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The power of faith and friendship

Englewood man triumphs over illness to win his doctorate

 
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At his graduation, Dr. David Feder is flanked by his wife, Orli Feder, and his mother, Naomi Feder.

This past year was particularly good for David Feder of Englewood. Dr. David Feder, that is.

Not only did he marry an “amazing” woman, but he earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from NYU Poly.

But Feder is older than the average student, and the road he traveled to his doctorate was a long and hard one. So hard, in fact, that had he not believed that “our prayers are heard and God is with us,” he might not have been able to continue.

A self-described “Englewoodian” — he lived there most of his life and attended the Moriah School there — Feder moved to Israel in 1984, studying at Har Etzion and serving in the Israel Defense Forces for several years.

“I went for a year, but I really knew it would be more,” he said.

But after starting a program in engineering at Tel Aviv University, he was called home in 1991, when his father became ill. He finished his undergraduate studies at Yeshiva University and then began work for his father’s company while pursuing a master’s degree.

In 1992, Feder was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

“It’s an auto-immune disease that affects the colon and/or the ilium,” he said. “The immune system attacks your internal organs, causing lesions and ulcers. It’s very painful.”

Feder’s condition worsened until he became housebound, unable to function for some four years. Fortunately, he recovered, and when he felt well enough he returned to Israel in the hopes of getting a job.

His search proved unsuccessful.

“Everyone told me to go back and get some experience in engineering,” he said, noting that while he was in Israel, “I was not feeling well.”

Returning to the states with the intention of getting a job, he got sick within weeks.

“It was difficult to get up and go out,” he said, but when he was once again able to function, he attended a job fair sponsored by Columbia University and Polytechnic University.

“They said I was out of the field for too long and couldn’t apply for jobs as a new graduate,” Feder said. “But I [also] couldn’t compete with those who had work experience.”

Still, that job fair would prove to be a turning point, motivating him to go back to school for a one-year certificate that would enable him “to get my feet wet and go back to the workforce. I really loved it,” he said. “I had been home for so long and this was a chance to work and get out and do something. I gave it my whole neshamah.” In other words, he put his whole soul into his study.

While pursuing the certificate, he met the man who would help him shape his future. Professor Richard Gross, whom he describes both as his “boss/mentor” and “a kind of a father figure,” pointed him in a new direction, introducing him to the world of chemistry.

“I had originally chosen the instrumentation track, which is similar to systems engineering,” Feder said, differentiating between the two approaches to biomedical engineering. “Professor Gross introduced me to the world of chemistry, and because of him, I switched to polymer science.”

“It wasn’t my field,” Feder said. “I had no chemistry lab experience.”

Nevertheless, Feder impressed Gross so much with his ability and his drive that the professor suggested he consider a doctorate, with Gross as his adviser.

“I never thought of doing a Ph.D.,” Feder said. “And I was afraid of chemistry.”

Deciding to go for it — and taking an immuno-suppressant that apparently was working well — he spent the next five years doing research for his doctorate. But then, advised by his doctor to stop taking the medication because he appeared to be in total remission, he got sick once again.

This time, however, he developed a new range of symptoms, and the medication no longer seemed to work.

“It was getting much worse,” Feder said. “There were a lot of other symptoms, like joint degeneration and problems with my liver. I tried to push through the pain until I couldn’t do it anymore.”

The timing was terrible.

“After five years of Ph.D. work, I had just started to write my thesis,” he said. Now, he found himself in Holy Name Hospital with a severe blood disorder. “I didn’t think I’d survive,” he said. “But I got through it.”

With the worst behind him, he could once again begin to deal with his Crohn’s.

Feeling well enough by September to resume work on his thesis, Feder managed to finish it by the end of December. He defended the work in January and received his doctorate last week. When, as a Ph.D. recipient, he was hooded on the stage, Professor Gross “gave me a hug and said ‘You did it.’”

The new Ph.D. said that giving up never was an option.

“There was too much at stake,” he said. “I had worked too hard and gone through too much to give up.”

Still, he said, he could never have done any of it without the support of family, friends, and Professor Gross.

