BG: This is side one of this tape of an interview by Mr. Bert Gaster of RabbiAbraham Feldman, taken on May 10, 1972 at the Hartford Jewish Community Center.
AF: At the solidarity meeting that we had at the Emanuel a week ago or so, afterthe meeting, I was standing in the aisle and a young man came along whom I knew and he had with him his brood this high, this high, and a little one three years old. He introduced me to the youngsters, so I pinched one on the cheek, and I chucked the other one and then the third one the little boy, freckled 00:01:00with glistening eyes, three years old said Rabbi Feldman, so I gave him my hand and said How do you do, sir? and he said Im all right. I looked at him again and said Do you like rabbis? He looked me straight in the eye and said Only Jewish rabbis. [laughter]
BG: This is the evening of Wednesday, May 10th, 1972 and we are at the HartfordJewish Community Center. I am Berthold Gaster, co-publisher of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. The man whom I am about to introduce actually needs no 00:02:00introduction to the present generation of Greater Hartford Jewry. He is Dr. Abraham J. Feldman, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Israel who led Connecticuts largest congregation for 43 years before what has become the most active retirements on record. Im also proud to say that Rabbi Feldman is Editor of the Jewish Ledger, which he helped found 44 years ago, and he has been its one and only Editor.
Rabbi, to actually go back to the beginning - where and when were you born?
AF: Was I born? [laughter] I was born in Kiev in the Ukraine. When? Shall I tell them?
BG: Tell them.
AF: In 1893. Im almost ready for a Bar Mitzvah.00:03:00
BG: As a matter of fact, speaking of Bar Mitzvah, I understand that, only amonth after you came to this country you celebrated your Bar Mitzvah.
AF: Thats right.
BG: Would you care to tell us anything about this?
AF: I was Bar Mitzvah, but I didnt have a years training. I knew it.
BG: Now, going back to your youth, your early youth actually, one thing whichdidnt catch on with many other people until much later, was just about in your blood to start with, and that is the feeling for Zionism. How far back do your associations with Zionism go?
AF: Well my association with Zionismof course, I was born into it. My father,of blessed memory, was a Zionist before there was Zionism. He was one of the early Chovevei Tzion which preceded the Herzl period, so that in our home this 00:04:00is the restoration of our homeland and the return to it it has been part of our religious life, part of our whole atmosphere. I didnt have to be convinced or converted to get into it; it was part, a normal part of Jewish life.
BG: Of course you continue this association very actively to this day.
AF: So they suspect.
BG: As you set out in your youth to find what you wanted to do, what would yousay influenced you most to turn to the rabbinate as a calling?
AF: Well I think, in a certain sense, it was due to, and through, Zionism. Yousee, in New York where, of course, we settled when we came to this country, on 00:05:00the Lower East Side - Ludlow Street, Broome Street, Delancey Street - you know the neighborhood Hester Street, East Broadway there was founded, immediately after, a month after the death of Theodore Herzl which was on July 4, 1904 there was founded a society of boys. It was the first junior Zionist group in the Western hemisphere and it called itself the Dr. Herzl Zion Club. Interestingly it was founded in the home of the grandfather of my successor, Rabbi Harold Silver. It was his grandfather who saw this group of boys and 00:06:00thought they ought to combine. Of course he had two boys to start with one of them was Maxwell Silver who was the present Rabbi Silvers father and the other one was Abba Hillel Silver. The club was organized there but it was to be a Hebrew speaking club which of course, under the name of Herzl, has a Zionist orientation.
We became the first junior Zionist group in the western world. We met regularly.All our meetings were conducted in Hebrew; all our records were kept in Hebrew and, then again, we became active in those days there was the Federation of American Zionism (before the ZOA). The Federation of American Zionists we became the junior leaders in that and, after a number of years, the club prospered greatly. We became quite an important factor amongst the youth in the East Side of New York and it was called into being the Young Judea. 00:07:00
In the first setup of the Young Judea, the first adult president (it was set upon a national level with some distinguished Jew at the head of it and adults as members of the Executive Board with two junior representatives on it). So the first president of Young Judea at that time was the late Professor Israel Friedlander of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a young man by the name of Isaacs and I were elected as the first junior representatives on this national Young Judea.
Well, in the course of our work and organizing, I had a good deal to do withFriedlander and one day Friedlander asked me to come up to his office at the seminary. Professor Schechter (of blessed memory) was on sabbatical leave and 00:08:00Friedlander was the acting President of the Seminary. Friedlander, who is also now gone, you remember he was a martyr; he was killed in the Ukraine by the Ukrainian pogromshick, you know asked me to come up and I came. He asked me what I planned to do with my life, what I intended to do.
