From the Union to the Union
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From the Union to the Union

Rabbi Daniel Freelander of Ridgewood moves from one Reform institution to head another

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Rabbi Daniel Freelander

Rabbi Daniel Freelander of Ridgewood is an avuncular, charming, modest man. To talk to him is to feel entirely at ease.

And then you realize that you are talking to someone who has been instrumental in the development of liberal Judaism – in both the way it looks and operates, and even more profoundly in the way it sounds.

Rabbi Freelander, 62, is leaving his comfortable berth as senior vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism – the organization for which he has worked in various capacities for 39 years – to become president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. In some ways the move is minor – the two organizations share a floor in a midtown Manhattan office building, and Rabbi Freelander is keeping his office. But in other ways it is huge – his responsibilities go from national to international, and from the Reform movement to the larger liberal world, of which Reform Judaism is a significant – but not the only – stream.

In fact, Rabbi Freelander’s new position is a mountain-to-Mohammed move. The WUPJ presidency always had been in Jerusalem; its previous president, the now-retired Rabbi Richard Hirsch, made aliyah in 1973 to take the job. “It was a clear statement that we perceive Jerusalem, and Israel, as the center of the Jewish people, and that we were putting a stake in the ground to build up progressive Judaism in Israel,” Rabbi Freelander said. That tenet remains unchanged. “Our main office remains in Israel, with a skeleton staff in New York, and my business cards have our Jerusalem address.” But Rabbi Freelander’s wife, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, is the congregational rabbi who heads Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. Her job is not portable. And he is such a natural for the job that his need to live in New Jersey was accommodated – with the far-from-onerous stipulation that he go often to Israel.

So who is Rabbi Freelander, and why would the WUPJ go to such lengths to hire him?

Daniel Freelander was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, “where my parents were very involved in the Jewish community,” he said. His mother, Aviva Jacobson, was born in Tel Aviv; she was sent to Massachusetts on shlichut – as an emissary from Israel to the local Jewish community – met his father, and that pretty much was that.

Her family was from Pinsk, Russia; her grandfather, Moshe Yacobson, made aliyah in 1914, just as World War I was breaking out. (It was Yacobson in Israel, Jacobson in the English-speaking world.) Her grandfather’s parents were Hebraicists and Zionists; they sent their 14-year-old son to Gymnasia Herzylia, where all the students spoke in newly revived Hebrew. Mr. Yacobson was a member of the school’s second graduating class. An engineer, he was one of the founders of the Palestine Electric Company. “His primary work was wiring the north – the Galil and Transjordan,” Rabbi Freelander said. “I have pictures of him with King Abdullah.”

Rabbi Freelander’s family arrived in this country in 1881, and his great-grandfather, Hillel Friedlander, was an Orthodox cantor in Burlington, Vermont, and then in Utica, N.Y., before he moved to Massachusetts. “I was at a book sale in Lennox, and I found a history of the Jews of Burlington,” Rabbi Freelander said. “There was a full-page picture of my grandfather.” Not only was he a cantor, he was a shochet – a ritual slaughterer – as well. That was not unusual, Rabbi Freelander said. “He was the community’s religious functionary. That’s why they called him Reverend.

“I have strong memories of my grandfather and his siblings sitting around the seder table, singing melodies that my great-grandfather wrote. Now, it is 120 years later, and my own kids sit around our seder table, singing the family melodies.”

His great-grandfather eventually moved his family to Worcester, where he became the first full-time cantor the town had since the 1890s. His grandfather lived out most children’s dream – he owned a toy store.

Along the way, the family changed the spelling of its name, “in order to be more American.” Rabbi Freelander’s father, Israel Robert Freelander, fought in the Pacific theater in World War II. When he got home, he worked toward a Ph.D. at Boston University. “His thesis was that the physically handicapped could be employed at market rates and the company could still break even, or even make a profit,” he said. A professor challenged that assumption, and Mr. Freelander decided to find out whether he was right, so “he started a small toy company in 1951, in the back of my grandfather’s toy store. He made wooden toys and cleaning sets. This was at the height of the polio epidemic – he hired only people in wheelchairs, or who were deaf and dumb, or who had lost limbs in the war.

“The company was successful, and he never finished his Ph.D. Instead, he continued to grow and run the company, called Come Play Products, until he retired. He was chairman of the President’s Commission on the Employment of the Handicapped, and I have pictures of him with the governor of Massachusetts and Hubert Humphrey.”

His father also was president of the local synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Worcester, which was Reform, and his mother taught Hebrew school there. “And I was the kid who sang in the choir every Shabbat morning. I was a soloist. It was a very tight and supportive Jewish community.”

He was woven into the Reform Jewish world outside town as well. “I was very involved in NFTY” – the Reform movement’s youth group – “and I went to Camp Eisner” – a Reform movement camp – “where Eric Yoffie was my counselor.” Rabbi Yoffie went on to become the president of the URJ, and Danny Freelander met his wife at camp.

Rabbi Freelander’s background made him uniquely prepared for his eventual career. “I grew up in a family that had a musical background, a Jewish background, and a social work background,” Rabbi Freelander said. All of those pieces played a part in his life.

