Rabbi Albert Friedlander

Rabbi Emeritus of Westminster Synagogue
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The Independent Online

Albert Hoschander Friedlander, rabbi: born Berlin 10 May 1927; ordained rabbi 1952; Rabbi, United Hebrew Congregation, Fort Smith, Arkansas 1952-56; Rabbi, Temple B'nai Brith, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania 1956-61; Religious Counsellor, Columbia University 1961-66; Founder Rabbi, Jewish Center of the Hamptons, East Hampton, New York 1961-66; Rabbi, Wembley Liberal Synagogue 1966-71; Lecturer, Leo Baeck College 1967-71, Director 1971-82, Dean 1982-2004; Senior Rabbi, Westminster Synagogue 1971-97 (Rabbi Emeritus); Editor, European Judaism 1982-2004; OBE 2001; President, Council of Christians and Jews 2003-04; married 1961 Evelyn Philipp (three daughters); died London 8 July 2004.

One of the last books the Jews in 1930s Germany were allowed to produce was a slim encyclopaedia of German Jewish life called the Philo-Lexikon. It could not say much for obvious reasons, but it does detail the German Jewish achievement before the Nazis brought a golden age of Jewish intellect to a close. It gives, almost without comment, a dazzling list of Jewish scholars, Nobel prizewinners, rabbis, scientists, doctors, poets, artists, writers and thinkers. It is a roll-call of German and European culture. It is awesome to consider the treasure that was scattered, lost, the people murdered.

Rabbi Albert Friedlander was one of the last living links between that murdered civilisation and the humbler European Jewish community that gradually began to replace it after the Holocaust.

He left Berlin after Kristallnacht, in 1939, aged 12. His family escaped to the United States via Cuba, and after ettending the University of Chicago he was ordained in Cincinnati. He spent 14 years as a rabbi in the US, the last five as founder Rabbi of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, before coming to England in 1966. He became Senior Rabbi at Westminster Synagogue in London in 1971.

His name is surrounded by titles and honours. He was the author of Leo Baeck's biography, Dean of the post-war Leo Baeck College in London, a visiting professor at German and American universities, a member of a prestigious think-tank in Berlin, spokesman on Jewish theology on British and German radio and television, Rabbi Emeritus of Westminster Synagogue, a President of the Council of Christians and Jews, honoured with the Order of Merit, modern Germany's greatest honour, and appointed OBE in his adopted country for his interfaith work.

But he was more than all his honours because he was one of the kindest human beings I have ever known. He was forever reconciling, never allowing prejudice to distort his feeling for ordinary people and their problems. He tried to help, not to judge or batter people with his own superior learning.

I think it is the students who will miss him most, especially those studying for the rabbinate. In every one of them, Friedlander saw something valuable and he fought for them through all the committees. He wanted them to have their chance. They loved him because they knew instinctively that he was on their side. They could tell him their truth and he would not use it against them. He gave them his time and attention and the service of his formidable intellect.

Albert Friedlander loved life, loved everything that life produced, literature, music books and sport. His great love was QPR, of which he became a kind of a mascot. He rejoiced when QPR went up a league.

I got to know him well when I was Convener of our religious court, our Beth Din, and he was one of its judges, often its chairman. Now Albert knew the problems and formalities of Jewish canon law but, perhaps because of his experience as a youngster in Nazi Berlin, he appreciated how tough life was on everybody in our time and he thought the task of religion was to lighten people's loads not increase them. So he never "put on the style" with people who came to our court. I learnt a lot watching him draw out of them their difficulties and life experiences - especially from the shy, the frightened, the people who couldn't express themselves and the nervous. He led our clients to work out their own solution together with him and the other rabbis. He never imposed or was sarcastic.

Albert, being a convivial chap, liked being popular, but this did not prevent him from being unpopular when duty called for it. I worked with him when we set up in the Sixties the Standing Conference for Jewish Christian Moslem Understanding in Europe. This took place during Israeli-Arab hostilities and the atmosphere was explosive.

It got even worse when we were invaded by the German student new left who compared the war to Auschwitz. Half the Christians and all the Jews marched out in a huff leaving Albert and me to listen and then reconcile and explain. As the emotions went off the boil, some of the hotheads left and tea and cake made their appearance. It was very difficult but our fragile organisation was able to survive it.