Well, frankly, at that time I was thinking of medicine and he suggested hesaid Have you thought of going into the American rabbinate? Well, of course, what he had in mind is that I was going into the Theological Seminary, and I discussed it with him and he gave me a sales talk. I came home and I discussed it with my father (alav hashalom) and my father, I told you, was a Zionist and he was an Orthodox Jew, but he was an informed Orthodox Jew if you know what I 00:09:00mean; he wasnt just a temple Jew. So we discussed it and I said to him Now what do you think? And he said he liked the idea but I said Well of course theres Orthodoxy and theres the Conservative (in those days they didnt call themselves Conservative; they called themselves Historical Judaism) and then the Reform group. (By that time Stephen Wise had started a branch of his Free Synagogue in Clinton Hall on the East Side and some of us boys used to go there periodically to hear Stephen Wise preach and/or somebody that he assigned when he was unable to come.) So I said Heres the Reform movement. My father said to me Son, as I see the future in this country, this Orthodoxy is not going to 00:10:00prevail here. The Conservatives are too indefinite they havent yet made up their minds. And then he said When you go into that, the time will come when you are likely to change and go over and people will suspect your motives. You might just as well start there from the beginning. That was a pretty liberal view for an Orthodox Jew.
So I said to him But Dad (Papa as we called him), the Reform in those days wasanti-Zionist. Ah, he said, Im not worried about it. What I taught you they wont take away from you. They didnt. I had something to do, as you know, with modifying and changing the whole temper of Reform as far as Zionism is concerned.
BG: Whats interesting is that one of your colleagues from the Young Zionistdays became a world leader on the Zionist scene Abba Hillel Silver. Actually, 00:11:00you all went on together he and
AF: Barnard Brickler was one of the boys who went in and there was the rabbiif any of you came from Boston you may remember the name of Rabbi Samuel Joshua Abrams of Brookline he was one of our boys, and there was a whole group of us there. In time there were six or seven of us who went to Cincinnati and became rabbis and had something to do with reforming Reform Judaism.
BG: In previous conversations you have mentioned to me something about theatmosphere of anti-Zionism at Hebrew Union College when you attended it. Of course you were ordained from Hebrew Union College in 1918. Can you tel us a little bit about what you met up with there and what you did about it?
AF: Well, it was a fighting period but it was not an unthinking period. What I00:12:00mean by that is: when I applied to Hebrew Union College I wrote a letter to Dr. Kohler (alav hashalom) who was a great, great spirit. He was the President of the college and he liked to pose as an anti-Zionist. I wrote to him and, after I gave him my qualifications, I told him also that I was a Zionist and I wanted him to know that in advance so if that makes a difference, I wanted to know it at first. He wrote back in the long-hand written letter (in those days presidents of colleges didnt have secretaries he wrote it long-hand) and told me he thought I could qualify for admission for advanced standing at the Hebrew Union College, but as to the other in Gods name, come. 00:13:00
On the faculty at that time (and this was an important factor for me) was aprofessor of Jewish philosophy who was Dovid Neumark. Dovid Neumark was a member of the First Zionist Congress in Basel and if youve ever seen the pictures of the delegations who attended the Zionist Congress (and there are theyve been circulated in Jewish life), youll find the name and picture of Dovid Neumark. He was our Professor of Jewish Philosophy. Well, if he could be professor there, it wasnt hard for me to be a student there, you see. And the same thing with some of the other professors who were sympathetic, but the official public policy was anti-Zionist and we had to fight. We had to fight our way all the way through but it was fertile ground and I think today there are no anti-Zionists 00:14:00there. No non-Zionists even; they are all Zionists.
BG: Its interesting that here we are talking about a supposed anti-Zionistatmosphere at Hebrew Union College, a definite anti-Zionist feeling in the Reform movement and, yet, here you have, as you mentioned, the Professor of Jewish Philosophy and then your post after getting out of Hebrew Union College was as Assistant to the great Rabbi Stephen Wise.
AF: Thats right.
BG: And who can be more Zionist? Would you care to go into your experiences withhim, because here now we have you at the beginning of your rabbinic career a few years before you came to Hartford?
AF: Well, you know Stephen Wise, the rabbi whom you people knew (or some of you00:15:00knew), the great public tribune of Jewish life with the organ voice and the profound conviction and eloquence Stephen Wise in that sense, and Stephen Wise in the personal sense in which I, as a young rabbi just starting out [experienced], were two different personalities because Stephen Wise at that time was in his forties when I came there and he was already at the top of his career, and he was never home. I very seldom saw Stephen Wise. Once in a few weeks he would come in and hed call some of us together who were his assistants and wed sit down and talk. Hed pull a zinger, so watch out and put it on[???]. Hed say Feldman, youve got five minutes, what talents[?] have you got? [laughter]. You know, that kind of thing.
But we had, of course, the advantage of watching him that influence of the man00:16:00and the things that he represented and the things that he spoke for all of that, of course, became part of the baggage that we took along. I didnt learn much about, what shall I say, rabbinating from Stephen Wise because he didnt have a congregation. Stephen Wise, you remember, had no synagogue. He had services, lectures, at Carnegie Hall. Now there is the Free Synagogue but in those days there was only an organization, but he held forth at Carnegie Hall and there were no other activities. Later, of course, he came into it.
So in those days we each carried on our work in our own way. For instance, ashis assistant (he was organizing branches of the Free Synagogue in different parts of Greater New York) I was put in charge of the Free Synagogue of Flushing, Long Island. Now, this is a matter of 54 years ago and Flushing, Long 00:17:00Island wasnt then what Flushing, Long Island is today if any of you have been to Flushing recently. The people who founded the Flushing Free Synagogue branch there were escapist Jews. In the first place, they didnt want Hebrew in the service. In the second place I remember the President of the congregation telling me that Shma Yisroel sounds much better when you say Hear O Israel than in the Hebrew.
