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Rabbi Saltzman, longtime Sanibel leader, passes

By Staff | Jan 12, 2010

Rabbi Murray Saltzman

Rabbi Murray Saltzman, DD, the spiritual leader of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands since 1996 and 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, passed away on Jan. 5, 2010 of pancreatic cancer at Hope Hospice in Fort Myers.

Saltzman also served congregations in Indianapolis, Chappaqua, N.Y., Hagerstown, Md. and Milwaukee, Wis. At the time of his death, he was serving on the Board of Regents at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, and on the Board of Families USA, a foundation to promote health care for all Americans.

Although Saltzman was a Democrat, at the instigation of Indianas Republican Congressman and Presbyterian minister William Hudnut, President Gerald Ford appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights where he served from 1975 to 1983. Saltzman – at the time the senior-ranking member of the commission – and two other members were fired in 1983 by President Reagan after they criticized administration policies.

He and Esther, with whom he lived in Fort Myers, have three children – Oren Saltzman of Owings Mills, Md., Debra Brooks of Portland Ore. and Rabbi Joshua Saltzman of New York City – and six grandchildren.

As a college student, Saltzman organized a sit-in when a black classmate was denied counter service at a diner the students frequented. At the height of the civil rights movement, he went to jail with Martin Luther King, Jr. And always, he brought his experiences and an enormous sensitivity to his position as spiritual leader of a congregation – and, ultimately, to the larger community in which he served.

Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, who succeeded 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,” Perlmeter said.

In 1978, when he was appointed senior rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew, he said he wanted to respond to the disappearance through assimilation of the Jewish community in America.

“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 congregation and led the effort that resulted in the building of the areas only parochial school run by Reform Jews. He established a service that recognized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday 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.

Saltzman was president of the Coalition Opposed to Violence and Extremism, BLEWS (the Baltimore Black-Jewish Forum), the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and many other organizations. His active commitment to a range of important Jewish and human rights causes led to honors bestowed by the Prime Minister of Israel and the Governors of both Maryland and Indiana, among others. His strong values and leadership remained consistent throughout his distinguished career, and he was a mentor to countless rabbis, cantors, other Jewish professionals, as well as synagogue members.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Saltzman graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1951 and received his rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1956. The Rabbi taught at Marian College in Indianapolis, Indiana-Purdue University, the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, and at St. Maur’s Seminary, also in Indianapolis.

“He was a giant of a man,” said Bernard Lubetkin, president of the congregation at Bat Yam. “Very active in ecumenical efforts of all kinds on the islands. He was involved in the CROP Walk, the Soup Kitchen, he wrote several columns for the Islander – very involved.”

“It is still stunning to try to accept Murray’s passing,” said Rev. Ran Niehoff, former rector of Sanibel Congregational Church. “He was so full of life, so passionate about the quality of life – his life and the lives of those around him. One of his major goals was to help others to understand the value of life. He wanted all people to have dignity as well as a rich and full life.”

“Murray had the mind of a philosopher, the voice of a poet, and the heart of a prophet,” Niehoff added.

Saltzman was also a gourmet cook, an acclaimed poet and continued to write widely on various issues that defined his life and work.

His funeral and burial took place on Jan. 10 in Chappaqua, N.Y. A Shabbat service will be held on March 5 at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

A Memorial Service will be held at 3 p.m. this Sunday, Jan. 17 at the Sanibel Congregational United Church of Christ, located at 2050 Periwinkle Way.

(Information provided Bernard M. Lubetkin, president of the Congregation of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, and by Frederick N. Rasmussen of The Baltimore Sun.)