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Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein

03/03/2022 11:25:21 AM


Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein has been an important part of the VBS community since 1993.

While we have been fortunate to have her hold numerous leadership roles, including the creation and stewardship of our groundbreaking N’Shama Minyan, this year we were truly blessed to have her join the Chesed team and greatly expand and reinvigorate our Bikur Cholim program.

Rabbi Nina reaches out to members who have experienced a loss, an illness or just need a little extra support. With her compassion, kindness, warmth and understanding, she is an extraordinary addition to the team and we are thrilled to help you get to know her a little bit better and salute her good work.

Let’s start with a bit about your background: Please tell us where you grew up, went to college and rabbinic school.

I was born and grew up in Los Angeles. I am the fourth of four children born to my parents Herb and Geri Bieber. When I was three, my parents moved to a new neighborhood between Gardena and Athens. I mention this because we were one of only two Jewish families in the neighborhood, and it was there as a child that I understood that people could be judged by others because they were a minority. 

As I grew older in my elementary school some of my teachers asked me to explain Jewish ritual and holidays to the students. I figured that things couldn't get any worse for me at school, so I did, and so began a lifetime of teaching others about Judaism.

When I was 11 years old, my family moved to Westwood. Suddenly, I was in a school where I was surrounded by other Jewish kids. My life got a lot better, but I noticed that these friends, who had every opportunity to live full Jewish lives, did not do so. I couldn't figure out why, but now I had experienced the phenomenon of assimilation. I realized that I wanted to do something about the hatred that I had experienced, and the apathy of many of the Jews that I knew as well.

After graduating college in 1977, I started on my journey to become a rabbi. Women were not yet admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York which was the only place a person could become a Conservative rabbi at the time. I noticed that I could do a Masters degree in Talmud and Rabbinic Literature and replicate much of the rabbinical school curriculum. After much struggle, the tide for women changed in 1984, and I was finally admitted to JTS as a rabbinical student. I graduated in May of 1986!

Why did you decide to become a rabbi?

Many people describe a "calling" when it comes to being a member of the clergy. For me it all started in a very different way. For some reason I have always been drawn to religious life. Ed says that I lived a life of "spirituality" before the word was invented! Because of this I attracted people into my life who became mentors to me. They fostered a love for Jewish tradition and encouraged me to learn the mechanics of becoming a Jewish leader even though in general women were not encouraged to do so.

The first one was my beloved friend, Rabbi Henry Kraus. He made sure that I got a full scholarship to Camp Ramah at the age of 10. That year he invited me to witness a conversion at the synagogue, and he let me sign the conversion document. And then he invited me to the wedding of the man who had converted, and I witnessed that too!

At camp I became enamored of the mode of davvening which was full of singing, and where I was allowed to lead prayer. My cantor at Sinai Temple realized that I could sing. He taught me to read Torah and Haftarah trope for my Bat Mitzvah and, of course, all the cantorial music that he had written for the services there. After my Bat Mitzvah I became a teacher for other Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.

I had other mentors in Rabbi Sheldon Dorph at LA Hebrew High and Rabbi Stuart Kelman who was the regional director of USY - I was very involved in both these institutions. Both Shelly and Stuart offered support in later years when I was deciding how to proceed to become a rabbi.

One of the things I decided was to learn something about Judaism every single day. I was constantly learning, preparing  and moving forward as best as I knew how. 

When, at the age of 13, I was told that I could no longer lead services at Camp Ramah, I was shocked! Welcome to the world of the inequality of women in Judaism!  Before that every institution had welcomed me. Suddenly I understood the depth of the obstacles that would stand in my way as I tried to go forward! Little did I know what I would be facing at JTS.

It must have been uniquely challenging to be one of the first women to be ordained by the Conservative movement. What are some obstacles you faced? 

Over the years I faced discrimination from teachers, fellow students, the deep loneliness of being the only woman going full time to JTS, and, until my final year, the only woman in every class that I attended. Teachers gave me bad grades just because they felt that they could, but I managed to get those corrected for the most part. Teachers told me that I had answered incorrectly, only to validate the same answer when a male student uttered it. I was reading Torah and leading minyanim outside the school, but was not allowed to do so at JTS.  Ed and I could never sit together at services. As the years went by and the issue of women’s ordination became a real issue, and hotly contested, I had peers tell me that I personally would cause the downfall of the Conservative movement.

What is your favorite part of being a rabbi?

First of all, it is never boring! You do different things all the time. You are constantly presented with problems that you can try to creatively solve.

Specifically I do love to perform weddings. They are the most beautiful and emotionally intense of moments in people’s lives which are prepared in tandem with the couple who will be married. The entire process of getting married can be  life changing in a relatively short time.

