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April 27, 2010

To Nudge and to Support

Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller’s marriage nurtures intellect, spirit and community

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/chaim_and_doreen_seidler-fellers_marriage_nurtures_intellect_spirit_and_com

Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller. Photo by Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller. Photo by Shulamit Seidler-Feller

Doreen Seidler-Feller is in her kitchen fetching a glass of water as her husband, in the living room, is mulling over what might be most difficult about being married to her.

“What’s hard is what you would expect — she’s a demanding person,” Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller says, with some reservation.

He hesitates, not because he’s squeamish about the subject, or because he fears how his wife will react, but because the intellectual in him would rather the answer be something like, “Doreen has nurtured my conscience,” which is exactly what he said before she left the room. “But does that have to do with what’s challenging about living with me?” she’d responded, encouraging him to try again.

“Did you answer the question?” she prodded when she returned.

He turned toward her as if no one else was in the room, which is how they tend to interact with one another. “What I said was, if I were to say you were demanding, all right — that’s superficial. But that’s not what is most challenging to me; what’s challenging to me is how you forced me to grow.”

Thirty-five years into their marriage, the Seidler-Fellers have practically grown up together. They met in their 20s, when he was a young, idealistic rabbi and she was a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology. Their union has seen Chaim become a progressive and provocative force in the Jewish world — an Orthodox rabbi who promotes pluralism and egalitarianism. Doreen teaches in the department of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and has developed a sturdy, if not edgy, reputation as the Jewish community’s go-to sex therapist. These days, the rabbi is coming up on his 36th anniversary as executive director of UCLA Hillel, where he has lived out the crowning moments and darkest nadirs of his rabbinate. In honor of the double chai, the organization plans to honor them both at a gala dinner on May 5 at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel. 

Nestled together on a plush gray sofa, Chaim, 62, and Doreen, 61, appear completely at ease as they ponder their life together. Physically, as in other ways, they are well matched — around the same height, both with silvery-gray locks and dark eyes. But where Doreen is elegant and sharp-looking, with a wild puff of hair and high cheekbones, Chaim looks as if he’s just emerged from a day in his study, his face framed by round eyeglasses and thick, messy eyebrows. They look directly at each other when they speak and are demonstrably affectionate.

“Without over-idealization, I think the reason we married each other was because we both admired one another, in terms of our character and our fields of study, and we took great pride in each other’s achievements,” Chaim says. But they tend to disagree on what those achievements are.

Doreen ranks the building of the $10.5 million Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, completed in 2002, as her husband’s magnum opus, while he fusses about the shame of concrete trumping the spirit and so on, and switches gears to talking about his students. “If you talk to people about Chaim,” Doreen insists, determined to drive her point, “people who understand him, they’ll tell you he has boundless energy, boundless passion, boundless optimism and boundless love for all Jews — and those four things raised that building.”

Before the new center was built, the central nexus for Hillel had been the Seidler-Fellers’ Westwood home, a stately house on a quaint corner near the university. In the backyard, there are mulberry, cherimoya and pomegranate trees that Doreen uses for cooking (“I’m very serious about food,” she says). The inside is evocative of a museum, filled with centuries-old artifacts and artworks that reflect their life and their travels. In the sitting room is Chaim’s famous book collection, which includes one volume from the first edition of the Talmud ever printed; over the sofa hangs an embroidered wimpel from their son’s bris; and next to that is a shviti, an inscribed parchment they feel they righteously stole from a decaying synagogue in Czechoslovakia (“This was our only telepathic communication ever,” Doreen notes with pride).

Over the years, hundreds of students have passed through this house, for Shabbat dinner or Friday night services or to learn in one of Chaim’s classes. He says the fact that the house is overwhelmed by his books is something of a metaphor: He has two great loves in his life — his wife and his Judaism.

“I’m trained as a rabbi, and I have this commitment and inclination to want to serve and save,” he says, “and that, at times, conflicted with what I felt was pushing me in a family-oriented direction. It was as if I had to ask myself: Do I have a right to want to have my own personal life? Because, after all, the students are waiting ...”

