For more than four decades Rebbetzin Doris Feinstein had the honor to hear fascinating stories of self-discovery, most of which will never be known to the public. As a mentor to Jewish converts, she helps them navigate relationships with their family members, finding a Jewish community where they can feel at home, while maintaining the faith that brought them into the covenant of Avraham Avinu.
“It’s like HaKadosh Boruch Hu pushed me to work with gerim. They need a friend who is frum and also worldly,” said Feinstein, who resides in Kew Gardens Hills. Raised in a section of the South Bronx that did not have many Jews, she took long walks to shul with her family, providing a feeling of effort in her sense of observance. Her husband Rabbi Joseph Feinstein zt”l was also born in the Bronx and received his semicha at Yeshiva University.
After a few years serving as a military chaplain in South Carolina, he and his wife settled in 1972 in Los Angeles, where he worked as a yeshiva principal and supervised a kashering agency. “Rabbi Maurice Lamm called my husband for advice and that’s how it began,” she said of her experience in mentoring converts.Rabbi Feinstein died in 1989 at the young age of 44, following a three year battle against cancer.
By then she had long developed a reputation for shepherding converts through the process and defending halachic conversions in forums featuring non-Orthodox Jewish speakers. “They’re quick but they do not have the emunah that HaShem is the author of the Torah,” she said of non-Orthodox conversions. She’s had a few students who initially received giur through Reform and Conservative batei din, before recognizing the authenticity of Orthodoxy. “They say to me, ‘Now I really feel like a Jew.’”
A sizable number of converts that Feinstein encountered are former Catholics, which is not a surprise to her. “Catholicism has a lot of fears and indoctrination that failure to listen means gehinnom. They sleep with a crucifix over their heads fearing they are not good enough. Then there’s the concept of original sin- that we are all born sinners. In contrast, we teach that we’re B’tzelem Elokim.”
Queens resident Gail (Sarai) Maramba, raised in a Catholic Filipino family recognized the discrepancies in her former faith early on. “Questions were not welcome,” she said. “But Jews welcome questions and are encouraged to learn more.” Through a friend, she was connected to Rabbi Hayyim Schwartz of the Chofetz Chaim yeshiva, who in turn introduced her to Rebbetzin Feinstein. “She was the first close person I’ve had in the community. I could ask her anything, she wasn’t judging.She doesn’t just teach concepts, but also how to apply the law in daily life.”
For younger converts living with their gentile parents, Feinstein says that one should not leave the family but work with them to find an accommodation. “How will my mother cook for me? You are the mashgicha, you shop with her. That’s how they make Thanksgiving dinner together without pushing family away.” She noted that these converts are not living with their parents, but when they are at their homes, finding ways to maintain love and respect within the bounds of halacha.
With most converts entering Jewish life as singles, Feinstein is aware that shidduchim are not easy to secure. She urges patience lest a convert marries an unfit spouse which could result in divorce at best and abuse at worst. “I don’t let them fall prey to settling. I tell them to take their time. Rabbi Romm and I interview their potential matches,”Feinstein said. In Queens, she knows the rabbis who educate converts and welcome them into the faith. “Rabbi Algaze taught many Latino converts as he speaks Spanish. Rabbi Gans often asked for my opinion. He is a gentleman and a loving person with enthusiasm for his work.”
Mrs. Feinstein worked closely with Rabbi Peretz Steinberg and Rabbi Herschel Solnica z’l (who introduced her to the Vaad Harabbonim of Queens) when she returned from Los Angeles.
She also confers with Rabbi Shmuel Marcus.
Mrs. Feinstein says “she is grateful to work with these beautiful neshomas who were present with all of us at Har Sinai”.
In turn, Rabbi David Algaze praised Feinstein for being like “a mother” who raises children. “She cares and does it responsibly. A few years ago, conversion was a weird phenomenon, but today communities are much more welcoming and this includes haredi communities.”
Feinstein has 19 grandchildren of her own, along with thick photo albums of converts who she taught, standing under the Chuppah, and with their children. She said that some of them keep in touch, while others feel like they’d graduated and say goodbye to their teacher after immersing in a mikvah. Many of the converts she taught have made aliyah, feeling it to be their home as Jews. Maramba calls Feinstein before Shabbos and remains in Queens, finding this community to be friendly and non-judgmental. “She guided me and my husband. She knew Joe and knew that we were a good match. He’s a Persian Jew from Great Neck.”
By Sergey Kadinsky