Rabbi Herbert A. Friedman, a dominant figure in American Jewish philanthropy during Israel’s formative years, died March 31 at his New York home. He was 89, and succumbed after a prolonged period of illness, according to his wife, Francine.
Friedman served for nearly two decades, from 1954 to 1971, as the chief executive officer of the United Jewish Appeal, the central American Jewish fundraising network supporting Israel and international Jewish relief. The UJA is a precursor organization to today’s United Jewish Communities.
As the UJA’s executive vice chairman, Friedman oversaw the raising of hundreds of millions of dollars for the Jewish state during its critical early years, when American Jewish philanthropy was a vital lifeline. He created several key programs that survive to this day and help to define the Jewish-federated philanthropic system, including solidarity missions to Israel, today a staple feature of Jewish fundraising, and the Israel Emergency Fund. Another was the UJA Young Leadership Cabinet, which anticipated the decline of Jewish ethnic loyalty and worked to create new generations of leadership bound by social and personal ties.
Friedman was born in 1918 to immigrant parents in New Haven, Conn., and graduated from Yale University in 1938. After graduation he studied for the rabbinate at New York’s Jewish Institute of Religion under Stephen S. Wise, the legendary Reform rabbi and Zionist leader. He served for several years as a pulpit rabbi in Denver but left in 1943 to join the U.S. Army as a chaplain in the European Theater.
In the years immediately following World War II, while assisting Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps in Germany, Friedman was recruited by future Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion to work with the Haganah, the underground Jewish paramilitary force in Palestine. He continued to work with survivors, getting them visas and assisting the clandestine immigration of Jews to Palestine, known as Aliyah Bet. He was later decorated by the State of Israel for his service.
In 1947, he returned to the United States and went to work for the UJA, becoming chief executive in 1954. A charismatic leader, he became a larger-than-life figure, consulted by prime ministers, popes and presidents. UJA annual revenues rose during his tenure to $450 million from $50 million, according to UJC. Friedman stepped down as chief executive in 1974, but stayed with the organization until 1982.
In 1985, Friedman began a second career as president and co-founder, with retailer Leslie Wexner, of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which cultivates Jewish leadership through intensive adult education programs.
In 2001, he published a memoir, “Roots of the Future,” about his life and adventures. A close colleague in philanthropic work, former UJA lay president Herschel Blumberg, described him as a self-effacing leader utterly devoted to the mission. “He didn’t just talk about himself, even though he did have a very impressive history, both during and following the Second World War,” Blumberg said. Friedman, Blumberg added, was “a quiet and honest” man who taught, above all else, “that we have to have determination in what we’re doing, and convey the impact of what we’re doing.”
Friedman is survived by his second wife, the former Francine Bensley, as well as five children, four grandchildren, two great-grandsons, two brothers and two brothers-in-law.