On a personal level, I am indebted to Albert Friedlander. When my partner and I nearly gave up because our backgrounds were too various, it was Albert who told me not to stand on my dignity but write another letter and he posted it himself to make sure it went off. I owe my last 20 years of happiness to that letter. Not many rabbis are prepared to help two grey and gay oldies to happiness.

Here I must add a thank you to Evelyn, Albert's wife. Together they formed a team. She had to drive him everywhere because his sight was no longer up to driving. She also set up a permanent travelling exhibition of German Jewish communal and family life. This provides the life setting and complement to Albert's theology. She too, in her own right, has been honoured by Germany with the Order of Merit.

Their three daughters, meanwhile, have taken over their parents' aims and interests. Ariel is a rabbi in America, ordained in the same college as Albert. Michal is part of the team that works to commemorate the history of German Jewry in the new Jewish Museum in Berlin. Noam is a television journalist, biographer and sometime sports writer - which recalls a part of Albert's past I never witnessed: his student days when he was an athlete and Mississippi state champion for the mile.

I have some problems with Albert Friedlander. What did he do with his own anger and bitterness from his childhood and adolescence in Nazi Berlin?

Only once did it surface and I was shocked by how much he had suffered. I interviewed him for a BBC programme in which he told me about the Czech Scrolls of the Law which Nazis were collecting for an anti-Semitic museum in Prague. They had been taken from the burnt-down synagogues and communities who had died in the gas chambers. I suddenly saw tears streaming down Albert's face. He told me of the humiliations he and his family had suffered before they got to America and to the time when he and his father wandered around the local Berlin trains without their Jewish identity badges because they had been tipped off that the Gestapo had come for them at their flat. For a long time we sat together in silence holding hands. I would not have become a reasonable and decent human being like him after such an experience. I would have been poisoned by my own bitterness.

It was not always easy working with Albert Friedlander because he liked saying yes to things not no and quite often he said too many yeses and was left racing against time to fulfil one engagement or more too many. So his life was hectic, flying from one continent to another and working late into the night writing articles, books and sketches. I suppose this is the problem great rabbis have.

Albert and I agreed that we were both out of shape and needed exercise. We decided since we lived at opposite ends of Hyde Park to run through the park before breakfast and then meet in the centre duly exercised and have breakfast together.

It didn't work. The phone calls started early and never let up. In desperation, wearing my running shorts, I took a taxi to where we should meet. I arrived just in time to see Albert getting out of another taxi in his running shorts. We sighed. I think Albert had been working out some songs for Donald Swann through the night. (He collaborated not only with Swann, on The Five Scrolls, 1975, but also with Malcolm Williamson, on Wedding Song, 1981, as "a gift from the Jewish community and the Master of the Queen's Music" for the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales.)

Albert Friedlander was for more than 20 years the editor of the journal European Judaism - and a loyal contributor, too, to The Independent, writing obituaries for friends including the impresario Louis Benjamin, the artist Leonard Baskin, the historian Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, the theologian Professor Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, Rabbi Hugo Gryn ("probably the most beloved rabbi in Great Britain") and, most recently, the biblical scholar Hyam Maccoby and the Editor of Encounter Melvin J. Lasky.

His many books include Out of the Whirlwind: a reader of Holocaust literature (1968), The Six Days of Destruction (with Elie Wiesel, 1988), A Thread of Gold: journeys towards reconciliation (1990) and Riders Towards the Dawn: from ultimate suffering to tempered hope (1993).

For me the greatest of them is Leo Baeck: teacher of Theresienstadt (1968), his biography of Baeck, who became Chief Rabbi in Germany just as Hitler became Führer. I think he had the saddest job in the world. But he was a saint as well as a scholar. In London in 1939 at the beginning of September, he abruptly left because he had to get back to Germany before the border was closed and war was declared. He would remain with the remnants of his community till the end. In 1942 he was taken to Theresienstadt and was only saved by an administrative blip. When the Russians liberated Theresienstadt, they handed over the guards to the prisoners. It was Baeck who stopped them from being slaughtered: they must have a fair trial.

Baeck was one of the first rabbis who returned to Germany. He never repudiated German culture and learning - only the Nazi aberration. I think Albert Friedlander would have thought the same. Both were well suited, as this great biography shows. Both were religiously liberal Jews in an illiberal time.

Lionel Blue