JERUSALEM, July 11 (JTA) — Professor Israel Friedlander was brutally murdered 81 years ago in Ukraine, but it wasn’t until this week that his remains reached the Promised Land.
Friedlander, murdered with a colleague while on a mission for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was reinterred Tuesday on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem.
In 1920, Friedlander and his colleague, Bernard Cantor, a Reform rabbi, were sent to Poland by the JDC to offer relief to Jewish families destroyed by the fighting and pogroms that followed the 1917 Russian Revolution.
At the time, the JDC was collecting $30 million to build orphanages and hospitals for Jewish communities. They also were looking for Jewish emissaries to send to cities and villages where Jews were at risk.
As part of their mission, the two men made their way to a Ukrainian village, where they were murdered by soldiers reportedly wearing Red Army uniforms, although details of the murders remain unclear.
At the time, the murders shocked American Jewry. The JDC continued its activity in the Soviet Union until 1938, when Stalin expelled the organization from the country.
It was a scandal for the Soviets, said Asher Ostrin, director of the JDC’s operations today in the former Soviet Union. The authorities felt so badly that they invited the JDC back to Russia — in 1992.
Now the organization spends some $70 million each year on Jewish communal activities there.
Two years ago, JDC researcher Michael Beizer discovered photos and documents that identified the location of the gravesite. JDC staffers found the two graves in a small, neglected Jewish cemetery in what is now Chelmniecki, Ukraine.
The inscription on their tombstone read, “Israel Friedlander and Bernard Cantor, Jewish emissaries from the United States who died martyrs’ deaths.”
On Tuesday afternoon, with his remains wrapped in a tallit and guarded by members of the Jewish burial society, Friedlander finally was bid farewell by family, friends and colleagues.
Friedlander was an ardent Zionist, said Rabbi David Golinkin, president of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the Israeli branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
A prolific writer on Jewish and Zionist subjects, Friedlander was one of the early leaders of the JDC when it was founded after World War I. However, he never made it to Israel, then Palestine.
Friedlander traveled to Palestine in 1918 but the British refused him entry because of his writings, said Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who spoke at the memorial service. Nevertheless, coming generations of his family settled in Israel.
Friedlander was married to Lilian Bentwich, daughter of the prominent British Zionist Herbert Bentwich, a major force in pushing forward the Balfour Declaration that helped anchor the Jewish return to the Land of Israel.
One of their children, Carmel, married Simon Agranat, the American-raised former chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court.
Their son, Yisrael Agranat, named for his grandfather, now is a chemistry professor at Hebrew University.
The scholarly tradition ran in the family. A teacher of Bible at JTS, Friedlander came to the United States from Poland after completing his education in Germany and France. He joined the JTS faculty in 1904.
His brother-in-law Louis Finkelstein became JTS chancellor, and was credited with helping to make Conservative Judaism popular in the United States.
As for Friedlander, he was known as a teacher who believed in providing for his fellow Jews.
He also was a scholar of Semitics, said Rabbi Bernard Raskas, whose father-in-law studied with Friedlander.
Friedlander’s dedication to scholarship and service became a motto for Raskas, a pulpit rabbi from St. Paul, Minn.
Friedlander could read Maimonides in Arabic, Raskas said. He was the first to say that Arabs and Jews could only work together through dialogue.
An idealist and an intellectual, said those who eulogized him, Friedlander was a proven leader who was able to combine East and West — in both his studies and his public service.