Prez by Day, Punk by Night
Lawyer, lecturer, punk rocker –and executive president of an Orthodox synagogue.
Welcome to the world of Bram Presser, 26, the Melbourne, Australia-based lead singer of Yidcore, a Jewish punk rock group that specializes in Jewish and Hebrew songs.
As executive president of Melbourne’s North Eastern Jewish War Memorial Centre, Presser is responsible for fiscal affairs at the synagogue, which serves 260 families.
“Not all the shul members approve of me, but they do say they like me when I am quiet,” Presser said.
At the age of 19 and already into punk, Presser established the Theatre Club at the Northern Suburbs Memorial Centre. At 23 he was involved with Israeli affairs through his position on Victoria’s State Zionist Council. The synagogue was a separate entity within the community center until 2001, when the two merged and Presser became executive president of the combined organization.
Yidcore recently completed its second U.S. tour, playing a month of concerts to enthusiastic audiences in New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
The band’s latest CD “Chicken Soup Caper E.P.” and its first CD, “Yidcore” feature familiar Jewish songs such as “Dayenu,” “Bashana Haba’ah”and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav,” together with originals “Minyan Man” and “Why Won’t Adam Sandler Let Us Do His Song?”
The band’s third U.S. tour, which Presser hopes will be coast-to-coast, is on the drawing board.
“We formed the band as part of an Australian Union of Jewish Students show and it was a tearaway success,” Presser said.
Yidcore features three other members who also came out of Melbourne’s Jewish day schools: advertising man Mikie Slonim, marketer Paul Glezer and architect Dave Orlanski.
For a punk rocker, Presser lives a clean life: He is strongly anti-drug and is a nonsmoking vegetarian. He has played in bands since he was 14, and attributes his punk skill to his Jewish background.
He also is a lecturer in law at Melbourne University, where he is preparing his criminology doctoral thesis. In the future, he hopes to arrange a concert tour of Israel for Yidcore — even performing, if allowed, at the Kotel.
“At the end of the day, it’s our way of expressing our Jewishness, and the message is getting through to a generation who would otherwise never hear it,” he said.
A Different Standard
Ask Mimi Feigelson a simple question, you don’t get a simple answer.
“So how do you like L.A.?” I ask, as we sit down for coffee and pastries at a Pico-Robertson cafe, thinking this is just the warm-up for the real questions.
But for Feigelson, a visiting lecturer in rabbinics at the University of Judaism (UJ), small talk is for wimps. Every question is real and deserves a thoughtful answer.
She repeats the question to herself several times, smiles as she considers it carefully, and then tells of how kind and gracious everyone has been since she arrived here in July, how things have fallen into place quite easily. Still, she says, “like” is too facile a word, because Los Angeles is not, and never will be, home.
“I am grateful for my welcome, but Yerushalayim is home,” Feigelson concludes.
At 38, Feigelson has honed her ability to integrate disparate realities into one coherent and compelling existence. She is an American-born Orthodox Israeli woman teaching at an American seminary for Conservative rabbis. She is halachically observant, and has smicha, rabbinic ordination. She is aware of the political implications of her smicha, but insists it is a private odyssey. She has been vilified by many in the Orthodox establishment, but she maintains a commitment to honor and respect that same Orthodox establishment.
With a dark thick ponytail streaming over her right shoulder and her trademark thin braid hanging to the left, nearly touching the bottom of her black vest, Feigelson has a conservatively bohemian look, one that fits her dual mission of staying within the establishment while defying its conventions.
As she often does, Feigelson uses an analogy and a Chasidic story to explain herself. In traditional mystical sources, it is said the world will exist for 6,000 years. We are in year 5762, and therefore far along in the world’s life. “It used to be that people would come into the world and have shoresh neshama, the root of a soul, from one source. But today, each of us comes into the world and we have so many splinters of souls,” she says, likening it to the last tiny shards left when the big pieces of a broken vessel have already been swept up.
“That’s why we’re torn in so many different directions simultaneously, and some of us choose to listen to one voice and ignore the others, and then there are those of us who try to juggle as many voices as possible simultaneously, who are able to contain them,” she says.
