A time to mourn

A time to mourn

Remembering Rabbi David Feldman

Rabbi David Feldman reading the Jewish Standard this August.

There were about 1,000 people at Rabbi David Feldman’s funeral.

There are many things to say about Rabbi Feldman, who died last Friday at 85, but that statistic is a good place to start.

David Michael Feldman was a pastoral rabbi, a scholar, a medical ethicist, a serious and authentic Jew, a formal and generous and devoted family man, and the rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

And he was beloved.

David Feldman was born in Los Angeles in 1929, the seventh of nine children, the son of a rabbi. The Great Depression started the year of his birth, and the family felt it. “He said that his mother always managed to feed them – when they were hungry, she would put more water in the soup,” Stanley Bramnick, rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Fair Lawn and a longtime friend of Rabbi Feldman’s, said.

After high school, David Feldman headed east; he earned his undergraduate degree at Yeshiva University – he was his class’s valedictorian – and then was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Throughout his career, he refused to be hobbled by the ever-hardening boundaries between the Orthodox and Conservative worlds. When he went to rabbinical school, in the early 1950s, much of the JTS faculty was Orthodox; it was in its approach to text, not to halachah, that the differences emerged. Mr. Feldman, as he was then, studied with the greats of his generation, who were at JTS. His teacher Saul Lieberman, “who was to Talmud as Einstein was to physics,” as Rabbi Bramnick put it, had a formative influence on Rabbi Feldman’s scholarship. Louis Finkelstein, Louis Ginzberg, Robert Gordis, Salo Baron – all were great, and all were Rabbi Feldman’s teachers, Rabbi Bramnick said.

“He was always a very serious student,” Rabbi Bramnick said. “He always questioned, and he always showed the relevance of the ancient texts, why we have to look into them introspectively, find meaning in them, and see how they affect our lives.”

Once he was ordained, Rabbi Feldman became a U.S. Air Force chaplain and then moved to the Bay Ridge Jewish Center in Brooklyn; he remained there for 21 years. His next move was to the Jewish Center, where he stayed until he retired, 25 years later. That vast synagogue, the cornerstone of the local Jewish community, had grown under the stewardship of Rabbi Judah Washer. It was a perfect example of the postwar suburban synagogue, the shul with the pool. It was a model that flourished in the second half of the last century but has withered since then.

Rabbi Bramnick, who already was in Fair Lawn, remembered the goals that Rabbi Feldman considered as he decided whether to move to Teaneck. “He had to make a living, but money was never a big thing for him,” Rabbi Bramnick said. “He would always give of himself, and he wanted a congregation where he could not only teach but try to influence people. To teach them to appreciate the fundamental values of Jewish life. To bring the values into the modern day. To try to better understand the text, and why we have to preserve it.

“He believed that we are a continuum of the past. As long as we can add our own link, then Judaism remains alive and vibrant. The first generation that breaks the link starts the downward spiral.” Rabbi Feldman was determined that his generation’s link, and the links of the generations descended from his, would remain strong and connected.

His love for his family was overwhelming, Rabbi Bramnick said. “Aviva” – his wife – “and he had a unique relationship. He adored her. He was crazy about her. His two sons, who walked in his path, and Rebecca, his daughter, who would light up the room when she walked into it – that was the epicenter of his life.”

Aviva and David Feldman met on an airplane; he had waited to marry until he found his bashert, the woman meant for him. “He looked long and hard to find the right one, and I and my siblings are eternally grateful to El Al for providing a venue for a Californian living in New York coming back from Israel to meet a woman from London,” his son, Rabbi Daniel Feldman, said in his eulogy on Sunday.

Rabbi Feldman was a very serious and formal man, Rabbi Bramnick said. “He was never the kind of person who would sit around and joke. He had a wry sense of humor, and you couldn’t detect it publicly. He would sit there with a stone face when you told a joke, and you’d say, ‘David, give me a break. Laugh already!’

“You would never see him without a suit and a jacket and a tie. About 35 years ago, we were at a Rabbinical Assembly meeting in Dallas, Texas.” It was hot, there was a break in the programming after lunch, and many of the rabbis put on their trunks, went to the pool, and swam. “And you picked up your eyes, and there was David Feldman, in a suit, jacket, and tie.

“He gave of himself,” Rabbi Bramnick said. “And you never heard him say anything negative about anyone. A lot of people hurt him, but you would never hear him say anything about them. He would just swallow hard. He was, in the Jewish sense, a righteous man.” A tzaddik.

