Rabbi leaves a legacy of lessons His retirement will bring wealth of new opportunity

June 17, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

At lunchtime on Mondays, a fundamentalist Christian, local attorney and feminist psychologist gather in Columbia's Town Center to discuss the Torah, the ancient text central to Judaism.

Discussions are enlightening and invigorating, they say. The group bonds each week. But the uncommon mix of people likely would never have met if not for the class and, more importantly, its teacher.

He is Rabbi Martin Siegel. And he has spent his life mixing people and ideas.

His family is multiracial, and some of his best friends are Catholics and Protestants. His Columbia Jewish Congregation (CJC), which until recently was unaffiliated with any branch of Judaism, welcomes Zen Buddhists and Jews for Jesus alongside Orthodox and Reform members.

The rabbi -- a national figure and one of Howard County's leading clergy members -- has been relentlessly outspoken on many hot-button social issues of the past quarter-century. He once publicly challenged Columbia founder James W. Rouse about the town's incorporation movement.

This week, after 25 years with CJC, Siegel, 64, will retire. On Friday, he will deliver his final sermon -- on what he has learned. In retirement, he will keep mixing it up, working as Amtrak's national chaplain while running his own institute for spiritual healing.

A soft-spoken man with dancing eyes, Siegel leaves behind a generation of Columbians shaped by his all-inclusive spirituality and challenged by his views.

"The way he has been, he has been an enabler for people in town and all over the area to become as good as he is -- he is not a big ego in the pulpit," says longtime friend Suzanne Waller, a former Columbia Council member. "We [CJC] have a profoundly unique Jewish experience, and he is the most interesting part of it."

Adds the Rev. Richard H. Tillman of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Wilde Lake: "He is somewhat of an institution. I see him along the lines of someone like Jimmy Carter, an elder statesman who may not be at the center of things anymore but is very, very influential."

Siegel was a young rabbi when he arrived in Columbia in 1972. He had grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., near Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers -- he's been a baseball devotee all his life -- and received a degree from Cornell.

He also wrote a book, "Amen: The Diary of Rabbi Martin Siegel," which gained national attention for lambasting some members of his wealthy Long Island, N.Y., synagogue. True to the spirit of the late 1960s, he criticized what he saw as flagrant materialism and lack of spiritual integrity in the congregation.

He was quickly fired, but seemed ideal for Columbia. "It was like a marriage," says Waller, who helped recruit Siegel. "A perfect fit."

The Oakland Mills Meeting House -- one of Columbia's four "interfaith centers," where congregations of different faiths share facilities -- was 2 years old.

The new town's interfaith centers were, in the eyes of Rouse, to be an integral part of the diversity of the new town -- a place where anyone could worship and where religious leaders serving the same community could work together and learn from one another.

Once here, Siegel incorporated an eclectic mix of interests and ideas into his life and his congregation. He performed interfaith marriages and wrote all the prayers at CJC.

He and his wife, Judith, adopted two girls, one of whom is African-American, in the 1970s and raised them in Columbia's Harper's Choice village.

Siegel constantly took classes and read -- one of his enduring passions, along with eating and baseball, he says -- especially theological texts.

Over the years, he also explored yoga, meditation and massage. As his spirituality matured, he says, he became more conservative in his Judaism. He now wears a skull cap and prayer shawl every day.

He learned about a new-age healing method called reiki, a hands-on technique that promotes health through relaxation, prayer, meditation and journal-keeping. Several months ago, he became a reiki master.

At the same time, he became involved in such social causes as homelessness, poverty, hunger and most recently welfare reform. He helped found -- among other organizations -- the Howard County Food Bank, the county Partnership Against Substance Abuse and the National Religious Alliance Against Substance Abuse. He has served on dozens of national and state committees and boards and has received a presidential medal for service.

In 1974, he started the Jewish Family School that instructs young people before they do their bar or bat mitzvahs, the Jewish coming-of-age rites.

"The things I like to do best are starting new things," Siegel says. "I believe we are here to learn and serve others.

"I was very influenced by scientists -- they were at the edge of physical knowledge. I've spent a lot of time trying to learn enough to realize what I don't know. I'm now approaching the edge of that."

Friends and colleagues say Siegel is tireless, constantly growing and challenging those around him to rethink the status quo.

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