Honoring a life of kindness

Gala: The `anchor' in Columbia's Jewish community is honored for his service and righteousness.

November 21, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In between the festive Hebrew music and dancing, elegant dinner and warm tributes, Siegfried Rowe welcomed old friends.

As a founder of Howard County's Jewish community and Columbia Jewish Congregation, there were many hands to shake at a gala testimonial and fund-raiser sponsored in his honor Saturday evening at Oakland Mills Meeting House.

"His contributions to us are so numerous, we thought it was time to say `thank you' for his generosity and hard work," said the congregation's rabbi, Sonya Starr.

Proceeds will benefit the purchase of a new Torah scroll for the Reconstructionist synagogue known as CJC. "Because he reads from the Torah for us, we thought it was appropriate to honor him when purchasing a new Torah," Starr said.

Proclamations from state and local officials were read, and the congregation presented framed calligraphy and a scrapbook of tributes.

Humble recipient

The 80-year-old retired cantor accepted his synagogue's honor with characteristic graciousness and humor. "I am just overwhelmed," said Rowe, who lives in Columbia with his wife, Edith. "I thought I live a very simple life."

Rowe, who escaped Nazi Germany as a child on a Kindertransport train and later served in the British Royal Air Force and interrogated German prisoners, was voted Howard County's Volunteer of the Year last year by the "Maryland You Are Beautiful" program for his community service.

Thirty years ago, Rowe helped establish the chaplain program at what is now Howard County General Hospital. He is also president of its volunteer auxiliary.

He regularly visits patients with prayer sheets he designed. He also visits residents of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. "I got no calling. God didn't speak to me," Rowe said. "My parents just instilled in me that we have to do good deeds and visit the sick."

Rowe also served five times as president of the Howard County Jewish Council, which later became the Jewish Federation of Howard County. He was also the first chairman of Oakland Mills Meeting House.

Rowe was a president of CJC, where he prepared children for their bar and bat mitzvahs and officiated at weddings and funerals.

The event's speakers included Rowe's daughter, Jessica, who said her father was audited twice by the IRS because his charitable contributions were so high. "And he didn't even list all of them," said the mother of two.

Vivian Bailey, a hospital trustee who served on the local selection committee for the 2002 Volunteer of the Year, recalled how members quickly reached a consensus. "Everyone said, `He does all that without being paid?' The answer is, he couldn't do all that and get paid," Bailey said. "He's priceless."

`Righteous person'

Rabbi Emeritus Martin Siegel, who served at CJC for 25 years, spoke of the hardships Rowe endured. "The righteous are tested so that they rise higher," Siegel said. "What Sigi has given is an example of what it means to be a true tzaddik [righteous person]."

Rowe, who was raised Orthodox, was born in 1923 in Leipzig, Germany, to Rosa and Elias, a fur merchant. After Adolf Hitler's rise to power, Jewish businesses were seized, and Jewish children were expelled from public schools. "In 1929, I was treated very badly by the teachers," Rowe said. "One teacher paraded me around the school and said, `This is what a Jew looks like.' "

In 1941, the Free Polish Army in London drafted Rowe, who was considered a Polish citizen because his father was born in Poland. Rowe, who did not speak Polish, joined the British Royal Air Force instead. He served until 1947 in Egypt, Liberia, North Africa, Sicily and Austria.

After his discharge from the RAF, few jobs were available. So Rowe left in 1948 for New York to work for an uncle. Rowe married Edith in 1950 and three years later moved to Baltimore, where he purchased a dry-cleaning business. In 1972, he sold his three establishments to become an insurance agent. He retired in 1985.

In 1960, Rowe moved to Howard County, seven years before Columbia's first residents arrived. At the time, there were only about 27 Jewish families in the county. They organized to become the Jewish Council and started lay-led Sabbath services at Slayton House.

When the group split in 1970 and joined other movements, the remaining dozen families of varying religious backgrounds founded CJC as an independent synagogue. "Sigi was an anchor because of his traditional background," Siegel said. "He brought the depth but was open to new approaches."

At the gala, Rowe said performing "acts of loving kindness" should be second nature. "The joy we share with others should bring us joy," he said.

But of all the accolades, the calligraphy of a verse from the Book of Proverbs probably best captured Rowe's essence: "A person who runs to do just, good and kind deeds attains life, success and honor."

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