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Bob Freedman with his wife, Shirley Freedman

Bob Freedman on Federation Mission to Israel



by Rhonda Spivak, October 4, 2014











I met Bob Freedman for coffee just after he had recently retired as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg for 28 years at Timothy’s on Corydon.








Timothy's is where Bob would go every morning by about 7:30 a.m. to start his day with a coffee and read the morning paper. He’d be in the Federation office generally about 8:30 every morning.








After 28 years at the helm of the community as CEO of the Jewish Federation, Freedman said that “it’s an adjustment” to have retired. During CJA campaign time, Bob said he would take “about 100 cards,” of donors to canvass for the campaign. This year, as a volunteer, he has “7-8 cards.”











At a farewell gathering on August 27, 2014 at the Asper Campus, Bob had reminisced about how his father suggested that he “was crazy” on learning he had been hired to be Federation CEO, and he noted that what the late Gerry Kaufman z"l taught him was at the end of the day in all of one’s dealings one had to remember to be “a mensch”.









On a lighter note at the farewell event Freedman joked about a retirement card sent to him that he could now say to his wife Shirley “Honey, I’m Home… FOREVER.”








But that is already not really the case since Bob has a new gig (and he even has a new email address to go with it in addition to his wife's email address).









On September 1, Bob began acting as a consultant for both the Shaarey Zedek and Etz Chayim congregations to work on a proposal to the Asper Campus Corporation for a new synagogue building on the campus site. Freedman’s been retained for a “two month assignment” until October 31.









“The two synagogues have been in discussion for two years regarding a potential partnership. Part of that discussion has involved the feasibility of a new building. No final decisions have been made. The two synagogues have retained me to work on a proposal to the Asper Campus Corporation for a building on the campus site," Freedman said [see related story in the Winnipeg Jewish Review with more details on synagogue merger].








We spoke of Freedman's achievements and of course the vision for and building of the Asper Campus came up. Bob's spouse, Shirley Freedman, who the Winnipeg Jewish Review interviewed by telephone  recalls how "for eleven years Bob ploughed away" to make sure that the Asper Campus became a reality.







There were many periods "when he was away every evening for supper," Shirley noted, and she remembers how there were at the time many who told her "We're never going to come South. No one is going to walk through those doors." But in the end the reality, of course, turned out to be very different.






When he retired recently Freedman recalls that a family who came here from Argentina in 2003, who initially wasn't eligible to move here, told him that what he had done had changed their lives and they were grateful for it.  "In that way we made a difference as a Federation in bringing Jewish families to move here and be part of our community."






In the course of raising money in the community, Freedman spoke of encountering people who would say that "they aren't members of the Rady JCC and don't have kids in school" so the campaign doesn't benefit them. "At the end of the day I ask them to think about whether they would feel as secure and good about themselves if they were living in a weak and not well regarded Jewish community?"





When asked by the Winnipeg Jewish Review whether he thinks it’s possible for a Jewish community such as ours to exist based on cultural Judaism alone, Freedman responded "What does that mean? Cultural Judaism. Does it mean having a dill pickle with your sandwich? Does it mean occasionally going to a play with a Jewish theme? It's great to go to a Jewish film festival, for example, and that's fine for people who may say they are 'cultural' Jews but that can't be the foundation for maintaining a Jewish community."








Freedman added with candour, "We can't claim to have a vibrant Jewish community without synagogues or with a few left but barely surviving."







When asked, after 28 years at the helm of the community, to identify the most significant challenge facing the Winnipeg Jewish Community, Freedman answered that in an age when Canadian Jews are part of the mainstream" of society, "the issue of assimilation is a serious issue" as is "the growing number of kids who have no exposure whatsoever to Jewish education" (i.e. through school, camp, synagogue, etc.).






He is of the view that this is why having shuls "playing a greater role in the community and having more influence over the community's character and development is a positive thing."






Freedman also spoke of the fact that he estimates that somewhere between 10-15% of the Jews here in the community "are not connected in any way, or don't participate at some level (i.e. through the JCC, camps, school, shul, etc.)






