By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Voters in New York need to provide a reason for voting absentee and Peter Cooper Village resident Florence Friedman had a good one: she turned 100 the day before the election.
When she was born in 1916, the actual day of the election that year when voters reelected Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson, women were still not allowed to vote. And although Friedman wasn’t able to make it to her polling place on Election Day because of limited mobility, she said she enthusiastically sent in her ballot ahead of the deadline because she wanted to make sure her vote was counted for Hillary Clinton.
She was saddened when she woke up on Wednesday and found that her choice had not won.
“I voted for Hillary and most of the people around me voted for Hillary but I’m disappointed in the outcome,” she said the day after the election. “But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s what we’ll have to live with.”
Despite the lack of progress at a national level, Friedman herself was somewhat of a pioneer in women’s rights through her involvement with Town & Village Synagogue when she became the temple’s first female president in 1976.
Friedman was born in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx in an Orthodox Jewish family. Her father was president of her family’s synagogue, the Mount Eden Jewish Center, and while Friedman didn’t necessarily think of herself as a feminist, she felt that something wasn’t right in the way that women were treated there.
“My father’s synagogue was Orthodox and our synagogue was very conservative,” she said. “I didn’t like that I couldn’t sit with (my father).”
Batya Miller, a historian who joined Town & Village synagogue with her family in the 1980s because it was one of the few conservative synagogues in the city that was egalitarian and allowed women full participation in prayer rituals, said Friedman wasn’t entirely comfortable with the thought of women playing an equal role but she also felt that it was the way of the future and was the way to revitalize the synagogue.
Miller gave a speech last year about the history of egalitarianism at the synagogue and said that although Friedman became active in the Sisterhood at T&V and was the first woman to serve on the board of trustees, as a member of the Rituals Committee, she voted against women being allowed to read to the congregation from the Torah, known as aliyot. She subsequently voted against it when the vote came before the board and the congregation in 1974, but she ultimately committed to the role because the membership had passed the vote and the synagogue had dedicated itself to the change.
“I thought the earth would swallow me up or the sky would fall down on me,” she had recalled of getting aliyot.
“She was a member from the beginning and these were all her friends,” Miller said of her subsequent presidency at the synagogue. “They obviously respected her but the role wasn’t something she was necessarily comfortable with. She could identify with the people who weren’t comfortable with it.”
Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner, who was the rabbi at Town & Village Synagogue from 1969 to 1977, also had a hand in pushing the issue of aliyot for women. Rabbi Lerner said that the opposition to Friedman’s leadership was lessened by the fact that she had already been a longtime member of the synagogue by the time she was suggested as president.
“If Florence could read from the Torah, the fervor of those opposed to it was lessened,” he said. “She helped bring the synagogue together in doing this. How could members oppose their friend and role model Florence Friedman?”
Although Friedman downplays the impact her role had on women’s rights, she was still aware that seemingly small gestures were particularly meaningful.
“I was ecstatic, so thrilled and nervous,” she said of getting to read from the Torah for the first time. “I felt that some people might object and I was conscious of what I was doing. Not everyone was for it but Rabbi Lerner pushed me. It was definitely not easy.”
Friedman had joined T&V Synagogue before the congregation even had a physical home and she remembers having services above a liquor store south of East 14th Street and meetings in a dairy on First Avenue.
“When I first moved here, there was a big interest in the synagogue,” she said. “We spent hours and hours working to build up the synagogue and it grew over the years. I was happy to see it thrive.”
Friedman originally lived in Stuyvesant Town with her husband when he returned from the war but they later moved to an apartment in Peter Cooper Village, where she still lives.
Friedman was honored at a Kiddush luncheon at T&V Synagogue on the weekend before her birthday. A few days prior to the celebration, longtime synagogue member and Stuyvesant Town resident Cheryl Gross found Miller’s speech on egalitarianism at T&V and read aloud a bit to Friedman that described her first reading from the Torah as “momentous,” and as an event that culminated in women hugging each other and crying.
“I didn’t think I was that important,” Friedman remarked upon hearing this response to her actions.
“You are very important,” Gross said, becoming somewhat choked up. “You’re an important part of this synagogue’s life.”