Even for Feigelson, some aspects of her life’s path have been a challenge to contain — notably, being an Orthodox woman with smicha.
“I’ve been marginalized and ostracized to a certain degree, but in God’s eyes I am who I am,” Feigelson says.
Back home in Jerusalem, where she has lived since she was 8, Feigelson, who is single, is the director of the women’s beit midrash at Yakar, a community of Torah study, prayer and social activism that is on the leftmost vanguard of Orthodoxy.
Feigelson’s smicha is from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the late Chasidic master of song, story and Torah. When she started studying with him at the age of 16, he gave her entry into a Judaism from which she felt alienated for much of her Modern Orthodox upbringing, despite her passion for study and her devotion to halacha.
“What he gave me was the key to the back door,” she says of Carlebach. “When you are a guest you use the front door, but when you’re family you know where the key is hiding, and you can walk through the back even if the front door is locked,” she says.
But rather than just drink in his words while he visited Israel or she visited New York, she also studied on her own and got her master’s degree in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University.
Finally, after 15 years of studying with Reb Carlebach, she told him she wanted smicha from him.
“He said, ‘Mimi, you already have my smicha,'” she says.
Still, he set up an intensive program for her — including oral and written exams — studying all the halachic and talmudic texts normally studied for ordination, plus some extras, such as sections on honoring one’s parents and business ethics.
Feigelson kept her smicha under wraps for seven years, until she was outed last year in an article in the New York Jewish Week.
Feigelson says she feared the kind of reaction that in fact came out once word spread — the condemnation and dismissal, the accusation of being blasphemous toward Torah.
“There is a moment where you think of the absurdity of it. Did I do something wrong?” she asks incredulously. “That I sat and learned? That I was tested on it? That I was credited for what I had learned, acknowledged for what I accomplished? What sin did I do?”
Despite her strong words, Feigelson seems possessed by a calm, even peaceful resolve, fueled by a deep awareness that she is in this for the right reasons.
“I’m not out to prove anything. I’m out to live my life in honesty and integrity in God’s eyes,” she says.
She maintains that her smicha was the next natural step on her personal journey and not a political statement — she does not use the title rabbi, out of respect for the Orthodox world.
Still, she is aware that her smicha puts her at the forefront of a movement in which women are taking on leadership roles in the Orthodox community.
In Israel, women now argue divorce cases before rabbinic courts, and others answer halachic questions regarding menstruation and reproduction. In New York, several women trained to be congregational interns, where they took on pastoral and chaplaincy roles, as well as teaching.
“I am not going to give up the halachic community, I’m not going to give up my halachic pursuits and whatever it takes to make that happen,” she says. “If that means that there are things that have to wait, I’ll wait, but I’m not going to walk away. I can’t believe the Orthodox world can’t contain me.”
For now, though, Feigelson is spending two years teaching rabbinics to future Conservative rabbis — first year and fifth year students — at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ.
Through the tractates of Mishna and Gemara, she is exploring theological questions and challenging her students to think about their own missions.
“I feel like I’ve been given this gift to be able to learn together and ask these questions that are going to formulate how these future rabbis are going to work with people,” she says.
Deciding to leave Israel for two years involved months of tearful internal struggle. For the UJ too, the match did not seem perfect. Feigelson has neither a doctorate nor Conservative ordination, which makes her an odd candidate academically and as a role model. Her expertise is in Chasidic philosophy; they needed a teacher in rabbinics.
“Both UJ and I had to deal with the reality of who I am and where I am coming from and what I have to offer, and who they are and what are their needs,” Feigelson says.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of Ziegler school, is thrilled with the creativity and the passion for Torah that Feigelson has brought to the school.
“We are trying to be an unprecedented rabbinical school, and not to worry about the mold but to provide excellence in both traditional and academic forms,” he says, “and sometimes that means bringing in people who may not have the usual academic degrees, but do have a vast knowledge base and can serve as inspirational role models.” Feigelson has already established a rapport with students and colleagues, leading a kumsitz, or singalong, the first week of school and having people over to her house for informal study. She demands a lot from her students academically and challenges them to think about why they have chosen the rabbinate, and where God fits into the picture.
