Murray Saltzman

Former rabbi of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was a national force in the fight for civil rights and social justice

January 09, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen |

Rabbi Murray Saltzman, former senior rabbi of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation who had served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and was one of the most notable Reform rabbis in the United States, died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at Hope Hospice Center in Fort Myers, Fla.

The former Pikesville and Mount Washington resident, who had lived in Fort Myers since 1996, was 80.

"As we say in Hebrew, Rabbi Saltzman was one of the 'great ones of his generation,' and he left quite a legacy of his commitment to social justice, human dignity and pluralism," said Rabbi Jonathan A. Stein, a longtime friend, who is senior rabbi of Temple Shaaray Tefila, on New York City's Upper East Side.

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, who succeeded Rabbi Saltzman when he stepped down at Baltimore Hebrew, described him as a "rabbi with a singular vision and passion."

"He held strongly and devoutly to his ideals of the Torah and how it should be taught and lived. He was completely committed to issues of social justice as both a teacher and a practitioner," he said.

Rabbi Saltzman - the son of immigrant parents from Russia and Hungary - was born in New York City and raised in Brooklyn, where his father was a furrier and candy store owner.

The family later moved to Providence, R.I., where they lived for a few years, before returning to Brooklyn.

As a young boy in Providence, neighborhood toughs called him a "Christ Killer" and beat him up, according to a 1996 profile in The Jewish Times. Rabbi Saltzman explained in the interview that his lifelong obsession with tolerance may have been awakened by those beatings.

After graduating from high school, Rabbi Saltzman entered Syracuse University with the intention of becoming a writer, and while there, took a religion course that changed the direction of his life.

Troubled by the characterization of the Jewish god as vengeful, he went seeking answers. "I went to the Orthodox rabbi in town; he wasn't intellectually capable of really responding to a college student. I went to the Conservative rabbi, he was too busy to see me. I went to the Reform rabbi, he took me home for lunch," the rabbi said.

Rabbi Saltzman dropped out of Syracuse and enrolled at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned a bachelor's degree.

In 1956, he was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he also received a bachelor's degree in Hebrew Letters and a master's degree in Hebrew Letters. In 1975, he was awarded a doctorate in divinity from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

From 1956 to 1958, he was assistant rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El B'ne Jeshrun in Milwaukee, when he moved to Hagerstown to be rabbi of Congregation B'nai Abraham. He left Hagerstown in 1962 when he became rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Chappaqua, N.Y., a position he held for five years, before being named senior rabbi of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation.

In 1978, he was appointed senior rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. "When I came here in 1978, I wanted to respond to the disappearance of the Jewish community in America through assimilation. To do that, I had to build a congregation for the education of Jews," he told The Baltimore Sun when he retired in 1996.

He expanded the Park Heights Avenue congregation and led the effort that resulted in the building of the area's only parochial school run by Reform Jews. He also was the driving force behind the building of the Early Childhood Center, Myerberg Library, and the Holocaust Memorial at the congregation's Berrymans Lane cemetery.

He established a service that recognized the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and succeeded in getting members of Baltimore Hebrew involved in such social justice efforts as Our Daily Bread and "Mitzvah Days," where volunteers performed positive deeds in hospitals, schools and parks.

He was president of the Coalition Opposed to Violence and Extremism, the Baltimore Black-Jewish Forum and the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

During the 1960s, he marched across the South with King. Because of his outspoken civil rights activism, President Gerald R. Ford appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1975.

Rabbi Saltzman, who was the senior-ranking member of the commission, and two other members, were fired in 1983 by President Reagan after they criticized administration policies.

For the last 14 years since moving to Fort Myers, Rabbi Saltzman was a part-time rabbi at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands Tzedakah, and continued to write widely on various issues that defined his life and work.

Services will be held at 1:30 p.m. Sunday at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, 220 S. Bedford Road, Chappaqua, N.Y.

A Shabbat service will be held at 6:15 p.m. March 5 at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave.

Surviving are his wife of 56 years, the former Esther E. Herskowitz; two sons, Oren Saltzman of Owings Mills and Joshua Saltzman of New York City; a daughter, Debra Brooks of Portland, Ore.; and six grandchildren.

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