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Jewish Journal

Skirball’s founding chairman passes the baton

by Jonah Lowenfeld

January 31, 2014 | 12:55 pm

From left: Peter M. Weil, Uri D. Herscher and Howard L. Friedman. Photo courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center

From left: Peter M. Weil, Uri D. Herscher and Howard L. Friedman. Photo courtesy of the Skirball Cultural Center

Addressing the more than 600 attendees of the Skirball Cultural Center’s Founders Gala last October, Howard I. Friedman, the center’s first, and until Jan. 2 its only, board chairman, spoke about one of his favorite subjects: the significance of ideas in sustaining Jewish life. 

“The Jewish people could not have survived 4,000 years in the world without the power of ideas,” Friedman, 85, told the group of business and civic leaders, without glancing at the small sheet of notes on the podium in front of him. “The Skirball idea, its mission, is embraced by the notion of celebrating the American Jewish experience. That is the foundation of this institution.” 

Friedman, who after 18 years as Skirball board chair is officially passing his baton to attorney Peter M. Weil (see adjacent story), offered the requisite “salute” to the institution’s supporters gathered in the center’s new Guerin Pavilion. He lauded Skirball Founding President and CEO Uri D. Herscher for his “indispensable leadership and inspiration.” But the manner that Friedman, in a five-minute speech that included citations from Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Winston Churchill and American-Jewish philosopher Horace Kallen, gave pride of place to the Skirball’s mission is very much in keeping with his character and emblematic of how he has served the Skirball. 

“Can you imagine,” Herscher said in an interview, “having a chair who doesn’t call you to ask you about your budget? Who basically is just interested in your mission, and ‘Uri, how are we informing the world, from our 4,000-year history, how are we informing the world that democracy is the cornerstone of civilization?’ ” 

“Just imagine having a chairman like that,” Herscher, continued. “Who is fortunate enough to have such a person, who will really give life to a new entity?”

Herscher conceived and founded the Skirball as an outreach effort of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion back when he was the college’s executive vice president and dean of faculty of the Los Angeles campus. Under his leadership, the Skirball, which opened its campus in 1996, has become independent and matured into the fullness of the original vision. 

The Skirball now attracts more than 600,000 visitors annually — including more than 80,000 schoolchildren, most of them not Jewish. Its $150 million endowment supports a varied slate of activities and exhibitions, all aimed at conveying to visitors the uniqueness of the American Jewish experience. 

And, Friedman said, his own role at the helm of Skirball’s board is somewhat atypical, in that he hasn’t had to do much fundraising — “Uri is a magician,” he said. Nevertheless, speaking to the Journal from the home in Encino where he and his wife have lived since 1960, Friedman did tout one particular fundraising statistic: 40 percent of the money raised for the Skirball has come from non-Jews. 

“The next question is,” Friedman said, not waiting to see whether his interlocutor would ask the follow-up, “Why are they interested in giving to the Skirball?”

“Because the Jewish experience in America is the paradigm for America itself,” Friedman answered his own question. “And we have thousands of kids who go through that place every year, and they see the American excitement about the American experience — a very Jewish excitement about the American experience — and it turns them on, and they begin to be excited about their own immigrant American experience.”

Though Friedman’s own parents were not immigrants, all four of his grandparents were, and he grew up knowing he was “part of an immigrant generation” at a time when “most Americans could say that.” His father’s parents, originally from Romania, settled in Peoria, Ill.; his maternal grandfather came from Austria; his grandmother from Russia, and their Orthodox family made its home in Chicago, where his parents met and married and where Friedman was born in 1928. 

During the Depression, in pursuit of jobs for Friedman’s father, the family moved first to Springfield, Ill., then Lincoln, Neb., and when a job in the advertising department of an Oklahoma City newspaper opened up, they moved again. 

“Then he heard about this defunct Jewish magazine,” Friedman said. The year was 1931; the magazine was called the Southwest Jewish Chronicle. “For $100, he bought it.”

