April 27, 2010
To Nudge and to Support
Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller’s marriage nurtures intellect, spirit and community
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 ...”