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Frederick's Tale of Two Rabbi's

March 21, 2006

by Jack Lynch

Our historic Jewish congregation, Beth Sholom, is caught in a conflict between old values and new blood.  The conservative synagogue in recent years has seen influxes of both more orthodox congregants and those new adherents who want to see a more liberal approach by means of female leadership, such as allowing women to sing prayers from the bema.  As a result, a new congregation, Kol Ami has split off from it, taking away approximately forty percent of its members.

Now, at least partly as a result of the reduced donations of funds, the Trustees have also entered into a potential legal battle with the release of the Assistant Rabbi.  The two sides are in contention over the Rabbi’s role, contract, the question of the promise of attaining the Senior Rabbi position, and fiduciary necessities.

Attorneys were brought to action.  Both sides have engaged in a letter writing battle over the matter attempting to win congregant votes.  It remains in contention.

An institution locally, Rabbi Morris Kosman, active over fifty years, has no plans to retire, and his position and salary are for life.  His vision is for the conservative nature of Beth Sholom to remain as an umbrella for the entire community.  For many years, that strategy and philosophy have served well.  Beth Sholom was the only local option.

A group of congregants, upset over the matter, raised twenty-five signatures to a petition in order to call a special meeting to discuss the actions and the matters surrounding the release of the Assistant Rabbi, David Wiesenberg.  Subsequently, the synagogue secretary asked congregants to remove their names from the petition, and was successful in reducing the signatories below the necessary twenty-five names, so the meeting was cancelled.

As for the financial condition of the synagogue, it has been suggested that the Trustees have had to borrow from Building funds to pay General Fund expenses and will need to do so for several years, until the congregation again grows to the size to support the needs.

My own attachment makes me no arbitrator of the matter, and of no certain opinion regarding the personalities and respective merits of the two Rabbi’s, except to think that this contention will only further harm the historic fabric of this local institution. 

For, I am merely married to Judaism that is somewhat cultural and symbolic.  But, a Jewish mother - begats Jewish children, according to Judaism.  My daughter goes to Sunday school and a Jewish summer camp, and she is learning her Hebrew and prayers.  At seven, she proudly proclaims to be both Jewish and Christian, but certain that she will marry a Christian, so that she can have Christmas as well as Hannukah. But, of course, she also had the boy she’d marry picked out already, as well.  At home, we celebrate with a Christmas tree and all the trimmings, as well as light the Mennorah.

Fourteen years in Baltimore familiarized me to the old faith, in its many forms, in a place of Jewish community second only to Brooklyn, New York, and stretched me beyond the simple Southern Baptist roots of my own upbringing. 

Like Styron’s fictional alter ego in Sophie’s Choice, Stingo, I had landed in the land of the Jews.  It was a cultural revelation to a boy of the South, although I had experienced that life through fiction and by way of the news through the New York Times for many years.  During many of those Baltimore years we lived in an apartment in Roland Park, which my in-laws remember as a restricted neighborhood.

My direct experience of Beth Sholom has been limited to brief visits, and once carrying the Torah at a recent Yom Kippur.  It was the only time I’ve worn the tallis, or fringed prayer shawl, in addition to the yarmulke.

So while I can offer no specific recommendation on these local religious matters, I will offer that it is important for all of us to acculturate and bridge these and other differences of religion, race, origin and language.  We live in a multicultural world. 

And the Jewish experience reminds us of what happens in a world of darkness and evil when hearts are hardened against our fellow men.  And the holocaust remains a special history of a long and on-going international blight.  The tensions of the Middle East permeate our social experience and economy, and make the specter of nuclear weapons in radical Arab hands a deeper threat.





3-23-06 - Please note:  

The following email comments came from Jamie Hendi, President, Congregation Kol Ami of Frederick, regarding my commentary:

Hi – I just wanted to clear up two inaccuracies that appeared in Jack Lynch’s 3/21/06 commentary,  regarding Beth Sholom.  First, Congregation Kol Ami never split off from Beth Sholom. Almost all of our founding families had never been members of Beth Sholom. We began Kol Ami, under the guidance of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), because our founding families had grown up in Reform Jewish synagogues and we desired to raise our children in a Reform Jewish setting. In addition, while Kol Ami has had some members who have left Beth Sholom, the majority of our 62 member families were unaffiliated prior to joining Kol Ami.

I just wanted to clear that up. Thank you.