The first Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that I was there in the Fall of 1918, wemet at the Oddfellows Hall and I didnt have a Sefer Torah. When I asked for a Sefer Torah, they thought I was a medieval individual who wanted to go back to 00:18:00the ghetto. The chair they gave me to sit on at that time was a large chair of the Oddfellows and it had a cross at the top and I refused to sit in it. [laughter] I got a folding chair and they thought I was just a mossback; I mean it was that kind of environment that I started in and we had to fight our way all the way through but weve changed a few things.
So Ive learned from Stephen Wise a lot in terms of public relations; in termsof representing the Jews (what Ive often called the ambassadorial function,) but pastoral work and other thingsof course preaching also from him (after all he was the greatest). But it wasnt from him that I learned the trade, so to speak, because later on a year and a half later I came to Philadelphia and I 00:19:00became assistant to Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf who was a graduate of the first class of the Hebrew Union College (see, I go back so far that I knew the people who founded it and who were the first ones there). So Krauskopf was one of the great organizers one of the greatest preachers of his day, too. But he had a congregation and he served the congregation and he dealt with the congregation, and with him I learned. In those days I learned with Krauskopf. He was a more definite influence on my life rabbinically and congregationally than Stephen Wise was. Stephen Wise had no congregation.
BG: But didnt you, by virtue of the fact that you were put in charge, so tospeak, of organizing in Flushing didnt this place the kind of responsibility on your shoulders which caused you, shall we say, to grow up fast rabbinically because you were on your own.
AF: Oh, thats true.
BG: So that actually you were able to do more in leading than you might have as00:20:00a young rabbi assistant to a rabbi in a congregation as you were later in Philadelphia.
AF: Well, what I learned from Wise even in that regard was the complete freedomof a rabbi. That was one of his major contributions to religious life Jewish and non-Jewish in this country. Stephen Wise was responsible for the liberation of the American pulpit generally Jewish and non-Jewish where the rabbi was the sole authority as to what and when he should speak and what he would say. That didnt mean that the congregation had to agree with him. It was understood that they could disagree with him. But of his right to speak and to say what he pleased, of what he thought had to be taught he threw that challenge in the face of American life and got away with it. That chutzpah I learned from him and 00:21:00you know, some of you who had to deal with me, know that no one ever told me in later years, even in Hartford, where I got off (or where I got on). [Laughter]
BG: Speaking of Hartford, as we approach 1925 and your coming here, what was itthat drew you to Hartford?
AF: I was invited. I was invited to come here. Beth Israel at that time was notexactly a Zionist congregation. When I came here I was interviewed by members of the Board and they took me in the car and drove me around the city to show me 00:22:00the city, and as we were riding I asked them Do you have a good Zionist organization here? and they looked at each other. They didnt know just how to take that, what it meant. They said Why? I said Well, Im President of the Zionist District of Philadelphia and, to me, a Jewish community that doesnt have a good Zionist district is a dead community. Oh well, then they began to brag Oh sure, every time a big Zionist comes here Weitzman (they mentioned Sokolov; tey mentioned a few others Yishmael Levine) They always come to Hartford and this is a big Zionist center. Well, I said, All right, thats interesting. Thats one thing behind me so I can understand. And in my inaugural address (the congregation had never heard me preach until I preached 00:23:00my inaugural I refused to give that ____ a sample. [laughter]
BG: But you must have had a reputation, though.
AF: Well, they knew; they had a committee that went to hear me in New York andPhiladelphia. But in my inaugural sermon I spelled out that I was not to be viewed upon as a parish rabbi, that I was to be a rabbi in a community and that everything of Jewish and general interest concerned me and I announced, for instance, that if theres a Jewish labor movement, Im interested.
And I had some wonderful relations with the old Arbiter Ring, the Yiddishistsand the Labor Temple they used to have on Winter Street, now Main Street, and I used to go down and lecture there in Yiddish. I was a rare specimen for them. I 00:24:00was called the Deutsche(?) Rebbe who could speak both Yiddish and Hebrew as well as English and I used to go there and lecture in Yiddish for them on Sunday mornings the same thing, of course, I went right into the Zionist work. I let it be known generally at my inaugural that I meant to have contacts with the general community that from the Temple the windows are open and we are looking at the world at large and everything that is Jewish and human was a matter of concern to me. That was accepted and its never been challenged. Ill say it for my people at Beth Israel I have never been challenged as to the right of saying what I wanted to say and teaching what I wanted to teach.
They didnt agree with me that was their right. I granted them the right. Inever challenged that right either. But if anyone ever wanted to know more, then of course they had to know as much as I did about Judaism and that was a little 00:25:00too much. [laughter]
BG: Speaking of 1925, we are talking about a period 47 years ago, almost half acentury. What was the Jewish community like in Hartford when you came here?
