At his retirement dinner in April, Rabbi Allen Freehling said he would use his newfound free time to write four books based on his 30 years as leader of University Synagogue on the city's Westside. Now, it looks as if those plans will have to wait. On Monday, Freehling, 70, was named executive director of the Human Relations Commission for the city of Los Angeles.
Formed in 1958 to help build positive race and human relations among the city's increasingly diverse communities, the commission has a legacy that dates back to 1943 when the "zoot suit" riots tore through Los Angeles after white sailors attacked a group of Latinos.
Freehling, who throughout his career has emphasized the social-action side of his ministry, described his new job as one of "community building," with youth programs at its heart. Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn said Monday he chose Freehling in part because the two have worked together on community projects for many years. "When you are looking for someone to oversee human relations, you want someone who really cares about people," Hahn said. "Allen Freehling is very compassionate. Empathy is his middle name."
Hahn said he wants the commission to represent all the city's ethnic and economic groups and to become more high profile. "We need to be sure we are including everyone. It will help the city work better."
The mayor pointed to Freehling's role as the founding chair, in the 1980s, of the Los Angeles Commission on AIDS, but the rabbi's more recent experiences helping mend fences between the city's Muslim and Jewish communities will also serve him in his new job. He has led an often tempestuous, L.A.-based Jewish-Muslim dialogue group since it was formed in 1998, a time of increasing conflict in the Middle East. Now, Freehling said, "I want every racial, ethnic and faith group in the city to get involved in the work of human relations. I'd like to help create an environment that fosters a greater sense of the whole community. I'll start by determining which groups in the city aren't communicating now, but should be."
Freehling served as senior rabbi at University Synagogue since 1972. When he arrived there, membership was down to fewer than 250 and the temple was nearly bankrupt. With 900 families today, University Synagogue is going strong, and the rabbi said he felt he needed to focus full time on social activism, which has always been his other calling. His first job on the staff of a synagogue, in the mid-1950s, was as executive director of Temple Israel in Miami, where he also hosted a Jewish-Christian dialogue and did consulting work for the Chamber of Commerce Committee on International Relations.
During the late '60s, when he served as an associate rabbi in Toledo, Ohio, he was active in the NAACP and with the Lucas County Board of Mental Health. He has also focused on AIDS activism since the early days of the epidemic, founding an AIDS Interfaith Council for Southern California in the mid-'80s, serving as chairman for the Los Angeles County AIDS Services Committee in 1989 and as founding chairman of an International Assn. of Physicians in AIDS Care in the early '90s.
Sitting in his office at the University Synagogue, a cozy room crowded with books, plaques, awards and mementos, Freehling spoke about his belief in the interconnected-ness of religion and social activism.
"Early in my career," he said, "we were in a prophetic phase in Judaism, which gets to the plight of other people. We were involved in social action, open to the biblical prophets as teachers and role models." His years as senior rabbi helped prepare him for his new job. "Now that I'm no longer responsible as the spiritual leader of a congregation, I can step onto a larger stage."
To be an activist is to be a good Jew, Freehling said. "Social justice is the great tradition of Reform Judaism." But lately, he sees many Jews being drawn more to the spiritual aspects of the religion. "For many years, Jews felt discomfort with what I call 'God talk,'" he said. "Long years of social action opened the way for Jews to explore the Jewish philosophers." Martin Buber is his inspiration. The Vienna-born writer and teacher considered personal encounters between people of different backgrounds as a way to spiritual growth. Until his death in 1965, Buber was active in a Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Sounding like a cautious parent, Freehling said he worries about keeping a balance between spirituality and social action. "What I don't see in the search for spiritual fulfillment is the next step, leading people on to action," he said. "The reason for the one is to lead on to the other. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back to a better balance."
Photos on the walls outside Freehling's office show him with President Clinton, as well as several former L.A. mayors. Most often he is shown posing at a rally, walkathon or other sort of city-improvement project.