InDepth » Interviews and Profiles »
Rabbi Roy Feldman: From Manhattan’s KJ To Albany’s CBAJ
By: Marc Gronich
Roy Feldman, the assistant rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, is leaving a synagogue with a membership of 1,100 congregants to be the spiritual leader of a 100-member synagogue in Albany, Congregation Beth Abraham-Jacob (CBAJ).
Feldman, 29, has signed a two-year contract to replace Rabbi Binyamin Lehrfield, 30, who served CBAJ as its spiritual leader for four years. During that time, through programming aimed at a younger population, Lehrfield turned around synagogue membership from mostly elderly to more youthful and vibrant. (Lehrfield is moving on to become senior rabbi at the Baron Hirsch Congregation in Memphis, Tenn., replacing Shai Finkelstein.)
Feldman is a baal teshuvah who grew up in a secular Jewish household in New York City. “I was born in a Hebrew-speaking home, not a shomer Shabbat home but nonetheless a traditional home, one that acknowledged and celebrated all the holidays and had Shabbat dinners, stuff like that, but not fully observant in the sense of halacha,” Feldman told The Jewish Press.
“When I attended Columbia University, that’s when I really began learning Gemara and other Jewish [texts] very, very seriously,” said Feldman. “There’s a very large Modern Orthodox community at Columbia. The fact that I was fluent in Hebrew was a tremendous asset which allowed me to learn precipitously from the beginning.”
Feldman is married to Rachel Minkin, a graduate of the Flushing-based Yeshiva of Central Queens and currently a kindergarten teacher at Ramaz. They have a five-month old daughter, Charlotte.
While Lehrfield implemented many positive changes during his brief tenure at CBAJ, more still needs to be accomplished. Feldman says he has many reasons for wanting to move to Albany.
“I think there is tremendous potential in Albany, part of it is because of the job market,” Feldman told The Jewish Press. “The low cost of living in Albany is unique, I think, to a metropolitan area with a Jewish community that’s still close to the tri-state area and New York City. I was not interested at all in going more than a two- or three-hour drive from New York City because my family and my wife’s family both live in New York. The fact that it’s a short drive from Albany is something that can be attractive to other young Orthodox families who are looking for their next career move or for a way to buy a house rather than rent and still be close to family.”
That said, he acknowledged that “one of the limitations on Orthodox families in Albany is that there is no Jewish secondary education currently in a full-day school form. The Hebrew Academy and Maimonides (Hebrew Day School) both effectively end at the eighth grade. Most students either go to Albany High School or go out of town to boarding school or something like that.”
Right now he’s looking to build on the work of his predecessor. “My focus would be on making the synagogue a center of both Torah learning and pastoral activity rather than the programming aspects,” he explained.
“I want people to know they can turn to the synagogue for their learning needs and for their life-cycle needs and make it a central communal location for the Orthodox community in Albany. I understand the value of programming; what brings people to step in the door in the first place is the programming – but what keeps them there is knowing they have a warm, welcoming community that will guide them through the happy and sad times in life.”
Feldman, who has a Bachelor of Arts degree in linguistics and history from Columbia University and a Master of Arts in Jewish philosophy from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, studied at Yeshivat Petach Tikva in Israel where he was ordained by Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Jerusalem and at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS). Feldman is also on the Judaic studies faculty of the Ramaz Upper School.
Feldman still has a few details to work out before getting a second semicha, this one from RIETS.
“There are a couple of bookkeeping issues,” he said. “There were a couple of grades that were not submitted by professors in time and things like that. I have semicha from Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg in Israel and at KJ it really didn’t make a difference whether I also had the YU semicha so I never made it my business to get all those things straightened out. I’m in the process of doing that now and that will be settled within the next couple of weeks.”
Even though Rabbi Goldberg is a halachic authority and chief justice of the Rabbinical High Court in Jerusalem, where he has made rulings on issues of gittin, ketubot, artificial insemination, and the commandment of living in the Land of Israel, the leadership at CBAJ “thinks it’s very important [to get the semicha from YU] so that’s why I’m doing this.”
He begins his term at CBAJ on August 1.
The roots of both KJ and CBAJ date back to the mid-1800s. KJ is known for the century-long leadership of the Lookstein family, and CBAJ is known for the longtime tenures of rabbis who served 28 and 25 years.
CBAJ was called Beth El when its first rabbi, Isaac Mayer Wise, took over as the spiritual leader in 1846. Wise originally was an Orthodox rabbi with liberal ideas he brought over from his native Bohemia. After a fistfight broke out during Rosh Hashanah services in 1850, Wise and 77 supporters organized Anshe Emeth, which became the fourth Reform congregation in the United States.
While KJ is a full-service synagogue with a Hebrew school, CBAJ has no Hebrew school attached to the facility. And while KJ is a wealthy synagogue, CBAJ struggles financially from year to year.
About the Author: Marc Gronich is news director of Statewide News Service. He also operates the website JBizTechValley.com. He has been covering government and politics since 1981. His Albany Beat column appears monthly in The Jewish Press.