Richard Freund, renowned scholar and archeologist, dies


Richard Freund, a universally acclaimed Jewish scholar and biblical archeologist, rabbi, and University of Hartford professor, succumbed to cancer on July 14. He was 67.

Barbara Stein who would babysit Freund growing up in Valley Stream, remembers him attending Temple Emanu-El, the reformed Jewish synagogue in Lynbrook, as a boy. Not long after graduating from Valley Stream North High School in 1972, the not-quite-yet-an-adult Freund booked a one-way ticket to Israel, with aspirations of becoming a rabbi.

He later returned to the United States, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. But rather than a life at the pulpit, Freund began what would be a long and celebrated career in academia, teaching Jewish history and archaeology.

His first classes were taught at Oberlin College in Ohio, before traveling across the country to teach at a number of places, including the University of Denver and the University of California-San Diego.

He spent the final years of his career as the distinguished Bertram and Gladys Aaron Endowed Professor in Judaic studies at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.

But Freund’s work took him well beyond the walls of the university. He embarked on more than a dozen archeological explorations alongside his team of geoscientists, students and engineering experts to sites ranging from Nazareth in Israel to Rhodes, Greece to Vilna, Lithuania.

Colleagues considered him something of a pioneer in the archeological world for leading the way in noninvasive archeological techniques — from ground-penetrating radar to resistivity tomography and aerial imagery — that Freund told industry publication Science Node could provide a structural representation of what lies beneath before a single trowel hits the soil.

“Traditional archaeology is a destructive and very invasive method to achieve information on any site,” Freund said.

Going against conventional methods was exactly something Freund would do, according to brother Charlie.

“When I say that my brother was stubborn, he was very stubborn,” Charlie said. “He had his position on things.”

And that trait, Charlie suggested, allowed him to push for the use of non-invasive archeological techniques despite his fair share of detractors. 

“He was always very independent,” Charlie said. “And he was a leader.”

To that end, using non-invasive methods, Freund led a team to unearth archeological evidence in dig sites that brought to light the Holocaust’s buried record of mass human and cultural atrocities across Eastern Europe.

Among him and his team’s most notable finds was the discovery of what was said to be a 100-foot escape tunnel in the Lithuanian Ponar Burial Pits that 80 Jewish prisoners dug mostly by hand to flee from Nazi execution.

He also uncovered the underground remnants of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, a former center of Jewish life built in the 17th century, which was damaged during Nazi occupation and razed by the Soviets in the 1950s.

In one of his most widely publicized expeditions that seemed to blur the lines between legend and history, Freund’s team was said to discover the likely location of the fabled city of Atlantis in the marshlands of Dona Ana Park in Southern Spain. The findings were the subject of a National Geographic special “Finding Atlantis.” 

From his research and expeditions, both large and small, he also left behind a towering volume of scholarly work and about a dozen authored or co-edited books.

During his four decades of scholarship, Freund toured universities and synagogues giving talks, exhibitions and lectures about his archaeological findings and Jewish history. He even stunned an audience at Temple Beth El in Cedarhurst three years ago, as a Herald reporter described, telling the tragic and heroic stories of Jewish lives in the Holocaust through his archeological finds. 

A colleague of his, Lawrence Richard, called Freund a natural whiz at boiling down complex subjects “ranging from biblical archeology, the Holocaust, Jewish ethics, Latin American Jewry, Ladino, and Yiddish in terms” general audiences — as well as scholarly ones — could understand and appreciate.   

“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,” Richard once wrote about Freund.

In addition to his wife of 40 years, Eliane, Richard Freund is survived by three sons — Yoni, Eli and Ethan — siblings Andrea Eisen, Charles Freund, and Sharon Rockmaker. And his in-laws, including Arthur and Liz Goldgaber, and Alberto and Berta Goldgaber.

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.

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