The Baltimore Board of Rabbis, a collective of close to 60 rabbis of different denominations from around the metro area, functions as a rabbinical forum, study and networking group, but also offers Jewish education to the community. Although the board’s educational outreach has shifted somewhat following a recent funding change, board rabbis still teach a popular Judaism introduction course and sponsor other community education programs.
The highly regarded, multiday Adult Institute, which offered study with board rabbis on topics such as ancient and modern Jewish history, literature, culture, biblical prose, Talmudic commentary and contemporary issues, was ended about two years ago because the program required a lot of logistical support and funding, according to current board president Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.
“However, we have simultaneously revamped our Introduction to Judaism program in partnership with the JCCs,” said Axler, who taught and attended the Adult Institute. “Their support and organization, as well as the diligent work of [board vice president] Rabbi Jessy Gross and [JCC Shalom Baltimore and interfaith engagement director] Lara Nicolson has revived the program in tremendously successful ways.”
A well-attended class is underway now at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, Axler said, and plans remain in place for the next class, scheduled for January- May at the same location. The course runs one day a week in the evenings for 16 weeks and is affiliated with the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the American Jewish University. For people who just want a better foundation and understanding of Judaism, or for those studying for conversion, the course includes study, readings, discussion and Jewish experiences such as visiting a synagogue and observing Shabbat.
“One of the great strengths of this Intro to Judaism class is that, as a pluralistic board of rabbis, we are able to offer a class where rabbis across the denominations all teach and offer their unique perspectives over the course of the sessions,” Axler said in an email interview.
The board is co-sponsoring a free community forum on Nov. 21, Confronting the Opioid Epidemic, with Sol Levinson & Bros., Jewish Community Services and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, at the Edward A. Myerberg Center from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
And Axler said the board’s participation in an annual study day (Yom Iyyun) with the Washington Board of Rabbis is still “very much healthy and alive.”
“Our attendance at this event has been consistent year to year and reflects one of the purposes of the Board of Rabbis in both Baltimore and D.C. — to be a forum where rabbis across the denominations come together for study, support and connection,” he said. “Our scholars each year have brought excellent content, and we are looking forward to our next Yom Iyyun in late spring. We also have some additional possibilities for joint programming with the D.C. Board of Rabbis.”
Although once supported with partial funding through The Associated, the group is now an all-volunteer organization supported wholly by member dues.
“When I arrived in the community (mid-2012), The Associated funded a position for the Board of Rabbis. That position was cut back to a very part-time administrator and then the funding for that position was eliminated entirely,” Axler said.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff, who was president of the board at the time of transition, said the funding was eliminated at the board’s request.
“The formal separation from The Associated was based on the idea that we wanted to be a completely independent organization representing a moral leadership for Baltimore,” Sharff said. “It was not reflective of personalities or conflicts, but really a desire to operate as a separate entity.” The former Har Sinai Congregation rabbi now leads a Reform temple in New York.
“While the request did follow a significant decrease in funding to the Board of Rabbis, it also was part of an ideological decision to be an independent body,” Axler said. “That said, we work closely and in true partnership today with The Associated as well as several other agencies within the organized Jewish community.”
Those changes have given the board the opportunity to focus more closely on its function, Axler said.
“Our ability to operate has not been impacted, though we have shifted from a professional-driven organization to a member/volunteer-driven organization,” he said. “We have also had to assess what programming we wished to continue, what we wished to create and those programs that would not continue.”
Axler said the board’s mission continues and is vitally important not only as a vehicle for rabbis to commune and learn, but also for Baltimore’s Jewish community at-large.
“I believe that it is incredibly important to have a diverse group of colleagues who come together for regular study; to address the issues of our shared Jewish community, our region and our broader involvement; to provide a rabbinic voice of conscience when necessary; and to provide mutual support to one another in the work that we do in service of the Jewish community,” Axler said.
A diverse group denominationally with leadership in synagogues, hospitals, assisted living facilities and hospice, it is also gender-diverse. Currently, more than one-third of board members are women.
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman has been a member of the board since the 1990s and held the position of president for three years. The community hospice rabbi for the Jewish Federation of Howard County, Scheinerman joined the board because she felt it served her colleagues and the wider community well.
“I began as chair of the public relations committee and was tasked with bringing colleagues together to study, consider, discuss and formulate statements on important issues on behalf of the board. That was a very positive experience,” she said in an email. “Then I served as secretary and following that vice president, and in both positions I appreciated the camaraderie and excellent relationships among the members of the board and how well the officers worked together.”
She said having that many women colleagues on the board is a real plus.
“It’s marvelous. The first time I attended a Board of Rabbis meeting, I walked into a room filled with men, one of whom turned to me and asked me to fetch him a cup of coffee. That would not happen today,” she said. “One of the best features of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis is that it attracts rabbis across the spectrum and everyone respects and appreciates everyone else. That is a plus for us and a huge plus for Baltimore.”
Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville said building relationships is one of the real strengths of the organization. He joined the board in 1998 and served as president about 10 years ago.
“It is enormously valuable to be able to touch base with colleagues, and not only for professional reasons, but simply for chevreschaft — just the relationship building piece. And it enables us to stay in touch,” he said in an email. “Over the years, it has also enabled us to form consensus on important communal issues.”
The board encourages rabbis to apply, reaching out to new rabbis and those new to the community. Annual dues range from $55 for retired rabbis to $118 for senior rabbis.