CHICAGO—Looking down from the balcony of his fourth-floor condo every Sukkot, Ephraim (Frank) Moscowitz could see dozens of sukkahs on driveways, balconies, porches and patios. It was a far cry from when he was among the only Jews in the city to build a sukkah near his home, an effort that included getting a $10 construction permit from the city in order to satisfy the concerns of his Jewish landlord.

A native Chicagoan, Moscowitz, who passed away Feb. 27 (6 Adar), was a lifelong educator who had a front-row seat to the growth of Orthodox Judaism in the city, particularly the meteoric rise of Chabad-Lubavitch, which was directed for decades by his son, the late Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz.

Born in February 1930 to Meir Shimon and Perel Golda Moscowitz, immigrants from Romania and Poland, young Ephraim grew up on Chicago’s old West Side, then home to a thriving Jewish immigrant community. Meir Shimon, a simple but sincere carpenter, often prayed at Congregation Anshei Lubavitch, then led by the charismatic Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Hecht. Young Ephraim learned Judaic subjects in the adjoining after-school Talmud Torah, which served public-school children like himself.

“Rabbi Hecht was extremely striking,” recalled Moscowitz in a conversation with “He had a full beard—something we only saw on elderly visiting rabbis from Europe—wore a long frock and exuded a feeling of authority.”

In early 1943, after his bar mitzvah, Ephraim took the train to New York, where he attended the just-opened Chabad high school. The “school” took up a single room on the ground floor of 770 Eastern Parkway, the newly purchased home of the Sixth Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory—and headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

In addition to Talmud and secular studies, he soaked up the Chassidic atmosphere and sentiments, which would remain with him for life.

After yeshivah, he went on to serve in the U.S. Army, and was stationed in Germany, where he managed to use his position to ease the lives of the Holocaust survivors then living in DP camps.

Following his service, he appeared in uniform before the Sixth Rebbe, who blessed him and urged him to be careful to put on tefillin daily.

Moscowitz, far left, with the graduating class of 1964 at the Bnei Ruven Talmud Torah
Moscowitz, far left, with the graduating class of 1964 at the Bnei Ruven Talmud Torah

Trained as an Educator

Back in Chicago, he attended Roosevelt College, majoring in education. Throughout, he maintained a close bond with Rabbi Hecht and regularly attended his monthly Tiferes Bachurim program in which young adults would get together to pray and enjoy a talk from Rabbi Hecht.

In college, he met Cynthia (Tzivia) Smidt, who was taking many of the same classes. He found that she shared his passion for Judaism—she was the only girl in the afternoon school of the synagogue where her father served as president—as well as his zest for life. The two married shortly after graduating in 1951 and began teaching in public school—she in primary school and he in middle school.

Decades later, students recall “Mr. Moscowitz” as a personable and memorable teacher who brought humor into his science and history lessons, and made every student feel noticed and appreciated. The couple chose to live in the Rogers Park neighborhood in order to be close to Anshei Lubavitch, which had relocated to that neighborhood.

Bucking the Trend

At that time, Chicago Jewry, including its significant traditional sector, was largely low-key, preferring to leave visible displays of Judaism at home or in the synagogue.

Largely inspired by Rabbi Hecht, the Moscowitzes were bucking the trend. And when Sukkot came, they knew they would build a sukkah of their own, even as their Rogers Park landlord cited fire safety as the ostensible reason it was not possible. Armed with a permit to build a garage in the apartment complex yard, he constructed a sukkah large enough to fit the family as well as some guests.

And in school, he let his students at the then-predominantly-Jewish Boone Elementary School know that an Orthodox Jew could be a fun and engaging teacher, leaving a lasting impression upon them.

Passionate about sharing Judaism, he taught Judaic studies in the afternoon school maintained by Congregation Agudas Chabad, then led by Rabbi Hershel (Harold) Shusterman. Over the years, he also taught at the afternoon schools of Congregation Mishna Ugemora and Congregation Bnei Ruven.

Wishing to give their four sons the stellar Jewish day-school education they never had, they were among the founding parents of the fledgling Bais Yaakov Hebrew Parochial School, now known as Yeshivas Tiferes Tzvi.

Despite the demands of their jobs, they found time to be active in the emerging Orthodox community in West Rogers Park, where they had moved. Cynthia was among the leaders of N’shei Chabad and served on the chevra kadisha (“Jewish burial society”), and Ephraim would assist Rabbi Hecht in his many outreach activities.

When it came time for their oldest to begin high school, they expected that he would attend Skokie Yeshiva where Moscowitz served as principal of secular studies.

