Navy rabbi used to being the only one ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY

December 15, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

Rabbi Robert Feinberg is used to creating a Jewish presence where there isn't one.

Which is why, after years of serving aboard ships -- where he says he was often "the only Jew in town" -- he's glad to be back in this country, as one of seven chaplains at the U.S. Naval Academy.

This will be his first job "where I'm not a road show" as a lone chaplain or Jew, says Rabbi Feinberg, 39. Each of the seven chaplains serves a battalion, and Rabbi Feinberg will be responsible for the spiritual well-being of about 800 midshipmen of all faiths. He will also work with the academy's 100 or so Jewish midshipmen, supervising religious services and the Jewish Midshipmen's Club.

"My overall approach to ministry is to help people lift their horizons," says Rabbi Feinberg. "There's a special opportunity to do that here.

"My main goal," he added, "is for the mids to have a positive experience in our chapel as they broaden their horizons. I hope to make this a training ground for future Jewish lay leaders."

That hope may be the key to what Rabbi Feinberg sees as his mission -- helping train lay leaders who can conduct services and maintain a religious presence even in a chaplain's absence. It's a vision for the future he forged while serving as the Navy's only Jewish chaplain between Saudi Arabia and Spain.

During his two-year stint with the 6th fleet, he served ships and shore installations from Naples to Egypt, usually working alone.

Out on the high seas, there often is no Jewish chaplain on a ship, sometimes no chaplain at all. Lay readers can fill the void by knowing how to lead services, Rabbi Feinberg says, where to get matzo for holy day observances "when you're in the middle of the ocean," and how to store and serve it.

"We feel these young officers coming through the Naval Academy are the obvious candidates to assume that responsibility," he says. "We want to give them the best possible training and experience."

The New York state native has had practice helping young adults forge their Jewish identity.

In 1989 and 1990, during his off-duty hours while serving with the Navy in Moscow, Rabbi Feinberg established the city's first Reform congregation, attended primarily by young Russian professionals. Even though the former Soviet Union was an atheistic society, the government ran two synagogues, one in Moscow and one in Leningrad.

But Rabbi Feinberg discovered that young or professional people were afraid to attend synagogue, because a KGB agent was stationed in a car outside during services. "This guy with a camera would photograph you coming out of the synagogue, and the next day you'd be out of a job or university," he says.

By 1989, glasnost had wrought enough changes that Rabbi Feinberg, with the Navy's approval, felt free to start a public synagogue. But the fear didn't leave his congregation: they met in a small apartment, and members were so scared of the KGB that they huddled in opposite corners of the room, trying to avoid being seen from the window.

"It was sad to see them so afraid," he recalled. "The atmosphere was just very, very fragile, and still is."

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