Downtown Cleveland may not seem like the Wild West, but for Rabbi Yossi Freedman, it bears some resemblance.
As the co-director of Downtown Cleveland Chabad, Freedman and his wife, Chaya (Wilansky), have been engaging Jewishly with people who work and live downtown and in near west side neighborhoods since 2010. They also established Downtown Chabad Young Professionals in 2013.
“It is definitely an outpost,” Freedman said, adding that both he and his wife were raised in “a general community – not necessarily an Orthodox community – where we were enthralled with the idea of engaging everybody that does not have a traditional background and getting them excited about Jewish life.”
In Cleveland, Freedman has also volunteered to help with administrative and business aspects of the Cleveland Kosher Food Pantry, which his grandmother, Rebbetzin Devorah Alevsky, leads.
Born in Mayfield Heights, Freedman, 37, spent much of his childhood in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, where his parents, Sarah (Alevsky) Freedman and the late Rabbi Moshe Freedman were sent to establish a Chabad presence. For high school he was sent to Yeshivas Lubavitch, a boarding school in Oak Park, Mich.
He subsequently studied at Kfar Chabad Yeshiva outside Tel Aviv and at the Rabbinical College of America-Lubavitch in Morristown, N.J., receiving ordination at Central Chabad Yeshiva in Brooklyn in 2008. While in rabbinical school, he began teaching at Mesivta Lubavitch of Chicago.
In 2010, his uncle, Rabbi Zushe Greenberg of Solon Chabad, advocated that the couple move to downtown Cleveland to serve young Jewish professionals living there.
“At that time, I didn’t want to hear about Cleveland,” Freedman said. “But downtown was definitely appealing to me because it was not an established community. So for us, it was actually a positive, not a negative.”
Freedman’s first event was the Chanukah menorah lighting of 2010 on Public Square with then-Mayor Frank Jackson. Since then, he and his wife have hosted Shabbat dinners, studied with commuters, had small social gatherings for empty nesters and put on events for young Jews living downtown.
“The numbers are growing,” Freedman said. “The number of people coming in is always greater than the people moving out. It’s fascinating to see the assortment of people that are coming here.”
He said reaching young professionals has proved to be challenging. And during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Freedman said, “People really started getting hungry for community.”
At that time, he began to reach out in person, giving out Shabbat packets to people.
“We would invite people to come to our house with social distancing, you know, a few feet away,” Freedman said. “Not only would they receive a Shabbat or holiday to-go packet, we would spend time with them and schmooze with them, find out how their life is going.”
He called the programs “hybrid in-person community.”
“I think that’s what resonated with a lot of people – that there was a physical outpost and some sort of human connection that was able to carry throughout COVID,” he added.
Downtown Chabad’s biggest events are social parties, drawing from 50 to more than 100 people, he said. And Freedman has laid the foundation to growing that beyond Downtown Cleveland Chabad. “We can’t wait to expand our brick-and-mortar presence here.”