It was over dinner in the dining hall of Camp Ramah during counselor training week when Rabbi Sam Fraint first met his future wife, Deena Segal.
When Fraint spotted another young woman he knew from the United Synagogue Youth (USY) movement sitting with Deena, he sat down with both of them and tried to make them laugh.
Later that evening, he, Deena, and a couple of his pals, including his best friend who also had a crush on Deena, drove outside the campgrounds for ice cream. On their way back to camp, they got a flat tire and Fraint's good humor and patience won Deena over as his girlfriend -- and eventually his wife, whom he married in 1975.
The longtime spiritual leader of Moriah Congregation in Deerfield, Fraint passed away on Oct. 6 after an extended illness. He was 68.
It seems fitting that Camp Ramah and USY played a role in the spark that brought Fraint and Deena together. After all, Fraint was a champion of traditional Jewish life and believed in the importance of Conservative Jewish institutions like Camp Ramah, the United Synagogue Youth movement, and Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School for young Jews.
"Rabbi Fraint and I knew each other well and, over the many years of his leadership, met one-on-one to exchange ideas on how to expand Jewish education opportunities for young people in our community," said JUF President Steven B. Nasatir. "He led his congregation with full commitment, was an inspiring teacher of Torah, and a strong defender of Israel and the Jewish people. His passing leaves a sad void in our Jewish community and in the Conservative rabbinate."
Fraint was born and raised in Brooklyn to first-generation American Jews from Russia. In his early years, he received a secular Jewish upbringing with little formal Jewish education.
Eventually, though, he embraced Jewish education and attended Camp Ramah, joined USY, and traveled on youth trips to Israel, all inspiring his love for engagement in traditional Jewish life -- and his entry into rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, affiliated with the Conservative movement.
He and Deena started a family in New Jersey -- a daughter and two sons. Then, the family moved to Chicago in 1983 for what was supposed to be a temporary break from the East Coast. But, they ended up staying in Chicago indefinitely.
After a brief stint at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Fraint became Moriah Congregation's rabbi in 1987, succeeding the late founder of Moriah, Rabbi Samuel Dresner.
Under Fraint's bold leadership, the congregation grew to become a vibrant and prominent Chicago-area Jewish institution, drawing congregants from near and far.
During his 30-year tenure at Moriah, he helped grow the membership from 80 families to more than 400.
Merle and Larry Cohen were longtime friends and congregants of Fraint. "We saw real brilliance in Sam," Merle said. "When he spoke, it was poetry. His sermons were always controversial -- half the shul loved them and half didn't -- but they always made you think."
In an era when many Conservative synagogues have moved left, Fraint stuck to his convictions when it came to traditional Jewish principles such as Shabbat observance.
Rabbi Jeremy Fine, who grew up at Moriah and considered Fraint a great mentor, wrote a tribute to the late rabbi in the days after his passing. "Rabbi Fraint has done what almost no other Conservative rabbi in the country has been able to do; entice modern, traditional, and pluralistic Jews to sacrifice everything else American values have taught us in order to move walking distance to synagogue and make Shabbat Jewish priority number one," Fine said. "…Shabbat was special because he was a magnificent rabbi. No quirky gimmicks, no flashy High Holiday guests, and certainly no special music; just Shabbat with your family, and he truly believed everything else would work itself out."
In 2015, Fraint retired and became Moriah's rabbi emeritus, and in 2016, he was succeeded by Rabbi Ben Kramer. Kramer said his predecessor leaves a legacy of inspiring so many people on a path to greater Jewish engagement. If he had to sum up the greatest lesson he learned from Fraint, it would be the way the late rabbi challenged people: "You don't have to be afraid," said Kramer, "to set the bar high for people, and people will respond and try to reach it."
Rabbi Fraint is survived by his wife, Deena, nee Segal; children Hannah, Zeke (Laura) and Avram (Jodi); and granddaughter Sophia Ruth; brother Eric (Kathy); brother-in-laws Eric (Karen) Segal and Danny Segal (Susan Kitzen); and many nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Moriah Congregation, Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and National Ramah-Seminar Scholarships.