He also spoke of the "cost of being Jewishly connected or committed (by sending kids to camp, or day school, or even going to shul once a year). We need to do more to make Jewish opportunities more affordable," he said.






Freedman also spoke about the need for the community to consider that it isn't enough just to think about the vibrancy of the Shaarey Zedek and Etz Chayim congregations and possible partnership going forward, but also to consider strengthening the modern orthodox community.






In Freedman's view, the survival of modern orthodoxy here needs to be "on the radar of community leadership" as a Jewish community needs a dedicated traditional critical mass of people who are more traditional / modern observant --as most people aren't going to become Lubavitch even if they do support Lubavitch," Freedman says.






We spoke of the fact that Herzlia synagogue is down to less than 100 family members (Editor's note: even less). 





In that regard, Freedman in his personal capacity is concerned about the future plans for that synagogue which appears to be downsizing, without a vision for growth of going beyond the 100 families. "It is not an encouraging message"








The WJR asked Freedman what is the secret to moving forward in a community on any given issue?






In order to accomplish anything Freedman says you need "strong leadership, vision, a plan to make it happen, and a buy-in from community members."











I want to take this opportunity to say, in my role as the Jewish media, how much I appreciated Bob Freedman.






Every time I had a media inquiry Bob always got back to me within a reasonable amount of time, and I always felt that he listened to my inquiries and my concerns and respected the role of the media. Bob never ignored my inquiries and there were definitely times where we spoke on a daily basis.







Even if we had different approaches to a given subject, I believe that Bob always treated me with respect and with fairness, and I want to publicly thank him for that. 







Not once did he ever make me feel that he had something more important to do than answer my inquiries, and if he did have to attend to something else he always got back to me.






In short, Bob Freedman understood the importance of media relations. In his farewell speech at the Campus he noted that what the late Gerry Kaufman z"l taught him was at the end of the day in all of one’s dealings one had to remember to be “a mensch.”  Let me say on the record that at the end of the day I always felt that Bob Freedman treated me with menschlechkite.  






Bob also had a knack of knowing when to speak to me "off the record" in a way that at times convinced me not to print something for the community good even when I had the ability to print. The ability of a CEO to speak to a journalist in that manner is a definite positive in my respectful view. It is part of the give and take of a media relationship and a CEO who knows how to handle a media relationship will ultimately reap its rewards in my view. 






Bob also had the ability to make me laugh. In fact, in the past year in particular he made me laugh quite often- at one point he made me laugh so hard I was in tears. In my view having a sense of humour with a journalist will never be a minus and always a plus in a media relationship. 







There were times when Bob also was very candid with me when I raised a given issue, and admitted making a mistake. In my view it is often better to do that than try to skirt around the issue or take an untenable position. For example, I remember once speaking to Bob about a given issue and he responded "We goofed." I burst out laughing. There was no need for me to print anything about the matter at hand because once Bob said that, I knew he understood the point and next time the matter would be dealt with differently. Being candid was the best thing he could have ever done.





I have a couple of very fond memories of my interviews with Bob.






We were once in his office in the middle of an interview when the phone rang. Bob took the phone and I heard him say "Honey can I call you back later." He hung up the phone and I said, "Bob was that Shirley calling ? Because if it wasn't, I have quite the story!" Of course, it was in fact Shirley and I offered to leave the room so he could call her back and then we'd resume the interview.






Another time we were having a telephone interview and Bob said he had to interrupt the interview because he had to go downstairs and order hot lunch for his daughter Pam's children. 






I told him I would report: CEO Unable To Answer Questions Due To Hot Lunch Concerns. I I also told him that if this hot lunch business was a made up excuse in order to enable him to exit the interview gracefully, it was a good one, and he should use it again! 








Finally Bob, I will not say farewell to you, since I look forward to  grilling you again on October 31 about the results of your "2 month assignment" vis-a-vis the shuls.






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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.