She expects her students to challenge her, as well.
“My teachers receive my respect and honor, but never the benefit of the doubt,” she says. “I expect the same from my students.”
She also admonishes them not to get to carried away by “spirituality.”
“There is fine a line between spirituality and stupidity,” she tells her students. “On the one hand, does everything have meaning? Yes. On the other hand, does everything have meaning? No. Can you contain that? That is the question,” she says.
Feigelson has high aspirations for her students, much as she does for herself — a love of God and Torah, a sense of obligation, a sense of comfort with the ongoing struggle to embrace Judaism.
“I want them to feel that the tradition is alive, that it is a vibrant organism, that the letters are three-dimensional — not dead letters on the page,” she says. “You have to have something to hold onto, something to grapple with, something that challenges you and touches every part of who you are and has a conversation with you in those places,” she says. “That is what I want them to see.”
Wolpe Reaches Sinai
Rabbi David J. Wolpe, along with his wife and 6-month-old daughter, arrived in Los Angeles from New York on June 30.
On July 1, he was at his desk to start his new job as senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood, the oldest and one of the most prominent Conservative congregations in Los Angeles.
The pace hasn’t slackened since — Wolpe hasn’t even had time to straighten out his large collection of religious and secular Hebrew books, which were neatly shelved by the movers, with every volume upside down.
By taking the Sinai Temple pulpit, and thus assuming the spiritual leadership of a congregation for the first time, the 38-year-old rabbi surprised old friends and colleagues.
Since his ordination 10 years ago, Wolpe has made a national, and even international, reputation as an author and lecturer. He has written five books and innumerable columns on Judaism to considerable critical and popular acclaim. By his own count, he has been a lecturer or scholar-in-residence at more than 300 institutions and conferences in the United States, Canada and Israel.
The photogenic rabbi is a frequent guest on television programs and has been profiled, interviewed or reviewed in leading American magazines and newspapers.
To pursue these vocations, Wolpe fashioned suitable employment. For the past two years, he had been assistant to the chancellor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Before that, he served two years as special assistant to the president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
These somewhat amorphous job titles allowed him enough time and space “to read, write and look out the window and think.”
The life suited Wolpe, and, over the years, he consistently turned down offers to lead synagogues. What finally changed his mind was a confluence of spiritual and lifestyle considerations.
“As a lecturer, I was traveling a great deal, but once I got married and then we had the baby, I just didn’t want to be away from my family for days at a time,” Wolpe says.
He also took counsel with his father, a prominent Philadelphia rabbi, who wasn’t too thrilled to see his little granddaughter move 3,000 miles away.
“I asked my father that if the purpose of human life is to grow your soul, if that’s why we’re put on this earth, what is the best path?” Wolpe says.
Rabbi Gerald Wolpe reluctantly agreed with his son that the right choice lay in leading a congregation, “where you deal with people in extremes, when they’re angry or hurt or joyous, not when they’re just sitting, listening to a lecture.”
Wolpe had another compelling reason for his cross-country migration: “I wanted my family and myself to be part of a community, and my welcome here has shown unbelievable warmth and caring,” he says. “A stream of people have stopped by my home to help with the moving and cleaning, and to bring challah, food and flowers.”
The enthusiasm of the congregation is genuine and is based partly on Wolpe’s earlier connection with Sinai. During and following his studies and graduation from the University of Judaism, Wolpe conducted annual High Holiday services for young people at the temple.
These services were so riveting, recounts veteran Sinai member Russ Alben, that he used to sneak upstairs from the main sanctuary on the pretext of checking up on his children.
Of at least equal weight is the congregation’s fervent hope that after years of turmoil, it can look forward to steady and long-range rabbinical leadership.
Over the past 15 years, Sinai members have been shaken and riven by the abrupt departures — forced or otherwise — of the last three senior rabbis.
For the last 12 months, while a 50-person search committee weighed candidates, the temple has been without a senior rabbi and suffered a drop in membership. Veteran Associate Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz is credited with serving the congregation well during the interregnum and preventing worse damage.