In 1970, Rabbi Freelander went off to Trinity College, which he chose “because it was co-ed. I could have gone to Dartmouth, where my father had gone – but it wasn’t.

“Trinity was a really WASPy school,” he continued. “I was one of the few public-school kids there. I helped form the Hillel there. Among my influences were my classmates Susanna Heschel” – the daughter of the theologian and social activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, she now teaches at Dartmouth – and Robert Gershenfeld, now a rabbi at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem. “We were 18-year-old college freshmen, trying to figure out how to create a Jewish place for ourselves in this very Episcopalian place,” he said. “We started having Kabbalat Shabbat services in our dorm rooms, until they told us that we couldn’t light candles there. So we petitioned for a place to have services.

“Now there is wonderful Jewish life at Trinity, but then…

“We had our biblical studies with Protestants. Abraham Joshua Heschel would come to visit. It was a very important time for me, when I learned to assert my Jewishness in a very non-Jewish environment.”

After college, Rabbi Freelander took a year off to write songs with his friend Jeff Klepper. He moved to Boston, where he became a Hillel counselor at Wesleyan College. “It was a part-time job, and at night I sat up and wrote new Jewish songs,” he said.

Rabbi Freelander and Mr. Klepper were close friends with Jewish songwriter Debbie Friedman. “It was the time of the emergence of new Jewish nusach,” liturgical music. “We taught these songs in Jewish American summer camps, and in CAJE conferences.” (CAJE was an organization devoted mainly to Jewish education.) “I wrote some of the best songs I ever wrote that year.” Among them, he added, are versions of “Shalom Rav” and “Lo Alecha” – and those are the versions that are permanently lodged in the heads of most observant non-Orthodox Jews.

That was an exciting time. “Real change was taking place in Jewish music and the Reform synagogue,” Rabbi Freelander said. “I was part of that generation that brought great change to the Reform movement. It is now very different than the movement I was born into – but the community feeling remains the same.”

Once it was clear to him that all his passions led him to one place – the Reform rabbinate – Rabbi Freelander enrolled in Hebrew Union College in New York. He graduated in 1979 but was constrained in his choice of jobs because his wife, who was two years behind him, could not move far from the city. “The best available job was becoming assistant director of NFTY on a national level.” He took it and loved it. Rabbi Frishman took a job in Suffern, N.Y., where the couple moved and their children were born.

Rabbis Freelander and Frishman have three children. Adam is a nighttime video editor for the New York Times. (“Terrible hours but a great job,” his father said.) Jonah is the director of NFTY’s service learning program – also known as the mitzvah corps. Debra is a graduate student in sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design.

In 1982, Rabbi Freelander became the regional director for the New Jersey/Hudson Valley region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as the URJ then was called. “It was a boom time here on the West Bank,” he said. “Jews were pouring into Rockland, Monmouth, and Morris counties. Loads of new congregations were being built on Routes 278 and 78, which were just being finished. We opened an office in Paramus. My job was to build new Reform synagogues and strengthen the existing ones.”

He held that job for a decade. “I loved it,” he said. “I learned everything I know about congregations then.”

He also directed the Reform movement’s 1987 commission on synagogue music, and that assignment allowed him to continue to be involved in the vast changes that affected the movement’s synagogues. “The commission was part of an initiative to deepen spirituality in Reform worship,” he said, and it did.

“We researched the melodies that were being sung in Reform congregations that had choirs and those that did not. We researched the level of congregational singing versus listening. We came up with strategic goals,” which were guided by the realization that “congregations no longer wanted professional choirs on Shabbat. Volunteer choirs were growing, though. Jews like choral singing – not to listen to, but to do themselves.

“To have good Jewish music, you need good Jewish musical leadership. We needed to grow the cantorate to have more professional Jewish musical leadership in congregations. And we had to provide good musical resources to synagogues who couldn’t afford cantors so they could have access to what was happening in Jewish music. We published volumes for congregations without cantors, so a volunteer or a song leader or an organist can lead the congregation in song.”

Song leaders are specific to the Reform movement. They are so necessary that a verb to describe their work – to song lead – has evolved.

“Song leaders are an invention of the 1960s,” Rabbi Freelander said. “There always was song leading at camp. It is the confluence of a Hebrew repertoire that started in the late 1960s and the music that Debbie and Jeff and I wrote, synagogue music that song leaders are more capable of leading than cantors are.

“That created a real tension. Cantors called the repertoire camp music and really denigrated it. They said that it did not have a place in the synagogue.

“In 1981 or ’82 Debbie and I had a public debate with some of the leading composers, but what happened is that the young people of the 1960s and ’70s became the temple officers of the ’80s and ’90s, and they wanted that music in the synagogues.

“So now Debbie Friedman’s music, and Jeff Klepper’s, and mine, is the normative music of the synagogue. That war is over – but it was a very bitter battle.”

Because of his institutional connections, “I was at the center of that battle, straddling both worlds.”

