Klal Yisrael suffered a great loss when Rebbetzin Shelia (Chava Sarah) Feinstein passed away the evening of August 8th,
the 28thof Av. The Rebbetzin had been in a serious car accident two weeks earlier. Rebbetzin Feinstein was the beloved wife of Rabbi Reuven Feinstein, shlit”a, the rosh yeshivaof the Yeshiva of Staten Island, and was the dedicated daughter-in-law of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, and Rebbetzin Shima Feinstein, z’l.
Rebbetzin Feinstein served with distinction as the general studies principal for Yeshivat Shaare Torah Girls Elementary School for seventeen years, and was respected and beloved by students and staff alike. She was known by all as “Mrs. Feinstein.” She had a reputation as one who set goals for herself and helped others to set personal goals as well. She looked for the lessons life had to impart, and focused on having a positive, meaningful relationship with others and with Hashem.
Although I did not have a close personal relationship with the Rebbetzin, I was impressed with how she radiated kindness and goodwill to all she met, even if the encounters were brief. Although the Rebbetzin was warm and friendly, she still made one feel he or she was in the presence of royalty. One might think that a person of such royal stature might not involve herself in pressing the clothing of the boys in the yeshiva or assisting a daughter-in-law or granddaughter with similar acts of kindness. But this was part of the Rebbetzin’s greatness. She did many acts of hesedquietly, out of the limelight.
Understanding that the Rebbetzin did not consider anything she did to help others as a mundane act gives us insight to this uniquely special woman, who was really able to “do it all.” She felt that Hashem strengthened herto do whatever she set out to do, and gave her the wisdom to mentor and encourage women to take roles in the Torah community and, in particular, positions teaching Torah to girls and young women.
Rebbetzin Feinstein’s Background
and Special Traits
Rebbetzin Feinstein was in the first graduating class of Esther Schoenfeld Bais Yaakov in New York’s Lower East Side. After graduating she pursued a secular degree in order to support her husband, so that he could continue to learn Torah. In those years, it was not a given for girls to learn in Bais Yaakov or to commit to life as a kollelwife.
The Rebbetzin’s background helped to build the home she envisioned for herself and her husband. Her father, Rav Avraham Halevi Kaplan, zt”l, was himself an educator par excellence and was a pioneer, agreeing to support his young son-in-law in kollel.
There is an abundance of stories from family and friends about the unusual attributes of Rebbetzin Feinstein and how they translated into her unbelievable energy. Anything that she did was with total joy. Your simhawas her simha. She loved to give gifts and advise young women how to dress fashionably, modestly.
Her relationship with the Boreh Olamis legendary. It was a special experience to spend the Yomim Noraimwith the Rebbetzin. Those around her were inspired by her prayers, her deep kavanot(spiritual connection), and the attention she paid to anyone who needed it.
My first encounter with the Rebbetzin was at a lecture that she came to give at Shaare Bina Seminary, where I was working. She gave a lecture about preparations for Pesah. My first impression was that royalty had just entered the school. After listening to the first ten minutes, I thought to myself: she is a real person, with an amazing sense of humor, and she is turning a subject, which can leave girls’ or women’s stomachs in knots, into an enjoyable presentation about what cleaning for hametzis all about. Her presentation exhibited just one facet of this impressive woman who embodied wisdom, poise, and compassion.
The Rebbetzin was the daughter-in-law who served as the faithful helper to her father-in-law, the gadol hador,Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.She was the wife who stood with her husband to build a Torah-true home and a yeshiva where limud Torahand the wellbeing of the bachurei yeshivawere both taken into account. She was the mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, who didn’t forget a child no matter how old or young, no matter what their life situation was. Mrs. Esther Ackerman, the principal atRJJ in Staten Island, recalls that no matter how many sidduror humashparties there were to attend (sometime more than one a day), Rebbetzin Feinstein would always be there. Mrs. Ackerman attributes the Rebbetzin with boosting her self-esteem and encouraging her to take the principal job at RJJ when it was offered to her. The Rebbetzin’s attitude was to accept challenges. The Rebbetzin did so herself when offered the principal position at Shaare Torah.
The Rebbetzin and Shaare Torah
Rebbetzin Feinstein left a beautiful legacy to the graduates of Yeshivat Shaare Torah, and the connection she made with them can still be felt. The Rebbetzin was kind by nature, but when strictness and mussarwas needed she chose her words carefully, and delivered her message with love, always holding strictly to her principles.
The Rebbetzin retired from her position at Yeshivat Shaare Torah three years ago. A fitting retirement party was held in her honor, which was captured on video. The video now serves as a fitting memorial tribute from the Sephardic community to Rebbetzin Feinstein. I would like to share some of the emotional testimonials from the retirement party.
Mrs. Yael Bussu, principal of Judaic studies for Shaare Torah, considered herself to be like an adopted daughter of the Rebbetzin.
It was Mrs. Bussu who made the opening comments at the retirement party. She spoke of her experiences as a co-principal, mentor, and friend of the Rebbetzin.
Mrs. Bussu described her first meeting with Rebbetzin Feinstein on a warm summer day in June. Rebbetzin Feinstein was in a summer hat that matched her beige ensemble. Mrs. Bussu had no idea how things would work out at Shaare Torah, but they all worked out in ways she never expected.
Mrs. Feinstein taught Mrs. Bussu how to dress the part for her position, pulling it all together, and putting it all together in a more spiritual sense as well. Mrs. Bussu noted that Rebbetzin Feinstein made great accomplishments despite the challenges she faced in her life. Mrs. Bussu wisely said, “Alife well lived has challenges.” Mrs. Bussu continued, and stated that Mrs. Feinstein was impeccable with her dress and manner, never letting on what she was dealing with. Her attitude was always uplifting and inspiring.
Every morning the Rebbetzin would come in to school and sit with Mrs. Bussu, asking her what was going on. They would discuss school issues concerning the students, staff, and other related manners.
The next question was, “What else is going on?” That was the time to discuss more personal matters like her mother not having a gown for a quickly approaching granddaughter’s wedding. Mrs. Feinstein showed up later with a few of her best gowns to lend out. Another time Mrs. Bussu told the Rebbetzin about an upcoming trip to Israel for Pesah and the Bussu family’s suitcases were too heavy. That night Rabbi and Rebbetzin Feinstein arrived in Brooklyn with four large lightweight suitcases.
The Rebbetzin was quick to offer any favor that was needed: to help get a girl into a seminary or a boy into a yeshiva, or to procure a discount on books or sefarim. She knew everyone, and everyone knew her. She didn’t hold back from them, and they didn’t hold back from her.
Mr. Manny Haber, President of the Board of Yeshivat Shaare Torah, was the next speaker. Mr. Haber spoke about Rebbetzin Feinstein’s love of education and how she infused every part of the secular studies with Torah hashkafa. The Rebbetzin was knowledgeable in science, art, and math, and worked together with the teachers to make everything alive for the students within a Torah framework. She instilled in the girls a love of family, community, and religion.
Many times, Mr. Haber came to the school and the Rebbetzin would tell him, “Come, you must see this, you mustsee that.” Truly, the school’s special fairs, and the efforts she expended to make them all happen, were legendary.
“Education is an awesome responsibility,” said Mr. Haber. You must be obsessed.”
Rebbetzin Shelia Feinstein, a”h, was indeed obsessed with teaching middot tovot, giving with an open hand, treating everyone like one would want to be treated. She educated girls from the Syrian/Sephardic community to take their places as bnot melech, as daughters of the King, and to be proud to continue their precious traditions with love of the Torah.
Yehi Zichra Baruch…