Rabbi Feldman also was a scholar. “My father loved words and he loved goodness and he loved good words,” Daniel Feldman said. His interest in bioethics, which was a new field when he first engaged with it, compelled him to write now-classic books including “Birth Control in Jewish Law,” “The Jewish Family Relationship,” “Health and Medicine in the Jewish Tradition,” and “When There’s Life, There’s Life.”

Dr. Kenneth Prager of Englewood is, among many others, director of clinical ethics and chairman of the medical ethics committee at Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan. “Rabbi Feldman was one of the earliest scholars to devote research to Jewish medical ethics, and he made significant contributions to this field,” he said. “In addition to his scholarly writing, he was a fine human being, who lived according to the highest ethical principles. I will always remember his warm smile and gentle manner.”

Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg is a physician, an associate professor of medical ethics at Hadassah Hospital, and the author of “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics.” “Rabbi Feldman was one of the pioneers in medicine and halachah in our generation,” he wrote. “His important contributions to the field will be remembered forever.”

Rabbi Feldman also was uncommonly kind. “I had several occasions in my life when I was dealing with difficult issues,” Jacqueline Kates, a former mayor of Teaneck and longtime Jewish Center member, said. “I called my mother, my sister, my best friend, and my rabbi. Rabbi Feldman.”

Rabbi Feldman was so formal that he did not seem as if he would be on that list, she said, but he was so warm and so kind that he was entirely approachable nonetheless, she said.

Her father-in-law died just two days before Passover one year, she recalled, and in the confusion of grief and shiva and arrangements, “I hadn’t even thought about changing my dishes,” much less preparing for a seder, Ms. Kates said. But the Feldmans invited her family – two parents, two children, and her bereaved mother-in-law – effortlessly making room for them, including them with warmth and tenderness, “and I remember my mother-in-law smiling. I hadn’t thought she’d ever smile again.”

Ms. Kates remembers the tragedy that gripped Teaneck – and almost tore it apart – in 1990, when a police officer, Gary Spath, shot and killed an African American teenager, Philip Pannell. Rabbi Feldman was sympathetic to Mr. Pannell’s family, and reached out to them. He also “reached out to Gary Spath’s family,” she said. “It was a terrible time in Teaneck’s history. Our community was so very divided. Everyone thought that either the kid was bad and he had a gun and the cops are all good, or that this was a kid who was running away and was shot in the back and all cops are terrible and there is no justice for black people. They didn’t think it was possible that this was a guy who worked with black youth and had to make a terrible decision.

“That the world isn’t black or white.”

But Rabbi Feldman knew that, she said, and he reached out to a family about whom most people never would have thought, much less cared. “To this day, the Spaths send him a card twice a year,” she said. “They will never forget his kindness, when their world was completely ripped apart.”

Rabbi Feldman’s younger son, Rabbi Jonathan Feldman, told another story of his father’s kindness at his funeral. “I remember election day in 1980,” he said. “Dad had intended to vote for Ronald Reagan. Of course, busy as he was, he didn’t make it to the polls until almost 9. On the way, he heard on the car radio that President Carter already had conceded. He said, ‘The poor guy already lost. Let me give him one more vote.’

“Most people would think that one vote out of hundreds of millions couldn’t actually brighten someone’s day. But that was dad. He never underestimated the power of a simple kind gesture.”

Rabbi Feldman’s survivors include his wife, Aviva; their sons, Rabbi Daniel and Rabbi Jonathan; his daughter, Rebecca Becker; Daniel’s wife, Leah; Jonathan’s wife, Rachel; Rebecca’s husband, Tal; 14 grandchildren, Adina, Yaakov, Miriam, Shaindel, Tehila, Simcha, Malka, Esther, Yosef, Moshe, Yonah, Shira, and Akiva, and newborn Elana Maya; and three sisters, Goldie Fendel, Miriam Landau, and Trude Feldman.

Beth Janoff Chananie grew up belonging to the Jewish Center. Her rabbi there was Judah Washer. But as an adult, after she moved to Paramus, where she is an active member of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus/Congregation Beth Tikvah, she developed and maintained a friendship with David and Aviva Feldman. Often they’d meet for lunch at local restaurants. “Although he was never officially my rabbi, he took on the role of rabbi, mentor, and friend for me,” she said.

She was deeply moved by Rabbi Feldman’s funeral.

“People sat in their old seats in the sanctuary,” she said. “They sat where they sat years ago. They were comfortable in their old seats. You could look around the sanctuary and see everyone back.”

But that old guard was joined by many others, she continued. “You saw everyone, from all walks of life, from every denomination, from all over Teaneck, all coming together, putting aside their differences to honor him.

“The community lost a very special person.”

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