April 27, 2010
To Nudge and to Support
Chaim and Doreen Seidler-Feller’s marriage nurtures intellect, spirit and community
(Page 2 - Previous Page)
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.”