From Ben-Gurion to Israeli beachgoers, Aaron Friedman has made a life of saving others

A dapper man, wearing his signature safari-style hat, 90-year-old Aaron Friedman becomes exuberant when he shares his tales of being David Ben-Gurion’s bodyguard, a confidant of Yitzhak Shamir, and of the fame he enjoyed while being a lifeguard on the beaches of Tel Aviv. He has lots of stories of how he has dedicated his life to helping the Jewish people and humanity — it just happens that many came at critical moments in the birth of the State of Israel.

Currently living in Reseda, he was born in Jaffa in 1924 as Menachem Aaron Friedman. He lived at the edge of the sea in a shanty house that his father built from driftwood. “I love the sea! We were so poor that before going to school, my father and I would offer fish that we caught with our bare hands to the neighbors for Shabbat dinner,” recalled Friedman. He would walk by the house of Ben-Gurion, the future prime minister, on the way to school. 

Early in his life, Friedman became acutely aware of the plight of Jews in Palestine. “At the age of 5, I became an adult overnight,” Friedman said. “I heard that the entire community of Hebron was slaughtered [during the Pogrom of 1929], and I took on the responsibility to protect the Jewish people.”

As a young teen, Friedman wanted to be a lifeguard but wasn’t old enough, so he finagled his age. This wouldn’t be the only time he refused to let his age get in the way of something he wanted.

At the age of 15, Friedman became a legendary lifeguard on the beaches of Tel Aviv. This was a time when the beaches were the hub of the social scene, and Friedman enjoyed his rock-star status. With a physique reminiscent of Jack LaLanne, he had a plethora of people vying for his attention and friendship, including several who would become prime minister. “Golda Meir would stop by to talk,” Friedman recalled, “and Yitzhak Shamir — we were Friday night drinking buddies.” He also became friends with Ariel Sharon. “I saved more than 800 people, among them Danya Weizmann, a sister of Chaim Weizmann [the first president of Israel], and I still have his letter of thank you!” 

When he was 16, Friedman again finessed his age, this time in order to fulfill his dream of becoming a soldier. He served in the Jewish Settlement Police, whose purpose was to protect Jewish settlements from Arab guerillas.

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Friedman, left, with David Ben-Gurion in 1947.

It’s easy to become transfixed when Friedman tells story after story, bringing history to life — especially when he recounts one infamous day in 1941: “The British were desperate that they were going to lose the Middle East and the gate to India — the Suez Canal. Ben-Gurion gave the order to [Moshe] Dayan, who was in charge of the land troop, to dynamite a few bridges and roadways so that there would be no access in. We were on the northern part of the Golan Heights, on the border of Syria, when we encountered a small group of [foreign] advisers to the Syrians, and there was a little skirmish. A bullet grazed Dayan’s eye — there was lots of blood and it looked awful but Dayan just said “Al kol be seder” — everything is all right. Somehow we escaped and rushed him eventually to Tiberius but they couldn’t save his eye — and that’s the true story on how he lost his eye.” 

Yaakov Dori, the chief of staff of the Haganah, appointed Friedman in 1946 to be the personal bodyguard of Ben-Gurion, who was then the chairman of the Jewish Agency. It was Friedman’s connections with various militias — especially Etzel and Lehi — and perhaps knowing Ben-Gurion since his childhood that got him the position. “I was one of six bodyguards, and my job was to be attached to him day and night. I protected him not from the Arabs but from the friction that was happening with the militias. There was always danger,” Friedman said. “My admiration for him was because he was a Jew uniter — it didn’t matter if you were from the left or the right, ultra-Orthodox, Conservative. … He was a leader who took command, and he wanted a land for the Jewish people.”

Friedman wasn’t merely in the shadow of giants of the Jewish state; he was also part of making history. “It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I learned the full depth of what he was involved in,” said Gregg Alpert, national director of eLearning at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who was 14 when he met Friedman through United Synagogue Youth (USY). “It turns out that he was an operative who was sent into Cypress to refugee camps to smuggle people out into Israel. So it wasn’t just that he was … David Ben-Gurion’s bodyguard, he also had an active hand in shaping the history of the Jewish people.” 

Friedman’s desire to save people also led to meeting his wife, Esther Shawmut, a Jewish-American pharmacist’s mate in the Navy. In 1948, she was on board the Pan York, a refugee ship that was being searched in the Haifa harbor for able-bodied, military-age people, who were not allowed to enter the country. Shawmut, along with others, jumped ship to swim to shore. But she didn’t know how to swim well and got caught in the riptides. Friedman, one of the Israeli frogmen rescuing the volunteers, pulled her safely ashore. “I told her my name, and she never forgot it,” Friedman said. 

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Friedman and his wife, Esther Shawmut Friedman, in the center of a family portrait taken before the couple left for the U.S. in 1954.

Friedman and Shawmut married in 1954. Soon after that, Friedman recalled, Ben-Gurion approached him and said, “I want you to go the United States. It’s like what I did before World War I — I went to Canada, the United States, and helped liberate Palestine. I had a vision and you can do it too. I want you to inspire the youth and tell them the story of Israel; that is your next mission.”  

Friedman and his wife went to the United States that same year, first to Miami, where he taught swimming at a small private school. In the years that followed, they had one daughter, Shari Lesnick. They were the founders and directors of Camp David, in Luzerne County, Penn., in the early 1960s. In 1964, Friedman was appointed youth director of USY for the Pacific Southwest Region and moved to Sherman Oaks. He built up the organization for 10 years, which had started with approximately 15 chapters. Meanwhile, Shawmut Friedman was the Southern California regional executive director of the Zionist Organization of America and director of BBYO (formerly B’nai B’rith Youth Organization).

The couple worked together as an influential duo to create a passion for being Jewish and sharing the spirit of the State of Israel. Their dedication to youth infused their entire adult experience. “I was inspired by great people. … I don’t really like politics … I focused on the children, who are the future leadership of humanity. I try to teach with kindness and gentleness — anger brings you nowhere,” Friedman said. Their honeymoon lasted nearly 60 years, until Shawmut Friedman passed away in March 2013. 

Today, Friedman is 90 percent blind in one eye and is losing his sight in the other eye. He’s still vivacious, though, and continues lecturing and sharing his stories. “I am a small pebble in Jewish history,” he said. “The past is for historians, the present is for the living, and the future is for mankind to improve what we have. We have a land and a country — there’s a bright future.”

Main photos: Aaron Friedman today (photo by Cyndi Bemel) and in his younger days (courtesy of Aaron Friedman).