“There’s no better teacher of Yahadus than a rebbetzin. Everyone watches her, hears what she says, and sees what she does.”
This quote from Shirley Lamm comes from her long life as a rebbetzin, coast to coast.
Young Shirley was almost born into it. Her father, Meyer Friedman, was a pulpit rabbi and her mother was a true example of an eishet chayil. “Everything I know and everything I learned was from my parents,” she says. “Chesed, Shabbos, tznius, charity, all of it came from the example my parents set.”
In those days, 80 years ago, most girls did not attend yeshiva. But Shirley Friedman could be found every Shabbos morning sitting next to her mother in shul, learning from her how to daven and revere the Torah.
Shirley moved around a lot as a child, to whichever community where her father had a position. She was born in Passaic, New Jersey, and moved from there to Bridgeport, Connecticut; East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; North Adams, Massachusetts and then it was back to Connecticut, this time New Haven.
She didn’t have an Orthodox friend until she was 15, so she spent Shabbos afternoons at home reading the encyclopedia. During the week she spent considerable time playing the violin; in fact, the dream of her youth was to be a violinist. Her grandfather worried about her lack of a yeshiva education.
Shirley met Rabbi Maurice Lamm at Yale University’s Sterling Library, where she was working. (Maurice’s brother Norman, also a young rabbi at the time, would go on to become president of Yeshiva University.) Shirley and Maurice were married in 1955.
Maurice was a first lieutenant in the U.S. army, stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. He built a synagogue in a chapel on the base. The Jewish soldiers would come Friday night to eat a Shabbos meal. “We had a house off base and I cooked all the food and brought it to the shul for the soldiers,” Shirley recalls. “That was really my first post.”
Rabbi Lamm’s term of duty ended after two years and Shirley soon gave birth to their first child, David, in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where her parents lived.
Maurice was looking for a pulpit in New York, but so were all the other young rabbis. He took a position in Puerto Rico. The shul, Shirley recalls, was beautiful. The congregation was Orthodox, though most members were not. All was going well until the shul’s president, who was married to a non-Jew, wanted Rabbi Lamm to preside at the bar mitzvah of his son. Rabbi Lamm told the president that both the boy and his mother would have to be converted. The president refused.
“We had only been there for eleven months,” says Shirley, “but my husband chose to leave rather than compromise his religious principles. That was actually a good learning experience for me. And I was not bitter about it. Once again, we went to my parents who were now living in Boro Park, Brooklyn. Our daughter Judith was born there.”
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Rabbi Lamm’s next pulpit was in Floral Park, New York. “I had people over, I did programs and I taught the women,” says Shirley. “I think I was liked by the women of the shul – except for one.”
The woman who disliked Shirley had a husband who liked the rebbetzin a little too much. It was an uncomfortable situation. “As a young rebbetzin, I didn’t know how to handle this unwanted attention. I did not discuss it with anyone. But this was also a learning experience for me. As the years have passed I’ve seen that it has become a problem in the rabbinate. I can say in the strongest terms that a rabbi should never counsel anyone in his home, and even in the shul it should never be at night and the door to his study should be kept wide open.”