To keep him at home more, Doreen taught herself to cook. “The community can take a bigger bite out of you than is fair,” she says, revealing a central source of tension in their marriage. “Were there times when I felt that the community swallowed him up, and that he was happy to be swallowed by them? You bet!” She once wrote an article for Shema magazine about the role of the rebbetzin in restraining the rabbi. But she says the demands of his job never gave her pause about being married to him: “I didn’t expect that I would have marriage in my life,” she says. “I’m an outspoken person, and, I think, I’m hard to take for a lot of people, and here was somebody who meant it when he said, ‘I know who you are, and I love who you are.’ ”

Considering that they come from virtually opposite backgrounds, born in opposite parts of the world, it’s a wonder they ever met. Chaim grew up in a fiercely traditional, Zionist family in Borough Park, Brooklyn, a descendent of Eastern European Jews. His father, a Hebraist, sent him to Camp Massad, a Hebrew-speaking camp in the Poconos, for 10 consecutive summers. This led to an intense appreciation of Hebrew language and culture, and eventually, studying for ordination at Yeshiva University. 

Doreen is the product of a turbulent childhood in apartheid South Africa. She was raised primarily by her divorced mother, a Holocaust survivor of Auschwitz. Her father fought in the Czech Free Army in North Africa, and her parents met in a Prague kehillah (a Jewish community), migrated to South Africa and divorced years later. Doreen grew up without siblings and without grandparents. In 1960, when she was 12, she and her mother migrated to the United States. She eventually landed at Ohio State University as a doctoral student in psychology.

When the Yom Kippur War broke out in October 1973, Doreen found herself unbearably distracted. She sought the counsel of Hillel’s new campus rabbi, whom she found “very empathetic,” and he invited her to take a class he was teaching on women and Judaism. Two years later, they were married.

“My motives emotionally had to do with looking to the tradition to stabilize, to make [me feel] more secure and to create a sense of community,” Doreen says about how natural it felt to marry someone observant. “I wanted the kinds of things that being a more serious Jew represented. I came from too much turbulence.”

“Things don’t happen by accident,” Chaim adds. “I was also looking for something. I was looking for an opening to the world.”

His family, however, resisted accepting their union. “I remember the first time a letter came addressed to ‘Rabbi Chaim and Dr. Doreen Seidler-Feller’ from my parents,” he says, his voice deep and soft, with a slight lisp that makes him sound much younger than he is. His mind goes to his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Orthodox talmudist who taught him the virtues of pluralism. “The promise of that integration — that you could be traditionally observant, an intensely involved Jew, and at the same time, celebrate the world — that was a wonderful promise. It was inspiring.”

“And he saw it in me,” Doreen chimes in.

“I saw someone who took Judaism seriously, took the intellectual world seriously, who was open to challenges and questioning. It meant the promise of that fulfillment,” Chaim says. “I admire Doreen — she’s a person of conviction and substance and beauty.”

“I don’t actually like to be called a sex therapist,” she says. “It becomes sensationalized and salacious — oh, sex therapist married to Orthodox rabbi, wow, how does that work? The truth is, I’m broader than that.”

The choice to work with Orthodox Jews was also deeply personal. A self-described “outsider,” she found herself drawn to the community’s culture of silence around sex; the denial of the body in favor of the spirit, the lack of sex education and preparation for pleasure. In this respect, they, too, seemed like outsiders. And if anyone should challenge the merits of her work, she found a piece of Talmud to back it up. 

“People are grateful that I am a traditional person who’s willing to talk about sex and help others with sex,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t like it when people highlight this contradiction that somehow I’m even more ‘out there’ because I’m both a rebbetzin and a sex therapist. I don’t see any contradiction whatsoever.”

Doreen is unapologetic about her strengths and has been a stabilizing force in Chaim’s life, a blessing given his often-stormy personal history. Before they met, Chaim had been married to Soloveitchik’s niece, and the couple’s divorce, an unwelcome development in the Orthodox community, only increased an already growing tension over Chaim’s rejection of strict Orthodox social mores. His embrace of progressive social views — in particular, that women should have full access to Jewish learning and observance — was considered anathema. The discord led him to formally depart the Orthodox rabbinate and though he would remain traditionally observant, he came to be seen as a deviant — someone who broke ranks with the tradition and was a threat to the status quo.