Judging by the standing-room-only audiences at Wolpe’s first three Saturday-morning services, a reversal of the membership attrition seems to be in the cards. “Growing membership will be the litmus test of my rabbinate here,” says Wolpe.
For its part, Sinai’s board of directors has been known as an assertive and frequently fractious body, but Wolpe is sanguine about his future relations with the lay leadership.
“The Sinai community wants desperately for this shiddach [match] to work,” he says. “They have a tremendous psychological investment in this succeeding, as do I.
“I really believe that Sinai has the potential to become the leading Conservative synagogue in the United States.” The national demographic shift to the West augurs well for the future, he believes, and he has great faith in the congregation’s “tremendous creative and spiritual potential.”
The congregation now numbers about 1,350 families. Some 25 percent to 30 percent are of Iranian origin, and they are taking an increasingly visible part in the leadership and financial support structure of Sinai Temple.
Citing a Talmudic proverb, Wolpe notes wryly that “if you’re going to hang yourself, do it from a tall tree — and Sinai is very tall.”
The arrival of Wolpe as the youngest senior rabbi in Sinai’s 90-year history is matched by the election of Jan Zakowski as the congregation’s youngest president.
For the future development of his congregation, Wolpe stresses three primary points:
* Greater education on all levels, including adults, to the point that parents could occasionally take teaching roles in classes. “I would like parents to teach their own children, instead of kids coming home and teaching their parents,” Wolpe says.
* Forge a closer congregational community, including, for instance, establishment of a Chevra Kaddishah (burial society) to serve the temple-owned Mount Sinai Memorial Parks. “If we’re a community, we should be doing this for ourselves,” says Wolpe.
* Overarching all other aspects, “a deepening religious life,” he says. “By that, I mean, people’s connection to each other, connection to their own souls, and connection to God. That, at heart, is what a synagogue is all about — not an ethnic or fraternal organization but a place to help each other and worship God as Jews.”
For more than a decade, the congregation had sought a rabbi who would not only minister to its spiritual and pastoral needs but serve as a visible community figure that the temple’s size, affluence and prominence deserves.
Wolpe is aware of this desire and has the inclination and ability to fulfill it. He has not yet decided on the most suitable platform for his communal activities, but he has formulated a general attitude.
“Jews have been far too reluctant to speak to the world,” he says. “There seems to be a bashfulness or embarrassment, as though we weren’t the bearers of the oldest continuous tradition of growing souls in the world. But we are.
“Given that, we have something to say, not just about political issues but about human issues, about what it means to live in a confusing and fragmented modern world. I mean, there is nothing more universal than being Jewish. To be a Jew is to be able to speak to the world, and those Jews who only speak to other Jews are, I believe, betraying the centrality of the Jewish tradition to the human experience.”
Concomitant to this philosophy is a belief in conversionary outreach to serious non-Jewish seekers. “I support making Judaism available to those who are interested in a serious spiritual tradition,” he says. “Absolutely.”
Discussing some of the major challenges confronting American Jewry, Wolpe cites the need “to articulate a vision of Judaism that will capture the spirit of people who don’t want to opt out of the modern age.”
“There will always be small enclaves of those who embrace only modernity or only antiquity,” the rabbi says. “But, ultimately, one is doomed to disappear and the other is doomed to irrelevance…. The question is, how do we put our arms around both ancient teaching and modern wonders?”
Asked to comment on increasing polarization between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox segments of Jewryin Israel and the Diaspora, Wolpe hesitates and chooses his words carefully.
“I can lessen such hostility through my own civility, but not by changing my principles,” he says. “If there are people who wish to delegitimize me, that saddens me but does not anger me. It says nothing about me, but it says a lot about them.”
Wolpe is not a doomsayer about the outlook for Jewish continuity in the decades ahead.
“Many years ago, I had a dialogue with Elie Wiesel,” Wolpe says, “and he said that he had three missions in life. The first was to memorialize the Holocaust, the second to free Soviet Jews, and the third to assure the continuity of the Jewish people.”