The Chronicle may not have been a venue for great journalism, but it served to connect disparate Jewish communities throughout the hinterlands of the United States with news of weddings, bar mitzvahs, High Holy Days sermons and obituaries. His father “sold some advertising,” but Friedman said that his mother “really put the paper out. She knew all the rabbis throughout the Southwest.” Friedman’s parents published the paper until the end of their lives, and the proceeds from the paper were enough to put their two kids through college. 

Friedman attended University of Oklahoma and in his senior year became involved in the cause of Ada Lois Sipuel Fisher, a black applicant who brought a lawsuit against the university. She was denied admission to University of Oklahoma Law School because of her race. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Fisher’s favor, the university quickly created a new, separate school for black students in Oklahoma City — the Langston University School of Law, which was housed in the State Capitol. 

“They hired a lawyer to be a professor and a legal secretary to be registrar,” Friedman recalled. 

The university then again denied Fisher admission to the whites-only law school in Norman, Okla., this time on the grounds that she had been admitted to Langston. At the time, the U.S. Supreme Court had not yet struck down such “separate but equal” accommodations — Brown v. Board of Education wouldn’t be decided until 1954. Fisher refused to attend Langston, and two months later, her lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court Justice, filed a new suit on her behalf. 

In the meantime, Friedman, an active member of Hillel Foundation, helped organize a campus protest in support of Friedman’s cause. According to an Associated Press report that appeared in the Jan. 30, 1948, edition of the Spokane Daily Chronicle, Friedman was the main speaker at the “orderly” demonstration. 

“Those who say we can have equality under separate schools are blind,” Friedman said, according to the report. In 1949, with the case headed back to the Supreme Court, Oklahoma backed down, and the University of Oklahoma Law School admitted Fisher that June; she graduated from the school in 1952. (In 1992, in a highly symbolic move, then Oklahoma Gov. David Walters appointed Fisher to the Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. She died in 1995.) 

Friedman went on to attend Yale Law School, and after graduating he spent two years in the Air Force, working in the Judge Advocate’s Office, representing the government in cases against its contractors. Upon leaving the service, Friedman took a teaching fellowship at Stanford University Law School, and then moved to Los Angeles, where he joined the California Attorney General’s team working on a case before the Supreme Court about the rights various Western States had to the water in the Colorado River. He then brought that case to Loeb and Loeb, the law firm where he would eventually become a partner. 

Considered one of the region’s top litigators, Friedman may be best known as the man who represented heiress Joan Irvine Smith in her many courtroom battles with the board of the Irvine Company, but he also took on more than a few pro bono clients; in 1992, he made the appeal for a stay of execution on behalf of convicted killer Robert Alton Harris to then Gov. Pete Wilson. 

Friedman took on the task at the behest of the ACLU and the California Appellate Project. Harris, who shot two 16-year-old boys in San Diego in 1978, suffered from both fetal alcohol syndrome and abusive parents. 

“I thought there was some merit to it,” Friedman said. “The governor turned us down.” Harris was executed at San Quentin  State Prison on April 21, 1992, the first to be put to death in the state of California since 1967. The date happened also to be Friedman’s 64th birthday. 

Over the course of his career, Friedman has held numerous leadership positions in Jewish organizations, including serving a term as national chair of the American Jewish Committee, the first person on the West coast to hold the position. But despite his varied accomplishments, Friedman, a self-described neoconservative, freely expressed his disappointment at certain qualities about America today. 

“I think my generation has, generally, done a poor job of passing along values to the succeeding generation and passing along the values of our traditions,” Friedman said. 

By way of illustration, he cited a quote from a 1908 book by G.K. Chesterton, titled “Orthodoxy.” 

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” Chesterton wrote. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.” 

“You cannot,” Friedman said during the interview, “be true to the future unless you understand the past and treat both with the same kind of loving kindness. I can’t think of anything more un-Jewish, that we live only for the new and that we are starting from scratch to rebuild a society. That’s what the mission of the Skirball is all about.” 

The merits of tradition notwithstanding, Friedman said he has no regrets about stepping aside as chairman. 

“It’s time for a new face,” he said. “Eighteen years is a pretty long term.” But, he added, “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”

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