Leonid Feldman is a big Prager fan. He wrote positive comments about DP to the LA JEWISH JOURNAL which were reprinted in DP's newsletter and are on this web site (page on homosexuality).

Rabbi Feldman was also the scholar in residence at Stephen S Wise temple a couple of months ago.

The author of the following piece, Ari Goldman, is an orthodox Jew who wrote the book THE SEARCH FOR GOD AT HARVARD.




The New York Times

Late City Final Edition

Pg. 4, Col. 4

c. 1987 New York Times Company

Eleven years ago, Leonid Feldman was sitting in rags on the cold stone floor of a Soviet prison with his hair shaven and belly swollen. His crime was conducting an illegal hunger strike as part of an effort to persuade Soviet authorities to let him leave for Israel.

Yesterday, the 34-year-old former prisoner, wearing an academic cap over a full head of blond hair, was ordained as a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America on Morningside Heights. Americans working on behalf of Soviet Jewry said they believed Rabbi Feldman was the first former Soviet dissident to become a rabbi in the United States.

Rabbi Feldman was one of 23 men and women ordained yesterday at commencement exercises at the school, the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism. Eighty-five other degrees were also awarded - including, for the first time, two cantorial diplomas to women.

The odyssey that culminated with the ordination of Rabbi Feldman represented more than a geographical journey. It was an intellectual process that took him from being a teacher of ''scientific atheism'' in his native Kishinev to serving as a soldier in the Israeli army, to being a relief worker in Rome, to working as a butler in upstate New York and to studying Judaism in Los Angeles.

Target of Ethnic Slur

''I was a good Soviet child,'' the tall and articulate Rabbi Feldman said in an interview this week in a classroom at the seminary, at Broadway and 122d Street. ''I was a member of the Young Communist League and an idealist who believed that Communism would make a better world. But, ultimately, Judaism proved more powerful.''

He was brought up not knowing he was Jewish. ''I was playing soccer when I was 7 years old, and a kid in my neighborhood called me 'Zhid,' '' a slur. ''I smiled and later asked my father what it meant. He just said, 'Don't play with that boy.' ''

But Soviet society kept reminding him of his Jewishness. It was stamped in his passport and, he said, that meant that he could not attend the university he wanted to in Moscow or compete in the chess playoffs in Leningrad, even though he was the regional chess champion.

He went to college in Kishinev, excelling in physics, and got a job teaching high school science and ''scientific atheism,'' a discipline, he said, ''that sought to prove that there is no God and that those who believe in God are mentally ill.''

Effect of 'Exodus'

Mr. Feldman's curiosity was piqued when a boyfriend of his sister was arrested for reading a book on Judaism. ''My country, the most powerful nation in the world, is afraid of a book?'' he wondered.

Late one night in a quiet Kishinev park, a friend handed him a small battered book and told him to return it before daybreak. ''I read through the night,'' he said. ''I was excited and scared. I knew I was making a major move in my life.'' It was a Russian-language edition of Leon Uris's novel ''Exodus.''

''I was 21,'' Rabbi Feldman recalled, ''and it was the first time I found out that Jews had been around for 3,000 years, that we have a language called Hebrew and a country called Israel. For the first time in my life, I saw a solution. That night I became a passionate Zionist.''

He immediately applied for an exit visa, but was told after three months of waiting that his application was rejected. Mr. Feldman, denied the right to emigrate, became a pariah, losing his job and apartment, and he was snubbed by friends. He decided to conduct a hunger strike at the municipal building in Kishinev after sending telegrams of protest to the Soviet leader, Leonid I. Brezhnev, and President Jimmy Carter.

In Israel 3 Years

The protest led to his arrest and imprisonment in 1976. Mr. Feldman said he did not know it at the time, but dissidents in Moscow operating through journalists and tourists got his story out to the West, where protests were held on his behalf.

After a month, Mr. Feldman was told that a mistake had been made on his application and that he would be permitted to leave for Israel. He lived in Israel three years, attended Hebrew University, served in the army and taught chess to gifted children, but continued with his conviction that ''there was no God.''