There were other benefits to the commission, including Shirah, the chorus housed at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. “I was one of its founding members,” he said. “And in 1990s, we partnered with the Zamir Choral Foundation to sponsor the first choral festival,” Rabbi Freelander said. He was a founder of that festival, one of its animating forces, and its public face. This summer, he was honored at its 25th anniversary.

In 1992, Rabbi Freelander’s office moved to Manhattan, and he became URJ’s director of programming, in charge of the movement’s vast biennial convention and all its programming staff. In 2002 he became senior vice president, which was the entire organization’s No. 2 position.

“I held that job for 11 years,” he said. “This is a very big change. I am leaving the cocoon. I have supervised every department in the organization. I have my finger in everything. I spent 10 years as the executive editor of the magazine. I ran a convention that got 5,000 people in San Diego; I redesigned and reengineered it. I basically played out all the new things I could do.

“At around my 60th birthday, I realized that I might have another career in me. So when they” – the World Union for Progressive Judaism, that is – “decided that I could stay in New York, I decided that I would do it.

“This is a totally different kind of work.”

Well, to be realistic, yes and no. The work is different, but the world – Reform and Progressive Judaism – is not. First, the name. The words “Progressive” and “Reform” are fairly interchangeable, Rabbi Freelander said. In England, the so-called Reform movement is to the left of the movement as we know it, and the Reform movement is called liberal. Progressive is used around the rest of the world except in North America, and to some increasing extent in Israel.

The movement is growing in Israel, albeit slowly. “We now have 41 Progressive congregations; when Rabbi Hirsch got there we had three,” Rabbi Freelander said. Because the Israeli government funds Orthodox synagogues but does not recognize any from other streams, it is always difficult to maintain them. Israelis are not used to paying synagogue dues. One of the WUPJ’s main functions is to pay salaries to Israeli rabbis, although it is now weaning its shuls from their dependence. It also works to “create an indigenous Reform movement that isn’t just expats,” Rabbi Freelander said. That attempt, too, is bearing fruit.

The Reform movement is made up of seven regions; in North America, “the Union for Reform Judaism is the voice of Reform Judaism,” Rabbi Freelander said. Each region is independent; “there is no cohesive voice,” he added. “There are seminaries all over the world, but no coherent curriculum.” The World Union for Progressive Judaism “functions to identify communities where there are no Progressive congregations. Often it starts with expats.”

“The ubiquitousness of Chabad in eastern Europe means that they identify many Jews who want a strong Jewish identity but they can’t live within its strictures. We don’t have Chabad’s resources. Chabad is brilliant in opening the door and making people feel welcome, but they have an angle. They know what kind of Jew they are trying to build.” If you are not comfortable being that kind of Jew, then without the Progressive movement you might be lost, he suggested. That can be particularly true for women. “In Europe now they are living with what we lived with in the United States in the 1970s and ’80s,” he said. “Women are very educated, and they want to be able to lead their communities.

“That’s our marketplace.”

His job necessarily will involve fundraising, Rabbi Freelander said. “I am so turned on by the work of the organization, but there is no predictable financial base for it. It does not have a big endowment or dues base. We have a very small overhead; most of the money we raise goes directly to fund programs.

“I feel that I am blessed to be part of building 21st century Judaism in parts of the world that lost most of 20th century Judaism. There is a very vibrant scene in England, Australia, and Israel, but in the rest of the world – particularly eastern Europe – there is a vacuum.

“The area of this job that I am not excited about but I am learning about is what the presence of real anti-Semitism means to real communities. That is new to me – we don’t deal with it in North America – but certainly in France, to some extent in Germany, and in Hungary, it is raising its head.”

His organization walks a tightrope as it talks about aliyah versus building strong communities in Europe and other parts of the world. It wants neither to discourage aliyah nor to abandon the Jews who cannot or will not leave their homes, Rabbi Freelander said.

Although he knew as much as most of us about global politics – that is, what we can read in the papers or online – his education has advanced radically, Rabbi Freelander said. For example, the Union funds a two-week summer camp in Crimea for Ukrainian, Russian, and Belorussian Jewish teenagers. “The Belorussian parents said to us, ‘Are you crazy? You think I’m sending my kids to Crimea?’ We had a few weeks to figure out where to send 1,000 kids.”

They did.

They also had to figure out what to do with the synagogue in Crimea; the Russians froze all the bank accounts, and a Moscow-based Jewish organization now claims that it owns the building. “We are now dealing with ‘whose synagogue is it anyway?'” Rabbi Freelander said. “Who has the authority – the Russian Jewish authorities empowered by Putin or the Ukrainian Jewish authorities we worked with before?

“Global politics affect Jewish communities in ways that we never knew about. The support they feel from the outside is crucial, so they don’t feel alone.”

Not everything happening around the world is bad or sad, though. Last week, Rabbi Freelander went to Wroclaw – the onetime Breslav – where six new Progressive rabbis and three cantors, graduates of the historic Abraham Geiger College, were to be ordained. He gave the ordination address. “The foreign minister of Germany was there,” he said. “Why? Because it was 75 years to the day that Germany invaded Poland and retook this part of Poland as Germany.”

After Poland, Rabbi Freelander will go on to Israel before returning home.

“I never expected to start a new life at this stage,” he said.

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