Jewish US disease control head leads US Ebola fight

Tom Frieden is the US government’s primary point man in dealing with the Ebola crisis and its possible threat to the country.

October 19, 2014 06:21
2 minute read.
US PRESIDENT Barack Obama speaks with Tom Frieden

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama speaks with Tom Frieden. (photo credit: REUTERS)

LOS ANGELES – Any mother, Jewish or otherwise, would kvell over the accomplishments of her three sons, although at the moment she might wish that the youngest one weren’t constantly in the news.

That would be Tom Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who is the government’s primary point man in dealing with the Ebola crisis and its possible threat to the country.

As such, Frieden has been grilled – and frequently criticized – at congressional hearings and media interviews.

Frieden learned how to cope with pressure in his previous job as New York City’s Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene. When he was honored for his work as a Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine in 2005, the lead paragraph read: “Consider [Frieden] as the consummate Jewish mom – except that he isn’t nudging you about wearing a scarf so you won’t catch a cold. Rather, the admonitions that [he] slings relate to much more serious illnesses – HIV/AIDS, heart disease, lung cancer, tuberculosis, hepatitis and diabetes.”

“And it isn’t galoshes that Dr. Frieden wants people to don as a preventive measure, it’s condoms. In fact, he has a bowl of them in his office for the taking,” it added.

President Barack Obama on Friday named the Jewish Ron Klain as the Ebola “czar” who will coordinate US efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak.

Klain, a lawyer and businessman, was a senior White House aide to Obama and chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden. He will report to Homeland Security Adviser Lisa Monaco and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

Frieden grew up in Larchmont and New Rochelle in New York City’s suburban Westchester County in a family of overachievers.

His late father, Julian, was chief of coronary care at New York’s Montefiore Hospital, and his mother, Nancy, is a family and human rights lawyer.

Oldest brother Jeffry is a political economist and Stanfield Professor of International Peace at Harvard University.

Middle brother Ken is chairman of Interdisciplinary Judaic Studies at Syracuse University, and a prolific author on Hebrew and Yiddish literature – as well as clarinetist in The Wandering Klezmorim band.

The Frieden boys grew up in a largely secular Jewish home, whose forebears immigrated from Eastern Europe and Germany to the United States in the late 19th century.

In an extended phone interview, Ken Frieden recalled brother Tom, two years younger, as “studious, but not bookish,” whose first academic interest was in philosophy.

“I remember reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ to Tom, and he was fascinated by it,” he said. As a family of five, “we hold six advanced degrees,” he added.

In a separate interview, Jeffry Frieden recalled Tom as “a sweet, thoughtful kid, always trying to do better.

At one point, he wanted to become a pitcher and he would keep throwing balls for hours at a time.”

For a while, the three brothers attended a Torah study group, taught by a neighborhood lawyer, and the boys used to come home with all kinds of questions and arguments, he said.

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