What would you do if, one fine morning, you found a baby at your doorstep?
Youd call the police, or social services, or somebody.
Would you take the baby into your home, and raise it as your own, all the way from diapers to marriage canopy?
This is simply unheard of.
Yet, it is said of the late Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918) that while he was known to the Jewish world as a Torah genius, to his community he was known as a master of chesed, of kindness.
Not just being friendly or helpful to people, or dispensing charity, but, for example, taking in babies left on his doorstep and raising them as his own.
Of course, he did this with his wife.
Before he died, this incomparable genius requested that his gravestone record, simply, that he was a baal chesed, a master of kindness.
(His gravestone ended up quite differently another story for another time.)
When a fire burned down most of the town of Brisk, Poland, where he was the citys chief rabbi, he refused to sleep under a roof until he had raised enough money for all the poor of the city to have a roof rebuilt over their heads.
This superior intellect lived heart-and-soul for his people.
I can think of no other metaphor for the late Cheryl Feldberger, formerly of Denver, the rebbetzin of Rabbi Yechezkel Feldberger, the mother of four, the sister of one, an orphan herself, who died very suddenly, Jan. 22, in Brooklyn.
Cheryl Feldberger was larger than life, a person whose passing at the age of 54 leaves many personal missions of chesed suspended in mid-air. It will take years just to know all of the pieces that have now fallen to the floor. Maybe no one will ever know, probably even those closest to her.
To my knowledge, she didnt take in children left on her doorstep, but, in a way, she went even further. She looked for lost souls and took them into her life, often into her home, and made sure they got taken into the lives of many others.
In the contemporary Jewish community, foundlings are not a major issue. We have other ways of handling unwanted babies than leaving them anonymously on the communal rabbis doorstep. We also have new problems: dysfunctional families, depression and other mental illnesses, poverty within the framework of plenty, which yields pressures far different from conditions of general poverty.
The extreme chesed of the Soloveitchik family found its contemporary expression in Cheryl Feldberger.
There was the case of the ex-Mormons who wanted to return to Judaism, yet were attached to their cats. Long story short: They were taken in, cats and all, for months, until some more permanent arrangement could be found.
There was the case of the student was he a rebel or just lost? I didnt get the full story whom she took under her wing, and built him up. He is now doing well in a post-high school yeshiva. It took her years to get him to this stage.
There were the two children from a broken home whom no Jewish day school would admit. There was no money for tuition, and probably a stack of emotional problems.
These were not her children, not her relatives, not even her friends. They were just out there. Souls in need. A family in trouble, without a friend. Cheryl Feldberger became their friend.
She gave high school principals no peace until she finally persuaded one to take in these students.
One fine day she corralled a principal on the phone when, providentially, he saw these kids playing on a field visible from his window. He, who had tried so hard to get Ms. Feldberger off his back, told her:
I dont look for problems; I have enough in my school already. But I also never turn away a problem that comes to my door. Youre calling me again. And this time the kids are outside my window. Ill consider your pleas as falling under the category of a problem that has come to my door.
As in business, in research and in so many other aspects of life, it is persistence that often ends up revealing the way forward. Ms. Feldberger applied that lesson to the field of chesed, to helping others. Try hard enough, come back to it again and again, and a solution will shine forth.
Ms. Feldberger never stopped; in fact, if you got her on the phone, it was usually because she took your call while on another line with someone else.
Some people are methodical, organized, focused, dealing with one task or problem at a time. They finish it up, then move on. Ms. Feldberger was sensitive to a world too full of tasks and problems for her to work that way.
I can delineate some key word: some, not all of the pieces of her chesed, but their delineation does not capture the phenomenal sense of movement and simultaneity that marked her super-energetic life.
Take the toys the local toy shop loved Cheryl Feldberger. She was probably its best customer. She knew so many kids who needed toys. It was one of her biggest delights to supply them.
Take the tzedakah collector who lied; he told this story and that. Ms. Feldberger was told by a rabbinic authority not to believe a word he said. Her response?
