Sally Friedman retires after four decades of rescuing Jews in danger, feeding the hungry, and much more

Last month Sally Friedman retired as director of The Birmingham Jewish Foundation after having served the organization for just a few months shy of 40 years. She will be honored on Sunday at The Birmingham Jewish Federation Annual Meeting (purchase tickets here). Now that she’s retired, Sally has slowed down enough for us to catch up and chat with her about the last four decades…  

LJCC: How did you end up in Birmingham and at the Birmingham Jewish Foundation?

SF: I am originally from Birmingham. I went to the University of Maryland and after graduation I met my husband Richard, who was from New Jersey. Richard loved Birmingham from the first time he visited and was anxious to move here with me when he was offered a job at The Birmingham News shortly after we got married.

Involvement in the Jewish community was probably always my destiny. My family was very involved in the Federation, or United Jewish Appeal as it was called then. I had been an active volunteer in the Jewish community since I was a teenager. In my 20s and early 30s I served on a National Federation Young Leadership Board and chaired some committees at our Federation. Seymour Marcus z”l was the first Director of the Foundation, but retired after a couple of years. I was working in my family business, which closed in 1983. Some of the Foundation leaders came to talk to me about taking the job and after thinking about it, I decided it would be great to take my passion for Jewish life and make a career of it.

“I’m also proud of the relationships The Foundation has built with hundreds of Birmingham Jewish Foundation donors,” says Sally Friedman. “I love that I have gotten to see people at their very best as they try to make the world a better place. I’ve been so lucky!”

What are you most proud of regarding your 40 years of service?

The  tens of millions of dollars The Birmingham Jewish Foundation has given away since the late 1980s. We have funded programs for every synagogue and Jewish organization in this community, plus dozens of organizations in the broader community. 

In preparing to hand off the work of The Foundation, I was looking through old files. Even I was surprised at how much we’ve done! Through our grants we have fed the hungry in Birmingham, Israel, and points all over the world; we’ve helped dozens of kids go to Maccabi and Jewish summer camp, and attend the N.E. Miles Jewish Day school; helped community members with medical needs and housing; we’ve helped rescue Jews in danger and assisted those with special needs; and funded so many outstanding programs like showing hundreds of Birmingham high school kids the movie Schindlers’s List and a recent play about Anne Frank and Emmett Till. The list just goes on and on.

I’m also proud of the relationships The Foundation has built with hundreds of Birmingham Jewish Foundation donors. I love that I have gotten to see people at their very best as they try to make the world a better place. I’ve been so lucky!

What are some of the more memorable moments at the Foundation?  

So many memories!

I really believe the Foundation has had a front-row seat to Jewish history. I remember the meeting when we decided that even a small Jewish community like ours could bring recently freed Soviet Jews here and successfully resettle them. We’ve helped Israelis who were victims of terrorist attacks and helped bring 14,000 Jews from Ethiopia — in the midst of a civil war — to Israel in just over a day. 

The Foundation has helped bring famous speakers to Birmingham, like Elie Weisel and “refusenik” Natan Sharansky, who was jailed in Russia for trying to emigrate to Israel before he helped bring the mighty Soviet Union to its knees.

We’ve also helped remarkable people whose names you wouldn’t know — like the woman who escaped with her children on foot from a hostile Arab country and made her way to Israel; or the teacher who, as a 12-year-old boy, left his family and walked hundreds of miles from Ethiopia to Sudan, where he caught a clandestine flight to Israel; or the woman who emigrated from Russia to Israel and was seriously injured in a terror attack; or the double-amputee in Odessa who got monthly food deliveries because of us.

There are lots of memorable moments closer to home, too: the thank-you letters from Jewish summer campers, the Jewish burials we helped to provide for those who couldn’t afford them, loans to new immigrants for cars, community celebrations like Israel’s 75th birthday, the Moscow synagogue men’s choir performing for our community, and helping our neighbors devastated by tornadoes in 2011.

How has Birmingham’s Jewish community changed over the past four decades? 

I have heard people say that the younger generation now — those in their 20s, 30s and early 40s — don’t care about Jewish life any more. I couldn’t disagree more. They care, but they just manifest it differently from preceding generations. They are the generation of Jewish summer camps, Birthright trips to Israel and youth groups. They are not content to sit at the “kids table,” and want to be an active part in the decisions affecting their future. Buildings and honorary plaques mean less to them than coming together to celebrate Judaism and the Jewish people.  The sense of community and ruach (spirit) is vital to them.  

A great example of a program for this cohort — and one of the most successful programs in the community — is PJ Library, which sends free monthly books and materials to any Jewish child ages 6 months to 8 years. Funded by the Andrew David Abroms fund within The Foundation, PJ Library has great local programming as well, and the parents love meeting each other and watching their kids have wonderful Jewish experiences while learning what it means first-hand to be part of a Jewish community.

How has The Foundation evolved?  

We started out with about $400,000 and no separate funds. Today the Foundation has around 400 funds and more than $38 million in assets. Included in that is 160 donor-advised funds where the donors can make recommendations for grants. 

We started a youth philanthropy program and now have 39 adults who started with us as teens and who have made their funds into fully fledged Foundation funds. The Foundation has funds for the Levite Jewish Community Center, Collat Jewish Family Services, the Alabama Holocaust Education Center, the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, Knesseth Israel Congregation, Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville, our state Hillels, and Dream Street — a special needs camp on the grounds of Jacobs Camp in Mississippi. There are also special purpose funds that make interest-free loans and funds for scholarships for Jewish camps and for Auburn University and the University of Alabama, leadership development funds, and funds for outreach to the broader community, to name just a few. 

We started out making no grants and then just a few thousand dollars a year. Now a typical year is between $1.5 million to $2 million in grants. In 2023, we began partnering with The Birmingham Jewish Federation on our grant making. We have always been connected to the BJF, but this past year The Foundation has become not only more operationally integrated with it, but also in the approach to donors, as well as in grant-making.

What are your retirement plans?  

I’m open to suggestions! I’m kind of low on hobbies. So far I’ve been cleaning out closets, but I have to find something more fun than that. A friend has offered to teach me mahjong (I hope she’s still my friend after she tries). That kind of thing is not my strong suit. But I’m already doing some volunteering and my favorite thing: playing with my four grandchildren who, luckily for me, live in Birmingham.