Community Divided Over Hillel Rabbi

The UCLA Hillel rabbi who allegedly lost his temper and kicked a freelance journalist who called him a derogatory name could be required to undergo anger management training, counseling or worse for his reported actions.

On Dec. 1, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and Rachel Neuwirth will meet separately with a city attorney hearing officer in Los Angeles to try to sort through the facts of his reported physical assault on her. Afterward, the hearing officer will mete out the appropriate punishment to Seidler-Feller, if merited, said Eric Moses, the city attorney’s director of public relations. It is possible the hearing officer could recommend that criminal charges be brought against Seidler-Feller.

Robert Esensten, Neuwirth’s lawyer, said that’s exactly what he wants. The city attorney has so far opted not to pursue them because witnesses have given conflicting testimony, making it difficult to obtain a jury conviction, Moses said.

Esensten said that Neuwirth has suffered emotionally and physically from the alleged attack, including bruising and soreness throughout her body. She plans to file a civil suit soon, he said, although he would not say when.

At the hearing, Seidler-Feller’s attorney Donald Etra said he would propose that "both sides shake hands and make peace." Etra also said Seidler-Feller was "sorry that there was an incident and that anybody took offense."

Etra said Seidler-Feller does not want to have Neuwirth prosecuted for having committed a hate crime by calling the rabbi a kapo. (Kapo is a pejorative term for the Jews who collaborated with Nazis in concentration camps during World War II.)

Legal experts question whether such an act meets the definition of a hate crime. The only police report filed to date involves Seidler-Feller’s alleged actions, Moses said.

"This is simply spin trying to divert the attention away from the batterer, aggressor and wrongdoer," Esensten said. "You don’t need to go to the yeshiva to know that men don’t hit women."

This affair has divided the community, primarily along partisan lines. Many dovish Jews critical of the Sharon government have come to the rabbi’s defense and point to his long service in the community. Jews more distrustful of the Arab world and the value of interfaith dialogue promoted by Seidler-Feller have called for his ouster. Either way, "the debate has become about ideology, which it shouldn’t be," said Dr. Steven Teitelbaum, president of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) Pacific Southwest Region.

His colleague, Gary Ratner, said he thinks Hillel should demand Seidler-Feller’s resignation or fire him. He also said the left’s relative silence has troubled him.

"What you have are liberal people who I know have been at the forefront of defending women’s rights, gay rights, anybody’s rights, who abhor violence, but are defending someone who committed violence against women," said Ratner, AJCongress’ western region executive director.

Etra intimated that those criticizing the rabbi have done so for political purposes and seem to have an agenda to "blow a minor incident out of proportion," Etra said. "I don’t know if it’s Ms. Neuwirth or someone else."

Neuwirth’s attorney called that a complete distortion and has nothing to do with politics.

Seidler-Feller allegedly attacked reporter Neuwirth on Oct. 21, when the two encountered each other outside UCLA’s Royce Hall after an Alan Dershowitz speech. The pair started arguing after Neuwirth overheard the rabbi inviting a group of protesting pro-Palestinian activists to a Hillel-sponsored event featuring Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian representative for Jerusalem. Nusseibeh has been accused of advising Saddam Hussein to launch Scud missiles toward Israel’s population centers to kill the maximum number of civilians.

In the midst of Seidler-Feller and Neuwirth’s heated exchange, Seidler-Feller allegedly grabbed the mother of two and former player on the Israeli national basketball team. Then he allegedly pushed and kicked Neuwirth. Whether she called him a kapo before or after the reported assault is also in dispute.

After four onlookers separated them, Seidler-Feller tried to charge Neuwirth, said Ross Neihaus, the president of Bruins for Israel, the pro-Israel student group at UCLA, who said he helped restrain the rabbi.

Neihaus told The Journal that the rabbi has been under pressure in recent years because of attacks on his political views and the challenge of raising millions for Hillel’s new building. Neihaus said he respects the rabbi, but thinks Seidler-Feller should voluntarily take up to a one-year sabbatical and issue a public apology for his actions.

"I’m concerned that Jewish students thinking about being involved in Hillel will attach a [stigma] to it and shy away because of the negative publicity," Neihaus said.

In the aftermath of the altercation, UCLA Hillel students last week held a special session on Thursday, Nov. 6. Emily Kane, co-president of the university’s Hillel student board, said reactions have been mixed. She called Seidler-Feller an important player in the Jewish community. Still, his alleged actions have disappointed her.

"I’m very surprised. He’s a peacenik from way back," Kane said.

In a written statement, Hillel’s interim President Avraham Infeld said the group is monitoring the situation closely and expected to put all questions to rest after an upcoming city attorney’s hearing.

Rabbi Robert Gan, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said his organization has historically not taken positions on such matters. He said has a deep respect for Seidler-Feller and what he’s accomplished at UCLA’s Hillel over the years.