Why does he tell these stories? He is so embarrassed by his true situation that he makes up these stories; he is too embarrassed to tell the truth. She helped him.
Take the adult Russian Jews who needed a bris, a circumcision. Have you ever been a sandak for a person larger than you are? Ms. Feldberger honored me and many others in this way, for when the communist gates broke and Russian Jews came a-streaming to our shores, Ms. Feldberger located mohels who were experts for adults. Through a network who? how? I never learned she located the adult Jews willing to undertake this fundamental mitzvah.
Cheryl Feldberger was a respecter of every person, and of no person; she would cajole everyone from major rabbinic leaders to experts in everything from circumcision to toys to do her bidding for others. I am not the first to observe that this is the classic definition of the chasidic rebbe; and in her case, the appellation certainly included brilliant fluency and expertise in Torah.
Let it be known: no biography, however extensive, and no vignette, however poignant, can capture a person. You had to know the person. A biography or a vignette can make a person vivid and real, something to embrace if you knew the person. But if you didnt, the written word is painfully limited. It is, however, all we have.
Yet, the written word is the vessel of our tradition, of G-ds word itself, the Torah. Sometimes the Torah knows that the only way we can really grasp it is to serve up a spare, unadorned, demanding imperative, such as love your neighbor as yourself.
The Torah is telling us that if we really want to know what loving your neighbor is, you must witness someone who does it, who upholds it. Even the Torah cannot describe it it must be lived.
Who is alive who is not broken in some way? Who is alive who does not work, in some way, to repair the break within him? If we know how important it is to repair this break, and if we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, then we must attempt to repair the break within them, too.
I know how much time it takes to build up a broken person, how demanding friendship can be when a person loses his livelihood, his faith, his emotional stability, his health, or his family.
A friendship can consume your life.
Yet, the list of such missions of friendship that Ms. Feldberger undertook runs long. She embraced people whom others rejected, whom others had given up on, whom others called neer-do-wells.
In Cheryl Feldberger, to build people up was a habit of mind not limited to the unsuccessful and to the not yet successful. She built up people who were already successful.
This is not quite the same thing as seeing the best in people, which is a static, analytical, observational perspective. That is what Ethics of the Fathers terms a good eye. This is a very good thing. But Cheryl Feldberger also had a good heart; she found ways to encourage people, to move them forward, move them higher a little compliment there, a joyous outburst here, a touch of humor, a bit of infectious playacting whatever it took to push a person higher.
Often the object of her solicitude did not realize what she was doing until long after the fact.
In some cases, it was realized only after her passing.
In other cases, long before her passing. Her habit of mind took root, perhaps, in her own orphanhood. Her father died when she was a youngster, which prompted her to take her little brother under her wing. He felt her concern and care long into his adulthood, extended also to his children. This concern was attested to, and now sorely missed by, other nieces and nephews, too.
The sudden passing of Cheryl Feldberger left many people bereft, hardly least, her mother Miriam Beren.
Yet, consider this: Among the many pieces of Ms. Feldbergers busy life were her shalosh seudos third Sabbath meals. There were always 15, 25, 40 people around the table. Not just her friends. Not just her special missions. But also visitors, passers by, old acquaintances. The prayer of Sabbath afternoon says, Who is like your people Israel, one nation one earth? As Sabbath peace waned and the darkness of the week loomed, Ms. Feldberger made the Jewish people one nation within the walls of her own home.
Would the following astonish you? It does me. This splendid third Sabbath meal took place also on the Sabbath after she died, the day after her burial, as her larger family, her husband, her daughters and son, her uncle and her mother, carried on as if Cheryl were still there. Her orchestration of great things immediately found its living legacy, barely after the mourning period for her, the shiva, had begun.
Cheryls energy was so powerful that it infected and inflected her familys commitment in its darkest hour to sustain her lavish love of the Jewish people.
See also, Tehilla Goldberg’s View from Central Park, “Chasida v’eishet ma’ase“.