By Stacey Dresner
Dr. Richard Freund, who served as executive director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford for 20 years, died July 14 at the age of 67 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
A professor, archaeologist, and explorer of historical sites around the world, Dr. Freund had left the Greenberg Center in 2019 to lead the newly formed Judaic studies program at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, where he was the inaugural holder of the Bertram and Gladys Aaron Endowed Professorship in Jewish Studies.
“We thought we would attract one of the top scholars in the field when we started the search for this position, but the appointment of Dr. Freund even exceeds those expectations,” said Dr. Lori Underwood, dean of Christopher Newport University’s College of Arts and Humanities, when Freund joined the Virginia university.
Those expectations were well warranted, considering Dr. Freund’s success at the University Hartford, where he grew the Greenberg Center into a world-class Judaic studies program — or as University of Hartford’s former President Emeritus Walter Harrison once called it, “one of the crown jewels of the university.”
Born to the late Chester Freund and Beatrice Berkowitz on New York’s Long Island, Freund graduated from Valley Stream North High School in 1972.
“Determined to learn more about Jewish history and culture, he booked a one-way ticket to Israel where he studied, learned Israeli dancing, and practiced what he excelled at-running,” according to his obituary. “He famously tells the story of trying out for the Israeli Olympic Track Team in 1972 but missing it by a split second.”
Freund, who received an MA, PhD, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, worked as a professor in Jewish history and archaeology for nearly 40 years in a spate of academic institutions, including Oberlin College, the University of Denver, the University of California-San Diego, the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the University of Hartford.
Lawrence Baron, a former colleague who met Freund at the University of San Diego in 1987, wrote a personal remembrance about his friend in the San Diego Jewish World.
“Richard was an engaging speaker and teacher able to convey the complexities of subjects ranging from biblical archeology, the Holocaust, Jewish ethics, Latin American Jewry, Ladino, and Yiddish in terms that are understandable for general audiences as well as scholarly ones,” Baron wrote. “He was particularly gifted at facilitating discussion and participation among those listening to his talks. I can’t think of anyone I have met in my 47 years in higher education who was more effective at bridging the gap between town and gown.”
Before he was welcomed by Christopher Newport University, Freund led the immense growth of the University of Hartford’s Greenberg Center. Under his leadership the program grew to include lectureships, concerts, study abroad archaeology programs and a Museum of Jewish Civilization. Freund also oversaw the Greenberg Center’s move from its small quarters in the school’s Auerbach Hall to spacious new quarters in the university’s Harry Jack Gray Center in 2018.
Academia aside, Freund was probably most renowned for his archaeological projects and his pioneering use of ground-penetrating radar to make archaeological discoveries. His projects led him, and often teams of students and colleagues who accompanied him, to Israeli sites like Bethsaida, the Cave of Letters, Qumran – to search for Dead Sea Scrolls — Nazareth, Yavne, and Har Karkom (Mount Sinai).
His archaeological projects also extended to Europe. Off the coast of Spain he searched for the lost city of Atlantis. In Sobibor, Poland he was part of the team that discovered a Holocaust escape tunnel at the location of the Sobibor extermination camp. This discovery was featured on the public television documentary series “Nova.”
Through that effort, Freund pioneered the use of ground-penetrating radar to look for burial grounds. On his most recent project, in 2021, he led a team ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.
In his 20 years at the Greenberg Center, Freund led a total of 30 different expeditions to Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the UK, Argentina, Greece, Peru, Mexico, Spain, Israel, Poland, and Lithuania. He was the author of 12 books, more than 100 scholarly articles and appeared in 15 television documentaries produced by National Geographic, Discovery Channel, the History Channel and PBS.
Freund was succeeded as executive director of the Greenberg Center by Avinoam Patt, now the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies and director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut.
“Richard literally changed my life and that of my family when we met at the Association for Jewish Studies conference in 2006 and he decided to hire me and bring me to Connecticut to become the Feltman Professor in 2007,” Patt said.
Patt was in Israel when Freund died, but he found a fitting way to honor his colleague.
“Perhaps it was bashert that we found ourselves in the Galilee over the weekend, and I brought my family to pay our respects to Richard at Bethsaida, the archaeological site near the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Richard dedicated decades working with students and colleagues to uncover the site,” Patt said. “I feel so blessed to have been able to see him in the field. He was always animated, but I think he especially loved being on site, in the field, in his element. Richard touched the lives of countless students and he literally shaped new fields of academic research. His boundless energy, creativity, courage, and imagination are unparalleled.
According to Patt, Fruend left an equally indelible mark at the Greenberg Center.
“At the Greenberg Center, he helped turn our program into a nationally recognized Judaic Studies department that prepared numerous students for careers in Jewish leadership, Jewish education, the cantorate, the rabbinate, and many other fields. Richard mastered the art of bridging town and gown, turning the Greenberg Center into the place the community comes to learn.
“He was a gifted teacher and a wildly entertaining speaker, who could regale audiences with his tales and open new scholarly vistas to students, scholars, and community members. I considered him to be a good friend, a trusted colleague, and a valued mentor, and he will be sorely missed. Over the last year, I feel fortunate that we were able to work on a new project together on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, which will appear as a documentary next year. His legacy lives on.”
In addition to his wife of 40 years, Eliane, Richard Freund is survived by three grown sons, Yoni, Eli and Ethan; his siblings and their spouses, Andrea and Richard Eisen, Charles and Renee Freund, and Sharon and Jody Rockmaker; his brother- and sister-in law, Arthur and Liz Goldgaber; his father- and mother-in law Alberto and Berta Goldgaber; and several nieces and nephews.
A graveside service was held in Hampton, Virginia. Memorial contributions may be made to Rodef Sholom Temple in Newport News, Virginia, the Betram and Gladys Aaron Professorship of Jewish Studies at Christopher Newport University, or the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
PHOTO: Prof. Richard Freund
PHOTO: Freund on dig
CAP: Dr. Richard Freund and U of H student Sarah Rutman on a dig at the site of the Sobibor Concentration Camp in Poland.