By Maria Rocha-Buschel
The first female president of Town & Village Synagogue died on Friday, September 28, about a month before her 102nd birthday. Florence Friedman, a Peter Cooper Village resident and previously an original tenant of Stuyvesant Town, was also one of the founding members of the local temple, attending services there before the congregation had an official physical presence in the neighborhood.
Around the time of her 100th birthday, Friedman told Town & Village about the early days of the synagogue, when services were held above a liquor store south of East 14th Street and meetings were held at a dairy on First Avenue.
Friedman was born on November 7, 1916 in Brooklyn and grew up in the Bronx. Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson was reelected on the day that Friedman was born and at the time, women still didn’t have the right to vote.
Friedman was excited in 2016 about the possibility of a woman as president and made sure she sent her ballot in ahead of the deadline so her vote for Hillary Clinton was counted. She was disappointed at Clinton’s loss, and although the country didn’t get its first female president, Friedman herself had paved the way for women at T&V when she became the synagogue’s first female president in the mid-1970s.
Former T&V Rabbi Stephen C. Lerner was the rabbi at the synagogue when Friedman became the first woman president and played a role in helping her navigate the unknown territory.
Friedman recalled being nervous about carrying the Torah, as she said that it was something women didn’t do at the time.
“I was ecstatic, so thrilled and nervous,” she said. “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 not easy.”
Lerner was the rabbi at Town & Village from 1969 to 1977, and in addition to pushing for the synagogue to become egalitarian and allow women to read from the Torah, which wasn’t common at the time, the rabbi also advocated for Friedman to be the synagogue’s president. Lerner previously told Town & Village that opposition to Friedman’s leadership was lessened by the fact that she was such a longtime member, having been one of the synagogue’s founders.
“When our synagogue was struggling with the issue of greater rights for women, Florence, the first woman president of our synagogue, despite her ambivalence about being the first woman to be honored at the reading of the reading of Torah, accepted the honor,” Lerner said after Friedman’s passing. “In doing so, she helped diffuse the opposition. After all, if Florence accepted it, others would come around to find peace with the new reality. Her action brought a large measure of healing to the synagogue. It did not split apart and went on as one united congregation.”
Current T&V president Cynthia Weber recounted in her eulogy at the service on September 30 that Friedman originally met with other Stuy Town and Peter Cooper residents in a coffee shop on East 14th Street at Second Avenue to talk about finding somewhere for holiday and Saturday services, and noted that Friedman’s influential role for women helped the synagogue to become more inclusive.
“Florence’s leadership in putting egalitarianism, the granting of equal ritual rights to women, into practice at T&V in the mid-1970’s was the first step for T&V to become the inclusive, diverse and still-traditional spiritual home it is today for Jews and those aspiring to be Jewish,” Weber said about Friedman’s impact on the community.
Friedman grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family and her father was president of her family’s synagogue, the Mount Eden Jewish Center in the Bronx. Friedman moved into Stuy Town with her husband when he returned from the service after the war, and later moved into Peter Cooper Village, where she lived until her death.
Friedman is survived by her son Bruce and two grandchildren. Her husband, Harry, died in 1989.