Aaron Friedman
Aaron Friedman. (Courtesy of Shari Lesnick)

Aaron Friedman’s daughter remembers him as a fierce supporter of Jews and Israel.

Aaron Friedman, a founding hero of the State of Israel, died Jan. 6, 2021, at the age of 96 in the Los Angeles area, where he lived for many years. Friedman helped to smuggle Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine during the British mandate when immigration was banned. He was a lifelong friend of David Ben-Gurion, the founder and first prime minister of Israel, and served as one of his personal bodyguards.

His daughter, Shari Lesnick, a West Bloomfield resident, described him as having a “big personality. He was the life of the party. When he walked into a room, it was as if the sea parted.”

Friedman was born in Jaffa, Israel, the son of Russian immigrants to what was then Palestine and grew up in what he described as a “shantytown” near the sea. Ben-Gurion lived nearby, and Friedman met him as a child. Friedman was a talented swimmer and soon became well known as a lifeguard on the Tel Aviv beach, where he met Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and other future Israeli leaders.

Friedman said in an interview some years ago that his concern about the Jewish people was instilled by the massacre of Jewish residents of Hebron in 1929. He demonstrated his courage and commitment when he was only 16, lying about his age so that he could join the Jewish Settlement Police who protected Jewish settlements against Arabs.

In 1946, Yaakov Dori, chief of staff of the Haganah, appointed Friedman to be one of Ben-Gurion’s personal bodyguards. Friedman attributed his appointment to his relationship with Ben-Gurion and his connections with Jewish militias, some of which he said threatened Ben-Gurion. As one of the youngest members of the Haganah, he served with Moshe Dayan and was near him when the military leader was injured, resulting in the loss of one eye.

From 1946 to 1947, he was sent by Jewish leaders to coordinate the smuggling of Jewish European refugees, especially scientists, who were living in displaced persons camps on Cyprus. Britain and the United Nations had clamped down on immigration to Palestine. Friedman met his future wife, Esther Shawmut, an American, who was on a ship near Palestine, when she jumped overboard to avoid capture by the British. She wasn’t a strong swimmer and was fortunate that Friedman, the former lifeguard, was nearby and rescued her. They married four years later.

Lesnick said her father was most proud of his service as a bodyguard to Ben-Gurion and for “being an integral part of the smuggling operation. He coordinated several runs from Marseille.” She says that he spoke more often about his life before the Israeli War of Independence and was discouraged by what he viewed as “political squabbles” afterward.

In l954, Ben-Gurion asked him to go to the United States to develop “an atmosphere of love and support for the State of Israel. Lay the seeds, lay the foundation.” Friedman then moved to the U.S. and eventually became youth director for the USY (United Synagogue Youth) for the Pacific Southwest Region. He was responsible for dramatic increases in the participation of Jewish youth in USY. “He inspired so many Jewish men and women to become Jewish leaders — to become rabbis, to make aliyah, to become emissaries for Israel. His passion was creating Jewish leaders,” says Lesnick.

Lesnick remembers when Ben-Gurion was being honored in Los Angeles in the 1960s. As soon as Ben-Gurion spotted her father at large gathering in a hotel, he immediately came up and said “Mendela, Mendela (a childhood name) Friedman” and they spoke for an hour. Friedman admired that Ben-Gurion was committed to all Jews, regardless of their religious affiliation or political views.

In the 1970s, he received an offer from the Israeli Ministry of Education to work with Ethiopian Jews and the family moved to Israel. However, Lesnick says, “it wasn’t a good fit” and they returned to the U.S. Her father maintained a connection to the Israeli government by participating in the Los Angeles Israeli Consulate Speakers Bureau.

Lesnick says that her son Maxx Lesnick spent time in Israel at Tel Aviv University. She says of her son Ben that his “grandfather gave him the courage to speak his mind.” Both grandsons are attorneys.

Friedman was honored for “protecting the Jewish homeland and people” during Israel’s 50th anniversary celebration and was recognized in 2015.

Aaron was the husband of the late Esther Shawmut Friedman and is survived by his daughter and son-in-law, Shari and Howard Lesnick; grandsons Maxx Lesnick and Ben (Amanda Farber) Lesnick; and many loving nieces and nephews. 

Contributions may be made to Chabad of Tarzana, California, www.chabadofthevalley.com or to a charity of one’s choice. Interment was at Eden Memorial, Mission Hills, California.  Arrangements by Chevra Kadisha.

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