Rabbi Seymour Essrog, 68, national leader in Conservative Judaism

October 19, 2002|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog, a national figure in Conservative Judaism and the leader of a Reisterstown congregation, died yesterday at his Ruxton home. He was 68.

He had been undergoing chemotherapy since cancer was diagnosed two weeks ago.

The rabbi of the Adat Chaim Congregation on Cockeys Mill Road in Reisterstown, he played a role in international religious circles as president and officer of The Rabbinical Assembly, a 1,500-member worldwide organization that is the interpretive body on Jewish law and standards for Conservative Jews.

"He was not only a devoted servant to the Jewish community as a whole," said Rabbi Mark Loeb of the Beth El Congregation in Pikesville. "He was particularly esteemed to hundreds of rabbis throughout the world in The Rabbinical Assembly. He was also a wonderful friend to me."

He was described yesterday as a rabbi's rabbi. "For his colleagues, he was a wonderful pastor. He cared deeply for their well-being," said Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, vice president of The Rabbinical Assembly in New York. "He was an exceptionally good leader: He was always an optimist, he abjured hypocrisy and he had a great sense of humor."

Since coming to Baltimore in 1961, Rabbi Essrog led several congregations, including Beth Israel Mikro Kodesh in Randallstown, B'nai Israel in East Baltimore, Beth Shalom in Taylorsville and Adat Chaim in Reisterstown.

"Seymour was brilliant. He loved life, being active, touching Jewish life in all levels, from Russian emigres to the military," said Stephen Sirkin, president of Adat Chaim. "He provided services for a lot of folks outside of our synagogue. He cared tremendously."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., he attended Yeshiva Torah VaDaath in New York. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Yeshiva University, also in New York. He later received a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University.

After his 1959 ordination, Rabbi Essrog joined the Army for two years' active duty as a chaplain and 28 years in the reserves. He retired as a lieutenant colonel.

"Every Jewish soul is precious," Rabbi Essrog said in a 1998 Sun interview. "There aren't that many of us in this world. I want people here to know there is a place for them."

During his life, he led more than 35 trips to Israel. In 1998, he met with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the pluralism movement, an effort to unite all aspects of Judaism.

He also represented The Rabbinical Assembly in meetings with President Bill Clinton at the White House. In the early 1990s, he was a fund-raiser for the Holocaust Memorial in Washington.

After nearly 30 years at Beth Israel in Randallstown, he became the rabbi of Beth Shalom in Carroll County, then a small congregation. Under his leadership, it doubled its size.

"Everybody who walked in was always welcome. He made everyone feel at home - converts, Protestants, Catholics, just everyone," said Arnold Zalis, president of Beth Shalom. "He was wonderful to listen to when he gave a sermon. You looked forward to his words and what he had to say. He was knowledgeable on the Torah and on world situations."

Rabbi Essrog once said, "Sermons are like seeds. You toss them out, and every once in a while they catch."

He was a chaplain to the Baltimore City and County police and fire departments. "In the middle of the night, the beeper rang and he went off," said Toby Elster Essrog, his wife of 42 years. "He took to these families involved in these tragedies."

Rabbi Essrog placed an emphasis on his congregation's spiritual needs. He once said, "The ministry involves you with people at the most significant moments in their lives. 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."

He was active in the American Zionist movement and was a past president of the Baltimore Zionist District. He also headed the Baltimore Jewish Relations Council.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Beth El Congregation, 8101 Park Heights Ave., Pikesville.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Michael Neil Essrog of Baltimore; two daughters, Rina Essrog Reynolds of Philadelphia and Deborah-Jo Essrog of Baltimore; his mother, Sadie Essrog of Baltimore; and three grandchildren.

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