AF: Now you are getting to what this meeting is for not to hear me. TheHartford Jewish community of 1925 in those first years, as I sized it up then and as, in perspective, now, was a small, provincial Jewish community. We didnt have any really well organized Jewish life. Oh, we had chevrahs, we had shulchalach(?), minyanim and so on, but there was nothing of any larger case. Philanthropically, for instance, we had the United Jewish Charities here which 00:26:00had been organized by one of my predecessors at Beth Israel, by Dr. Edelson, where a few chevrahs Miyumilos Chadosim(?) and something else, you know, got together and they formed an organization. But the Mount Sinai Hospital had just been organized and they met in that terrible building on Capitol Avenue which is horrible, and so on. But, as I went to meetings, the whole thrust was small town, provincial and so on.
Early in my life here in Hartford, I was unhappy with this kind of a situationand I persuaded some of the people to make it possible for me, through a national organization, to make a survey of the Jewish community. They sent in a man from New York who spent some time with us and we organized teams (maybe some 00:27:00of you here were on some of those teams). We used to meet at the old State House. In those days the old State House had offices there and Howard Bradstreet (if any of you remember) was in charge for the city of Adult Education. I went to Howard Bradstreet and he gave me office space and we used to meet there and we started our survey. After several months the report of the survey came in and, amongst the various suggestions that I signed and submitted then, was first that the time has come to create a federation of all Jewish agencies. The time has come (at that time already you see that we had the Orphan Home the childrens home) and that the day of orphanages was past, and that there was no 00:28:00reason for continuing with that. That the hospital had to be taken away from Capitol Avenue, but that it should be built somewhere where both the Home and the Hospital would be together. That was one of my recommendations, so that the old people would have the benefit of the hospital, but then we could build a kind of Jewish complex there out of that. The building of the Childrens Home was there and this, of course, became the first building for Mount Sinai and then, of course, the Home was built and so on.
And so there were a number of suggestions of that kind that we made and grew outof that. Once the Federation came into being, you see, and we were able to get some of the people in the community involved in it, things began to hum and the Jewish community of Hartford became, as it is today, one of the foremost organized Jewish communities in the United States. We take second place to none 00:29:00in my estimation.
BG: Philanthropically we practically lead the country, on a per capita basis.During these early days, particularly, going back to the twenties and then going on from there, what was the relationship between Orthodoxy and Reform in the community?
AF: There was no formal relationship between the two but there were friendlyrelations. There was never any [formal] because you always had those (and we still have some of them) you know those creatures we have who think its funny to ask me if its all right for them to come to my church. You know, you have some of those chazerim [laughter] and there were those. But by and large there 00:30:00was a wholesome respect on an individual basis between the two and, as far as I was concernedof course, coming out of Orthodoxy, with my knowledge of Orthodoxy and respect and reverence for it, and my general knowledge and respect for everything that is Jewish, I had no difficulty. Take Rabbi Hurwitz (alav hashalom) who was one of the two Orthodox rabbonim that we had here at that time he and I had very close, warm personal relationships. Of course I could talk Yiddish and I could also discuss passages in the Talmud with him, you know, and so on, so that he had a respect for me and for years and years until, I think, the rebbetzin died, I used to have the second seder at his home. We were invited 00:31:00to be there every year for the second seder because, as you know, we have only one seder. So there was a warm relationship between us.
Rabbi Hoffenberg (alav hashalom) was a less outgoing individual but, in timeThe first time I met Rabbi Hoffenberg he wouldnt shake hands with me. But afterwards, when he got to know me, he came calling at my home; he wanted me to do something which I was happy to do and so on. And, of course, my relationship with the family has been a very close one all through the years. So, there has never been a bitter clash between the various groups in the community.
Now, as to the Conservative group well of course remember the EmanuelSynagogue in 1925 was a baby. It was only what - about 2 or 3 years old in 1925? Some of you were amongst the founders? It was a very young congregation 00:32:00thriving because you lived in the center of Jewish life.
Our Temple was on Charter Oak Avenue and the nearest member of the congregationto the Temple at that time was four miles away. We started immediately to move out and build but it took us a long time. It took 8 years before my [board?] thought we had enough money. They wouldnt take a mortgage; they wouldnt owe any money. So until the money was in the bank they werent going to build, so it took 8 years from the time we collected. We began collecting at the very first in December 25 - mind you, I came here in September. In December 25 we raised the first funds for the Temple. It was very large, the largest sum that was ever raised by Jews in Hartford, but it wasnt enough to build what we had in mind. And it was on a five-year basis. So Mr. Wise (who was then the big boss) said 00:33:00that until the money was in (and in the meantime the interest rate was good, and the money was collecting interest and so on) we just wait. And we waited. W waited 8 years before we started the building of our present Temple.
And it was the same way. The meeting house that we have now we could havebuilt that meeting house at that time (not the same one perhaps), but the plans were there. We could have built it for $34,000 [laughter] and the money wasnt there; they didnt have the cash and they said Well wait until we have the cash. Well I waited almost 25 years, I think, and then we raised the money and it cost a half million dollars, from $34,000.
BG: You couldnt get a room for $34,000.
AF: I think the relationships here have been good and I think on the whole the00:34:00relationship between the rabbis have been very cordial and friendly.
BG: I know that has continued with the changes with other rabbis coming in.
AF: Yes, the rabbis always got along. We agree to disagree and respect eachother. Once there was a challenge by then a young rabbi, but some of the men took him in tow and hes learned. Hes all right.
