Faithful to higher ideals A leader: Rabbi Saltzman has been a champion of civil rights as well as a builder of Jewish community.

June 22, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

A half-century ago, the smell of frying bacon wafted into Murray Saltzman's life for the first time, an experience so traumatic it launched the would-be poet into the rabbinate.

"I couldn't eat. I lost 30 pounds in two months," remembers Saltzman of his experience in the post-war, Protestant dormitories of Syracuse University. "I had to secure permission to eat in a restaurant off-campus."

All these years later, with his career as a full-time rabbi ending today once he preaches his last sermon at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Saltzman summons the bacon memory at will, as if he has yet to rid his nostrils of the scent.

It was the forbidden swine, after all, that set forth events which truly awakened the Jew in him, leading Saltzman to pursue the seemingly unrealistic ideals of his faith. The path took him from the civil rights marches of the 1960s to the pulpit of Baltimore Hebrew, the area's largest Jewish congregation, which he leaves after 18 years of service.

Saltzman -- who marched in Alabama with Martin Luther King Jr., served on the United States Commission on Human Rights before former President Ronald Reagan dismissed him and authored numerous newspaper essays -- is one of the best known Reform rabbis in the United States.

"I'm not retiring at all, I'm just leaving this place," says Saltzman, 66, his sights set on working with the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights, the National Federation of Interfaith Care Givers, and a health care advocacy group called Families U.S.A. He will also serve as part-time rabbi at the Bat Yam Congregation on Sanibel Island, Florida.

The Syracuse dean who won permission for Saltzman to eat off campus was a Methodist minister who took a shine to the freshman from Brooklyn. He gave Saltzman books on Judaism and, in a kind of anthropological ambassadorship, farmed the boy out to out-of-the-way Methodist churches where the faithful had never laid eyes on a Jew.

"I would stay with the ministers, most were young and impoverished and newly married," he says. "The idea of talking seriously with a college student on a theological plane was exciting to them. I committed to the rabbinate the next year."

As unsettling to Saltzman as the bacon episode was the content of a theology course at Syracuse.

"It said that Judaism was a religion of law and Christianity was a religion of love that fulfilled the law," he says. "But I had been raised with enormous love and little of the blind allegiance to legalism I was hearing about in class."

To understand his faith in a way that better reflected what he experienced growing up, Saltzman sought out rabbis in the Syracuse area. He recalls that the Orthodox rabbi could not relate to a college student, the Conservative rabbi was too busy to talk, and the Reform rabbi invited him over to eat and study.

Which is how a nice Orthodox boy from Brooklyn -- "Orthodoxy in those days did not see skepticism as suspect," he says -- became Reform in Syracuse.

"I wanted to be a rabbi in the fullest sense of the word," he says. "When I came here in 1978, I wanted to respond to the disappearance of the Jewish community in America through assimilation. To do that, I had to build a congregation for the education of Jews."

Baltimore Hebrew had some 1,700 families when Saltzman arrived from Indianapolis and is now home to about 1,850. He led the congregation in building the area's only parochial school run by Reform Jews and was the force behind a new library. To the library, he has donated thousands of books from his own shelves.

"With the school I succeeded, but to some extent, with civil rights, I failed," he says, acknowledging that his passion for pursuing equality among the races is not as high a priority at Baltimore Hebrew -- or in the United States -- as it once was.

"This country is on a precipice of racial relations and America doesn't realize how critical the situation really is," he says. "We are headed toward disaster unless we renew our national priority to uplift those who are excluded economically, politically or physically. Life for [the underclass] is cheap and violence and cruelty an everyday experience. It is a cancer that will consume us."

Under his guidance, Baltimore Hebrew became one of the first synagogues to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday with lectures on human rights. The congregation has participated in various marches in Washington, sends food and workers to the Our Daily Bread soup kitchen and this year held its first "mitzvah day" where volunteers fanned out across the city to perform good deeds in hospitals, homes, parks and schools.

Not all of Saltzman's ideas were embraced by his sprawling congregation, the oldest in the state. While Saltzman and Baltimore Hebrew president Richard Kemper deny a May 3 report in the Jewish Times saying Saltzman was asked to resign, the rabbi acknowledges that he has ruffled some members during his tenure.

"I have stood for controversial issues and there are those who resented it," he says, noting his work to organize groups committed to interracial and interfaith harmony. "I represent a time when this was a common agenda. Socially, I may be too liberal. Religiously, I may be too traditional the Jewish community reflects the general atmosphere of the country and that atmosphere now is a retreat from the priority of rebuilding the nation."

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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