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A teacher in changing times

On Saturday, June 25, Rabbi Ted Feldman will conduct his final Shabbat service at B’nai Israel Jewish Center. After leading the historic congregation for 17 years, he is retiring at the end of the month.

Raised in Skokie, Illinois, Feldman went on to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, affiliated with the Conservative movement, after receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He led congregations in Georgia and Florida, before moving to California.

Rabbi Feldman came to serve B’nai Israel in 2005, after having been the director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) East Bay, an organization that provides essential mental health and social services to individuals, families and older adults in crisis. Before that, he spent over a decade working in various roles for the Jewish Federation.

On the afternoon of Sunday, June 12, Rabbi Feldman opened the synagogue’s doors to anyone and everyone, inviting them to take freely of his library, estimated at over 800 volumes of books, including scripture, commentary, prayer books, cultural books, philosophy, self-help, Holy Land photography, Yiddish and Jewish humor and more.

Argus-Courier contributor Irène Hodes spoke with Rabbi Feldman via Zoom on a Monday morning a couple of weeks before his retirement. The day before the conversation, he lost a tire on his car, which was in the shop getting a replacement. Ever cheerful and ready with a joke — “Does this mean that my car is “re-tired” now too?“ — the beloved rabbi with almost 50 years of experience graciously shared his thoughts and memories about a long and illustrious career.

Hodes: When did you know you wanted to become a rabbi?

Feldman: I decided to become a rabbi in December of 1961, after my Bar Mitzvah. I walked into my rabbi’s office — at Temple B’nai Emunah in Skokie, Illinois — and said I wanted to be a rabbi. I loved what my rabbi was doing — he had a PhD in philosophy, and I felt I could never match his brilliance. I spent every Shabbat with him, walking to synagogue with him three times, Friday night, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon, throughout high school and college.

Was your family supportive?

My family was not particularly happy about the decision. We did not have a kosher home. I got my own electric broiler, and I made my own food when I was in high school.

How do you define your identity as a rabbi?

As a teacher, making Judaism accessible. Using the tools of Judaism to help the community through different stages of life. That’s how I see it.

You had not led a congregation since 1988, when you served as rabbi in Boca Raton, Florida. What brought you back into a congregational role after so many years?

My connection was with the people. What makes Petaluma so special is people generally have been very accepting. They took me for who I am. There was a great sense of community here which I really identified with.

How would you describe the Jewish community of Petaluma and where it’s going?

It's just an amazing history of different ideas of Jewish living and Jewish life. The B’nai Israel building was built as a community center in 1925. The secular Jewish organizations used the space, they had the Yiddish choir in the old days, and the traditionalists had religious services. We were incorporated in 1871. When people are exposed to that history, they want to be a part of it.

At this point, it’s harder, because we are far away from those original pioneers, and while their families and descendants are still here in the community, the nature of the community is shifting. It’s difficult to engage with younger families. But there still is a remnant of that connection among people as a result of the early days of the pioneers.

The prophet Amos introduced the concept of “She’erit Israel,” the “remnant of Israel.” While on the one hand the remnant is going to be the Orthodox who observe the hard line of traditional Judaism, but I believe there will be cultural remnants as time goes on. So it’s really hard to predict what this community here in Petaluma will look like in 15, 20, 30 years.

B’nai Israel Jewish Center is an “independent synagogue.“ What does that mean?

We haven’t been affiliated for 13-14 years, though we were aligned with the Conservative movement. There were a lot more traditionalists in the community before. There were several reasons. The Board of Directors made a decision at one point to offer Bar and Bat Mitzvahs to patrilineal families, which would not have aligned with the Conservative movement.”

[Traditionally, Judaism is passed through the mother’s line; allowing people with Jewish fathers to participate fully in rites of passage is very progressive, changing the definition of who is a Jew].

We have a number of interfaith families. In our bylaws, non-Jewish partners or members, who we call “Karov Israel,” one who is close to/has kinship with Israel, can be on the Board of Directors.

What would you look back upon as your proudest moments?

How we evolved the High Holy Day services over the years. It’s inspiring to have a whole big group of people here. Adult teaching is a major part of what I did here. Adult education classes would have a dozen to two-dozen people. That was very memorable for me. And sharing the intimate moments of people’s lives. We created an atmosphere where people had accessibility to Judaism, making the experience meaningful to people.

How did you balance the issues of the larger world around us with your role as a rabbi?

You attempt to couch big issues in Jewish terms. Where do we get our values, what does the Torah teach us about respect, kindness, and respect for human life? I use those as teaching methods.

Over the years, I hosted many talks. J Street — pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans, who believe in negotiated resolutions with Palestinians. AIPAC — America’s pro-Israel lobby. Combatants For Peace — a group of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian combatants who join to end the occupation. Some of the more conservative members came to all the programs, and they listened to the varying opinions and thoughts. Combatants for Peace, specifically, brought together an Israeli and a Palestinian militant, and they laid down arms and spoke to each other. And people listened to them. There are lots of different truths in the world.

For a long time when I was critical of Israel’s policies, many people thought I was anti-Israel, until I started taking people to Israel, and lauding how wonderful it was to go there. It has nothing to do with whether or not I love Israel. It’s speaking to what is best for Israel.

I took three trips to Israel with my congregation — 2008, 2010, 2013. And it wasn’t just members. It was open. Four to five non-Jewish community members came. It was a fascinating experience.

Do you have hope for the future of Judaism?

I have lots of hope. I think the forms of Judaism in America in particular are going to keep evolving. That's my definition of Judaism — things keep changing. Each generation owns different parts of it, and goes back to different parts of it. We now have an orange on the [Passover] Seder plate that wasn’t there 500 years ago — honoring LGBTQ and other marginalized members of the Jewish community — and we have Miriam’s cup, representing Miriam’s well and women of the Exodus story, that wasn’t there 500 years ago.

How did it feel to watch people going through your library, taking away so many of the books you’ve collected over the course of your career?

I loved it! In 2005 before I moved from Berkeley to here, I gave away 2000 books. I loved that the books found a home.

Do you have any future plans?

On my first day of retirement, I will clean the garage!

You have three children, two who live in Petaluma, and a grandchild, also in Petaluma. So, will you be staying in Petaluma?

My home is here. I have no post-retirement commitments. I need to unwind a little bit. I’m not a young man anymore.

Do you see yourself working with a congregation again?

There is always work to be done, but I don’t know what it will look like. I’m involved with the interfaith community, and I’ve been asked to be a volunteer chaplain at the Coast Guard base. But I might want to get a job at Starbucks and be a barista.

Do you make good espresso?

You know, I could learn.

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