BG: Speaking a little bit more about Congregation Beth Israel, which is theoldest Jewish congregation in Connecticut particularly since the history of Beth Israel is intertwined with the early history of the Jews of Hartford at the period where there were Jews in Hartford in good numbers where did the 00:35:00early Jews come from as reflected by Beth Israels membership?
AF: Well, I would say that most of them at that time came from German origins,although there were some English Jews amongst them and there were some Polish Jews amongst them not many, but just enough to flavor it well [laughter]. But most of them were German.
BG: How about the changes? You talked, of course, of moving the move fromCharter Oak Avenue west (which was completed in 1936). How about what went before in Touro Hall on Main Street?
AF: Well, Beth Israel was founded in 1843 and theres a little bit of political00:36:00and Connecticut history involved. Connecticut, in those days before 1843, had a state church and even though the Constitution of 1818 declared religious freedom, it was religious freedom for all Churches of Christ. It was the Congregationalists who were in control and people paid taxes to help support the church through the state. So before 1843, when a ruling was issued (an interpretation of the Constitution was given I cant give you the exact reference, but we have it in our records) that the phrases Churches of Christ meant generically religious institutions of all faiths and, as soon as that 00:37:00ruling was made in 1843, Beth Israel came into being.
I have reason to believe that even as early as 1839 there were some minyanimhere or at least a minyan of the people who founded it. But in 1843 Beth Israel came into being and it was, of course, an Orthodox congregation in those days. One of the inducements for membership was that unless you were a member of Beth Israel and contributed regularly a specified amount (which I showed you today, didnt I?) 79 cents, 50 cents, 39 cents and so on you couldnt get kosher meat because Beth Israel got a shochet and he was the first minister that they had; the first functionary in the congregation. Interestingly, in 1845 they 00:38:00began to suspect that maybe he wasnt such a skillful shochet. So they decided that he had to be re-examined and he was sent to New York to be examined by the Shichtah Board in New York. We have the original document that was given to him both in Hebrew and in English saying that he had passed the examination satisfactorily and knows how to use the knife and which knife to use under which circumstances and so on. So he qualified as a shochet (this is in 1845). What is interesting, to indicate some development of Jewish life religiously in this country, is that the Chairman of the Board that examined him and who signed this Kabolah Shchitah as it is called in Hebrew, this diploma that he is qualified, was Rabbi Merzbacher who was the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in New York. Its 00:39:00interesting to see that.
But very early they began to move towards liberalism and then they met in homesand they met in public halls. Where the Standard Building is now, there used to be a girls academy (or a female academy I think they called it in those days) and there was a hall there and the people used to go there for services. Then Judah Touro of Newport and New Orleans died.
Now, Judah Touro, some of you many know, was quite a remarkable man, aremarkable Jew and a great philanthropist. He came from Newport (you saw the Touro Synagogue, the Touro cemetery the place is filled with Touros there), but he moved to New Orleans. He was a merchant a very successful merchant. He 00:40:00made an enormous fortune and became a very active citizen of New Orleans. There is a Touro Hospital in New Orleans which he founded and endowed and there are other memorials of him there. During some period of that time, there was a scarlet fever epidemic in New Orleans a very serious one. So Judah Touro appealed to the then-existing Jewish congregations in the United States and asked them to collect funds and send them to New Orleans so they could be able to help them in their distress.
Amongst those congregations was Beth Israel and Mishkan Israel in New Haven andwhen Judah Touro died, he remembered that the congregations had responded to him 00:41:00and he left to each of these congregations the sum of $5,000. Now, he died in the 1850s and $5,000 was a good contribution, and that $5,000 was the first money that the Beth Israel people had with which to acquire a synagogue and they bought what was known as Second Baptist Church on Main Street in Hartford where Brown Thompsons is now. They bought this Second Baptist Church (the congregation had moved), remodeled it, and that became Touro Hall. It became the one large center for the Jewish community here. This is before there were any other congregations in existence and, if ever you are in the Temple, if you come in on the parking lot side and you go into the Temple, you will notice that we have there a white marble tablet to commemorate Judah Touros gift and, also, I 00:42:00later (during the year of centennial in 1954) was able to get, through a friend in New Orleans, a photostatic copy of Judah Touros will every page signed, with all of his bequests and, of course, I had it framed and opened up to the page where he mentions Beth Israel, and that was the first money that Beth Israel had for the building.
They used Touro Hall until 1876 and then they built the Charter Oak AvenueTemple and that was built particularly for that purpose as a synagogue and we occupied it until we went into the present Temple on Farmington Avenue.
