Rabbi who nurtured faith on warships takes Naval Academy chaplain berth Being sole Jew was often his lot

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.

"My overall approach to ministry is to help people lift their horizons," Rabbi Feinberg says. "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. And he usually worked 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."

For a few months, Jews could express themselves, but the changes were short-lived. By December 1989 and January 1990, Rabbi Feinberg could see significant anti-Semitism. "It changed rapidly and got very bad very quickly," he said.

That April, he was on his third stint in Leningrad when an ultra-nationalistic organization called PAMYAT, which means memory in Russian, held a public demonstration of about 20,000 people. Rabbi Feinberg attended.

A number of minority groups, including Jews, were scape-goated, with PAMYAT members brandishing signs that accused a Jewish Mafia of running the country.

A Jewish woman in the crowd became hysterical, shouting that her father had fought in the siege of Leningrad, and how could they say such things about Jews.

"A crowd surrounded her and there was a fight. The cops just watched and, after it was over, arrested the woman for provoking unrest," says Rabbi Feinberg.

"The Russian Jews I was with felt in great danger, not only from the anti-Semitism expressed, but also from the feeling that the authorities weren't going to protect them."

After those turbulent years, the new chaplain comes to Annapolis for a more peaceful three-year-tour of duty. Rabbi Feinberg and his wife, Myra, look forward to time on home soil.

The new rabbi, who belongs to the Reform branch of Judaism, has always been interested in the faith and in working with people.

In addition to serving the battalion, he will work with the 100 or so Jewish midshipmen at the academy, supervising religious services and the Jewish Midshipmen's Club. He plans to continue what he says is the Academy's "excellent" religious education program.

"We just want to offer the best training we can," he says, such as inviting interesting guests to services.

Friday night, for example, the Czechoslovakian ambassador to the United States, who is Jewish, was scheduled to speak at Academy services. One of the Academy's Torah scrolls comes from a Czechoslovakian survivor of the Holocaust, Rabbi Feinberg noted.

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