolfe reported for this feature.