I think the first other congregation that came was _____ [Ados?] Israel, the00:43:00Market Street shul? I think that was the next congregation that really came into being and I think they didnt come into being until the 60s 1865 somehow appears in my mind. So during those early years, anything of Jewish life that existed in the community was that which was carried down and sponsored and promoted by the members of Beth Israel. Then, of course, as the other congregation came, the others joined in all the various activities that the community was developing. But you take the Bnai Brith for instance Ararat 00:44:00Lodge was Beth Israel; the ladies Deborah Society, which is the oldest Jewish womens organization in the state was the women of Beth Israel. They used to come together what was their service? They were sewing tachrechim stocking up on tachrechim (shrouds) so that when women and men died there would be shrouds for them to be used. That was part of their ministry; part of the service that they rendered. And, of course, in reading the records (I dont want to steal _______s because she has made a study of the history of the ladies Deborah [society] and she can tell you about the strawberry[?] parties and all the others. Then when theyd get through (I read that in the minutes of the congregation) these women would get on the floor and scrub the floor and clean up the place. That isnt done anymore [laughter]. 00:45:00
BG: Rabbi, I would like to get onto another topi which is a very important oneinvolving you in the Greater Hartford community, in the community at large, and that is mainly because you have held a leadership position in this field for many years and you often have been the spokesman for the Jewish community before the general community. You have done much behind the scenes in creating a new climate in interfaith relations. What is your philosophy on interfaith relations and how did you put it into practice; particularly I recall contributions you made, for instance, in changing the climate in West Hartford.
AF: Well, in part, I think, it was due to the fact that Hartford has always been00:46:00fortunate in having a pretty good group of the general clergy. I could do business with them. They were understanding; they were respectful and I would, from the very beginningthe very first year I was here I remember I had to go to a convention out of town and it was an important convention for me to go to it was the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, something like that. I couldnt leave the pulpit so I went to a minister in what is now Central Baptist Church. I went to see Dr. White and asked him if he would pinch-hit for me while I was 00:47:00away. He was perfectly willing to do it and did it very well. That made me a ben bayis a friend of his, and then I was invited to preach there and could come and lecture to their young people. Once they discovered that I could talk English [laughter] they were curious about what is Judaism and so on. And I was willing. Of course the congregation was small. When I came here Beth Israel had only about 215 families. Now it is 1300 or 1400 families. But in those days I wasnt as busy as I was until I made myself available. I was interested, of 00:48:00course, in civic matters and, through civic matters, again I was able to speak up always, always not as a supplicant, never as a beggar always as a proud Jew but with respect and reverence for the sanctities of others. And that made a difference.
Now, you referred to West Hartford. West Hartford in those years was, you know,a small town 15,000 population at the time (75,000 now). It was the strongest Republican town in the United States. This is not speaking against Republicans; I am just giving you a statistical fact there. I remember the first year I was 00:49:00there, there was an election for the Town Council or something of that sort and I asked a few questions; I was always curious, sticking my nose out, and I was told there was a certain man (I wont mention his name) who was kind of the boss amongst the Republicans there but he was a dog. He had no use for Catholics and no use for Jews; neither Catholics nor Jews were to be tolerated. And here, our people were just beginning to move into West Hartford. I began asking them about what the situation was and I was learning that as far as West Hartford was concerned Jewishly, forget about it. Well, Im not the kind who could forget that that because I am a Jew I must therefore be excluded. You know, that wasnt the way Stephen Wise taught me. So I began asking questions and getting involved. 00:50:00
I remember the first year the boys came to my house and I said to them You canfight your machine. Lets make no public statements but lets get out on a door to door campaign amongst our people. Dont go to non-Jews; go only to Jews and tell them that for once and for all weve got to take a stand. Well, came that election and, for the first time in history the Republicans (they got the majority of course there was no stopping it) but there was a strong opposition developing; there was a strong vote against them and then they came running. I remember one day, at the dedication of the Community Church in Elmwood (I was 00:51:00participating in the dedication and, after the dedication we were being shown around the church) I saw that a little man was following me around. Wherever I was he was there right behind me. I didnt know who he was. So, finally, we were going through a door and the two of us happened to get there at the same time and I turned to him and I said Im Rabbi Feldman, who are you? He told me his name. Oh, I said you are the Republican Town Chairman? He said Yes. Well, I said youve been following me around. Is there something you wanted to say to me? He said Yes. I said All right. Lets go over there on the side. What is it you want to know? He said to me as bluntly as Im telling it to you: What are you after? I said Mr. So and So, let me set you straight. 00:52:00There isnt a thing that you have or that you can give that you can offer to me. There is nothing that I want. I am asking for no jobs for anybody. I certainly dont want any for myself. But let me tell you this, Mr. So and So, heaven help you if ever I get word that you denied to give an appointment to a Jew because he was a Jew. Im going to talk so loudly and so frequently that I dont think even you will like it. Do I make myself clear Mr. So and So? He said I think I understand. I said Well just remember that. There isnt a thing you can give me; there is nothing that I want but heaven help you if I ever learn that you 00:53:00excluded a Jew from civic opportunities because he was a Jew.
A little later (how many of you remember Jake Latsiger?). Latsiger was aRepublican ward worker here in Hartford and one day Latsiger had a dinner party at which he had me; he had - whats the name of that big Republican boss? Rorerbeck[?] I was there; Rorerbeck was there; Senator Bingham was there; Walter Batterson was there and Jake of course in his home. We were having dinner at his home. We had a few drinks and were eating and began talking about the situation and I turned to Mr. Rorerbeck and said Is it your policy to exclude Jews from 00:54:00Oh, no. He had no such thing. I said Well, let me tell you something and I told him the story of West Hartford. I remember he turned to Walter Batterson (who later was Mayor of Hartford). He said Walter, who is in charge there? Walter told him who was in charge. He said Youd better get in touch with him and tell him a few things and tell him I said so. We had no trouble after that.
