Centenarian San Jose rabbi optimistic about Jews future

As he looks forward to his 100th birthday in April, Rabbi Iser Luria Freund says emphatically, "I believe that the Jewish people will survive, no matter what."

Freund, a founder of the Union of American Hebrew Con-gregations' Camp Swig in Sara-toga and the first rabbi of San Jose's Temple Emanu-El, moves slowly but independently. He laughs easily, and speaks softly and with great affection and pride of his son, Leslie, also a rabbi, who has passed away, and of his grandchildren, who accompanied him to Israel only last year.

His mind is a rich repository of the past, full of detail and anecdote, and he still maintains a commitment to the future. Freund has long had the reputation of being ahead of his time.

"I'm totally modern," the centenarian insists. "I'm a liberal who believes in outreach. I accommodated intermarriage. Some of my views were controversial, but I always believed in getting along with people of different faiths."

Freund arrived at Ellis Island from Lithuania with his family at age 11. An old-country photograph shows his father — himself a scholar who lived to age 95 — his mother, and the rest of the extended family. Freund and his younger brother, who also became a rabbi, are two wide-eyed little boys sitting at their father's feet.

Today, Freund's San Jose home is a shrine to his life. Photos of friends, family and colleagues from the '20s share the wall with those of his wife, son and grandchildren. Diplomas and honors abound.

Freund graduated from Cincin-nati's Hebrew Union College in 1916 and became a rabbi in 1921. He also did graduate work at the University of Chicago.

In 1926, he married Shirley Pearlstein, a young and beautiful member of his first congregation in Ontario, Canada. A portrait of his wife, an acclaimed singer as well as an authority on art and antiques, graces the living room of the rabbi's house. She died a year and a half ago.

Their 50th anniversary album, which Freund lovingly assembled night after night as his wife slept, chronicles a commitment that only deepened with time. The rabbi proudly points out a box containing 1,000 pages of love letters that he wrote to her over the years.

On the walls are many fine works of art. The Freunds owned an antique shop several blocks from their home. Every work has an astonishing history, which the rabbi enjoys recounting. A magnificent portrait of Tolstoy, for example, was painted from life by an artist who later "took his own life."

Just before World War II, when Freund arrived in San Jose after stints in Canada, North Carolina and Florida, the South Bay Jewish community was "scattered about. But everywhere I found a Jew, I tried to start a congregation."

The original San Jose temple, first called Bickur Cholim, later became Temple Emanu-El, named by Freund after the San Francisco congregation. He served the San Jose congregation for 11 years, much of that time in other facilities.

In 1939, the temple burned down, and due to wartime restrictions could not be rebuilt until 1947. So, the congregation met in a local church. The rabbi later built a chapel in his own home, where he married couples. Part of the chapel consists of an original painting dedicated to Jews who perished in the Holocaust.

After leaving the San Jose congregation, Freund served for years as the chaplain for San Quentin, Folsom, Alcatraz, and Soledad prisons. He spent one weekend per month at each prison, holding services and counseling inmates. During his years of service, there were 40 to 50 Jewish prisoners in both San Quentin and Folsom, about 20 in Soledad.

He also served as president of the Western Region of the American Correctional Chaplain's Association. The rabbi was a great favorite among non-Jewish prisoners, too, who came seeking his non-judgmental wisdom and kindness.

"When I turned 70, the state of California retired me," says Freund. "I feel I made a real difference in the prisons. At San Quentin, I was permitted two banquets a year on Jewish holidays, and I would invite about 100 local Jewish leaders."

Freund continues to enjoy life. He is particularly pleased that there is a good kosher deli nearly. "My wife was a wonderful cook. Now friends visit and bring me latkes, but I don't like people to fuss over me."

At age 100, he delivers younger Jews a simple message: "Being a Jew will enrich you."