Few men had a bigger impact on the Sacramento’s Jewish community than Morton Friedman. Over the past half-century, he led one of the city’s biggest synagogues, co-founded a Jewish day school and served on AIPAC’s national board.
Those are only a few bullet points on a résumé of tremendous accomplishment. After a three-year battle with progressive supranuclear palsy, Friedman died Dec. 5 in Sacramento. He was 80.
“Judaism was central to my father’s identity and persona,” said son Philip Friedman, who today serves as general counsel for AIPAC. “He always understood that to pass on the importance of Judaism, you do it not only by personal example, but also by being active in promoting Jewish institutions and causes.”
Added Rabbi Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law Congregation, the synagogue Friedman twice served as president: “He was always a vivacious man who embodied the spirit of tikkun olam. He was a role model for everyone in this community.”
Friedman was born in Aberdeen, S.D., the son of Russian immigrants who wound up in the Great Plains. As a child, he helped out in his father’s general store. Though not especially religious, every fall the family would travel to Sioux City, Iowa, the closest town with a big enough Jewish population to celebrate the High Holy Days.
A gifted athlete, Friedman attended the University of Michigan to play football, but soon realized he did not have what it took to excel on the gridiron. So he moved West, going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in business and a graduate degree in law, both from Stanford University.
While there, he met Marcy Lichter. The two married in 1955, and after a short stint as a lawyer in Fresno, Friedman moved with his wife to Sacramento, where he would spend the rest of his life. The couple had three sons.
As an attorney, he often represented victims of corporate or medical negligence. According to the Sacramento Bee, he would sometimes juggle as many as 300 cases at a time.
Friedman parlayed his earnings as a lawyer into shrewd real estate developments, some of which became Sacramento’s most successful investments, including the Arden Fair Mall and Town & Country Village.
After Friedman died, the Bee ran a staff editorial headlined “Morton Friedman did much good for his adopted home of Sacramento.” In addition, a columnist wrote a piece headlined “Sacramento sadly lacking lions like Mort Friedman,” using words such as “indispensable” and “powerhouse” to describe him.
Charity work, especially in the Jewish community, was one of Friedman’s great passions. He served on the national boards of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, making many trips to Israel over the years.
“He felt strongly about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Philip Friedman said. “Growing up in South Dakota, he understood Israel’s own isolation, and having become a mature adult shortly after the horrors of the Holocaust, he really vowed to give meaning to the term, ‘never again.’ ”
Closer to home, he and his wife were major contributors to Mosaic Law Congregation and led the fundraising effort to launch the Shalom School, the city’s only Jewish day school.
“He felt deeply about making sure there was a Jewish educational system for Jewish families in Sacramento,” said his son. “That, in his mind, was the most important way of securing a Jewish future.”
“He was chairman of the rabbinic selection committee, which selected me [in 1995] to become the rabbi of the congregation,” Taff said. “There is no question that Mort was a man of tremendous vision, a man of intensity, a man who was loved by everyone.”
Native Israeli Michal Kohane, who runs the S.F.-based Israel Center, came to know and admire Friedman when she served as executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region.
Before their first meeting, Friedman’s reputation preceded him, and Kohane remembers feeling nervous.
“I was in the waiting room, shaking, going to see the great Mort Friedman,” she said. “Then out he comes out with two of his grandchildren, and says, ‘Boys, you have to go. I’m gonna meet with this lady here.’ ”
Over the years, Kohane relied on Friedman’s wisdom and long memory of the city’s Jewish community history.
“We’d meet every so often,” she said. “He was always honest and direct. You knew you would get a real answer from him, and sometimes that was worth more than anything.”
Friedman and his wife enjoyed family time, especially with their eight grandchildren. He continued to work both in real estate and the law, until illness caught up with him.
“He was a pretty demanding guy,” Philip Friedman said. “He had high expectations for his kids, and he expected nothing less of himself. He set a very good example for all of us.”
Morton Friedman is survived by his wife, Marcy Friedman of Sacramento; sons Mark Friedman of Sacramento, Philip Friedman of Washington, D.C., and Jeff Friedman of San Diego; and eight grandchildren.