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David Neiman, rabbi, scholar; worked for interfaith harmony

Dr. David Neiman, a rabbi who proved that interfaith harmony is possible, made history in 1966 at Boston College when he apparently became the first Jewish theology professor at a Catholic university in the United States.

An archeologist as well as a scholar in the fields of Bible studies, Jewish history, and the relationship between the Church and the Jews, Dr. Neiman organized the Institute of Biblical Archeology at BC and conducted 10 archeological expeditions to Israel during his 25 years at the school.He continued to work for interfaith understanding well after his retirement from BC in 1991 and into his last illness.

Dr. Neiman, 82, the former rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, died of cancer on Feb. 22 in Los Angeles, his home for the last five years. During that time, he made it possible, with the Rev. Donald Colhour, minister of the Wilshire Christian Church in Los Angeles, to have the church also serve as a temple for a combined congregation.

"God works in mysterious ways," Colhour said by phone. "The rabbi came along and he was referred to me. He had spent his life teaching Christians about Judaism. When we had services I would often have him come in and he would do prayers in Hebrew. Sometimes, when I was away, he would preside at the service for me. We did Easter and Passover together."

Dr. Neiman never let his scholarship get in the way of his humanity, friends said. Possessor of a stage-worthy baritone, he used to visit schools in Somerville and sing Mozart arias for the children. "He had a way of talking to the kindergarten children. They loved him," said Barbara Suhrstedt, a Somerville concert pianist who gave Dr. Neiman voice lessons and who used to bring some of her students into the schools. "He had so many experiences to talk to them about, like his time in Moscow when I was doing a school program about Russia."

Dr. Neiman's voice was also prized at Temple Beth Zion, where he had been not only the full-time rabbi, but served as cantor. "He basically carried the High Holidays himself," said Irwin A. Pless of Brookline, former temple president.

"Of all the rabbis I had anything to do with, David was the most erudite," Pless said. "You couldn't ask him anything about the Torah or about Jewish history that he didn't know. He would not only answer the question but put it in a historical context. It became a dialogue between him and the questioner. David was a born teacher."While Dr. Neiman was at the temple, Pless said, he made two extended trips to the former Soviet Union, the first to Moscow to teach Yiddish as a visiting professor and "then to Birobidzhan, in the Urals. Many Jews were sent there to establish a city in the wilderness and David went to be their rabbi."

Dr. Neiman was born in Novgorod-Seversk, Russia, in 1921. A year later, the family fled the Soviet Union for Constantinople and arrived in the United States in 1923. He was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., "in a traditional Jewish family," said his daughter Rachel, of Israel.

He attended Boys High School in Brooklyn for three years and enrolled in City College of New York, graduating in 1940. At the same time, he enrolled in what was called the Herzliah Hebrew Academy in New York, where he continued his Jewish studies, earning a teacher's diploma in 1943.

Music and dance were always a part of Dr. Neiman's life, his family said, and in his youth he occasionally danced with the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe.

In 1950, he received his master's degree from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and five years later he earned his doctorate at Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning in Philadelphia.

He began his teaching career at the New School for Social Research in New York in 1955. The next year, he founded in New York the Academy for Higher Jewish Learning, now known as the Academy for Jewish Religion.

In 1963, Dr. Neiman accepted the professorship of biblical studies at Brandeis University. He moved to BC three years later.

Dr. Neiman's wife, Israeli native Shulamith Dubno, a singer and guitarist, died in 1975 when their daughters were 10, 12, and 14. "He managed to get us through to adulthood," said his daughter Becky, of California. Dr. Neiman also became a good cook, revered for his kugel, or noodle pudding.

Five years ago, Dr. Neiman moved from Newton to Los Angeles to be close to his daughters. Though he was in his late 70s, Rina, his daughter, recalled that instead of relaxing, her father "got his resume together and started pounding the pavement looking for teaching opportunities." He got a teaching job at the University of Judaism and started writing another book -- on Jewish languages.

Last year, Dr. Neiman donated his library to Temple Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif.

In Brookline, Dr. Neiman will be remembered as much for his common sense and sense of humor as for his intellect.

`'Once I asked him what the meaning of life was," said Mary Glickman of Brookline, his former secretary at Temple Beth Zion.

"He replied, `Well, life is a journey and we're all going to the same place and there's only one thing that makes it easier.' "I thought he was going to say the Torah, or faith and love," she said, "but his answer was, `a sense of humor.' "

In addition to his three daughters, he leaves two sisters, Sarah Kouffman of Boca Raton, Fla., and Debbie Schwartz of Boynton Beach, Fla.

Burial was in New Jersey and a memorial service was held in Los Angeles. A memorial service is planned for Boston in the fall.

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