Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan hires first full-time rabbi

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That was 15 years ago — a lifetime ago for Feldman, who spent this past Yom Kippur as the first full-time rabbi of the Palo Alto Orthodox Minyan.

This year marked a new beginning for both Feldman and the Minyan. For Feldman, who recently returned from a 10-year stretch of intensive study in Israel, it marked the first time he has served as a rabbi.

For the Minyan, which has been led by laypeople since its inception in 1975, hiring a full-time rabbi is a step on the path toward establishing a more permanent Orthodox community.

Nestled between Stanford University and Silicon Valley, the Minyan is renowned for its intellectual congregants, its electronic mailing list and to a certain extent, its transient membership. With many of the members Stanford students, there is a constant turnover in the 150 people who gather to pray at the shul's temporary home in a rented office space.

Nancy Chodosh Gofman, who chaired the search committee, says hiring Feldman was a conscious effort to add a sense of stability to the congregation.

"I've come here to help the congregation, which is passing a defining moment in its existence," Feldman says.

"It's turning itself into a mature community — one in which young Orthodox couples will find an attractive place to live, learn and worship."

For Feldman, the transition from assimilation to Orthodoxy was a gradual process that began one summer in Jerusalem, where he got his first introduction to textual Judaic studies at Yeshivat Ohr Samayach.

While Feldman did not become observant that summer, he says the experience of learning in an Orthodox yeshiva was a turning point in his rediscovery of religion.

"Jewish tradition struck me as a very powerful thing," he says. "It had a very powerful critique of modernity that stopped me in my tracks. I felt the only intellectually honest thing to do was to go back and give it another look."

After graduating from Yale in 1985, Feldman returned to Israel to study full time at Machon Shlomo, a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

After receiving smicha (Orthodox ordination recognizing mastery of textual studies and Jewish law) in Jerusalem, Feldman returned to the United States this past summer with his wife, Ellen, and his children after accepting the position in Palo Alto. The Feldmans have three children, Aharon, 5; Sara Liebe, 3; and Aliza, 1.

Feldman, whose English name is Laurence, says he has "only recently begun to use my Hebrew name, recently enough that my wife will still be calling me Larry for quite a while."

Chodosh Gofman says Feldman was an attractive candidate in part because he had a strong secular background.

"With so many Stanford students and high-tech members, it was important to have a rabbi with as broad a background as possible," she says.

Now that the holidays are over, Feldman plans to concentrate his efforts on teaching classes for all members of the congregation.

"This is a very intensely intellectual area," he says. "There's no reason why they have to be second rate in terms of Torah."

As rabbi of the first Orthodox congregation to list electronic mail addresses in its roster, Feldman also will spend time trying to master the complexities of the computer world, using the Internet to access Torah study groups and educational software.

Meanwhile, the congregation is setting down more halachic roots.

Plans are in the works to build a mikveh (ritual bath) and an eruv , the string or wire hung around the perimeters of a neighborhood allowing observant Jews to carry small items out of their homes on Shabbat.