by Nancy Isserman, Feinstein Center
Murray Friedman, American Jewish historian, Jewish communal worker, civil rights leader, scholar, mentor, writer, and founder and director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History since its inception in 1990, died May 18, 2005. For over 45 years Friedman worked in the Jewish communal world, 43 of them as executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee. After retiring from AJC, Friedman devoted his efforts to promoting the study of American Jewish history through the Feinstein Center. However, a brief description of Murray’s life does not convey the impact that he had on American Jewish life in the 20th century.
These quotes from colleagues and long time friends of Murray’s more powerfully delineate the scope and depth of the contributions that Murray made to American Jewish policy and history.
From Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Bell R. Braun Professor of American History, Brandeis University, “I deeply enjoyed working with him. Many of the projects undertaken by the Center resulted from conversations that we had together. I always admired Murray’s ability to take inchoate academic ideas and turn them into well-defined conferences and books. He managed to shepherd more scholarly projects to completion, with less money and staff, than anybody I know.”
From Larry Rubin, a colleague, taken from The Jewish Exponent, June 9, 2005, letters to the editor, “…Murray was, in a sense a complete professional. He understood the core ideas and principles of the community-relations field, he worked easily with colleagues, and he groomed loyal lay leaders. Beyond that, however, his willingness to explore new ideas and approaches—though it may have occasionally taken him off the path—reflected his innate curiosity and intellectual courage.”
From Martin J. Raffel, Acting Executive Director, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who worked as Murray’s assistant in the Philadelphia chapter of the American Jewish Committee, taken from The Jewish Exponent, June 9, 2005, letters to the editor:
“Murray liked to refer to his many assistant directors over the years as the kinder. One could not have asked for a better mentor. Murray certainly was brilliant and creative, and, as all those who followed his career know, he never hesitated to thoughtfully challenge the organized Jewish community’s conventional wisdom. But beyond the nationally respected scholar and superb community-relations practitioner was also a supportive and caring individual—a genuine mensch.”
From Morris Vogel, director of culture programs, Rockefeller Foundation, former Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Temple University, and co founder of the Feinstein Center, “Murray achieved so much in so many distinct fields. He was an important part of the Jewish face of the civil rights movement and he was the consummate Jewish communal service professional. In his academic career Murray gave shape to the field of American Jewish history. He understood how important it was to marry the intellectual contributions of the university to the needs of the communities it served. Any of these achievements on their own would have constituted a career. But Murray’s gift was more than the range and magnitude of his achievements. All the work Murray did connected him intimately with co workers and peers who shared his aspirations and the members of a community who benefited from his efforts. In all of his work and aspirations Murray understood how important it was to connect with individual human beings. Murray did this effortlessly—it seemed to those of us who watched him—because as much as Murray was a scholar, activist and professional, he was a mensche, the consummate Jew as well as the consummate Jewish professional.”
Finally, Murray wrote part of his own eulogy in a short essay entitled, Remarks at my Funeral, Date Unknown. In it he stated, “I have one other great love. My country…I am so grateful to this country for making it possible for me and so many others to find fulfillment. Remember, my father was a peddler who never earned more than 35 or 40 dollars a week. We lived in a tenement. Our rent was $38 a month and I went to a free school, Brooklyn College and then did graduate work under the GI Bill.
I had and have no patience with those who liked to spell America with a K. This is the greatest country in the world, especially if you play by its rules: work hard, educate your children and live a bourgeois life. Three cheers for the alleged boring bourgeois ethos.”
All of us who had the privilege and honor to work with Murray will miss his dedication, his insight, and his commitment to improving life for American Jews and for others in this country.