Last resident rabbi on east side prepares to retire to Jerusalem

October 30, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

The leaves have fallen from the tree in front of Number 19 N. Collington Ave. The house and furniture are sold. Rabbi Morris E. Landsberg has donated his old and rare books on Jewish law and religion to the Baltimore Hebrew University. And the rabbi and his wife, Judith, leave tomorrow on the first leg of the journey that will take them to Jerusalem.

And so, for the first time in more than a century, no rabbi will live in the sprawling chunk of East Baltimore that was once the bustling center of Baltimore's Jewish community.

In these last years, Rabbi Landsberg and his wife, the Rebbitzin, were poignant and touching figures as they trudged alone on the Sabbath back and forth between their home and B'nai Israel Synagogue on Lloyd Street off Lombard, in the heart of the old market place of East Baltimore Jewry.

"How many blocks?" Rabbi Landsberg says. "Counting the alleys? It's 22 blocks."

They traversed the old Jewish community that stretched from Jones Falls across Broadway to Patterson Park, two lonely figures in black, slow, solemn and dignified, last remnants of the thousands who once lived here and who moved on to Pimlico and Park Heights Avenue, and later to the suburbs.

Frail and aging, they remain a devoutly Orthodox Jewish couple, strictly adhering to the law of the Torah that forbids riding in a car on the Sabbath. B'nai Israel, the last functioning congregation downtown, was the closest shul, and the last in Baltimore where Rabbi Landsberg would serve as rabbi.

"East Baltimore and West Baltimore and Highlandtown once had 57 synagogues," he says. "If you lived on Park Heights Avenue, that was the sticks. Who could go so far? There used to be four or five shuls just in these three blocks.

"Rabbi Samuel Plishkin lived on Fairmount Avenue. We had Rabbi Katznelson at 101 North Collington, Rabbi Axelrod at 133, Rabbi Hertzberg lived across the street.

"Rabbi Bobrowsky, he lived next to where Flom's drugstore was at Baltimore and Wolfe.

"Rabbi Rivkin used to live here," he says. "He was the rabbi at the Eden Street Shul."

The Eden Street Shul is an empty lot now. Very few Jews live in the old neighborhoods. And the last rabbi is leaving for Jerusalem.

Rabbi Landsberg's history in Baltimore is a kind of liturgy of Jewish nostalgia.

Landsberg came to Baltimore in 1945 at the behest of Rabbi Jacob I. Ruderman of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He took over supervision of the preparation of kosher food. And he became the rabbi of Ohr Knesseth Israel at 776 W. Franklin St.

"The Franklin Street Shul," he says. "Now it's combined with the Broadway Shul, which was on Broadway near Baltimore, Anshe Sphard of Broadway. They combined to become the Rogers Avenue Shul.

"That was the first synagogue I had," he says. "Then I had the Beth Hamidrash Hagodol at Chester and Baltimore. From there I went to Tsemach Sadek, Fairmount and Collington. That was a Hasidic shul.

"I was there until 1975. Then I was seven years at Shaarei Tfiloh on Auchentoroly Terrace. And then I went to B'nai Israel."

Rabbi Landsberg came to the United States from what used to be Palestine when he was 7: "Seventy-one years ago," he says. "That makes me going on 78."

His father, Benzion Landsberg, was rabbi at the Poppleton Street Shul, a synagogue long since torn down. The shul used to be on the site of the little park on Pratt Street across the street from the B&O railroad museum.

"I was born in Jerusalem," he says, "two houses from the Temple Mount, in the same house and the same room where my mother was born. My wife was born there, too, also in the old city in Jerusalem."

Rabbi Landsberg was ordained in Jerusalem. He studied in the yeshiva of the great Rabbi Kook and in Chaye Olom Yeshiva.

"My son Eli, the rabbi in New York, and Saul, he's a CPA also in New York, they were born in Jerusalem, the seventh generation. So there's a craving for going back."

His older daughter Shulamith was born in Norfolk, Va., where he had his first synagogue. His younger daughter Tova was born in the old Sinai Hospital on Monument Street.

"My oldest grandson is a rabbi in Jerusalem, Aaron, Eli's first-born. I have three great-grandchildren there. I have a few great-grandchildren in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, too."

He and his wife will stop a week with their sons in New York, then continue on to Israel. They expect to be there Nov. 12.

"The mother city is calling me home," he says. "And I am listening to the call."

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