And then you remember Max Goldenthal was elected to the Town Council and JoeFriedman became Mayor of the Town of West Hartford. And then they even came to me and asked me to become Chairman of the Library Board which I chaired for 20 years. One day another Town Chairman who was a real gentleman and a fine gentleman came to me and he said A.J., the boys at the Town Committee met the other day and we would like you to run for the State Legislature. I said Me, 00:55:00run? Nuh uh. He says Look, you know what West Hartford is on the Republican ticket. You wont have to campaign. I said No. Im running for nothing. I will accept appointments from the Governor, from the Mayor, from the Town Council to serve on this board or that board; that Ill do. Thats my duty as a citizen. But election? No, Im not interested in that. Why not? I said Well, Ill tell you why. West Hartford has a lot of anti-Semitism. If my name goes up for election, then there will be an anti-Semitic issue that will be dragged right out into the open campaign. Im not interested. I want it to be that way. So, all right, they understood that.
Then came the fire of the First Church of Christ. On New Years Eve the00:56:00church burned down to the ground. So on the following morning I called the minister, expressed my sympathy and said Now, what are you going to do? He said I dont know. We havent had a chance. The ashes havent cooled yet. I said Well, just so youll know which way to turn, if you want to look we dont use our Temple on Sunday mornings and if you think you and your people would like to use the Temple on Sunday mornings, let me know and I think I can arrange it with my people. He thanked me and, after about a week or 10 days, they came to me and said they decided that they would accept the offer. They wanted to pay and we wouldnt accept any pay even for janitor services. They asked why and I 00:57:00said Because our Temple is not for renting. Our neighbors hae a misfortune and we are taking you in and not charging for it. And, as you know, for two years they used the Temple and that - that changed the climate in West Hartford.
A whole generation, you see, was brought up on that and it has made adifference. They call me now, you know, the Senior Rabbi of that church [laughter].
BG: I know a late United States senator who referred to you as Father Feldman[laughter] in a very affectional way.
AF: Ive got a few kids
BG: Rabbi, before we return to more about what youve done (and theres so much00:58:00of it and much, I know, that we cannot cover tonight), I would like to switch, for the moment to the national scene because as big as you became locally and have become locally and still are one of the few rabbis who has served both as President of the Synagogue Council of America and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the Reform group) and also President of the Hebrew Union College Alumni and in activities that have also taken you as far as being honored by the Grand Lodge of Israel (Grand Lodge of Masons) and you also have been a leader in the Union for Progressive Judaism in the World union. I understand 00:59:00you are going to be going to Geneva in a little while to attend an important meeting there of that union.
AF: Next month.
BG: Tell us a little bit, if time permits, of the role that you played on thenational scene and what youve come up against.
AF: Really theres nothing I can tell you about that. I mean it was part of anormal thing. I was interested in everything that is Jewish and when anybody in any national cause or national organization shows that he is willing to work and is available for service, they welcome it. The help is needed. So I got into so many things. Of course I was primarily interested in my own movement. I mean the Reform movement to me is a very precious thing. So for the Hebrew Union College 01:00:00I served on the Board of Governors for many years; the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in various departments there. Then, of course, from that you branch out into other things the Jewish Publication Society of American, the American Jewish Committee that Ive been on for I dont know how many years now 40 years or more on the Executive Board and so on. I mean there are all kinds of things. You go from one thing to another and they are interlocking directorates. You know, one organization looks at who are the directors of the other and then they start asking you. I mean Im not nave about those things Ive been around but I dont accept anything if Im not going to be useful or work. If they are willing to take me in and let me work with them Ill join. Otherwise I just wont. Im not a politician.
BG: In the same vein of general activity, of course, although you are trying to01:01:00be very modest about how much you have done, you have been singled out for honors in various areas and there have been some significant ones. I understand that the honorary doctorate which Trinity College awarded you was the first one to be awarded to a Jew.
AF: No, not the first awarded to a Jew; the first one to a rabbi, and the onlyone to be awarded to a rabbi. The first honorary doctorate that was given by Trinity was given when what was his name who succeeded Ogilby ...dont know if I can remember his nameno no not JacobsWebster? Funston. Keith Funston. That was his name, Funston. The first year he was president he offered a doctorate to one of his business 01:02:00partners on Wall Street, Weinstein of Sachs and the others that was the first Jew who received an honorary doctorate from Trinity. Several Jews got masters. In those years, Dr. Ogilby was President of Trinity and made a distinction. There were some people he wanted to give honorary degrees to for various reasons but he couldnt quite let himself go to give them a doctorate, so he used to give them an honorary masters degree. I remember to Isadore Wise he gave an honorary masters degree. He couldnt quite let himself go to give him a doctorate [laughter]. But it was the nature of the beast. So far as I know I am the only rabbi who got an honorary doctorate from Trinity. And that was the first year that Jacobs was here. It was his first year here. And Jacobs abolished this monkeyshine about masters degrees for honors. If you give one an 01:03:00honorary degree, then go all the way, dont be a shlumper to give him a masters.
BG: In addition to gathering honorary degrees you also got from Hillyer Collegeand from Hartt College, of course, you were very instrumental in helping build what today is a thriving University of Hartford. You also crossed the line, so to speak, in teaching, at least for the past 20 years, at the Hartford Seminary Foundation and you also have been a lecturer at St. Joseph College.
