Rabbi shares 'magic' of faith Discovery: As a teen, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation's new leader was drawn to the Jewish traditions he now uses to help followers find meaning in life.

November 28, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As a 14-year-old, given the privilege of blowing the shofar during Rosh Hashana services at a synagogue in his hometown, Omaha, Neb., it became clear to Rex Perlmeter what path he would follow.

He would be a rabbi.

That path took him to Princeton University, to rabbinical school in New York and to a synagogue in Miami, and has brought him to this city, as senior rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, Maryland's oldest Jewish community.

It was in blowing the shofar, a ceremonial trumpet made of a ram's horn, that Perlmeter's calling became crystallized in his mind.

"I came home that night, and I told my parents that I was going to be a rabbi," he said. "From the time I was 14, I never really wavered from that."

Perlmeter, 37, comes to Baltimore from Temple Israel of Greater Miami, where he served for 11 years. He is married to Rabbi Rachel Hertzman, who is a campus rabbi to students at four Baltimore university campuses. They have three children.

Perlmeter succeeds Rabbi Murray Saltzman, who left in June after 18 years at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. With Perlmeter, who started in July, comes a new leadership team of two assistant rabbis and a cantor.

"There's been a lot of just getting to know the ropes, getting to know the unique aspects of this congregation that you can only see once you're inside," he said.

With a membership of more than 1,800 families, making it one of the largest Jewish congregations in the area, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation is on the scale of "what in the Christian world are called megachurches," Perlmeter said. And that is one thing that attracted him to the job.

"I felt I had a message to give and that I would like a broader audience to which to give it," Perlmeter said. That message revolves around what he calls "the magic of Judaism."

"I really believe that Judaism is filled with a wealth of incredible ideas, insights, guidelines, struc- tures, rituals, which enhance and help us to discover the meaning of life," he said. "That's the message. And then beyond that, I'm just the medium for the message. The message is Judaism, everything it teaches us, everything it invites us to do."

It was this enthusiasm that made Perlmeter stand out as the 18-member search committee examined candidates. "We were most impressed with his warmth and the good feeling he generated, his continuous enthusiasm and vitality, coupled with his vision for the future," said Richard Kemper, president of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, who led the search committee.

Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, the immediate past president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and the rabbi who installed Perlmeter in a ceremony last week, tells how he was discussing a thorny theological issue with a member of his Westfield, N.J., congregation. The man disagreed with Kroloff.

A few weeks later, the man returned from a vacation in Miami, and when he saw Kroloff, he told him that he now saw things the rabbi's way. But he didn't credit Kroloff's persuasiveness.

"It wasn't you," the man said. "I heard this young rabbi on the radio in Miami, and he explained it in such a wonderful way that I understood it."

Kroloff correctly guessed that the young rabbi was Perlmeter.

"He's highly respected as a fine teacher and a rabbi who's in the process of making his mark in Reform Judaism," Kroloff said.

Perlmeter is cautious in stating his goals as senior rabbi, saying he has to take time to observe and experience the congregation first. But during his first year, he is working to create a feeling of family within the congregation. In such a large institution, he said, "it is a common risk for people to become anonymous and to feel disengaged and disconnected."

To that end, he wants to strengthen the congregation's educational programs for children and adults. And he wants to "increase the number of points of entry to meaningful Jewish living for the members of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the members of Baltimore's Jewish community."

As one of those points of contact, Perlmeter will begin meeting monthly in a downtown office with business people and other professionals to study traditional Jewish texts, something he did with great success in Miami.

"That's a point of entry, coming to them, bringing it to them and letting them see," he said. "Some of these are going to be people probably who are disaffected religiously. But by going into the text, I think they're going to find that Judaism might connect to them intellectually and has something wonderful to say."

Pub Date: 11/28/96

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