Aliya Stories: Education as a ticket to a better life

A professor’s journey demonstrates his conviction that given an opportunity, people can change direction.

January 26, 2017 10:32

Prof. Fridlender with his wife, Rosy. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Multiculturalism and education.

These two words sum up the life and times of Prof. Bertold Fridlender.

Beginning with his birth in Chile, followed by his professional endeavors, his aspirations as president of Hadassah Academic College, and even his own family – each of his three children was born in a different country – Fridlender naturally brings these complementary views to everything he does.

His father, the youngest of eight children, followed in his Lithuanian family’s footsteps, attempting to make his way to the United States in the 1920s to escape Russian pogroms.

“He was 17 when he arrived at Ellis Island but was turned away because of the Jewish quota laws,” Fridlender explains.

“The boat kept going until it reached South America.”

Originally from Warsaw, Fridlender’s grandfather also realized something was terribly wrong as he witnessed the spread of ghettos in his city. Following his wife’s death, he packed up Fridlender’s mother and her four siblings, left Poland, and headed for Chile.

“This is why I am from Chile,” the professor says, noting that his very European surname took on the phonetic spelling of the Spanish language after his father’s arrival.

Communicating with each other in their common language of Yiddish, Fridlender’s parents met in Buenos Aires, where he and his older sister were born.

The family moved to Chile and in 1946, from Santiago to near Valparaíso, a port city on the Chilean coast, where his parents established a small women’s clothing store. With 1,000 Jewish families living in Valparaíso, the family was active in the community, celebrated holidays, and followed news of the war and the rebirth of the Jewish state. Although he was a child in 1948, the HAC president vividly remembers celebrating.

“There was a big party in Valparaíso,” he recalls. “I was sick and couldn’t walk, but I was dancing on my future brotherin- law’s shoulders.”

The Fridlender home was humble yet happy, with lively discussions a fundamental part of his upbringing.

“My mother was a socialist,” he says.

“It was from her that I received input about playing a role in my community and being active in politics and social issues. We didn’t have financial means, but I never felt like it was hard because I grew up in such a warm environment.”

Fridlender was also introduced to the arts at an early age. Although his father had no formal education, he listened to opera on the family’s radio every day.

His mother nurtured his love of classical music. Books, museums, friends and social issues were what mattered.

In was in this milieu that Fridlender – known to all by his nickname, Tolo – realized the importance of education.

“I would never be a shop owner,” he says. “I saw how difficult it was for my parents and I knew I needed to have a profession.”

That realization would lead to a career in biotechnology, microbiology and molecular biology that began when he finished high school and moved to Santiago to study at the University of Chile. Only 16 years old, he was accepted into the first cohort of a new five-year master’s program, earning a degree in biochemistry.

In 1964, during the third year of his program, Fridlender’s parents announced they were joining his sister, who, two years earlier, had made aliya to Kibbutz Givat Haim, where she still lives.

“My father never felt better in his life than when he was in Israel,” he says. “He always felt like a foreigner in South America.

Now, all of a sudden, he belonged.”

Although tempted, Fridlender stayed behind to finish his studies and to continue courting Rosy, the woman who would become his wife.

After serving as research assistants at the University of Chile and the Department of Experimental Biology at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, the couple moved to Los Angeles where Fridlender earned a scholarship to study at UCLA. He received his PhD in 1970, again showing his academic prowess by finishing the four-year program in three years.

“They said no one could do it,” he notes with steely determination. “I said, ‘Try me.’” A career that spanned five decades followed, including multiple positions in management, research and development, full and visiting professorships, and as president and CEO of various companies. These opportunities shepherded him to several cities in the US and Israel, as well as Italy, South Korea, Spain and his home country in South America. Often he traveled back and forth while holding down multiple roles. All told, Fridlender has worked in the education, public, hi-tech, venture capital and health sectors. He has developed patents, published nearly 60 scientific peer-reviewed papers and is an international lecturer.

When the Fridlenders decided to make aliya, it was, in part, because of growing antisemitism in South America.

“I was a professor at the University of Buenos Aires when there was a change in the Ministry of Education there,” he explains. “I received a letter that said I was fired because the university ‘was for Argentinians and Christians.’ I spoke with Rosy and said we should go back to Israel. Enough is enough. We didn’t want our kids to grow up as a minority.”

They arrived on June 27, 1976 – an easy date to remember as it was the day of the Entebbe hijacking.

In 2004, after working in several places in Israel and abroad, Fridlender became chairman of HAC’s newly created Department of Biotechnology, for which he was the volunteer architect of the curriculum after discovering the college was without one. He would voluntarily serve until 2012, when he was offered the position of president of HAC.

“I was filing my taxes in New Jersey when I received a call from the chairman of the board of HAC,” he says. “The rest is history.”

And what a history it’s been. Under his leadership, which he insists is a team effort that includes his faculty, management and his family, HAC’s student enrollment has doubled, half of the students are the first in their families to attend college, students have contributed 100,000 hours of community service, the Career Center opened, the Alumni Association was established, the Challenge Center and Pre-Academic Program were expanded, a Research and Development Authority was created, the partnership with the haredi community was initiated, and new services are being designed daily to address the needs of HAC’s multicultural student body that includes Jews and Arabs from all sectors of Israeli society.

“This may be a little bit Jewish, but if you need to go from one place to another – what you have in your head, no one can take away,” the HAC president says.

“It is exclusively yours. For me, the way out was to have a profession. I strongly believe that if people are given an opportunity, they can change their lives.”

Although they may encounter problems along the way, the septuagenarian has never found any of his own problems to be actual problems.

“There is nothing about my life that I think was terrible,” Fridlender says matter-of-factly. “Yes, there were difficulties, but you don’t run away from problems, you solve them. That’s been my motto my entire life.”

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