Obituary: Rabbi Benjamin Friedberg helped calm waters at Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation

Rabbi Benjamin Friedberg, who served as spiritual leader of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec Congregation for 18 years, died on March 30 at the age of 94.

Rabbi Friedberg came to Beth Tzedec in 1956, the synagogue’s first year, as assistant rabbi. He went on to serve pulpits at Or Shalom Congregation in London, Ont., the former Agudath Israel Congregation in Ottawa, and in Rochester, N.Y. before returning to Beth Tzedec as senior rabbi from 1974 to 1992. Upon retirement, he was conferred the title Rabbi Emeritus.

He took over the spiritual leadership of Canada’s largest Conservative synagogue from Rabbi Stuart Rosenberg, whose contentious departure the year before and subsequent legal action threatened to split the congregation into two warring camps and which rankled the whole community for years.

Rabbi Friedberg’s appointment as Beth Tzedec’s senior rabbi “helped bring a sense of security, strength and healing to the congregation after an extended period marked by factionalism and confrontation,” the synagogue stated in an online condolence.

He “brought peace and stability to Beth Tzedec and strengthened the foundation of the shul,” said Marvin Miller, the congregation’s president from 1987 to 1989. “He served our synagogue and the Jewish community with great honour and dignity.”

Rabbi Benjamin Friedberg, Toronto (Credit: Toronto Public Library)

The rabbi himself acknowledged that he took over at a time of deep divisions and bitterness in the synagogue.

“I played a part in reconciling what was a very serious split in the congregation,” he told interviewer Larry Rachlin eight years ago in a series of videos available on YouTube. “I played a part—I hope an important (one)—in melding the two parts together so it ended up as one congregation.”

That fulfilled his pledge, made when he was hired, to be the rabbi “of the whole congregation.”

The rabbi’s death is “a huge loss for the Beth Tzedec and broader community,” shul member and longtime friend Adam Joseph related on the synagogue’s website. “He was a wonderful leader, scholar and lover of Israel who truly believed that a rabbi’s place was in the shul, and that was something he lived by.”

He was also a rarity in this country: A Canadian-born and bred pulpit rabbi.

Joseph Benjamin Friedberg was born in Toronto in 1927 to Chaim and Rochel Friedberg just two months after they arrived from Poland to join family. His father delivered milk by horse and wagon, and young Joseph was the middle of five children, sandwiched by four sisters, in an observant home on Borden Street.

He was 23 when he married his wife, Lola, whom he’d met on a student trip to Montreal, and asked her on their honeymoon whether it was all right if he quit Osgoode Hall law school to study for the rabbinate instead.

Their daughter, Esther Friedberg, eulogized, as did others, a man who devoured books and entertained a plethora of ideas. But it wasn’t all work. His daughter added that her father was also a master of the yo-yo and delighted in performing strangely-named tricks with it. “To me, it looked like magic,” she said.

There was less magic in the rabbi’s opposition to allowing women to have aliyot, a request that began even before he arrived. “Obviously, I turned it down,” he recalled in his recorded interviews, “but I want you to know what the reason for it was. It’s not so much that I thought that if women had aliyahs, Judaism was going to die or turn upside down.”

He was opposed because of what he was seeing within the entire Conservative movement when it came to the shifting role of women in religious rites—that the issue of aliyot was “an un-Jewish change… a substitution (of) a liberal, American ideology instead of Judaism,” he told Rachlin.

He made one exception that became a bit of synagogue lore. When board member Judy Feld Carr’s first husband died in 1973, she became the youngest widow at Beth Tzedec. When her son Alan’s bar mitzvah took place the following year, Rabbi Friedberg, then still new, agreed to grant Feld Carr an aliyah.

“He saw it is a necessity for a little boy who needed a parent at the bimah,” recalled Feld Carr, who had been bat mitzvah in Sudbury, Ont. more than 20 years earlier. Her special call to the Torah at Beth Tzedec “was very, very emotional. The rabbi hugged me… it was something.”

Feld Carr would go on to serve as the synagogue’s first female president in the early 1980s.

The synagogue didn’t become egalitarian until Rabbi Friedberg’s successors, Rabbis Baruch Frydman-Kohl and Steve Wernick took over. Still, Rabbi Friedberg made Beth Tzedec’s first full time female pulpit rabbi feel welcome.

Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin, who joined Beth Tzedec in 2019, recalled that in an early conversation, Rabbi Friedberg learned she was studying Daf Yomi, the practice of learning one page of Talmud every day for just over seven years.

“Every time we spoke, he mentioned it. I could feel the nachas he felt for me,” Rabbi Bodzin recalled in a recent synagogue mailing. “With God’s help, I finished my Daf Yomi studies in January 2020. One morning after minyan, I led a siyyum, formally acknowledging the completion of my learning and sharing texts that resonated most for me.”

Rabbi Friedberg attended the siyyum. ”He wanted to be there to celebrate the milestone, and to talk Torah,” Rabbi Bodzin wrote. “I was in awe and deeply touched that he made the effort to be there for me.”

Rabbi Wernick, who became the congregation’s senior rabbi in 2019, also recalled a “calming, steady, stabilizing force” at the synagogue, one who put much stock in scholarship. In some of the progressive changes the synagogue considered over the years, Rabbi Friedberg made it a point to study the materials and teachings, and attend the meetings, despite the fact that he opposed their goals.

Rabbi Wernick said he’ll never forget what Rabbi Friedberg had to say at the end of one of the meetings on same-gender weddings: “I disagree with the conclusion but I respect the scholarship and process.”

Said Rabbi Wernick: “That’s the quintessential rabbinic value—the argument for the sake of Heaven.”

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, who served in Beth Tzedec’s pulpit for 26 years after Rabbi Friedberg, also recalled a “healer and a peacemaker following a turbulent congregational conflict with the previous rabbi.” Among his predecessor’s achievements were starting a Kol Nidrei procession of synagogue elders. He was a major supporter of Camp Ramah, and continued a dynamic adult education program, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl added.

And while Rabbi Friedberg resisted the “feminization” of the synagogue, he did support a multi-year adult bat mitzvah program, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl noted.

During Rabbi Friedberg’s tenure, former Israeli prime ministers Golda Meir and Menachem Begin spoke at Beth Tzedec. He was especially impressed by Begin, who was “not only an Israeli prime minister, but a Jewish prime minister.”

Rabbi Friedberg’s funeral on April 1 heard about his resonant, well-modulated voice. He loved to use it in song, whether in liturgy, or humming operatic arias in the halls of the synagogue.

He did not succumb to “pulpit chill,” his funeral heard, often speaking his mind regardless of controversy or pushback, and sometimes even chided his fellow rabbis for not being pro-Israel enough in public statements.

Rabbi Friedberg was once asked about the most satisfying moments in his job. “I didn’t go into the rabbinate to look for satisfying things,” he replied. “I went into the rabbinate to try and do things. Satisfaction is a byproduct, just as happiness is a byproduct.”

Following his retirement until around 2017, he and his wife spent about half their time in Israel, living in Jerusalem’s German Colony.

An astute observer of human nature, Rabbi Friedberg believed that values and prejudices were different sides of the same coin. “Prejudices are values we don’t like,” he explained. “Values are prejudices we do like.”

He is survived by his wife of 71 years, Lola (née Constant); children Gilah, Mark and Esther; seven grandchildren, and sisters Lillian Lerman and Sally Zerker.