Helping to perfect the world'

Activism: A 16-year leader of Midwestern Jewish life with an outspoken social stand takes the helm of a Baltimore temple.

August 01, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF


An article about Rabbi Steven M. Fink in Sunday's editions may have given the impression that the organ and choir would be eliminated from worship services at Temple Oheb Shalom in Upper Park Heights. Rather, there are plans to expand the choices in services to accommodate those who do not prefer organ and choir.

Had Rabbi Steven M. Fink been 2 inches taller, he might be wearing a badge and packing a pistol.

At 5-foot-5, the prospective Officer Fink didn't meet the height requirement for the Washington, D.C., police department and chose a different vocation.

"I thought it was one very good way of helping to perfect the world, which is one of our goals as Jews," he said.

Fink, who came to Baltimore last month from Des Moines, Iowa, to be the fifth senior rabbi in Temple Oheb Shalom's 146-year history, says that he is still driven by that desire to serve the community and confront society's wrongs.

In Des Moines, Fink was a leader in a very small Jewish community. He maintained a high profile and spoke out in favor of access to abortion and equal rights for women and gays, and against anti-Semitism and the death penalty.

"In Des Moines, I was the leading Jewish spokesman," he said. "That's not true here. My role is really to concentrate on the congregation."

Fink, 48, is married to Sally J. Fink. They have two sons and a daughter.

A native of Caldwell, N.J., Fink never considered himself particularly religious until he started taking religious studies courses at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "The courses spoke to me in a way nothing else had," he said. "I was hooked."

Fink arrived in Des Moines in 1983 after four years as an assistant rabbi in a Philadelphia congregation following his ordination. Being a Jew in the Midwest was not an experience he was prepared for, he said.

"It was quite a culture shock," he said. There were no Jewish restaurants, no Jewish Community Center, no Jewish neighborhoods.

But he did adjust and stayed for 16 years, reviving a moribund and declining congregation. "We made it into a very active, busy place where members felt a high degree of ownership. We had nearly everyone involved at some level," he said.

Fink's stands sometimes attracted unwanted attention. He served as the statewide chairman of Iowa's Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and was on the board of Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa. And the only physician in Des Moines who performed abortions and was not employed by Planned Parenthood was a member of Fink's congregation.

`Exciting and dangerous'

In fall 1994, members of Operation Rescue, the militant anti-abortion group, picketed in front of Fink's home. "The head of Operation Rescue came up to my daughter -- she was 7 years old at the time -- and put a big photo of an aborted fetus in her face and said, `Your father is a murderer. Your father is responsible for this,' " he said.

Pickets also were set up in front of the synagogue on Sabbath morning. Several religious leaders from around the city rallied to his support, and the Des Moines Register ran editorials against the pickets.

Fink is not shy about confronting anti-Semitism, either. He recalled a wave of anti-Semitic activity during the mid-1980s, in the midst of an economic crisis when many families were losing their farms. Groups like the neo-Nazi Posse Comitatus were on the rise. Fink's synagogue collected money to aid families affected by the crisis, and also helped to infiltrate some of the hate groups.

"It was an exciting and dangerous time," he said. "I got a lot of death threats."

Overcoming anti-Semitism

In March 1995, Fink's synagogue was desecrated. "We came in in the morning and found Nazi-style graffiti all over the building," he said.

The vandals, a teen-ager and his girlfriend, were arrested and assigned to a victim-offender restitution program in which they had to meet with synagogue members. They also were sentenced to 100 hours of community service in the synagogue and 100 hours of studying Judaism with Fink.

"During the course of the 100 hours, we became good friends," Fink said. Fink was invited to the man's wedding. "He called me before I left [Des Moines] to wish me well."

Mutual respect

Fink's stands earned him respect from fellow clergy, even from those who politically were on the opposite end of the spectrum. John M. Palmer, pastor of the evangelical First Assembly of God Church, voiced his support of Fink and his congregation after the desecration. Fink describes Palmer as one of his closest friends in Des Moines.

"If the truth were known, we probably disagreed on more than we agreed upon," Palmer said. "But there was a mutual respect. We each knew the other was seeking to lead his congregation in the way he believed in and we both had a very strong interest in building a better community, a community where people would love one another unconditionally."

Building upon a legacy

As he begins his ministry at Oheb Shalom, Fink said he will build on the legacy left to him by Rabbi Donald R. Berlin, who retired in June. One of his goals is to make worship more of a participatory experience. He plans to expand educational offerings for adults. A renovation of the sanctuary will make the space more intimate, and he will introduce changes allowing for more congregational singing, as opposed to listening to a choir accompanied by organ.

"People in their 20s don't tolerate not participating in worship. Organ and choir just don't appeal to people my age and younger," he said. "I want Oheb Shalom to be vibrant, exciting, warm. I want everyone to come here and feel good. I want everyone to feel this is their home away from home."

Pub Date: 8/01/99

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