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Following in his Daughter's Torah Steps

June 1, 2011 By:
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Jonathan Kremer and Aviva Fellman in Jerusalem

Aviva Fellman, 29, has wanted to be a rabbi since she was in the second grade, when she studied prayers by flashlight under her covers, late into the night.

Her father, 57-year-old Jonathan Kremer, a noted graphic artist, has taken a much-less-direct route to rabbinical school.

Now, the father-daughter combo from Ardmore are both students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the flagship academic institution of the Conservative movement.

They are believed to be the first father and daughter to be studying for the rabbinate simultaneously, and provide a most unusual example of a father following his daughter's footsteps.

The recently married Fellman, who is the oldest of Kremer's three daughters, has just one more year to go till she gets her rabbinic ordination, while Kremer is three years away from completing his studies. Typically, rabbinical school is a five-year endeavor.

They each said that being classmates came naturally. During a recent interview at Kremer's Ardmore home, they shared tales of saving each other seats in lecture halls, bringing one another cups of coffee and helping each other prep for exams.

Fellman said she has wanted to become a rabbi ever since Rabbi Neil Cooper became the religious leader of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood two decades ago. She said his warm manner demonstrated just how enriching synagogue life can be.

Kremer, for his part, said his daughter's choice to fully immerse herself in the study of Torah helped propel him on a path he'd long pondered.

"As she described her classes and the milieu she got to be in, I was kind of envious. It was something that I wanted to be part of as well," he said.

Noting that the Kremer household has long been infused with Judaism, Cooper said that it's been no surprise that two future rabbis have sprouted from such an environment.

Raised in an observant household in Fair Lawn, N.J., Kremer said he briefly considered the rabbinate as a career path, but decided five years was too great a time commitment. Now, it seems, there is nothing he'd rather be doing.

The End of the Path

The commercial artist, who has developed a niche producing Jewish art, said he'd already been contemplating a life change when his father grew gravely ill several years ago. Kremer recalled that, before he died, his father asked him to conduct the funeral.

"The process of learning the ritual procedures was the final push I needed to realize that the rabbinate was the destination of the path I had already been traveling," said Kremer.

This coming academic year will actually be the only one where Kremer and Fellman will be at the New York campus at the same time. (They did study in Israel together.) When Kremer started in 2009, his daughter -- still a Kremer at the time -- left New York to spend a year in Israel.

That one year turned into two when she met her future husband, a Guatemalan-born Israeli named Ari Fellman, in a Tel Aviv synagogue. Typically, JTS rabbinical students spend their third year in Israel, but the school let Fellman complete her fourth year there as well. The couple had a Jerusalem wedding in December.

A Family Affair

The spring of 2010 turned into a true family affair. Not only was Fellman in Israel, but Kremer's middle daughter, Hannah, was serving in the Israel Defense Forces, and his youngest daughter, Devora, a college student, was at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for the semester.

Kremer received permission from JTS to switch his schedule so he could join his daughters in the Jewish state during his first year, rather than his third.

While there, Kremer not only studied Talmud and Midrash, he also finished a book project, an illustrated manuscript based on the Eshet Hayil prayer. That's the section from the book of Proverbs that husbands traditionally read to their wives on Shabbat.

First undertaken as a gift for his wife, the book was recently published under the imprint Knesset Press; all editions are handmade in Jerusalem. (The least expensive version costs $395.)

Both Kremer and Fellman hope to become pulpit rabbis, and Jonathan and Ellen Kremer say that they are both willing to leave their home of more than two decades in order to serve a new community.

Fellman said that "up until the year that I was applying to rabbinical school, I did not want to be a pulpit rabbi. But I really see it as the best way to reach the greatest age range over the entire calendar. It's more than I could at a camp or at a school. It's the whole calendar. It's the whole life cycle."

Both said they are well aware that the Conservative movement's membership numbers have faced a precipitous decline in recent years and that many younger Jews have felt increasingly alienated from congregations.

While many in the Jewish world have spoken about meeting young people where they are -- namely online -- Fellman said that a rabbi can make the greatest impact by making "human contact." In a sense, she hopes to bring the spirit of her childhood home, and the sense that Judaism can be fun, into the synagogue.

Kremer said that, in the end, he hopes to "enable others to enjoy what we love about Judaism, to teach them about the special things that the kids got to do because of Shabbat rather than the things they couldn't do."

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