"He’s a prominent, responsible, principled, committed, dynamic rabbi and has been for years," Gan said. "There’s no more decent person in this community. You have to take that into consideration in terms of whatever might have happened."

Rabbi Simeon Kolko, a former Hillel rabbi at Penn State and the Rochester Institute of Technology, said Jewish law permits the use of physical force only if a person’s well-being or life is endangered. Based on those talmudic tenets, there exists no justification for Seidler-Feller’s alleged actions, he said.

Kolko, now the rabbi at Beth Israel Temple Center in Warren, Ohio, said Seidler-Feller has blackened the Jewish community’s reputation. "He has not only brought shame to himself, suffering to another person but also disrepute to Judaism and the Hillel movement."

While Jeff Rubin, Hillel’s director of communications in Washington, D.C., would not comment on the situation, he did say that he is unaware of any Hillel rabbi physically attacking someone. Hillel has more than 450 chapters in North America.

The last time a rabbi publicly came to blows with someone was in Palm Beach, Fla. in November 1999. During a contentious Temple Emanu-El executive board meeting, famous Soviet Refusenik and charismatic Conservative Rabbi Leonid Feldman punched congregational President Stephen Levin. The next morning, Feldman apologized to all, and stayed at the synagogue for another four months before voluntarily resigning in order not to tear the community apart, he told The Journal.

Feldman’s situation is different from Seidler-Feller’s, he said, refusing to comment directly on the case. Feldman said it differed because it involved a congregational president "who made my life miserable," and "there was never any call for me to resign," he said.

Feldman took a position at another synagogue, Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach, where he has tripled synagogue membership, he said. In the process of landing his new job, he received a three-year suspension (which ended in August) from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly for bypassing the organization’s placement service. The suspension was unrelated to the fight, he said.

Here in Los Angeles on the other sunny coast, many in the community are calling for forgiveness, citing Seidler-Feller’s commitment to tolerance, interfaith dialogue and fundraising.

UCLA Hillel board member David Lehrer said Seidler-Feller’s commitment to Judaism and educating young people is unparalleled. He said the rabbi had made a mistake but that it should be put in perspective.

This is not the first time that Seidler-Feller has had run-ins with his political opponents.

In March at an event sponsored by StandWithUs — a pro-Israel grass-roots organization that has locked horns with Seidler-Feller — two of the group’s supporters said that Seidler-Feller yelled at the speakers during the question-and-answer session, demanding to know whether they supported the two-state solution. StandWithUs consultant Roberta Seid, one of the panelists, said she told Seidler-Feller that they weren’t there to discuss the issue, adding that she thought Israel has been unfairly vilified. Seid said that Seidler-Feller stormed out of the room before an audience of 100.

"I was very taken aback. I didn’t know why he was being so hostile," said Seid, a self-described Clinton Democrat who said she favors the two-state solution.

Another StandWithUs supporter, Bracha Friedman, said that two years ago when Seidler-Feller showed up to one of StandWithUs’ inaugural meetings in Beverly Hills, he interrupted speakers, telling them to "shush" and told them that they were wrong, Friedman said. He behaved so boorishly he was asked to leave, she said. Before he leaving, Friedman said she saw Seidler-Feller and another man pushing.

Seidler-Feller, at the advice of his lawyer, declined to comment. His attorney, Etra, said he had no knowledge about his client’s alleged blowups. Seidler-Feller is passionate about his job, religion and mission, Etra said.

David Suissa, one of the rabbi’s supporters who tried to negotiate a rapprochement between the two parties, said that the rabbi is an emotional man who rarely shies away from a heated debate.

"If somebody pushes his buttons, he’ll get upset and confront them verbally," said Suissa, the founder and editor of Olam Magazine.

Suissa believes that perhaps some good can come out this affair. He said he hoped the brouhaha would lead Jews to learn how to disagree with one another more respectfully. The community has become too polarized and lost civility, he said. Perhaps this tragedy might lead people to avoid crossing "the red lines," he added.

Dr. Sheldon Wolf, a professor at UCLA Medical School, has given money to StandWithUs and considers himself politically conservative in the Israeli-Palestinian debate. Still, he considers himself one of Seidler-Feller’s strongest supporters and thinks those calling for the rabbi’s ouster are misguided.

Wolf and his wife have attended Seidler-Feller’s services at Hillel for eight years and audited two of the undergraduate courses he teaches at UCLA. He said the rabbi’s tireless work to build good relation’s between the campus’ Jews and Muslims has done more than simply generate goodwill.

"I think the lack of violence at the UCLA campus, first between blacks and Jews and now between Muslims and Jews, is largely a result of his efforts," Wolf said. "The guy’s almost saintly in his goodness."