Compassionate, bright and devoted to students’ wellbeing, Rabbi Emily Feigenson touched the entire Harvard-Westlake community during her 14 years at the school.
On Jan. 23, Feigenson passed away after a two-year battle with brain cancer, surrounded by her husband Dennis Perluss and her children Netanya ’15, Talia ’18 and Gabriel. Students, faculty, parents and members of Feigenson’s synagogue gathered to pay their respects at a funeral service held Jan. 28 at Mount Sinai Simi Valley.
Since 2004, Feigenson filled many roles at the middle school campus, including leading initiatives such as the Crisis and Support Team, the eighth grade Wellness Workshops, the ninth grade Freedom from Chemical Dependency program and the Big Sibs program. Feigenson also directed various parent education projects that focused on the prevention of teen alcohol and drug usage.
President Rick Commons reflected on the impact that Feigenson left on the school and how her passing has affected the community.
“It’s hard to capture her impact in a few brief words, but I think that she of course in many ways embodied the focus that the school makes it as part of its mission on integrity and character,” Commons said. “She looked after colleagues and students as a spiritual guide and as a human source of compassion and wisdom.”
Maya Mathur ’22 shared stories of her first interactions at the school with Feigenson.
“I met [Feigenson] on the first day of school when I was in seventh grade,” Mathur said. “She took the time to remember my name and said hello to me throughout the scary experience of being a new student on such a large campus. She made sure that I felt welcomed during my first weeks at school as I started to make friends.”
As a Big Sib leader during her freshman year, Mathur said she was able to further bond with Feigenson and gain a deeper understanding about her passions for the school.
“I didn’t know why we connected so quickly until I was a Big Sib leader in ninth grade,” Mathur said. “[Feigenson] took the time to learn about each individual student in the school to pair them with the big sib who could best relate to them. It was a painstaking process, but [Feigenson] cared enough about the Harvard-Westlake community and everyone in it to work tirelessly to make sure that everyone felt welcome on campus.”
Jake Schroeder ’20 said that Feigenson was a key figure in helping him transition smoothly from his elementary school to middle school.
“[Feigenson] helped me immensely in my transition from a Jewish day school to Harvard-Westlake,” Schroeder said. “As the spiritual presence on campus, she was not only an ally and supporter in the religious programs, but she also made everyone feel welcomed in all aspects of spiritual life. Be it a new seventh grader being matched with a Big Sib or a ninth grader transitioning to the upper school, she was always there to help.” Justin Park ’20, who grew close with Feigenson during his Human Development class and as a ninth-grade leader of the Big Sibs program, said that Feigenson was a guiding force within the school community. “[Feigenson] was truly a beam of sunshine,” Park said. “She approached every aspect of her day with optimism and possessed a unique ability to make others feel welcome and appreciated. It was in Human Development where we really got a chance to connect. [Feigenson] made it clear from the start that she was there for us in any way and had valuable insights to share not just on topics related to the class but to life in general.”
Feigenson made a large impact not only as a teacher at the school but also as a member of her synagogue, Commons said.
“I attended her funeral, and there was a really large number of teachers, some students [and] alumni, who were there to celebrate her life and it was a fitting, very sad tribute to her impact on [the school] that there were so many people there,” Commons said. “There was an even greater number of people who were there from her temple. She was effectively a centerpiece of that temple and that population, and they were at that funeral.”
Middle school dean and history teacher Karen Fukushima said Feigenson never failed to support members of the school community, both on campus and outside of school.
“Personally, Feigenson was there for my family when my father-in-law passed away and she offered support and resources on how to deal with grief for my young daughter who was only three at the time,” Fukushima said. “She always remembered to ask about my daughter, Olive, even years afterwards.”
Feigenson will be remembered not only for her accomplishments as a leader but for the ways in which she brightened the lives of others on a daily basis.
“We learned that we lived near each other in Westwood, and she urged me to try the saffron ice cream from Saffron and Rose,” Park said. “In my ninth grade year, my school service was again with her and each cycle she would ask to see if I had gone to try the ice cream. At the end of the year, I finally got to try the saffron ice cream she had raved about. It was waiting for me when I walked into her office for my last school service session. That’s the kind of loving person she was.