‘I smuggled weapons to Palestine, before Israel was born, thus breaking U.S. arms-embargo laws,” writes Rabbi Herbert Friedman on the first page of his 1999 memoir, “Roots Of The Future”; “led convoys of refugees across hostile European borders to freedom; ‘liberated’ crates of medieval religious documents from U.S. Army custody in Germany and transferred to a professor in Jerusalem; and committed similar, illegal or borderline-illegal acts long forgotten.”
No, he wasn’t modest, and his missions sound more like Indiana Jones than a bespectacled rabbi, visionary thinker and national communal leader. But Rabbi Friedman, who died on Monday at his Manhattan home at the age of 89, was all of those and more.
With his death, an era has passed.
A friend and confidante to generations of Jewish and Israeli leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Yitzchak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Abba Eban, Friedman was the top executive of the national United Jewish Appeal (now United Jewish Communities) from 1954 to 1971. But he was more than a first-rate fundraiser, with a large stature and charismatic style. He would be most proud of, and will best be remembered for, launching the Young Leadership Cabinet of UJA, the first group of its kind, almost 50 years ago. And almost 25 years ago he helped to plan, with businessman Leslie Wexner, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, a much-imitated model for educating and training Jewish leaders.
Rabbi Friedman was president of the foundation for more than a decade.
Susan Stern, an alumna of both programs, noted this week that in creating the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet, Rabbi Friedman “started with people who were doers and gave them the learning, and with Wexner, he started with The Word (Torah study) and led us to the actions.”
Describing Rabbi Friedman as “a giant teddy bear,” she said he could be gruff on the outside but had a sense of goodness and compassion within.
“He demanded a lot from us,” she recalled, “but he gave back far more — a love of learning, of Torah and of putting Torah into action.”
On the day of his death, he was remembered by many whose lives he touched and influenced as an “historic leader,” “a giant of his generation,” “a true visionary” — all clichés, but all true.
I first met him in 1994, when he called to invite me to lunch and shared with me some of his dreams for the Jewish community, some of his frustrations and one or two of his failures, most notably his seven-year effort to create an elite Jewish school in Israel, The Jerusalem Academy, to be made up of Israeli and diaspora students. (He referred to the experience as a “dream deferred” in his memoir.)
Although he was in his mid-70s at the time, I was struck by his vigor, his enthusiasm and his forward thinking, far ahead of the communal curve in speaking of the need for massive free trips to Israel for young people, a Jewish camping experience for every youngster, an expanded, trans-denominational system of day schools, creating family educators, welcoming the intermarried, and more.
It was the first of several talks we had (I mostly listened), and that summer Rabbi Friedman invited my wife and me to spend a week at the Wexner Heritage retreat in Utah, with no strings attached. “Come to the sessions you want, but don’t feel obligated to attend every day or to write something afterward,” he said.
But I did, deeply impressed with the quality of lay participants and faculty, and the palpable enthusiasm for learning. I described the program as “a kind of Jewish Club Med for the mind and spirit” that is “unabashedly elitist. You don’t apply, you are chosen.”
And Rabbi Friedman agreed. “That’s the key,” he explained. “The most effective way to deal with a large problem is to influence a small group with the power to work from within.”
That formula was enormously successful for UJA, training the next generation through the Young Leadership Cabinet, which he created. (Rabbi Friedman noted that in 1975, of the 68 Jewish communities in the U.S. that raised more than $1 million in their federation campaigns, 57 had a campaign chair who was a graduate of the cabinet.)
And the Wexner Heritage Foundation has now reached some 1,500 lay leaders in 31 communities, inspiring them with a strong sense of communal obligation, particularly in the area of Jewish education. Many graduates have gone on not only to enroll their children in day schools but to help fund and build them in their own communities.
“Herb was a Jewish leader and a major participant in the cause of Jewish peoplehood and creation of Israel,” Wexner said this week. “He inspired me and many others as he changed the face of adult Jewish learning and leadership development in Jewish life. We have lost one of our historic leaders, and I have lost a wonderful friend, but his legacy will live on for generations to come.”
Ernest Michel recalled meeting Rabbi Friedman soon after Michel came to the U.S., in 1946, after surviving six years of concentration camps in Europe. “Herb was in uniform [he served as a chaplain overseas] and was involved in the repatriation of the [Displaced Persons] camps, and then got involved in arms for Israel,” Michel said. “Who knew he would be my boss at UJA? He was one of the most charismatic leaders the Jewish community has ever seen.”
Michel, five years Rabbi Friedman’s junior, went on to become the top executive of UJA-Federation of New York from 1970 to 1989.
The two men remained friends for more than six decades, but Michel said of Rabbi Friedman this week, “he is a hero to me.”
Michel suggested that in preparing this article, I reread the last chapter of Rabbi Friedman’s autobiography, written a decade ago. In it, he outlined the challenges facing the American Jewish community and the need to reach the 75 percent of American Jews “now not contributing a dime” to Jewish causes. The money needed is there, Freidman said, “it simply needs to be excavated.”
It was all a matter of “will power,” he wrote. The Jewish people must “regularly renew its claim to exist,” he wrote on the final page. “If you protect your heritage, it will protect you.”