AF: Well, one thing leads to another. Ive enjoyed my teaching at the Seminary.It meant a great deal to me; it meant a great deal in terms of teaching. Of course at one time they had many more students than there are now (there are fewer students at Seminary), but at one time they had a large student body and 01:04:00if, in the course of a year, I could reach 15 or 20 people who are going to be ministers -mind you, these were people who were going to be ministers so that whatever I taught them of Judaism was going to carry over into their lifetime of ministry so that there would be an influence radiating over into possibly thousands and thousands of lives, and periodically some of them would invite me to come back when they had churches to come and visit and preach for them or to speak to their people and so on that is part of what I conceive as my ambassadorial role. And when, a few years ago St. Joseph College came along and asked me to teach classes there I was delighted to do it. Hard work it is; it is not easy, especially at that time when I was still in the active rabbinate and I 01:05:00still had to worry about a lot of other things. But Ive enjoyed teaching very much and Ive enjoyed the response that I got from the people. Naturally I put a nice veneer on Judaism [laughter].
BG: Turning for a moment to another topic which I know is very close to yourheart and mine - mainly the Connecticut Jewish Ledger which you founded with the late Sam Neusner 44 years ago and of which youve been the only editor. What was the philosophy behind it then and as you approached the weekly task of writing the editorial?
AF: There were two things that I had in mind at the time. I was the one who soldSam on the idea of starting the paper. Sam was working then for the Boston -- what's the name of that paper -- the Boston Jewish Advocate and he was running around New England collecting advertising for 01:06:00them. They came here and of course I liked Sam. He was a remarkable guy. How many of you knew Sam Neusner? He was a dynamo and as genuine and honest as the day is long. He was a grand person. And... He came to me and I asked him what he was doing and how he was doing it and so on and so forth. I said to him Would you be interested in starting a paper here for the Jewish community of Hartford? At that time I was thinking of the state and the whole area. We needed something other than the Advocate of Boston because that was oriented towards Boston. Would you be interested? Oh yes he would, but of course he had to get the money for it and so on. I said Ill help you in some ways and I introduced him 01:07:00around and then finally, being the dynamo that he was, we finally started it in -- October was it? April 1929. I remember October 29. so that was the worst time of all to start of course, we were headed right into the Depression.
Sam went through -- he went through hell. I stood by as much as I could and, so long as he wasalive and even so long as Lee had the paper after he died, I was helping them out and it was purely a labor of love as I think many of you know. I was just interested in seeing a paper. We needed one here. And -- So the -- That was one reason. Another 01:08:00reason was this, a subjective one: I needed an outlet for expressing views on subjects that I couldnt use the pulpit for. I had a free pulpit I had no difficulty with that but there are time when you want to speak on other subjects in Jewish life and those of you who have seen my editorials know that I stick closely to the Jewish scene. I dont go into political discussion; I dont go into economic discussion or so on; I am sticking closely to the Jewish scene and Jewish life. But there are areas in Jewish life on which as an active Jew and as an informed Jew and a committed Jew, I feel I have an opinion and I want to 01:09:00express myself on it. Therefore this became for me a forum. Even though it wasnt always easy - as you know it isnt always easy to produce weekly, Ive enjoyed it enormously. It was for me an important outlet. When the people responded as kindly as you; the people of this community responded at least to my part of it and the fact that with Sam and now with you weve been able to keep the paper, the Jewish Ledger, not as boilerplate which most of the Anglo-Jewish weeklies in the country are just trash. But to keep it as it is, as alive and contemporary and relevant to everything that is in life weve 01:10:00been able to do that and the Jewish Ledger is, youll pardon me for saying it with the pride of a father, just that. It can do more if it had more funds to move with, but its rendering, I think, a very useful service and Im pleased over the fact that I have a share in it and can add my little contribution to it.
BG: Well your contribution is not little and this is a tape for posterity, so Iwould like to say here and now that the first serious thought my partner and I had when we bought the paper over five years ago was to make sure that Rabbi Feldman will continue as Editor which he will for many, many years to come we pray.
Now, I saw something on your desk the other day when I visited you at your office01:11:00
AF: Above or below?
BG: On the desk [laughter].
AF: My desk is one of those desks that when somebody comes in they say Can youever find anything on this desk [laughter]? I know exactly where every piece of paper is.
BG: Well, this was a very interesting note and I asked the Rabbi whether I couldmake reference to it tonight because it was a note from one of the leading churchmen of the Archdiocese of Hartford and he permitted me to read it. Its a very short note but it accompanied the text of an address that this clergyman had given in which he had quoted liberally from Rabbi Feldman. The note read: 01:12:00
To A.J. with deepest respect for your leadership and example of what it meansto be a servant of the loving God.
And I thought that was quite a (even though well deserved) beautiful tribute andI wanted to share it with all who are here tonight.
AF: This might be a good point to stop.
BG: Right. Therefore, I will again, just for the record (not for the audiencehere) repeat that I am Berthold Gaster and Ive had the extreme pleasure of interviewing Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman truly one of the giants in the history of Hartford Jewry. Thank you very much Dr. Feldman.