His first religious experience occurred when he moved to Rome to work for the American Joint Distribution Committee in helping prepare newly arrived Soviet Jews for life in the West. Mr. Feldman was peppered with questions about Jewish life and found himself taking a group to synagogue on Yom Kippur.

''I was an atheist, but I had to be a rabbi,'' he recalled. ''They came to me with their tsuriss and naches and their questions about Judaism.''

At California Institute

After a year in Rome, he arrived in New York with the hope of earning a degree in higher education, but found limited opportunities because he was an Israeli citizen. He obtained a job as a butler in the home of a wealthy couple who, he recalled, ''never had to work a day in their lives.''

After several months, he left to visit a friend in Los Angeles, where he found a job teaching science in a Jewish high school. He also came under the influence of Joseph Telushkin and Dennis Prager , two educators who ran a Jewish studies institute in California. ''For the first time I understood Judaism on an intellectual level,'' Rabbi Feldman said.

He enrolled in the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, the West Coast branch of the Jewish Theological Seminary. After three years, he transferred to the New York school and completed the six-year rabbinical program.

His journey, he said, has taken him from a Communist system that does not work to a Jewish system that does. And he remains an idealist. ''Judaism is a beautiful system that can make the world better,'' the new rabbi said. ''Because of the kosher laws, we don't become hunters. Because of kiddush over wine on Friday night, we don't become alcoholics. Because of Shabbos, we become good husbands and have a day to sit with our wives and say, 'I love you.' ''

The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader

This is a great book by former Philadelphia Magazine editor Stephen Fried. Terrific dish on how one synagogue really operates. Fills a gaping hole in Jewish Journalism, which tends to be lackluster. Just pick up the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, for example.

And there's a fascinating description of Conservative Rabbi Leonid Feldman, who, before he was married, tore through the girls at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Fried writes: Leonid Feldman was a rabbi other rabbis gossiped about even before he decked his synagogue president. A tall, striking emigre often referred to as a "rock star rabbi," he was the first Soviet Jew to be ordained by the Conservative movement. He worked the national lecture circuit during the eighties, and then accepted the pulpit at Emanu-El, a sleepy little congregation in [Palm Beach]. He reportedly told the synagogue's board during negotiations, "I want to be a role model for yours ons and daughters, granddaughters and grandsons. Therefore, I'm going to drive a nice car; I'm going to wear nice clothes; I'm going to ask for a very nice salary. When some of your brilliant children and grandchildren are sitting in the sanctuary looking up at me, I want them to think, 'I could be a doctor, I could be a broker, I could be a lawyer, but I want to be a rabbi, just like Rabbi Feldman.'"

He was not afraid of being bombastic and confrontational. He told The Palm Beach Post that "if you don't give 10 percent of your earnings to charity, you're a bastard." Many of his rabbinic colleagues regarded him with suspicion, believing some of his best refusenik sagas to be possibly apocryphal. But while some chided him for providing nothing more than what one congregant called "religious entertainment," they had to admit that he could fill seats and raise money.

[Feldman] also put down roots in the community, marrying the daughter of the synagogue's treasurer. But as the synagogue grew, along with Feldman's cult of personality, splits emerged. ...Others complained that Feldman had too many outside interests that took him away from his primary obligations to the synagogue: lectures, TV appearances.

Last November [1999], just before snowbird season bega, [synagogue president Stephen] Levin called a meeting of the ten-member executive committee of Emanu-El with the rabbi. The meeting went on for an hour, with members openly criticizing Feldman's commitment to the synagogue and the time he spent away from the congregation. Then Levin demanded a detailed schedule of where Feldman planned to be. When Feldman noted he had already provided them a schedule of his upcoming travel, a copy of which was sitting on the glass coffee table, Levin looked at it, crumpled it into a ball and threw it toward the rabbi.

Whereupon Feldman stood up and clocked Levin, who was sitting on an ottoman next to the table. Levin crumpled onto the unforgiving granite floor. The rabbi apologized...