However, Rabbi Hecht urged them to think of the long-term benefits of attending a more rigorous school where he would be fully immersed in Judaism and Judaic studies. And so, one by one, the boys attended the local Telshe Yeshiva and were then sent to Chabad yeshivahs out of town.

Ephraim Moscowitz gave countless hours to assist his his mentor and guide, Rabbi Shlomo Z. Hecht (right).
Ephraim Moscowitz gave countless hours to assist his his mentor and guide, Rabbi Shlomo Z. Hecht (right).

Guidance From the Rebbe

In 1969—following the 1968 riots in which much of the inner city had been destroyed and anti-white sentiments were running high—he was assigned by the Board of Education to become principal in a high-crime neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

Apprehensive about taking the position, Moscowitz consulted the Seventh Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.

After hearing his concerns, the Rebbe replied by asking him if Mayor Richard J. Daley would run for re-election. Upon hearing Moscowitz’s expectation that he would, the Rebbe told him somewhat cryptically to “ask the second-in-command.”

Still unsure of what to do, he chose to speak to a colleague, Guy Bernetti, who told him to take the job. As the two were conversing, Bernetti received word that he had been selected as assistant to the General Superintendent of the Board of Education.

And the Rebbe’s advice turned out to be prescient if not prophetic. He went on to take the job and continued to serve for 19 years until his retirement. Even after he retired, he remained busy, teaching and guiding.

In 1976, the Moscowitzes welcomed back their eldest son, Rabbi Daniel, who, together with his wife, Esther Rochel, was coming to town to serve as Chabad emissaries (shluchim) alongside Rabbi Hecht.

“Reb Ephraim” was an elder statesman, welcoming committee and confidant.
Reb Ephraim” was an elder statesman, welcoming committee and confidant.

The Moscowitz home on Farwell Avenue became the first home of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois, and the elder Moscowitzes worked hand in hand with their children in building a scaffolding for what would become a sprawling network of 50 Chabad centers, schools and social-services programs across the state.

A lifelong teacher, Moscowitz taught Torah to seniors as part of the Kollel Tiferes Zkeinim program founded by the Rebbe.

And when, in 1995, Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz founded Congregation Bais Menachem in West Rogers Park, his father—known affectionately as “Reb Ephraim”—became the congregation’s elder statesman, welcoming committee and confidant.

“He was retired when we met and gave me all the time I needed,” says Shmuel Goodman, who studied Tanya and Psalms with Moscowitz for years. “He was the angel who helped me break down the learning into bites that I could swallow and live by.”

Having been raised with little Judaism, Goodman says he absorbed a lot from Moscowitz, including his deep appreciation for Rabbi Hecht and his abiding love for the Rebbes.

“When I had a problem, he was there to give common-sense advice and share a different perspective,” attests Goodman, who credits Moscowitz for guiding him along his journey to full mitzvah observance.

“He was never in a rush. He always had time to schmooze, share a vort, a joke, or a song,” says his son Shalom Goodman, who attended the congregation when he was growing up. “He had seemingly infinite knowledge and knew how to share an insight for any occasion.

“For me, personally, having a stutter, it was helpful to have a man to speak to who spoke in a slow, unrushed tone. He was a macher, whose sons were leaders, but to him everyone was the same, rich, poor, schvitzer, schlepper—it made no difference.”

In the June 1962 “Boone Beacon,” Mr. Moscowitz was fondly recalled as the “Orthodox science teacher” whose methods were “unorthodox.”
In the June 1962 “Boone Beacon,” Mr. Moscowitz was fondly recalled as the “Orthodox science teacher” whose methods were “unorthodox.”

This sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Levi Notik, rabbi of Congregation FREE, which serves immigrants from the Soviet Union, who shared the following anecdote:

One day during the winter, a disheveled-looking guy walked into the sanctuary, put on a yarmulke and went to make himself a tea.

“Hey, you, why don’t you put on some socks? It’s cold outside,” called Moscowitz from his usual seat.

“I don’t have any socks,” the man replied.

Notik then noticed that Moscowitz, who normally would circulate among the congregants and socialize between prayers, was “glued to his seat.”

Taking a closer look, he saw that he was no longer wearing socks.

And Feivel, who had no home, slept better that night, cozy in a pair of freshly laundered socks.

Predeceased by his son, Rabbi Daniel, in 2014, and by his wife in 2021, Ephraim Moscowitz is survived by his sister, Shirley Feiwel (Huntington Beach, Calif.); and his sons, Rabbi Moshe Moscowitz (Chicago), Elly Moscowitz (Great Neck, N.Y.) and Rabbi Mendel Moscowitz (Chicago); in addition to grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great-grandchild.