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Kenosha shul celebrates rabbi’s 25 years there

By Leon Cohen

February 25th, 2010

Rabbi Dena Feingold

Rabbi Dena Feingold

Shortly after she was appointed spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha in 1985, Rabbi Dena Feingold and her then fiancé-now husband Brad Backer went to a picnic held by members of the congregation.

At that picnic were four families that had minor children — and one of the members told Feingold that these were the only minor children in the congregation.

That was how Feingold learned that her synagogue was then “sort of heading in the direction of being a geriatric congregation,” she said in a telephone interview on Feb. 9. “I could teach all the kids myself in a one-room situation.”

Moreover, “in the first couple of years, I was doing tons of funerals,” she said. Finally, the members were nearly all living in the city of Kenosha itself.

In the 25 years she has served that Reform synagogue, the demographics have changed significantly. Feingold more seldom officiates at funerals and Beth Hillel’s religious school has many more children. Member families — about 115 of them —now come from all over Kenosha and Racine counties and even from northern Illinois.

Esther Letven, who has been a member of Beth Hillel for some 35 years and a former president, attributes the changes to Feingold.

“I think that she has been a true catalyst to help us grow,” Letven said in a telephone interview Feb. 9. “Over the years, her reputation in the community and around Wisconsin just started to draw people.”

Letven now belongs to a committee of five couples that is coordinating a celebration of Feingold’s 25th year at Beth Hillel.

The events began this past Oct. 25 with an open house at the synagogue for the congregation and members of the general Kenosha community, and they will culminate in a weekend of activities April 16-18.

Making history

Of course, Feingold, 54, already has left a legacy in the overall history of Wisconsin Jewry as well as that of Beth Hillel. She was the first Wisconsin-native woman rabbi and the first woman rabbi to be employed full-time by Wisconsin congregations — first at Congregation Shalom in Milwaukee as assistant rabbi in 1982, then at Beth Hillel.

In fact, Feingold said that at the time, she was the only woman rabbi employed full-time in any synagogue in the whole upper Midwest U.S.

Letven recalled that when Beth Hillel decided to hire her, “there were some members who were a little concerned about how older members would react” to having a woman rabbi. But “it didn’t take very long” before “she won the hearts of everyone,” especially because of “the way she attended to those who were sick or lost a loved one.”

Mark Gesner, Beth Hillel’s current president and a member for the past four years, experienced this aspect of Feingold’s rabbinical work.

In a letter he wrote to the congregation about the establishment of the synagogue’s Spiritual Legacy Fund in tribute to Feingold, he described how last March the rabbi visited his then 7-year-old daughter in the hospital when she had an emergency appendectomy.

“I felt thankful, embraced, and moved,” Gesner wrote. “It was a deeply spiritual experience for me — somehow know that my daughter was being care for by a power far beyond my own.”

And in a telephone interview Feb. 9, Gesner said, “When [Feingold] commits to something, she makes sure she does it right, from leading High Holidays services to her annual Purim shtick…. I think she’s an extraordinary spiritual leader.”

Feingold said she didn’t know if she was going to be in Kenosha for a “long term” when she first arrived. But she found that Kenosha was a “good fit.”

For one, she herself is used to being in a small Jewish community, having grown up (along with her brother, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold) in Janesville.

Yet Kenosha is not so small or isolated as to be out of touch with larger Jewish communities, specifically Milwaukee to the north and Chicago to the south.

“It is a nice combination of a smaller community, but having access to the larger Jewish world,” said Feingold, who did her own form of commuting for eight years.

In addition to their Kenosha home, they lived in a duplex in Whitefish Bay while their two children attended Milwaukee Jewish Day School and Whitefish Bay High School. Now that they are both out of the house, Feingold and Backer moved full-time to their Kenosha home.

Moreover, “the people here are really exceptional; a very warm, family-like, caring, and open-minded group of people.”

One of the things she has most appreciated about her tenure in Kenosha has been “the intimate way I get to know people and their extended families, to know the community itself and see it change.”

Now, she said, some children who had their b’nai mitzvah ceremonies at Beth Hillel when she first arrived now are sending their children to religious education at the synagogue. Moreover, of the children who received religious education from her, two are now ordained rabbis and a third is in rabbinical school, she said.

And of course, there are now many more women rabbis serving congregations in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest. “I have tons of company, which I’m very happy about,” she said. “It is much more fun than being alone.”

The April events will include a special worship service, a banquet, and a celebration in the religious school. For more information, visit the congregation’s Web site, www.bethhillel.net. 

Formerly op-ed editor, Leon Cohen has written for The Chronicle for more than 25 years.