Innovative Annapolis rabbi departs with no regrets

July 13, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff Writer

"In order to be a rabbi in America, you have to learn to play baseball." Rabbi Seth Gordon sits on the couch of the Annapolis home he is about to leave and quotes a Jewish proverb.

Rabbi Gordon, for four years the rabbi of the largest synagogue in Annapolis, leaves Kneseth Israel this week to begin new work in Long Island, N.Y. He carries with him memories of significant accomplishment here, and also of dissension over what he calls loyalty to his convictions.

Some of the difficulties could be summarized as an interpretation of the proverb. That is, what does it mean for a Jewish person to play baseball in America?

For Rabbi Gordon, the saying means teaching religious truth as you see it, but cooperating with those outside the synagogue with whom you disagree.

"On the one hand, I'm absolutely committed to traditional Jewish values and theology; on the other hand, I will work with almost anyone in areas of commonality," he explains.

Not everyone in the congregation was thrilled with some of the rabbi's ventures with Jews and non-Jews outside Kneseth Israel. But he doesn't care overmuch. At 35, Rabbi Gordon is quick, definitive, unsentimental, with a trace of gray in his black beard and a stubborn resolution in his voice.

He came into a synagogue that had already suffered through difficult years. In the late 1970s, a number of families left the Orthodox congregation to form a liberal Conservative synagogue. In 1983, the then-rabbi of 37 years retired amid controversy. Two rabbis who followed stayed for two years each, and neither was rehired.

Rabbi Gordon's years had their share of serious squabbles, and some of the congregation is not sorry to see him go, members admit. But the time here also has been profitable.

He started a Jewish Day School, the Aleph-Bet Jewish Day School, which grew from 11 children to 50. The congregation adopted a Soviet Jewish family that came to the United States and helped the family's members until they became financially self-sufficient. Camp Keff, a summer day camp, was begun to attract young families.

Outside the congregation, Rabbi Gordon initiated a program to bring the black and Jewish communities together, which led to the founding of the African American-Jewish Coalition of Anne Arundel County.

At his farewell speech a few weeks ago, Rabbi Gordon spoke about his four passions -- Judaism, children, the New York Yankees and truth. "You can integrate yourself into American culture and yet maintain your Jewish identity and being a religious Jew. I don't think they're exclusive," he says.

His love of children surfaces in attempts by him and his wife, Marian, 34, to teach their four youngsters to value relationships. "One of my great laments about modern society is the isolation of individuals and the soul. I want my children to share and talk to each other," he says.

His final love is what he perceives as truth, and he will fight for it no matter what. "If I have an intellectual difference of opinion, I will deny people what they want," the rabbi says.

The Gordons leave Annapolis with mixed feelings. Says Mrs. Gordon: "It's less congested here, less stressful. Annapolis is a beautiful place to live. But there are trade-offs."

In Long Island, they will be surrounded by large Jewish institutions. Here, Rabbi Gordon was one of three rabbis in the Arundel area. There, he will have the fellowship of many.

Says Rabbi Gordon of his five years in Annapolis: "It's like a good meal. Sweet things and some not so sweet, but conflict brought out something nourishing."

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