In Carroll, a global rabbi Leader: Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog is taking the helm of an international assembly today, but his roots are firmly planted in his Taylorsville synagogue.

February 19, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog, 64, takes on an international role today, but his first allegiance remains with his burgeoning congregation in rural Carroll County.

Essrog will be installed in Jerusalem as president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement, a worldwide organization that is the interpretive body on Jewish law and standards for Conservative Jews. He has no plans to forsake the nearly 150 families of Beth Shalom, the Taylorsville synagogue he came to in 1993.

Since he became its leader, Beth Shalom has grown nearly tenfold in members. It has opened the first Jewish religious school in a county where the Jewish population is less than 5 percent. And for some services, crowds are so large that services are held in the Westminster High School auditorium.

"Every Jewish soul is precious," Essrog said. "There aren't that many of us in this world. I want people here to know there is a place for them."

He will apply the same leadership standards to the New York-based assembly, a group that numbers about 1,400 rabbis worldwide. The assembly's annual convention will be in Baltimore next year.

A rabbi who has crossed the paths of presidents and prime ministers will fit easily into the leadership of Conservative Judaism, many of his followers said. They know he can converse as convincingly with President Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he does with them.

On a trip to Israel last month, Essrog met with Netanyahu to discuss the pluralism movement, an effort to unite all aspects of Judaism, "recognizing the many ways to worship," he said.

In the past year, he has twice represented the rabbinical assembly in meetings with Clinton at the White House.

Travel will figure heavily in the rabbi's two-year term, but he will miss few Friday evening services at the synagogue on 12 acres overlooking Liberty Road.

His local following is a testament to how persuasive Essrog can be. Many bypass services nearer their homes to hear Essrog.

Building a faith-filled community comes easily to Essrog, who watched his first congregation in Randallstown grow from 200 to families. He counts among his new congregation second and third generations from Beth Israel who have moved to Carroll.

About 600 -- members and guests -- attended the High Holy Days observances last fall, a crowd so large Essrog conducted the services in the Westminster High School auditorium.

"This rabbi makes everyone welcome, converts, Protestants, Catholics, everyone," said Arnold Zalis, past president of Beth Shalom. "They come, because Essrog is the rabbi."

Essrog has involved his congregation with neighboring churches and their outreach ministries. "God is in the language of all human beings," he said. "The Jewish community has to be open and tolerant."

Synagogue members Steve Salkin and Bertram Rosen are two examples of how the rabbi calls Carroll's small Jewish population home.

When a gas explosion destroyed Salkin's house three years ago, the rabbi was among the first to offer help. Salkin, who acknowledged he had drifted from his Jewish faith, is now president of Beth Shalom.

"He brought me back," said Salkin. "He is a great leader, who is greatest at public relations. He knows just what to say."

Rosen, the synagogue's financial officer, is hard at work on a campaign to expand the synagogue.

With the rabbi's encouragement, Rosen raised $50,000 for the first Jewish religious school in Carroll -- an addition that nearly doubled the size of the building.

A few years ago, on his first visit to Beth Shalom, Rosen and his wife waited in their parked car, unsure of how welcome they would be, until someone insisted they enter. Essrog's sermon that night dealt with how Jews can cope in the real world.

"He talked about history that goes back centuries and how to live in Carroll County and still maintain your Jewishness," Rosen said. "We couldn't leave. We joined that night."

For Essrog, who was ordained nearly 40 years ago and is a graduate of Yeshiva University in New York, "Sermons are like seeds. You toss them out, and every once in a while they catch."

Immediately after his ordination in 1959, Essrog joined the Army for two years' active duty as a chaplain and 28 years in the reserves. He is a chaplain to the Baltimore County police and fire departments and the Baltimore City Fire Department.

Essrog is the only rabbi among the chaplains who visits precincts and fire stations. He assists victims, prays with police and firefighters and occasionally takes a ride on a call.

"He is there to assist spiritually -- to pray, counsel and comfort in the best way he can," said the Rev. Rowland D. Scott, Baltimore County chaplain coordinator.

Scott, pastor of Cockeysville Baptist Church, praises Essrog's interdenominational approach: "Whenever anyone asks him about his faith, he is always willing to explain. He is not offended if I pray in the name of Jesus."

Essrog places the greatest emphasis on the spiritual needs of his congregation. He delayed his preparations for Israel last week to conduct funeral services.

"The ministry involves you with people at the most significant moments in their lives," he said. "We are here to celebrate their happiest moments and hold their hands in the saddest. In any week, we can virtually go through an entire life cycle."

Pub Date: 2/19/98

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