As Rabbi Mark G. Loeb neared retirement last year, members of Beth El Congregation were given the opportunity to write letters describing what he had meant to them, a way in which he had come to their aid or a moment in which he had touched their lives.
The request drew hundreds of responses.
"It was just astonishing to him, the things that people remembered and the things that he had done that he didn't remember himself," said Rabbi Steven Schwartz, who succeeded Rabbi Loeb as senior rabbi at the state's largest Jewish congregation. "I think in those bound volumes, he really had a sense of the kind of impact he had."
Rabbi Loeb, spiritual leader of the Pikesville congregation for 28 years, died suddenly Wednesday evening in Milan, Italy, where he was serving a congregation as an interim rabbi. Further details were not available. He was 65.
Known both within and beyond the local Jewish community for a powerful and wide-ranging intellect, Rabbi Loeb was deeply engaged in public affairs, from activism for civil rights in the 1960s to service on the gubernatorial commission last year that recommended the abolition of the death penalty. He was national president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, chaired the board of Baltimore Hebrew University and promoted interfaith dialogue as a co-founder of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies.
"Rabbi Loeb's life and good works were an inspiration both to his own congregation, and to our entire state," Gov. Martin O'Malley said Thursday. "He spent his time on this Earth living the timeless Talmudic notion that 'the highest form of wisdom is kindness,' always standing up for our most vulnerable citizens, always fighting for social justice, always pursuing Tikkun Olam, repair of the world."
Friends remembered his love of culture, travel and food, his immersion in current events, and his interest in other people.
"I think about how kind and how wonderful and how sensitive and how brilliant he is, and how much he meant to me and my family," said Richard Kline, a Parkville dentist who shared an apartment with Rabbi Loeb in the 1970s when both were students in New York and remained close when both came to Baltimore after their studies. "I love him very much."
Many described Rabbi Loeb as an excellent travel companion, versed in history and art, and always ready with advice on a good but little-known restaurant here or an obscure local attraction there. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, for whom Rabbi Loeb served as a liaison to Baltimore's Jewish community, recalled his recommendation before a trip to Chautauqua, N.Y., that she remember to try the "Methodist tea" - which she learned was "a zinger of gin served in a teacup."
"He was a man of warmth and wit and camaraderie," Maryland's senior senator said. "You can see why they loved him at Beth El, and why they loved him in Baltimore."
The Boston-born Rabbi Loeb followed an unusual path to the rabbinate, studying first at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the center of Conservative Judaism, then earning his ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the principal seminary of Reform Judaism. He joined Beth El, a Conservative congregation, as an assistant rabbi in 1976, and took over as senior rabbi four years later.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis, who served with Rabbi Loeb on the MAZON board, says Rabbi Loeb's varied training strengthened his rabbinate.
"He wasn't a company man or an ideological man," said Rabbi Rachlis, senior rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation in Irvine, Calif. "He had a feeling for what we call Klal Yisrael - embracing the totality of the Jewish community and the Jewish experience."
Rabbi Loeb served on gubernatorial commissions on discrimination, adolescent pregnancy and capital punishment. From his pulpit at Beth El, which doubled in size to 1,700 families during his tenure, he spoke on peace, interfaith relations and human rights. Known for a huge annual Passover Seder that drew guests of all faiths and backgrounds, he presided over the introduction in 2004 of a new Haggadah, or Seder script, with more accessible and inclusive language.
Marc B. Terrill, president of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore and a member of Beth El, called Rabbi Loeb provocative and challenging.
"The Baltimore Jewish community, and I would dare say the world, lost a person who personified leadership," he said. "He was a champion of social justice for all, and was an ever-present voice for civility."
Rabbi Loeb served two terms as chairman of the board at Baltimore Hebrew University. Hana Bor, director of professional programs at what is now the Baltimore Hebrew Institute at Towson University, called him a "giant."
"He was so devoted to Jewish education and to the next generation," said Ms. Bor. "He was amazingly devoted to the training of Jewish teachers. He was always, always supportive."