Durham News: Community

On Faith: His synagogue and this writer remember Rabbi Friedman

Judea Reform will honor Rabbi John Friedman’s 35 years of service Friday and Saturday.
Judea Reform will honor Rabbi John Friedman’s 35 years of service Friday and Saturday. cliddy@newsobserver.com

On Friday and Saturday, Judea Reform Congregation will celebrate Rabbi John Friedman’s 35 years as rabbi at the Durham synagogue and as a significant leader in the Durham faith community.

The rabbi, who is retiring, has high name recognition among people of faith in the Bull City. His wide open ministry over the years has included working with leaders from across the religious spectrum, particularly in organizations such as Durham Congregations in Action and in many ministries it has begun and supported.

To honor Friedman, his congregation is holding a special shabbat service at 7:30 p.m. Friday, with a special lecture by Richard Sarason, professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The rabbi’s family members will participate in the service.

At 11 a.m. Saturday, a service to which the larger community is invited, will include participation by the rabbi’s children, Abigail and Josh, who will read in Hebrew from the Torah. The portion that morning will be Korach (Numbers) 16:20-35.

A festive community luncheon will follow, during which several of the rabbi’s colleagues will speak, including such Durham champions of justice as Bishop Elroy Lewis of Fisher Memorial United Holy Church, the Rev. Joe Harvard, retired, of First Presbyterian and the Rev. Haywood Holderness, also retired, of Westminster Presbyterian.

No doubt, this trio could spin a few yarns about their shared exploits with Rabbi Friedman, who led a trip to Israel a few years ago. It was a diverse group, both religiously and racially, including folks from Durham and Chapel Hill. While the whole group sang “Take Me to the River to be Baptized,” Bishop Lewis waded into the River Jordan and baptized a man in the group.

Judea Reform Congregation has conferred the title “Rabbi Emeritus” on Friedman “for his many years of dedication and service to the congregation and the wider community.” Rep. David Price will attend the Saturday event and will make a special presentation.

Over the years, a noteworthy project of the rabbi was to expose teens in the Sunday School at the synagogue to Christian worship by going with them to visit churches in the city. This gave teens from both faiths an opportunity to ask questions and to compare notes on how things are done in their different worship venues and traditions.

Another way Friedman reached out to other faith groups was to invite Christian ministers and leaders to a yearly event at the synagogue to hear a distinguished speaker and to share in a luncheon. This brought Christians into the synagogue to see andlearn. After all, Jews and Christians share the same sacred writings of what is called the Old Testament by Christians and the Hebrew Scripture by Jews.

And, of course, that rather obvious reason: Jesus was a Jew and the Christian church has been significantly influenced by Jewish tradition.

A personal note here:

Once, in conversation with Rabbi Friedman, I referred to Jesus as a “rabbi of the first century,” to which he immediately objected. “He was no rabbi,” he said.

For some folks, those might have been fighting words, but not for me and John Friedman.

He was the rabbi who taught me much of what I know about Judaism by answering my questions, by explaining the significance of traditions in Jewish worship, by once suggesting I should read “The Red Tent” and by being anything but “a cliche rabbi.” (You know, the ones who come across in some literary works as real “know-it-alls” who have to be careful not to trip over their beards!)

My most memorable experience with Rabbi Friedman came one day when I was visiting him in his office at the synagogue for a story I was writing. I don’t recall the exact conversation, but I remember he asked me if there were anything else he could do for me.

I said, “Yes, you can read to me from the Torah.”

He led me into the sanctuary. I will always remember the careful and respectful manner in which he found the place and then read the sacred words in Hebrew. How beautiful were his voice and those words, and what a spiritual high it was for me.

Thanks, John, you have been a rabbi to me.

Rabbi Friedman’s official retirement date is June 30 and his successor, Rabbi Larry Bach, will begin his tenure July 1 at the synagogue, located at 1933 W. Cornwallis Road.

Contact Flo Johnston at fjohnston314@gmail.com or call 910-361-4135.