“He got me through every single step,” Feder said of his thesis adviser. “He was like a father figure. He stepped in when he saw I was sad and called me in [to talk]. He was that kind of person.”

For his part, Gross says he was impressed by Feder’s perseverance and by the fact that “after being sick for so long, the first time he had enough strength he would start working on his thesis. It was pretty amazing. He was determined to get this Ph.D.”

Gross said he took Feder under his wing because “I thought he had the ability, the drive, the interest. I look for certain characteristics in a person. Is he self-driven? Will he be able to problem-solve? David had those characteristics.”

While there was never any guarantee that Feder would be able to get through the program, “all you could do was hope,” Gross said. “Nobody knew what the outcome would be.”

Now, Gross said, the challenge is to get a job.

Gross said that Feder’s faith is “obvious. You could feel his spiritual side. That part of his life means very much to him.”

He said as well that he considers it part of his job “to leave the door open” so that students can come in and talk. Whether a student is dealing with an illness or is here from another country and missing home, “it’s pretty difficult,” he said. “One of the things I love about my job is developing a very special bond with the students that’s more than work.”

Feder, who got married last year to a woman who has “been with me through everything,” said his faith has helped sustain him through his long ordeal.

“You look at the world, how scary it is, even if you are healthy. If you feel that you are alone, that there’s no one in charge, it’s so easy to lose hope.”

While he continues to undergo treatments every five weeks that “knock me out for a few days,” he says it’s a small price to pay for what he has accomplished.

Shmuel Goldin, the rabbi of Congregation Avodath Torah in Englewood, has known Feder and his family for three decades.

“They were leaders of the shul,” he said. “I knew and respected his father deeply, and his mother is an extraordinary woman.”

While he was aware of Feder’s health issues over the years, his relationship with the longtime congregant deepened more recently when he helped guide the conversion process for Feder’s wife, YuFei Zhao, now called Orli by family and friends.

“He is a tower of quiet strength, someone whose sense of God’s presence in his life, and of God accompanying him during his journey, is very real and very natural,” Goldin said.

 
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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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Everybody’s on the bus

Bergen, other local counties send 1,500 to lobby for Israel on Capitol Hill

The relationship between Israel and the United States might be somewhat strained right now, so at least 1,500 concerned Jews from around the area traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to plead Israel’s case.

Many of the members of that Norpac delegation are from Bergen County.

“It was very gratifying,” said Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood. Norpac brought 33 buses to the nation’s capital on May 13.

“We cut off registration on May 4, the deadline date,” he said, noting that while the organization has been known to extend the deadline, this year, as the number of would-be attendees steadily grew, that was not possible.

“The turnout was really impressive,” said Dr. Chouake, adding that the large number of legislators who cleared time in their calendar to meet with members of his group was impressive as well.

 

The North, the South, the Civil War, and us

In Teaneck, Princeton rabbi to examine the war’s roots, its results, and its effects on the Jews

Maybe you think that we fought the Civil War to stop slavery.

Maybe you think that the causes of the war were entirely economic, and had nothing to do with slavery.

Maybe you think that good and evil were clear in the Civil War, and that the North — that would be us — represented unsullied virtue.

Well, you’d be wrong, according to Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction. The North was as morally culpable as the South in the great vice of slavery. There were no angels. He will discuss his understanding of American history at length and in detail during Kabbalat Shabbat services at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on Friday, May 29, at 8 p.m., in a talk he’s called “An Impartial Jewish View of the War of Yankee Aggression.” The talk coincides with the 150th anniversary of the war’s end.

 

A band of sisters

It makes sense, really. There was music everywhere. They were a family immersed in music, four sisters who sang together for years, a talented songwriter, and dreams for the future that always included music.

What else could the Glaser sisters do?

“I always wanted to be a singer in a band,” said the eldest sister, Faige Glaser Drapkin, 34, who, with her sister Chaya, one year younger, helped make that dream come true.

Chaya, too, wanted music to be “a big part of my life.”

Much of it had to do with the link between music and family. “When I saw the Mamas and Papas on Ed Sullivan, I actually thought they were a family,” she said. “I loved their harmony, spirit, and colors, and it looked like they loved what they were doing! I knew that I wanted in on that beautiful fun too.

 
 
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