I have found over the years that I enjoy teaching very much. At first I resisted this because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a “teacher”, a typically feminine role, without being able to perform things that were considered the male aspects of being a rabbi, like leading services, speaking, reading Torah and more. I have always loved the idea of creating moving ritual for others to participate in. It has been a personal goal to bring others closer to the Jewish community, and a love for all things Jewish.

Finally I would say I like being in a position of making a difference for people, no matter what aspect of work I am participating in at any given moment. In the rabbinate, that opportunity is always there; any moment can be a teachable moment if only you can see that potential in it.

It must be challenging comforting people who are mourning a loved one or seriously ill. How do you manage to do this so adeptly?

I think that there are a couple of things that come to play when I make pastoral calls here at VBS.

First of all, I have done pastoral work in various positions that I have held over the course of my rabbinate. My first position as a rabbi was at Golden Acres, a huge nursing home in Dallas, Texas. (I was also their first chaplain!) I had to deal with people in all stages of old age, who had many different types of challenges. Being very young at the time, I had to come up with creative ways to approach all the different types of communities in this huge facility. So this tells you that the first thing that you must do is meet people where they are in life, and where they live.

So for instance - for the well elderly who lived outside the main facility in their own apartments - I used to meet a group in a meeting place among all the apartments. These people just needed affordable housing, plus the ability to quickly get in touch with medical help if they needed it. They considered themselves “well.” So we studied Jewish texts together in the same way that I would teach any group. I didn’t have any set agenda except to talk to them about their concerns and provide companionship that they sorely lacked. But even in the main facility there were people that were not confined to their rooms but could no longer live in their own apartment. I did something previously unprecedented at the home: I would meet groups of 4 or 5 people in the dining room, and actually ate lunch with them. The residents who got these “group chats” loved it! None of the other staff wanted to eat in the dining room because it could be a bit depressing.  But to eat with them acknowledged their social needs, and that no matter what it was they had to eat, they were people who just wanted to be treated like the people that they still were. I approached each person as fully alive with concerns and questions that deserved attention and answers.

Listening is very important in pastoral (or any) counseling. People often tell you things indirectly and you must act on this by figuring out what it is that they really want and need.

Acting on things is also important. Many people would ask me to be present during the last moments of their life. I would ask the social workers and nursing staff to call me when a person who had made this request was nearing their final moments. And I would run to their rooms to be with them. This was a comfort to them and to their families. I could also help the families be present with their loved ones in a way which was appropriate and dignified. When I make calls, if there is something more that I think I can do to help, I go ahead and do it. By the way, it is also important to know when to be silent, and only listen.

Tell us about your work with N'Shama Minyan that is so meaningful to our congregation.

The N’Shama Minyan started in May of 1999. Over the past 23 years we have done over 100 services, and we are coming up to our 8th annual retreat here at VBS. For me the minyan has morphed over the years, both because of changes that needed to take place here at VBS and because of the recent pandemic. The creative process that ensued to constantly hone the minyan into a better spiritual experience made me a better prayer leader, rabbi, and kept my creative juices flowing! Over the years I have expanded my own personal idea of what prayer can be and include.

At first the focus was keeping the service “all woman.” Over time I decided that the world was composed of both men and women and that we needed spiritual input from whatever source provided it in a meaningful and moving way. The most important message was the spiritual one that moved people to incorporate more Jewishness into their lives.

In addition, I realized that a lot of the women attending our minyanim had either not had thorough Jewish education due to their being women, or even had B’not Mitzvah as youngsters. In addition to spirituality, I decided to do as much teaching as possible during the service. In the beginning years of the minyan I focused on teaching Jewish prayer so that our participants could pray with ease both at our minyan and at other services that they might attend. I created a prayer book, beautifully prepared by Allyn Levine, one of the minyan co-founders. 

After many years, I realized that the quantity of prayers was not as important as the emotional connection to the prayers that we could create by exploring a topic in a deep way from many vantage points through the adding of readings, moving music and song, and the incorporation of dance, and other creative movement like signing.

Ultimately, we tried to create a cohesive and welcoming  community for women, and also for the men who regularly join us.  The idea was to be inclusive - and not create a community that said no because you are this or that.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us for inclusion in our story?

I worked for a time as the Associate Rabbi at Beit T'Shuvah. I thought I would add this in because it was an experience that also shaped me very much as I was developing my own rabbinate. I had to study the men and women who entered our doors, because they had needs unlike any other people that I had met before. I worked hard to figure out how to reach them, what to teach them to help move them from the lives they had been leading to a better future.  I was able to work as a counselor, teacher, prayer leader, speaker and more during my years there. It helped expand my ideas about what a rabbi could do to help others.

Welcome to the Chesed Team, Rabbi Nina Bieber Feinstein!

Written by Susan Rubin and Edited by Nitzan Barlev

Sun, April 14 2024 6 Nisan 5784