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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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Reality check

Author to discuss intergenerational ‘experiment’

Katie Hafner began her professional career writing for a small newspaper in Lake Tahoe.

That didn’t last for long, though. “I worked my way up,” said Ms. Hafner, who now writes on health care for the New York Times.

A seasoned journalist, Ms. Hafner was exceptionally well prepared to chronicle an experience in her own life that she calls both an “experiment in intergenerational living” and a “disaster.” Inviting her 77-year-old mother to live with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in San Francisco, Ms. Hafner learned that fairy-tale imaginings are no match for emotional truths.

(In her book, Ms. Hafner calls her mother Helen. That is not her real name; her mother requested anonymity, and Ms. Hafner honored the request.)

 

Self-defense or unnecessary danger?

Armed self-defense is a value strongly supported in Jewish law, according to a statement issued last week by a local Jewish gun club, which is urging two of the largest Orthodox organizations in the country to reconsider their positions on gun control.

On July 16, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing Orthodox rabbis in the United States, issued a statement recognizing the rights of private citizens to own weapons and engage in violence for self-defense, but also calling for the restriction of “easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition,” and denounced “recreational activities that desensitize participants … or glorify war, killing, physical violence, and weapons….”

The RCA resolution came just over a year after the Orthodox Union issued a similar resolution citing its longtime commitment to “common sense gun safety legislation” and calling on U.S. senators to pass legislation to ensure “a safer and more secure American society.”

 

She’s a project-based fellow

Tikvah Wiener tapped by Joshua Venture Group

Tikvah Wiener of Teaneck describes herself as “passionate about project-based learning.”

As head of the English department at the Frisch School in Paramus, where she taught for 13 years, Ms. Wiener brought that innovative educational approach into the high school’s curriculum and extracurricular activities. “It’s a pedagogy where students engage in solving a complex real world problem and they create different products as a result of their learning,” she said.

The products could be a multimedia presentation, or a blog displaying students’ interpretations of Shakespeare. But it also could be a class-wide effort to study the problem of snow removal and offer suggestions for improvement — a project that would include math and science as well as civics and English.

This school year, Ms. Wiener has a new job: She is chief academic officer at the Magen David High School in Brooklyn. And she has just received a prestigious — and lucrative — award to help her promote project-based learning in Jewish day schools across the country.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Meetings of very sharp minds

Larry Krule, retiring Jewish Book Council president, talks about literature and Davar

To learn more about the Jewish community in the late 1960s, you could just read “The Chosen” and “Portnoy’s Complaint.”

Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel was sharply drawn, sociologically on point, and deeply moving. Phillip Roth’s 1969 novel was brash, irreverent, shocking, and controversial.

Both were central to mid-20th-century urban Jewish self-understanding (it’s tempting to say they were seminal, but given the specifics of Portnoy’s complaint, that might not be the best choice of words).

Those two books, among others, had such a strong influence on Lawrence Krule, who read them when they were new and he was young, that eventually they led him to a ten-year presidency of the Jewish Book Council. His term is now ending; he and the council’s president, Carolyn Hessel, are retiring, and both will be honored at a gala dinner on November 18.

 

Remembering Bernie Weinflash

Community mourns visionary leader and founding patron of Shirah chorus

Some people are irreplaceable, said Matthew (Mati) Lazar, founding director and conductor of Shirah, the Community Chorus at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Bernie Weinflash was one of them.”

Mr. Weinflash, founding patron of the choral group now celebrating its 21st year, died on November 9 at 94.

Mr. Weinflash was born on the Lower East Side and was a veteran of World War II. Trained as an accountant and lawyer, he was a stockbroker for Oppenheimer and Co.

Shirah was one of Mr Weinflash’s proudest achievements. In a video of his talk at the choral concert that marked his 90th birthday — “Bernie always spoke at our concerts,” Mr. Lazar said — the founder mused that “by creating Shirah, I will have helped perpetuate Jewish survival.”

 

Here comes the sun

Yeshivat Noam installs solar panels

From the parking lot, all you can see is the yellow warning tape.

But the roof Yeshivat Noam in Paramus holds 1,500 solar panels.

On Friday, the panels were connected to the school’s electric wiring. When they are switched on — that is expected to happen any day now — they will provide about half the school’s electric needs.

And they will make Noam the first area Jewish day school to have gone solar.

 
 
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