Temple to honor rabbi who raised `the real issues'

Berlin set to retire after 23 years leading city congregation

May 04, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Whether dealing with fellow Jews on the volatile issues that unite and divide them, or with Christians in delicate interfaith relations, Rabbi Donald R. Berlin has never been one to allow superficial politeness to stand in the way of truth.

Berlin, 62, who is retiring next month after leading Temple Oheb Shalom in Upper Park Heights for 23 years, has never shied from confrontation.

"I haven't hesitated to touch some of the tender areas," Berlin said. "And I like to hope that people have understood that I believe very strongly in putting on the table the real issues, even when they hurt and even when I feel hurt by them myself."

Berlin will be honored by his congregation at a tribute at 7: 30 p.m. tomorrow at Temple Oheb Shalom.

During his rabbinate, Ber- lin has been a teacher, a leader in the Jewish community, a passionate advocate for Israel, and an early participant in the nascent Jewish-Christian dialogue. Yet in those roles, he has never hesitated to be critical, whether it involved social justice issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts or matters of anti-Semitism among Christians.

He learned about sticking up for what is right as a child growing up in Montreal.

"I happened to, as a youngster, be very deeply affected by anti-Semitism," Berlin said in an interview in his study, lined from floor to ceiling with the books that reflect his love of learning. "I was a youngster during the Second World War, with the name `Berlin,' and Jewish. I fought my way back and forth to school a lot."

Important lessons

Berlin said he learned to "stand up for your beliefs, don't run away from a fight, keep focused on what you're fighting for" from his father, who was a Jewish officer in the often anti-Semitic Canadian Navy. He would carry those lessons into his career as a rabbi, first in Roanoke, Va., in the late 1960s and then in Allentown, Pa., in the early 1970s, before coming to Baltimore in 1976. While in Allentown, he taught a course at a Catholic seminary at a time when having a Jewish faculty member at a seminary would have been unusual. Berlin recalls that "the other members of the faculty were not very happy to have me there."

In his course, Berlin began to explore the history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church, and a nun who was a student in the class rose to challenge him. "She stood up in front of the class and said, `Rabbi Berlin, I begged you not to go into this area and you did. Don't you trust God?' And I said `I trust God so much, sister, that I'm even willing to let you be angry with me.' And with that comment, I made my first real incursion into the class."

It was in Baltimore that he made his mark in the community and interfaith activities. He served as president of the Baltimore Jewish Council from 1986 to 1988, and is a past president and founding member of Baltimore BLEWS, the Black/Jewish Forum of Baltimore. Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, called his contribution "immeasurable."

`He's stayed involved'

"I knew of his reputation even before I arrived in Baltimore," Abramson said. "He guided the council through some very precarious times regarding black-Jewish issues. He was very involved and he's stayed involved."

Berlin is a past director and a founding board member of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, a leading interfaith group based in Baltimore. "I think Don played a very significant role in being a sort of spokesman for the Jewish community to the larger ecumenical world that was unflinching in pointing out there is a pained anguish to history that we cannot ignore," said the Rev. Christopher M. Leighton, director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. "And yet at the same time he insisted that the scripts that have dictated our interactions for the better part of 2,000 years are not carved in stone."

"Rabbi Berlin has worked actively for keeping open lines of interfaith communication both locally and nationally," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, who will deliver the invocation at tomorrow night's event. "And I'm grateful for his friendship through the years."

Civil disobedience

He was also deeply involved in the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, and was arrested in 1985 for civil disobedience in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington.

"He has been an exemplary colleague in that he cared not only for his congregation, but for his community and for other rabbis -- he cared for them personally and professionally," said Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl of Temple Emanuel in Reisterstown, who Berlin described as his mentor. "In order to be a good rabbi, you have to be a good Jew first. And he is."

All this makes for a long resume.

"Why all of these things?" Berlin said. "They were all good causes, but the real reason was because they represented for me an act of expression of Torah. And that it was important always to teach by some kind of action and example, not just by word. It represents, to me, a form of prayer."

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