Barbara Friedman, recently elected as the first woman to chair the board of governors of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion , remembers how she first became involved in volunteer work for the 131-year-old Reform seminary.
She was on a UJA-Federation of New York committee discussing allocations to Jewish summer camps and was struck by one woman’s suggestion that priority be given to the Orthodox camps because “at least their grandchildren will be Jewish,” Friedman recalls.
“And as someone who was Reform, I thought to myself, ‘Am I betting on the wrong horse?’”
She took it upon herself to learn more about the movement’s activities by meeting with Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, an HUC professor, and taking part in an informal study group he had for women, which led to her joining the HUC board in 1993. (Friedman and her husband Stephen, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs, later created a chair in liturgy at HUC that Rabbi Hoffman holds.)
A handsome, well-spoken woman in her 60s, Friedman says she has found that having women in leadership positions on the HUC board “changes the conversation” that takes place at meetings.
“Relationships become important,” she says, “and women add a different kind of voice and perspective.”
More than one-third of the 55 members of the board are women. During her 13 years on the board, Friedman says she has seen a “deepening of learning” taking place among the rabbinical and cantorial students at the seminary, and an emphasis on excellence under the leadership of Rabbi David Ellenson, the school’s president for the last five years.
Rabbi Ellenson described Friedman as a “very intelligent and personable” leader whose skills have “made the board much richer, powerful and capable.” He said he was not concerned that with women stepping into more leadership positions, men might become less involved, a problem many Reform temples are experiencing in terms of Shabbat and holiday attendance.
In recent years as many as two-thirds of the rabbinical students at HUC have been women, and some officials are concerned that there could be a tipping point above which men might be inhibited from applying. But Friedman, noting that this year’s ratio is about 50-50, said the gender issue “tends to balance out,” adding that recruiting is always an important element of the admissions process.
Friedman, a graduate of Cornell University who started her career as a public school teacher in Harlem, has been very involved in Jewish volunteer work for the last three decades. She has been a lay leader of the Jewish Braille Institute, CLAL, the Jewish Outreach Institute, Central Synagogue (where she is a member) and UJA-Federation of New York.
She describes her style as “inclusive,” seeking out opinions from a variety of people, though she says she is prepared to “make the hard decisions” as well.
A major challenge, she says, is to appeal to younger Jews, and to do this she hopes to emphasize the importance of community and meaning in an age that is increasingly focused on the self.
“We want to be open and recognize that people won’t automatically come to us,” Friedman says. “We need to be able to reach people where they are.”
She says she also wants the rabbinical and cantorial schools to “grow leaders who can work with others, and who can show how our Jewish tradition speaks to a person’s sense of wholeness.”
Friedman says she does not concern herself with competition among Judaism’s branches and welcomes any “crossover” that strengthens the Jewish community. “It’s not a threat to us.”
During her tenure, she hopes to implement the recommendations of the strategic planning committee she chaired, including unifying the various institutions within the Reform movement and increasing financial stability while continuing the effort to bring quality professors and students to HUC.
Friedman is confident that the Reform movement, with its blend of tradition and innovation, can speak to the American Jewish community of the 21st century and provide the “authentic and inspired leadership” that Rabbi Ellenson says is required.
Toward the end of the interview, she takes from her purse a quote from business guru Jim Collins that she says she always carries around with her. Greatness, it says, is “largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.”
She hopes to bring evolutionary change to a proud institution, looking for new ways to show how Judaism continues to matter.