Still a scholar, but retiring as rabbi
Rabbi John Friedman’s professional life will come full circle next month. After 34 years as the leader at Judea Reform Congregation, he’ll return to where his clergy career began and also where he met his wife.
The 64-year-old and his wife, Nan, a retired physician, leave Durham Sept. 1 for Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. John Friedman will be the Marcus Center Director’s Fellow at the American Jewish Archives of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. They’ll stay in the same building that was once his seminary dormitory.
“We’ll stay in an apartment 50 feet from where I saw her and hoped to pick her up,” Friedman said. The longtime rabbi’s humor flows as freely as his serious sermons or stories he tells. He’ll spend his final year at Judea Reform on sabbatical before his official retirement next summer.
Friedman has been rabbi to more than his own congregation, though its growth has been exponential during his tenure -- from 130 families to 630. The synagogue’s building neighbors now include the Levin Jewish Community Center and the Lerner Jewish Community Day School. Friedman’s place in Durham outside the synagogue has ranged from church pulpits to downtown political rallies.
He is also one-third of a friendship that began in 1980 with Bishop Elroy Lewis of Fisher Memorial United Holy Church and the Rev. Joe Harvard, who retired last year from First Presbyterian Church. Lewis and Harvard were among those who shared kind words about their colleague last week at a meeting of Durham Congregations In Action, another group Friedman has led.
The friendship between Friedman, Lewis and Harvard began when they joined forces against a Ku Klux Klan rally in the early ’80s, and their deep relationship catalyzed years later when they joined again at a service in the wake of 9/11, Friedman said.
“I’ll never forget that service,” he said.
Friedman’s activities in the community include being the first rabbi to speak at the NAACP-driven Moral Monday rallies that began in 2013 at the N.C. General Assembly, in protest of the agenda of the Republican-led legislature. Friedman also shared the stage with the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins of Covenant Presbyterian Church and the Rev. Ginger Brasher-Cunningham of Pilgrim United Church of Christ at a Moral Monday event in Durham this summer.
Brasher-Cunningham said that Friedman once explained Reform Judaism as “for all you Christians, we would be the UCC of the Jewish world.”
At the DCIA meeting honoring Friedman, she said that he is an amazing part of Durham.
Friedman thinks it’s a responsibility of clergy to speak their beliefs about ethical issues.
“This has been an issue since, well since the Bible I suppose. Getting in trouble for saying what’s in your heart is part of the job of a clergyperson,” he said in a separate interview.
Imam Abdul Waheed said he and Friedman often met for lunch and talked about ways to help the world.
“I appreciate you, brother, I always did. I love you,” Waheed said at the DCIA meeting. “We showed the world that Muslims and Jews can be together.”
Lewis reflected on a trip to Israel with Harvard and Friedman, and how an airport security person thought a church member was making a joke when she mentioned the rabbi, the preacher and the bishop. That trip in 2000 was the best of his life, he said.
“I hope we can do one more before it’s all over, back to Israel,” Lewis said.
Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel, a member of Judea Reform, presented Friedman with a letter from Durham Mayor Bill Bell recognizing his service to the community.
These last days before he leaves for Ohio have had other milestones. Friedman officiated his son’s wedding. His daughter, who just received her doctorate degree from Harvard University, started a new job at Yale University. The summer has been “this big bouillabaisse of joy,” Friedman said.
Retiring from Judea Reform is very gratifying, he said. Retired rabbis don’t leave the congregation – Friedman will be a member and fill in for vacationing rabbis. So, things he does for the last time as the senior rabbi of Judea Reform won’t be the last time he’ll do those things at Judea Reform. After the year in Ohio, the Friedmans will return home to Durham, where they plan to stay.
“When I first got here, the first thing I thought was: ‘What a cool college town’ because that was the kind of place I wanted to go to,” he said. They lived previously in Chicago, but Durham offered better traffic and weather and still has music, theater and intellectuality, he said.
In retirement, Friedman won’t be just sitting on a front porch in a rocking chair.
“I have scholarly projects to work on, and you only have so many years in life,” he said. His 35 years at Judea Reform is a long time, he said, and he wants to spend the last fraction of his life with plenty of time to study.
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