Today, he remains reticent about the terms of his departure, saying only: “They did a lot of bad things; they isolated me. Institutions and communities want to protect themselves, so they demonize people who challenge the norm because that’s how they maintain their sense of self and their boundaries.”

To the Seidler-Fellers, it was a principled departure, the result of a yearning for a “serious, learned and progressive” Judaism, one that affirmed social and moral progress but remained halachically based, a kind of Judaism that, at the time, they felt didn’t exist. Chaim’s intellectual pursuit of an Orthodox egalitarianism appealed to Doreen from the moment she met him. “I couldn’t have accepted a sort of strait-laced, mainstream Orthodox guy,” she says. “What made it possible for me to marry Chaim is that he had a modern vocabulary — especially regarding women — and that was very important.”

Chaim’s other notoriously volatile incident occurred in 2003, on the campus of UCLA, when he physically assaulted a female journalist who provoked him, challenging his loyalties, during a heated Israel rally. She sued, and ultimately he made a public apology, including in The Jewish Journal. The incident was much publicized and very painful for the Seidler-Fellers, an unfortunate stain on an otherwise remarkable legacy. He says, nevertheless, that the teshuvah he did afterward transformed him.

“I think I have to quiet my mind when it comes to politics and focus my public attention on being an educator and a religious leader,” he says. “I was deeply affected by what happened in the sense that I hurt people. I hurt Hillel, I hurt my wife and my family, I hurt myself. It remains with me as a lesson, because I think it’s incumbent upon leaders to know what their weaknesses are.”

Like Doreen, Chaim has a fierce passion for his principles that he has, at times, found difficult to contain. Together, they remain a pair of intellectual rebels sitting on the cusp between two worlds. And, as Doreen likes to say, they are not afraid of controversy.

“I have no patience for people who oppress Jews,” Chaim says, reflecting on a visit he made to the former Soviet Union to teach refuseniks. He could have been talking about any number of his experiences. His wife, sensing his vulnerability and at the ready to protect him, squeezes his hand: “He is fearless,” she says. “He is fearless as a Jew, and he doesn’t put up with any nonsense from anybody. If somebody attacks a Jew and he’s around, you can rely on it, this man’s going to stand up; if he were to meet Mel Gibson, he would stand shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye, and he would not retract a word or a step.”

Because of their forward thinking, the university setting has been the ideal home for them. “I came to the university because of its promise,” Chaim says. “There was creativity; there were young people who were thinking. Students would come into my office to talk about God, to talk about the meaning of life.”

Under his guidance, Hillel has become a place of Jewish inclusion — a home for Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews, and, especially meaningful for Chaim, a destination school for Orthodox Jews on the West Coast. Hillel’s offerings in the way of learning, minyanim and kosher food reflect a serious and intense Judaism, but one that is embracing of all Jews, regardless of their practice or their politics. 

In the Seidler-Fellers’ eyes, Jewish tradition isn’t something to submit to, but to struggle with. Halachah is a starting point, a vehicle for promoting justice in the world, not for upholding outmoded principles. And therein lies “the God of possibilities,” which Chaim counts as one of the central teachings of his rabbinate.

“I don’t think that is the heart of you,” Doreen disagrees, suggesting he lay out several options and then she will vote.

“The other one was the Tower of Babel,” he says. “What do you think it is?”

“What’s on your door? What’s the measure of a rabbi?” she asks.

“The rabbi — how does it go? The rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not in the category of a rabbi, and the rabbi who is scared of them is not in the category of a human being.”

Before he settles on this, he adds one more: “He who holds the truth is in the majority even if he is alone.”

“I think both of them capture the spirit of who you are and what your Torah is,” Doreen agrees. “A boundary crosser — a man who is willing to stand alone.”

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