A Thousand Battles Won, a Jewish Warrior Falls

Gruff warmth, needling loyalty, modest arrogance, smiling coercion, jokey inspiration, secular religiosity, temperate passion. These seeming contradictions—not really contradictions at all—may help a little in describing Rabbi Herb Friedman to those who did not have the privilege of knowing him. When he died at home early Monday at the age of 89, the Jewish community lost a key leader and a cherished friend.

 

Herb’s last role was that of President Emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which he co-founded with Leslie Wexner over a decade ago to provide education for young Jewish community professionals and for mid-career lay leaders in the American Jewish world. This hugely successful effort has had a very large measurable impact on Jewish life, and its less tangible effects are even greater; both will continue.

I created a Wikipedia entry on him a couple of months ago and expanded it this week after hearing of his death. As of this writing no one else has contributed to it, and I hope they will. But I don’t want to repeat those basics here, I want to say things you don’t say in an encyclopedia article. (Much of what follows comes from his fine autobiography Roots of the Future.)

After working his way through Yale and rabbinical school as a short-order cook and in a mattress factory, Herb became the assistant rabbi in a Reform temple in Denver, but his intense concern for European Jews (it was 1943) and his outspoken Zionism ran afoul of the timid community, so he joined the Army. In occupied Bavaria, as a chaplain, he roamed the countryside between Munich and the Alps rescuing traumatized Jewish refugees and protecting them from remnant Nazis still trying to murder them. He found a boy and a girl on a farm road, “filthy, clothes in tatters, holding hands, not talking. As our truck approached…they started to run, jumping off the road into a ditch, he pulling her with all his strength, which wasn’t much, across a plowed field…looking for a place to hide.” When he caught up with them, “they held hands again, as though to go together to whatever lay in store…Eating the bread I gave them, they followed me back to the truck, to be hugged and kissed by the burly soldier-driver who was crying because these kids reminded him of his own.” Multiply this story thousands of times, and you get an idea of what he did with his army service.

One night, driving through an Alpine snowstorm, he stopped at an inn and was called to the telephone; a woman’s voice, “low and inviting” asked if he was the Ninth Division chaplain who had been rescuing Jews. On whose orders, with what funds? He balked, but she asked him to meet her, “in Room 203 of the Royal-Monceau Hotel in Paris.” He arranged a leave and soon was knocking at her door.

“She was middle-aged, plain, somewhat tough-looking, and all business, with the bearing of someone who has seen much in life…She took a deep breath and asked whether I would be willing to work with “them.” When I asked who them was, she answered in just one word: ‘Haganah.’…The question did not permit equivocation…Still holding me at the threshold with a gesture, the woman crossed the salon, knocked on a door at the far end, and escorted me toward a short man with a massive shock of white hair sprouting in all directions from the sides of his large, balding head. He was wearing an old sweater, khaki trousers, and house slippers. When she told him that I would work with ‘them,’ he offered me a quick, vigorous handshake and a verbal thank-you, turned, and retired.”

So began Friedman’s association with David Ben Gurion, the Haganah and the Jewish Brigade. They would commandeer trucks, smuggle contraband across the snowy mountains, bribe officials, and save scores of thousands of refugees. At one point he found a small city hall he need for housing desperate Jews: “I strode into the mayor’s room, struck an aggressive pose, drew my Colt .45, slammed the butt hard on his desk, and informed him that this place was now requisitioned by authority of the American Army.”

But there were no orders, only bold initiative, and initiative was the story of Herb Friedman’s life in war and peace alike. He ran guns, explosives, and even Messerschmitts to Israel during its war for independence. He approached powerful American politicians to gain their support for Israel and for the exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union decades later. He radically and multiplicatively transformed fund-raising in the American Jewish community, invented missions to Israel, and trained thousands of young Jewish leaders. When billionaire philanthropist Leslie Wexner wanted to build something big, Herb helped him build a monument not out of bricks and mortar, but of human minds and souls. When Deborah Lipstadt needed two million dollars for the defense in her Holocaust-denial libel trial, he found it, rightly recognizing that it was not just Deborah on trial—the Jewish community and the Holocaust itself were as well.

Once when I was sitting next to him at dinner, he leaned his craggy head toward me with a confidential grin and said, “You scientists and doctors better come up with a cure for aging pretty soon, I don’t have much time left.” Alas, we did not, and he did not.  He leaves a great gap, but he also leaves the vision of a life worthy of great celebration.

Although he won countless battles, he would be the first to tell you that the war goes on, and will go on long into the future. For whatever combinations of reasons, the Jewish people have always been threatened and are likely to remain so. People like Herb Friedman, who recognize that the Jews are a people and a civilization, as well as adherents to a religion, have always stood up to imagine a better future and to lead the way into it. I feel like ending with the traditional Jewish formula, “May his memory be for a blessing,” except for the plain fact that it already is.