Synagogue mourns champion of change, justice

Synagogue mourns champion of change, justice

Rabbi Barry Friedman, B’nai Abraham leader through era of ‘tumult’

The late Rabbi Barry Friedman “taught his congregants to embrace their tradition and to make it real in the world,” said his successor, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. 
The late Rabbi Barry Friedman “taught his congregants to embrace their tradition and to make it real in the world,” said his successor, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. 

Rabbi Barry Friedman, who served as a leader of Temple B’nai Abraham during the transitional era when it relocated from its first home in Newark to suburban Livingston, died Oct. 8 after a long illness. He was 78.

His 31 years of service at B’nai Abraham began in 1959, when the synagogue was located on Clinton Avenue in the Weequahic section of Newark.

He started as a teacher and youth director, then left to become an assistant rabbi at Fairmount Temple in Cleveland.

He returned to B’nai Abraham to become associate rabbi under famed orator and social justice activist Rabbi Joachim Prinz in 1968, then succeeded Prinz as senior rabbi in 1977.

After years of racial tension in Newark and the migration of Jews to the suburbs, the congregation reluctantly left the city for Livingston in 1973.

“It was a time of tumult,” said Friedman’s successor at B’nai Abraham, Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, “and his presence and leadership were a soothing influence on the veterans and an inspiring influence among the younger families in the temple’s new neighborhood.

“Membership soared, programming exploded, and although the congregation was quite, quite large, people felt touched. More than one present adult who grew up with Rabbi Friedman has said how he inspired respect and even awe,” added Kulwin.

Both Prinz and Friedman brought their commitment to civil rights and social justice along with them.

Prinz, a native of Berlin, was a close ally of the Rev. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement and was B’nai Abraham’s religious leader from 1939 until 1977.

“Being socially and politically involved was part of the B’nai Abraham tradition,” said Jacqueline Levine of West Orange, a member of the synagogue for more than 50 years.

Born to an Orthodox family and raised in Philadelphia, Friedman attended the Akiba Academy and Yeshiva University.

But by the time he graduated from YU, “he had begun to see Judaism, and Jewish life, in quite a different way, said Kulwin, in the eulogy he delivered at his predecessor’s funeral service on Oct. 11.

“Barry’s approach to Judaism had changed — more liberal, more questioning, more open. But his commitment was every bit as intense as it had ever been.” Kulwin said in the eulogy.

After college, Friedman studied at Machon L’Madrichai Chutz La’Aretz in Jerusalem. He was ordained at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, then did graduate work at Drew University in Madison and Saint Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore.

Levine remembered Friedman as a liberal activist who joined her on many occasions at protests against the war in Vietnam.

In addition to serving as a chair of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam and president of the Jewish Peace Fellowship, he was a board member of the Citizens’ Council for Human Rights.

His commitment to Israel was unwavering from his teenage years, when he became active in Hashomer Hadati, a religious Zionist youth movement.

Later, he was executive director of the New Jersey Zionist Youth Commission and assistant to the director of the Philadelphia region of State of Israel Bonds.

Barbara Drench, a veteran B’nai Abraham member who lives in Verona, credited Friedman for “introducing me to Israel, and that introduction would become a very meaningful and fascinating part of my journey through life.”

Drench and her husband, Dan, joined the congregation while it was holding services at what is now the Cooperman JCC in West Orange while the synagogue was under construction in Livingston.

“We were looking for a synagogue, and the night we went there, Rabbi Friedman had a very relevant sermon. We said, ‘Good. This man gets it. He is part of the modern era.’ We picked B’nai Abraham, and I’ve never looked back.

Max Kleinman, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, remembered Friedman from his service as a past chair of the federation’s Rabbinic Cabinet.

“I worked very closely with him on communal activities, and he helped raise the community’s consciousness of Israel. He was a personable gentleman and a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor,” Kleinman said.

Friedman retired from the pulpit in 1999.

He is survived by his wife, Irene, of Lake Hopatcong; their three children, Aryeh, Adina, and Aviva; and their four grandchildren, Nevona, Nadav, Elza Ruti, and Zev.

His funeral was held at the synagogue, and was followed by burial at Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge.

“In his tenure as senior rabbi he led his congregation in its commitment to Zionism, commitment to the highest ethical and aesthetic standards of Jewish liturgy and education, commitment to the well-being of the Jewish people, as well as its commitment to the entire community,” said a statement issued by Temple B’nai Abraham. “He helped the congregation retain its unique and independent identity.

“As its spiritual leader, he was a warm, compassionate, and effective friend who cushioned the vicissitudes and heightened the joys of the congregation’s life-cycle events.”

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