Lonely Man of Faith

Imagine an 11-year-old kid who wakes up in the middle of the night to berate a group of grown-ups who are saying things he disagrees with. This is what my friend Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller did. It was past midnight, after a long Friday night Shabbat meal, in his childhood home in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood. His parents and some of their friends were talking about the need to support the new State of Israel, which was then in its infancy.

Something about the conversation bothered the young Chaim. So he got up, walked over to the living room where the grown-ups were schmoozing, and told them: “If all of you were such strong Zionists, you wouldn’t be here right now, you’d all be in Israel!”

He’s been getting in trouble ever since.

He remembers when he was in high school being the lone voice at the Shabbat table arguing against the Vietnam War. A few years later, as a student at Yeshiva University protesting the nuclear arms race, he annoyed more than a few people by pulling stunts like displaying a huge mushroom cloud outside his dorm window.

This is a man who loves his freedom of speech. There’s never a bad time for him to jump into a debate. The other day in his office at UCLA Hillel, where he is the longtime executive director, he was answering two phone calls at once and rushing to get ready for a speaking engagement. But when I said something about the crisis in the Middle East that bothered him, he dropped everything and started debating.

This predisposition to speak up has served him well. When he dreamed many years ago of creating the most beautiful Hillel center in the country, he talked it up to everyone who would listen — philanthropists, community leaders, architects, UCLA authorities, alumni, students and even the owners of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, who couldn’t resist his appeals and eventually agreed to open a cafe inside the center.

The center, which opened eight years ago and is named after the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, reflects Seidler-Feller’s penchant for pluralism and freedom of expression. There are students playing pool downstairs, while others study the Talmud upstairs. On Friday night, he has initiated something that you will rarely see in America: three simultaneous prayer services — one Orthodox, one Conservative and one Reform.

This is one of the contradictions in Seidler-Feller. Normally, people who are so tolerant and pluralist are pretty easygoing. It’s the “live and let live” attitude — you do what you do, and I’ll do what I do.

Yet Seidler-Feller is anything but easygoing. He’s intolerant of intolerance. His big thing is passionate pluralism. Pluralism, for him, is not a lame surrender to reality or a polite euphemism for disengaging.
Rather, it’s an enlightened way of bringing out the best in individuals for the collective good. Seidler-Feller himself is an Orthodox Jew who wears a kippah and prays three times a day, and he does have his boundaries: He once declined to officiate at the marriage of a friend who is a major Hollywood celebrity because he doesn’t marry interfaith couples.

But don’t get him started about imposing his Orthodox ways. That’s not what turns him on. What turns him on is learning — learning everything you can about the Jewish tradition and choosing your own path. It’s a passionate pluralism based on meaning and knowledge. He has seen the significant contributions that so many non-Orthodox scholars have made to Jewish life, and he’d like nothing more than for the thousands of Jewish students who have passed through Hillel over the years to choose their way of continuing that tradition.

Sometimes I think that he must be terrified at the possibility of mind control —  of being told what to read, what to think or what to say. So he transfers this fear to others.

Maybe this is why our relationship has survived a thousand arguments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It doesn’t bother him that I have my own views. He might disagree vehemently with a lot of what I say, but, somehow, I feel he’s enjoying the process. Beyond the argument itself, he sees something bigger: two Jews exercising their freedom of speech, not to attack or verbally abuse, but to express their independent views.

Seidler-Feller’s outspoken nature has made for an interesting but complicated life. He seems to always be in one struggle or another. While his favorite struggles are intellectual, lately they have also been physical, as he’s had to deal with chronic back pain. He finds strength in Psalm 92, which talks of proclaiming God’s “steadfast love at daybreak” and His “faithfulness each night.” He says this Psalm renews his optimism every morning, when anything is possible. But then, after a typical day of struggle that often humbles him, it also renews his faith in God every night.

On the night of May 5, at the Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, my friend Chaim, with his wife, Doreen, will be honored for their 36 years of service to Hillel and to our community. People from all over whose lives have been touched by the Seidler-Fellers will come to honor them and say a few words.

I have no idea what Chaim will say that night, but I hope he’ll never stop waking up to challenge the grown-ups.

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine and OLAM.org. You can read his daily blog at suissablog.com and e-mail him at suissa@olam.org.