Wolpe then congratulated Wiesel for fulfilling the first two missions, and Wiesel commented, “When I was your age, the first two goals looked much more hopeless than the third does now.”
That, says Wolpe, gives him grounds for optimism.
Returning to his career choice to serve as congregational rabbi, Wolpe allows himself an introspective moment.
“There is a little bit of the hermit in me,” he says. “Once I realized that a pulpit rabbi is supposed to talk, that he has a license to be outgoing and friendly to people, I saw that as a kind of cure for my natural reserve. I find that very liberating.”
Asked if he wished to add any message to the Jewish community, Wolpe responds with alacrity.
“Tell them that we are open for services,” he says. “Everybody is welcome!”
Poised for Prominence
By Robert Eshman, Associate Editor
The buzz in Sinai Temple’s corridors — both those that are built and the those nearly built — is that David Wolpe is the missing piece of the puzzle. Poised on the brink of being one of the premier synagogues in the country, Sinai has lacked only a leader of Wolpe’s stature to fulfill its promise.
“All the elements are there,” said former synagogue President Jules Porter. “We now have a world-class rabbi combined with a world-class cantor, and within a year and a half, we will have a facility that will be the envy of every synagogue of the country.”
The high that Sinai is riding began two years ago with the groundbreaking of a $25 million building project which will add two new school buildings and a massive parking garage to the temple complex at Wilshire and Beverly Glen boulevards in Westwood. Sinai Akiba, long considered one of the city’s finest Jewish day schools, will be able to accommodate 772 preschool and day-school students.
Several miles, and a life span, away, the shul recently dedicated a new 200-acre addition in Simi Valley to the temple-owned Mount Sinai Memorial Park. The new grounds are projected to serve the Jewish community for the next 250 years.
Along with such cradle-to-grave expansion, Sinai recently named a new president, Jan Zakowski. “She’s a role model,” said Porter. The dynamic, fortysomething Zakowski is a lawyer and mother who spearheaded fund raising for the school building project. An observant Jew, she can read Torah and lead services, combining religious fluency and professional achievement in a way reminiscent of, for example, David Wolpe.
The new developments at Sinai come after some years in the leadership wilderness. Unlike many successful Los Angeles synagogues of late, Sinai has experienced a relatively frequent turnover of senior rabbis. Wolpe replaces Rabbi Alan Schranz, who left the synagogue one year ago after serving for a decade. Before Schranz, Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer served two years, preceded by Rabbi Solomon Rothstein, who left under strained circumstances after three years. Preceding Rothstein was Rabbi Hillel Silverman, who served for close to 20 years before personal difficulties led to conflict with the board of directors.
Weathering transitions that could bury smaller, less organized shuls, the synagogue has managed to grow over this time. The reasons? It enjoys a central location amid Westside Jewry, and it can boast of a top religious school and day school. It also has a stable core staff. Associate Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz has served at Sinai for 25 years, Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin has directed the schools for 17 years, and Cantor Meir Finklestein is now in his 15th year at the temple.
In Sinai’s more distant past, Jacob Cohen served as rabbi for 35 years.
“Valley Beth Shalom went through five rabbis before they found Harold Schulweis,” Porter said. “We’ve gone through a transition period, and we’ve come out of it.”
Perhaps the most pronounced difference between the old Sinai and the one Wolpe will head is the large percentage of congregants of Persian origin, including the 15 members of the current 50-person board of directors.
For many members, the inevitable cultural clash between the shul’s largely American-born, Ashkenazi membership and the Persian members is old news. Five years ago, congregants debated whether signs and bulletins should be in Farsi as well as in English. English won out, as did a purely Ashkenazic liturgy.
Wolpe may face questions over these issues in the future, just as surely as he will have to balance the needs of sizable contingents of young families, seniors, singles and the more observant.
There are also the desires of what many area rabbis consider a demanding board; leading services and counseling, marrying and burying congregants. And, as at any fast-growing, always-expanding synagogue, he’ll need to help raise funds too. Among his first duties: Next week, Wolpe will give 250 potential donors a tour along the bottom of the new construction’s four-story-deep foundation pit. He can only go up from there.