Congregants recall Rabbi Feldman as a caring leader who put community first

Congregants recall Rabbi Feldman as a caring leader who put community first

Cantor Jeff Warschauer, who joined The Jewish Center in 2018, with Rabbi Adam Feldman. Photos courtesy The Jewish Center
Cantor Jeff Warschauer, who joined The Jewish Center in 2018, with Rabbi Adam Feldman. Photos courtesy The Jewish Center

Over his 14 years at The Jewish Center (TJC), Rabbi Adam Feldman partnered with lay leaders and staff to provide guidance and pastoral care for congregants, teach and nourish them, balance Jewish law and communal needs, and serve as the synagogue’s emissary to the larger Princeton community. He did so quietly, often behind the scenes.

Tragically, Feldman died on Dec. 24, the second day of Chanukah, while on vacation with his family in Hawaii. He was 55. His congregants and co-workers, past and present, shared some of their memories of the rabbi with NJJN.

Gil Gordon, president of TJC from 2013 to 2015, first met Feldman during the congregation’s rabbinic search in 2004. “From that initial chat until the last time I spoke with him [on the Shabbat before Feldman’s death], he was brimming with energy and passion for life, Judaism, congregational needs, and more,” Gordon wrote in an email. 

One way he served the congregation, Gordon wrote, was by balancing communal norms with his commitment to Jewish law as set by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Although Feldman wouldn’t bend on “the issue of a non-Jewish parent having a Torah service honor of any kind,” according to Gordon, he still found ways to include them, such as allowing them to give the child the tallit, to stand on the bimah during the child’s aliyah, and to join in blessing the child with the Three-Fold (Priestly) Benediction.

“The Jewish Center community didn’t always realize how novel that was and that even today it is still not the norm,” Gordon said. “He would go up as close to the line as he possibly could where he thought there was a benefit.”

Linda Milstein, former vice president of religious affairs, talked about what Feldman did to bring the different constituencies in the congregation together. For one, he allowed many types of concurrent services on Shabbat, as long as everyone joined together for the kiddush luncheon following services. It was, Milstein wrote, “a great example of Rabbi Feldman’s ability to create a sense of community in a congregation with diverse views and experiences.”

The Jewish Center staff, religious school teachers, and b’nai mitzvah tutors following a lunch thanking synagogue staff. Rabbi Adam Feldman is in the back row, third from the right.

Said Linda Meisel, president from 2017 to 2019, “Rabbi Feldman saw lay leadership as a partnership, and I think that was a real strength. He was also very skillful at helping the leadership manage change,” as TJC faced shifts in the size of the congregation, personnel, membership, and demographics.

Current president Randall Brett told NJJN that Feldman “tried to keep in mind on every occasion the best interests of the whole congregation as he understood them.” The rabbi “was always there for you when you needed him, sometimes at his personal expense. He went through his own troubles, as every human being does, and he put that aside when people needed him.”

Abigail Rose, co-chair of the Social Action Committee, recalled especially the support and guidance of Feldman in her efforts to include a rainbow flag in The Jewish Center lobby. When she encountered some resistance on the board, the usually quiet Feldman spoke up, saying, “This is the right thing.”

And, Rose said, “When the flag came and we were talking about where to put it, Rabbi Feldman decided it should go right next to the entrance to the sanctuary. He said, ‘It should be in a prominent place.’” 

Colleagues remembered the leeway and guidance he gave them to develop as professionals — in partnership with him. Sharon Diamondstein, who joined the staff as director of congregational learning in the summer of 2018, wrote in an email, “I have learned from him to believe in my decisions, to take risks, and to move forward in new directions.”

Former assistant and associate rabbi at The Jewish Center, Annie Tucker, now senior rabbi at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., wrote about her memories of Feldman in a pre-Shabbat message (a form of communication she learned from him). As “part of a professional team that felt more like a family,” she wrote, “Adam truly allowed me to grow and develop in every possible way at TJC and to share our congregation as a partner.”

Rabbi Adam Feldman, at right, with his family, from left, wife Sara Bucholtz and their children Talia, Ilan, and Dena Feldman.

Neil Wise, former director of programming and development, said that in working together to create a vibrant synagogue, Feldman “allowed my creativity and craziness … to let me go off the beaten path.”

For Amy Rubin, who served as administrator for many years, a moment that illustrated the mutual trust between her and Feldman occurred after a congregant collapsed during services. Because the rabbi knew she was capably handling the emergency, she wrote in an email to NJJN, he “doubled down on leading the service, bringing the community’s attention back to Shabbat, back to Torah. … He placed the experience of the congregants there to worship, to come closer to God, above his own need to be involved.”

Feldman was available to support religious school students, too. When she was upset that her history teacher suggested that Adolf Hitler may have had a Jewish grandparent, Molly Mitlak asked the rabbi for advice. She wrote in an email that Feldman connected her with a Rutgers University professor of Holocaust history who supplied her with Hitler’s lineage. Mitlak showed it to her teacher, who then sent a retraction to the entire class.

Another time, a 12-year-old student revealed that he had been the victim of anti-Semitic bullying. Feldman first made sure the boy was OK, then turned to his own rabbi for support and reached out to the principal and superintendent.

Two congregants spoke passionately about his effectiveness as a teacher. Mike Cruickshank wrote that Feldman “was never about lifeless responses to deadpan inquiries.… It was never about ‘Just the facts ma’am.’ Everything was meant to go beyond the surface, to get to deeper issues, just like in the Torah.” 

Neal Masia, a member of one of the study groups Feldman led around town, wrote: he “was somehow able to inspire a group of very busy dads, all with kids and frenetic professional lives, to put everything aside once a month and think really hard about being Jewish.… He delighted in the many times when we would debate the issues — either in the Torah or just the issues of the day — and was so proud that he had created this group where we could all learn from each other.” Remembering how the rabbi emphasized the importance of gratitude, the group will show theirs by continuing the group in his honor.

Feldman was a strong supporter of The Jewish Center’s involvement with refugee resettlement of a Burmese family in 2006, a Syrian family in 2015, and six more individuals and families through an offshoot of The Jewish Center’s Social Action Committee, the TJC Interfaith Refugee Resettlement Committee, chaired by Louise Sandburg. She wrote that “Rabbi Feldman was always willing to talk about how, as Jews, we all had refugee family stories to tell, as well as obligations to help refugees.”

Cantor Jeff Warschauer, who came to The Jewish Center in 2018, said that “Rabbi Feldman welcomed me warmly into the community, he was always there to help, and he was a wonderful guide and mentor to me. I will miss him very much.”

And Judi Fleitman, vice president of administration for TJC, told NJJN that Feldman “was such a source of strength and gave such wise and compassionate counsel to me and so many others,” adding that “now, when I, and we, need his guidance most, he’s not here.”

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