BORN NEWHAVEN, CONNECTICUT, SEPTEMBER 25, 1918. DIED NEW YORK, MARCH 31, 2008, AGED 89.
THE FUNDRAISER for Deborah Lipstadt’s legal fight against David Irving, Rabbi Herbert Friedman was one of American Jewry’s most prolific leaders, writes Nathan Jeffay.
His many other roles included serving as a US army chaplain, Haganah people-trafficker and arms-transporter, heading a major Jewish charity, and training hundreds of Jewish communal leaders.
The son of East European immigrants, he graduated from Yale in 1938 and proceeded to study at the Hebrew Union College, the Reform Judaism training centre, where he was ordained as a rabbi in 1943.
During the Second World War he served as an American army chaplain and became adviser on Jewish affairs to the commander of US occupation forces in Germany.
In the fraught weeks and months after liberation, he helped many survivors on a practical and spiritual level, and turned Berlin Town Hall into the venue for a seder in 1946.
Having witnessed the Jews streaming out of the camps, he saw his next responsibility as ensuring their passage to Palestine.
Serving in the Haganah, Israel’s prestate army, at the request of Zionist leader and Israel’s future first prime minister David Ben Gurion, he helped orchestrate the illegal shipments of Jews to Palestine.
He commandeered American army trucks and transported survivors to Italian ports where they boarded ships for Palestine. He also helped with the provision of arms to the Haganah.
Returning to the US in 1954, he continued to help the young state’s development. He became executive vice-chairman of the major American fundraising body for Israel, the United Jewish Appeal, which now included the United Jewish Communities.
He is believed to have raised over £1.5 billion for Israel during his 17 years in the job. One of his major achievements was raising money for the construction of 119 schools, to remedy the under-achievement of Sephardi immigrants. He also pioneered the concept of solidarity visits to Israel.
When he left the UJA in 1972, he moved to Israel where he helped to build the presence of Reform Judaism. He was senior executive with the World Union for Progressive Judaism and founded the Jerusalem Society for the Advancement of Education and Culture.
In 1978 he returned to the US and became president of the American Friends of Tel Aviv University. He left the post in 1985 and, together with clothing retailer Leslie H Wexner, set up an institution to boost Jewish leadership.
Heading the Wexner Heritage Foundation for a decade, he trained hundreds of people to take leadership roles in Jewish communities. Its graduates today lead communities in 31 cities across North America. Many of them set up pluralistic Jewish day schools, which he viewed as essential for the future wellbeing of North American Jewry.
The foundation’s longserving staff members include historian Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued for libel by the Holocaust denier and revisionist historian, David Irving, in the English courts. She successfully defended herself in a headlinegrabbing High Court case in 2000.
Dr Lipstadt recorded in her memoirs her shock at learning that her legal costs would exceed £500,000. Although Rabbi Friedman had retired as director of the foundation, he was still involved in its work and told her that he would take care of her welfare and the finances of the case.
The reason for his concern was, as he told the Jewish scholar: “Irving set his sights on you, but it’s the entire Jewish community and historical truth that he is aiming at.”
A keen reader and art collector, Rabbi Friedman is survived by his second wife, Francine; two daughters and a son from his first marriage; two sons from his second marriage; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Herbert Friedman: American-Jewish leader