First Soviet-Born Jew Ordained As a Conservative Rabbi at JTS

Leonid Feldman used to teach Soviet children scientific atheism, a required course which ridiculed religion and belief in a God. Last Thursday, he became the first Soviet-born Jew ordained a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS).

"Today is a victory celebration for a 4,000 year old tradition. The Soviet Union is the most successful atheistic machine. But this just proves that Judaism is more powerful than anything," Feldman said.

"I realize that I’m very lucky, very fortunate. But with this comes a responsibility," he said. The responsibility, according to Feldman, is to teach American Jews and especially Soviet Jews who settle in America, to be Jewish.

Feldman and 22 other men and women were ordained in the JTS commencement Thursday. Also, the first two women cantors ordained in the history of the Conservative movement, Marla Rosenfeld Barugel and Erica Lippitz, received their diploma of Hazzan at the ceremony.

Feldman, who has become a cause celebre in the American Jewish community, has accepted a job at CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership). One of Feldman’s dreams for the near future is the establishment of a Soviet synagogue in Brighton Beach which he hopes will bring Soviet Jews back to Judaism. About 40,000 Soviet Jews live in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.

A JOURNEY FRAUGHT WITH OBSTACLES

Feldman, 34, told the JTA that his spiritual and physical journey to the rabbinate was fraught with obstacles. As a refusenik in the Soviet Union, Feldman said he was briefly imprisoned and staged a hunger strike just before he received permission to emigrate to Israel in 1976.

After spending three years in Israel, he came to America, hoping to study education at Columbia University in New York. But as an illegal resident with little money, the school would not accept him. He said he had been homeless, despondent, lonely and even suicidal after he came to America.

Feldman said the turning point in his odyssey came one night when he was standing on the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan and thinking about jumping off. "I said to myself, the Soviets did not break me. I’m not going to let the freest country in the world break me," Feldman recalled.

As a young physics teacher in the Soviet Union, Feldman described himself as a "passionate atheist" and a good communist. He believed in scientific atheism and said he was "anti-religion." But one day, a refusenik gave him the book that would change the course of his life — Leon Uris’ "Exodus."

After reading it in one night, Feldman said he realized for the first time that the Jews had a country of their own, a language of their own and an ancient history.

He became a Zionist activist with no special attachment to the Jewish religion. After the Soviets did not permit him to emigrate, Feldman said Natan Sharansky advised him to go on a hunger strike as a last resort to publicize his case. For this, he said he spent a month in Soviet prison.

Following his release in 1976, Feldman spent three years in Israel, serving in the army and teaching physics. Feldman, a chess master, was also invited to judge in the World Chess Olympiad in Haifa.

‘FELT I HAD SOME KIND OF A MISSION’

Education was a consistent part of his life. He decided in 1980 to go to New York to study at Columbia University Teachers College. But with no papers, no money and no luck, this aspiration was frustrated.

His fortunes changed considerably when he went to Los Angeles to visit an old friend. There, he was offered teaching jobs and became interested in religious studies.

"I always felt I had some kind of a mission — I was an idealist in the Soviet Union, a good communist. During the few years between becoming a Zionist and leaving the Soviet Union, I had no goal. I was desperate. Judaism gave me a goal. It filled a gap, an emptiness that communism left in my soul."

Feldman said two Jewish scholars and authors, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, had a tremendous impact on his intellectual interest in Judaism. After reading the book Prager and Telushkin co-authored, "The Nine Questions People Ask Most About Judaism," he slowly became more observant and began taking courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary affiliate in Los Angeles, the University of Judaism. Then, the dean of the university suggested he take his studies one step further and become a rabbi.

Months later, he transferred to the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

NEED TO EDUCATE SOVIET JEWS TO JUDAISM

Feldman said he feels he has a unique calling to educate Soviet Jews about Judaism because he understands their education and lack of knowledge about Judaism.

"There are 40,000 Soviet Jews in Brighton Beach who are uneducated about Judaism. There are people there who never heard of Shul, who don’t believe in God, they are atheists . . . I have a special understanding because I too was a passionate atheist," he said.

But not only the Soviet Jews suffer from the lack of Yiddishkeit, Feldman said. "Jewish life in America is disastrous. This is the freest country in the world and the most ignorant Jewish community in the world except for the Soviet Union."

He noted that every American Jew can take Hebrew lessons if he wants to. "Iosef Begun spent 20 years in prisons and psychiatric wards for teaching aleph, bet." But most American Jews cannot even say "how are you" in Hebrew, Feldman said.

NEXT STORY