50 years of changes for Rabbi Max's shul

Founder: For 50 years, Jacob Max has been the rabbi you could reach, day or night.

November 10, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

It was 50 years ago, schmoozing at a deli with friends over a kosher corned beef sandwich, that Jacob A. Max hatched the idea for a synagogue for a growing Jewish neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore.

Since its inception in 1952, the Liberty Jewish Center has moved a couple of times, absorbed other synagogues and changed names. It has seen its share of peaks and valleys.

But Max is still at the helm.

What he founded as the Liberty Jewish Center in Howard Park is now called the Moses Montefiore-Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation in Greenspring. But for many, it is simply "Rabbi Max's shul."

And with his golden anniversary is coming the time to slow down. In January, he will become rabbi emeritus, as Rabbi Elan Adler takes over. The tributes have already started. Tomorrow, the Modern Orthodox synagogue's building and grounds will be rededicated as the Rabbi Jacob A. Max Torah Campus of the Moses Montefiore-Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation.

Max may be scaling back, but he's not going to sit at home.

"I'm not retiring. I don't know the word `retire,'" said Max as he sat behind a large desk in his study, lined with ancient volumes of Torah, Talmud and Biblical commentary. "But boards and meetings? Eh! Dayenu, it's enough. I'm not sorry I won't be there."

He'll continue with the core of his vocation: being available for families in joy or crisis, and reaching out to anyone who wants to deepen their knowledge of their faith.

"I'm known for being a rabbi you can reach at all times, day or night," he said. "Are you a member of this shul or not? It doesn't matter. If others can't help you, maybe I can help you."

Just as he always has. During his tenure, the 77-year-old Max has delivered more than 3,600 sermons and presided over at least 50,000 simchas, life-cycle events such as weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. In addition to tending his congregation, he still finds time to visit nursing homes and assisted-living facilities to lead Sabbath services.

Max is "cut from a different mold," said Rabbi Mitchell G. Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.

"Rabbis from his era were a more aloof, detached type. He was just more open and understanding," Wohlberg said. "He made people feel good about themselves and their Judaism."

"He's a great pastor," said Adler, his successor.

Adler said he has seen Max tear up as a congregant tells him of a sick relative. "I mean, he's choked. You don't see that a lot."

Modern Orthodoxy

Max has dedicated his career to Modern Orthodoxy, a theological tightrope of clinging to traditional Judaism while adapting its expression to the contemporary world.

"We adapt the religion, we don't change it," he said. "We are guided by the divinity of the Law at Sinai," the commandments given by God to Moses.

Max has lived in the tension between orthodoxy and modernity from his earliest memories. He was born in Austria and came to the United States with his family when he was 3.

He grew up in a Jewish enclave in Southwest Baltimore, where his father was the spiritual leader, or rebbe, of the Moses Montefiore synagogue on South Smallwood Street. The elder Max's synagogue has since merged with his son's.

His respect for tradition came from his father. "We had a date every Friday night, after the Sabbath meal," Max recalled. "We studied the Bible, the Talmud. But I learned a lot just from his actions. Just his love for Judaism, his strong belief in God."

Max attended a Jewish elementary school, but then went to public schools, graduating from City College. He attended the Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1940s, where his display of his religion was a curiosity.

Insight at Hopkins

"When I would eat there, I would always put on my kipa [yarmulke] and say the blessing," Max said. "I was asked, `What's going on here, what are you doing?' Even by Jewish kids.

"From there, I saw I could be a vehicle for the transmission of Jewish knowledge and Jewish law and Jewish faith to others," he said.

Max went to Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Pikesville. After rabbinical ordination, he supported himself by teaching. And then came that fateful lunch in 1952. "They said, `Hey, we need a synagogue in Howard Park.' From that idea came a dream, and the dream came true," Max said.

Good times and bad

The synagogue thrived, enrolling many young families with children. At one time, it had the largest Hebrew school in Baltimore. And like many synagogues in Baltimore, it moved as the Jewish community moved, from Liberty Heights Avenue to Church Lane off Old Court Road in Baltimore County.

In 1988, the congregation acquired the Mercantile Country Club off Old Pimlico Road and converted it for use as a synagogue. "We're the only synagogue with a bar," Max said.

But there was trouble with the move. The church that bought the old building defaulted, causing a financial crunch that forced the synagogue to declare bankruptcy. "We went Chapter 11, went through rough times," Max said. "But with God's help and the help of some people, we were able to continue."

Today, the synagogue, with about 275 families, is not quite as big as in its heyday.

He looks back on many achievements. Max was instrumental in persuading Baltimore hospitals to serve kosher meals to patients. He was the first rabbi in Baltimore to offer adult classes for bat mitzvah, the bar mitzvah equivalent for women. "Others, thank God, followed," he said. "In these things, you don't want to have a monopoly. When it comes to knowledge of the faith, let everybody be involved."

Above all else, he sees himself as a teacher who tried to convey the beauty and value of Judaism.

"I tried to maximize religion to as many people who thought they were out of the circle," he said. "I was not out to make you a Sabbath observer. I was out to make you appreciate your own faith."

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