Jewish Journal

Goodbye, Rabbi

Allen Freehling retires from University Synagogue after three decades as its spiritual leader.

by Michael Aushenker

Posted on May. 2, 2002 at 8:00 pm

A chapter is about to close for the Reform movement. After 30 years, Rabbi Allen Freehling is retiring from University Synagogue. As of June 30, Freehling, 70, will turn over the Brentwood synagogue's spiritual leadership to incoming Rabbi Morley Feinstein from Temple Beth El in South Bend, Ind.

"I will miss the ongoing relationship with the children and the adults," Freehling told The Journal, "simply because the nature of my rabbinate was to be as intensely involved as possible."

Following his graduation from the University of Miami, Freehling spent a decade working as an executive in South Florida before entering the rabbinate at age 30. The ordained Freehling joined the struggling University Synagogue in 1972. Freehling, with Cantor Jay Frailich, soon reversed the course of the near-bankrupt synagogue, which had less than 200 households, into a thriving 900-family congregation today with an annual budget exceeding $2.2 million.

"He's given his last 30 years to this synagogue and taken us from near extinction to the thriving institution we are today," said University Synagogue President Alan Goldman.

"He's been in the forefront of a lot of social action issues," said Jerry Krautman, executive director of University Synagogue. "AIDS, helping the homeless, Mitzvah Day. He has always tried to raise the level of interest at the congregation to those issues."

In the process of pursuing social action endeavors, Freehling raised University Synagogue's profile through his involvement. One area where Freehling has tried to raise the bar is with dialogue between American Jews and Muslims. In a post-Sept. 11 world, where anti-Arab sentiment is high, Freehling has always set out to "regard individuals, rather than make blanket statements about groups."

"I simply disagree with that opinion to think of a group as a monolith, when our own people's history is filled with tragedy because other people scapegoat us," he said.

The fight for tolerance was a hallmark of Freehling's career. He was one of the first rabbis to embrace gays as part of mainstream Judaism.

Another career milestone occurred in 1998, when the rabbi led an interfaith pilgrimage to the Vatican to discuss the fine points of Jewish history and anti-Semitism with Pope John Paul II.

Contrary to popular belief, Freehling does not believe that Reform Judaism has skewed more to the center -- not entirely, anyway.

"From a standpoint of religious ceremony -- yes," he said. "Theologically and socially -- not."

On April 23, the synagogue honored Freehling's career with a gala at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel served as the evening's keynote speaker. Introducing Wiesel was "Friends" star David Schwimmer.

"This was the temple I grew up with," said Schwimmer. Both he and his sister were b'nai mitzvahed there. "He's worked very hard to benefit lives, not only in the congregation, but he's fought social injustice here and abroad."

Schwimmer family members are not the only congregants who have come to know and admire Freehling. Fifteen years ago, Freehling officiated at the wedding of Steffanie and Geoffrey Gee.

"I liked the fact that he practiced what he preached," said Geoffrey Gee, a past president of the synagogue who co-chaired the April 23 tribute with his wife.

"He's not afraid to go out on a limb," added Steffanie Gee.

If Freehling feels any disappointment, it is with his younger peers, of whom he says are not as involved in social justice as their predecessors. "I find that to be sad and alarming, because congregations look to rabbis to take the lead," Freehling said.

For those who believe that Freehling will follow the end of his tenure with a vacation, guess again. As rabbi emeritus, Freehling will remain connected to University Synagogue, and he will establish the Center for Social Justice in Action, a nonprofit dedicated to community building on the platform of human rights and civil liberties. Freehling will also author a book on American Jewish-Muslim relations.

"As of July 1, I hope to be gainfully employed somewhere else," Freehling said. "I am not tired. I have a lot of creative energy, and I want to use that energy for the betterment of the community."

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