Born in 1918 to Latvian and Lithuanian parents in New Haven, Connecticut, Herbert Friedman demonstrated his life-long commitment to Zionism beginning with his earliest days in rabbinical school. After graduating from Yale University in 1938, Friedman studied under the esteemed Zionist leader, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. With Wise as the school's president and Henry Slonimsky as dean, Friedman gained two trusted mentors to guide and nurture his spiritual and intellectual growth as a young rabbi.
Buoyed by the confidence his mentors instilled in him, Friedman accepted the pulpit at Denver's Temple Emanuel in late 1943. After serving the required year in the pulpit, Friedman applied and was accepted into the United States Army's Chaplaincy Corps. Lieutenant Friedman was assigned the task of rescuing Jewish refugees in southern Bavaria. Working in collaboration with Jewish welfare groups like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Friedman saw to it that the displaced persons under his care were provided medical attention, food, shelter, clothing, and spiritual solace in U. S. Army displaced persons camps. Indeed, he proved so adept at this charge that he was secretly recruited by David Ben-Gurion to help the Haganah (the nucleus of what became the Israeli Army and resisters to the British Mandate in Palestine) in its efforts to illegally transport refugees from Europe to Palestine, in what came to be known as Aliyah Bet.
Friedman eventually reached the rank of Captain, working under General Lucius Clay, Commander of U.S. Forces in the European Theater. In 1947, Friedman, at the behest of the famed Biblical scholar Gershom Scholem, helped smuggle thousands of one-of-a-kind medieval religious manuscripts, captured by the Nazis, from U.S. Army custody to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Captain Friedman was disciplined and decommissioned (but given an honorable discharge) following the incident that was deemed "unbecoming of an officer."
Upon his return to the United States, Friedman was recruited by former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau to conduct a speaking tour on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal, lecturing on the plight of Jewish refugees in Europe. Shortly thereafter, Friedman returned to his congregation in Denver. It would not be long before the Haganah came calling once again. Teddy Kollek, the commander of the secretive organization in the United States, enlisted Friedman's help in obtaining and then transporting arms and munitions to the struggling Jewish enclave in Palestine. With the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948, Friedman returned his main focus to his congregants, but he never turned a deaf ear to the needs of struggling Jews throughout the diaspora.
In 1952, he accepted the rabbinate at Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee where he moved with his wife of eleven years, Elaine, and their children, Joan, Judy and Dan. His tenure in Milwaukee was short lived. In 1955 he accepted the position of Executive Vice Chairman of the United Jewish Appeal (UJA). Serving in this capacity until 1971, Friedman was instrumental in increasing annual fundraising totals for the UJA from $50 million to $450 million. He accomplished this stunning increase in revenue by developing a number of innovative fundraising techniques, including taking potential donors on "Mission Trips" to Israel, establishing a "rating" system to gauge possible donations based on the amount given the year before, creating the 1967 "Emergency Fund for Israel" following the Six Day War, and establishing the Bonds for Israel Campaign. Friedman was also concerned with developing the next generation of leadership to take up the cause of Jewish welfare and security. To that end, he created the UJA's Young Leadership Cabinet.
In 1971, Friedman fulfilled a life-long dream and made aliyah, settling in Israel with his second wife, Francine, and their two sons, David and Charles. While there, Friedman remained an in-demand speaker on behalf of Jewish charities, including the UJA. He taught courses at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem while continuing to host visitors from the United States, both at his apartment in Jerusalem, and his villa in Caesarea. In the mid-1970s, Friedman attempted to establish a private academy for promising high school aged students from both Israel and the diaspora. By 1982, citing personal fatigue and insufficient funds, he abandoned his dream of building the Jerusalem Academy. He later called this failing effort the greatest disappointment of his career.
Herbert Friedman first met Leslie Wexner, chairman of Limited Brands, in 1983 after being introduced by mutual friend Gordon Zacks. Friedman and Wexner soon formed a close bond, and in 1985 the two founded the Wexner Heritage Foundation. The organization quickly began fostering young Jewish leadership dedicated to the preservation of the state of Israel and Jewish identity into the 21st century. The programs and workshops conducted by the Foundation have been a growing success. Today the organization has expanded from Columbus, Ohio, to New York, Boston, and Jerusalem. Over 1,500 Jewish leaders from thirty-plus cities have participated in its programs.
In 1998, Friedman published his memoir, "Roots of the Future." At age 89, on 31 March 2008, Herbert A. Friedman died at his Manhattan home.