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Longtime Leader Breaks Glass Ceiling at Reform Seminary

In the late 1980s, Barbara Benioff Friedman sat in a meeting of the UJA-Federation of New York’s distribution committee and was appalled by what she heard: During a heated debate over which summer camps the charity should fund, a Reform Jewish woman stood up and argued that it was Orthodox camps that merited the dollars, since it was the grandchildren of the Orthodox who would be Jewish.

Fuming over the statement, Friedman, now a 69-year-old grandmother of four (all of whom are Jewish), took it as a wakeup call and set out to discover exactly what it meant to be a Reform Jew. Joined by 20 other curious and inspired leaders at the charity, Friedman, a federation board member, hosted a series of learning sessions at her midtown Manhattan apartment with Larry Hoffman, a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which is the Reform movement’s flagship seminary.

Friedman’s exploration of Reform Judaism apparently had a lasting impact: Two decades later, she is the newly appointed chairperson of the board of governors of the movement’s 132-year-old seminary. Friedman, a one-time teacher with a short coif of honey-colored hair, is the first woman to helm HUC’s 54-member board. More broadly, she is the first woman to lead the board of an institute of higher learning affiliated with any of Judaism’s three largest denominations: Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.

Many in the Jewish world are hailing it as a landmark. For her part, Friedman, who is placidly understated and bereft of any self-aggrandizement, believes it is simply a role whose time has come.

Friedman hopes that her appointment, which took effect January 1, will set a precedent for other women in Jewish life to assume the position of “chairman of the board” — a role whose very title conjures up images of a stern alpha-male concerned only with the bottom line. Flashing a warm smile, Friedman exudes a wholly different persona than that of the pugilistic chairman, but she is no less concerned with keeping her institution’s finances in check.

With the school’s endowment hovering at $100 million after a six-year capital campaign, Friedman — who has also chaired the boards of the Jewish Braille Institute and CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership — says she’d like to see that number double during her tenure. “It’s a nice round number, but it doesn’t do what we need it to do,” she said.

During her 14 years on the HUC board, Friedman has chaired the nominating committee and co-chaired the strategic planning committee, where she worked closely with the seminary’s president, Rabbi David Ellenson. On the nominating committee, the two focused on recruiting more women onto the board, bringing the total number of female members up to 19 from seven. But it was the central role that Friedman played in the strategic planning process, Ellenson said, that cast her as the natural successor to the outgoing chairman, Burt Lehman. This was, in large part, due to her financial acumen.

“She has a strong fiscal sense and has moved the college to be even more professional toward its donors,” Ellenson said. “She has done this and been able to express quite well that the issue of financial sustainability is very linked to the college being in a position to produce leaders for the Jewish community.”

Friedman also brings with her a fierce commitment to Israel. In 2000, as the second intifada raged, some at HUC suggested that they scale back the requirement that all rabbinic students spend time studying in Israel. Friedman, Ellenson said, led the charge to keep the Israel program fully intact, despite the increasing wave of terror attacks. Now, in her first month chairing the board, Friedman has already established an Israel committee, tasked with examining HUC’s role in the development of Jewish identity among Israelis.

Politically, Friedman is hard to pin down. She is a self-described independent who clearly prefers to keep politics separate from her religious affiliation. She is no less adamant that the Reform movement, with its liberal leanings, should not become a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party. “We need to be careful not to be political,” she said, drawing a line between party politics and the movement’s long-standing tendency to champion various, generally liberal causes, a phenomenon that she supports. In recent years, Reform leaders have played a leading role in shining a spotlight on the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

Friedman’s husband, former Goldman Sachs executive Stephen Friedman, would appear to be at odds with the socially liberal politics of the Reform movement: He is a two-time Bush administration appointee, having served as the president’s national economic adviser before becoming chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in 2005. According to Barbara Friedman, the couple manages to keep their professional lives separate. “I’m supportive of him, he’s supportive of me,” she said. People do “kind of wonder,” she added, but her husband’s Bush administration ties “have not been an issue” for other HUC board members.

Ellenson concurred, noting that both liberals and conservatives sit on the board. “There’s a consensus,” he said, “about the importance of there being a liberal religious Jewish presence in this country that supersedes and transcends political orientations and loyalties.” And Friedman, Ellenson added, is deeply committed to expanding that presence.

“She sees the mission of HUC as going beyond the Reform movement itself,” he explained. “Barbara feels we have an obligation to provide liberal Jewish religious leadership in general.”

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