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Give kicking rabbi the boot

By Daily Bruin Staff

Feb. 19, 2007 9:03 p.m.

In high school, my English teacher once brought a punching rabbi toy to class ““ a bearded doll operated by a lever on the doll’s back. We were all tickled by the seemingly absurd combination. Not until I came to college did I see this combination materialize in real life.

Last week, the Daily Bruin published excerpts from a letter written by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, in which he publicly apologized for assaulting Rachel Neuwirth, a Jewish journalist.

“I am deeply sorry that I hit, kicked and scratched you and called you a liar on October 21, 2003,” he wrote, calling the attack “unprovoked.”

But Hillel has allowed Seidler-Feller to serve as director of UCLA’s branch, which is an embarrassment to the campus community.

If not for the shocking and inexcusable nature of the attack itself, Seidler-Feller should be let go due to the shameful way he conducted himself following the incident.

The incident took place after a speech by Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz at Royce Hall. UCLA alumnus David Hakimfar chronicled what he witnessed at the event:

“I saw my rabbi take swings to Neuwirth’s face and kicks to her legs. The only thing that saved Neuwirth from being pounded in the face was a notebook in Rabbi Seidler-Feller’s hand that didn’t allow his arm to make the full extension to punch her head,” Hakimfar wrote in the online magazine Jewsweek, and confirmed to me.

Seidler-Feller, who is on sabbatical until August, could not be reached for comment.

Rather than accept responsibility for the attack, Seidler-Feller and his lawyer initially tried to shift the blame to the victim: “It was Ms. Neuwirth who accosted the rabbi, it was Ms. Neuwirth who confronted the rabbi in an angry and belligerent manner, and it was Ms. Neuwirth who spewed hateful and venomous words at the rabbi,” Donald Etra, Seidler-Feller’s attorney at the time, told a Daily Bruin reporter.

The lawyer alluded to Neuwirth’s use of the word “capo” ““ a term referring to the Jews in concentration camps who cooperated with Nazis ““ which he suggested provoked the attack.

But Seidler-Feller’s recent acknowledgement in his letter that the attack was “unprovoked,” and the accounts of several witnesses suggest that Neuwirth used the term only after Seidler-Feller assaulted her.

Yet Seidler-Feller even considered filing a lawsuit against Neuwirth for provoking him, as Etra told the Jewish Daily Forward.

But a much less reported ““ and even more disturbing ““ aspect of the incident is Seidler-Feller’s alleged attempted assault on a second woman the same night.

After attacking Neuwirth, the rabbi saw Allyson Rowen Taylor, former vice president of pro-Israel group StandWithUs, and lunged at her as well, according to Taylor.

“After he had attacked Rachel … he came after me and lunged at me and started screaming and (a student) literally put his arms around him and pulled him off of me.”

Joshua Pollack, Seidler-Feller’s current attorney, declined to comment.

This disturbing behavior is clearly unacceptable from any individual of the campus community, particularly from a religious and cultural leader. A student would almost certainly have been expelled for such an attack.

So why is Seidler-Feller allowed to continue to run Hillel at UCLA?

Calls to David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, were not returned.

Only now, as part of a legal settlement, is Seidler-Feller accepting full responsibility for the attack, in a full apology which is three years overdue.

“This ordeal took more than three years to get back to square one ““ a proper letter of apology ““ which he could have made long ago,” Neuwirth said.

This situation is not without irony; Seidler-Feller is well-known for his dovish, pacifist views regarding responses to threats far more grave than one Israeli journalist.

There is only one way to truly resolve the incident, and that is for Hillel to find a new director ““ one with more self-control and respect for others’ rights.

To find out where you can buy your very own punching rabbi doll, e-mail Lazar at [email protected]. Send general comments to [email protected].

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