When asked his age, the new rabbi of Ner Tamid Congregation Greenspring Valley Synagogue was polite but firm.
"I'm young. Let's leave it at that," Yisrael "Sruli" Motzen said as he greeted well-wishers with hearty bear hugs Sunday before his installation ceremony at the Modern Orthodox synagogue.
Members say youth is what the dwindling Ner Tamid congregation of about 250 families — once the only major synagogue in the Mount Washington area — needs to get younger and broaden its worldview, even as it holds fast to Jewish laws and ways.
"We're walking a fine line," said Suzanne Keilson Friedman, chairman of the board of directors of the synagogue and associate dean of arts and sciences at Loyola University Maryland.
She said there are more than 50 shuls, or synagogues, including Beth Tfiloh, in the area, which includes the Pickwick community, where Ner Tamid is located at 6241 Pimlico Road.
She said Ner Tamid is convenient for observant Jews, many of whom walk to services for religious reasons, and honors traditions such as men and women sitting separately during services.
But she said some in the deeply religious Jewish community around Ner Tamid are reluctant to go to the synagogue because it is less formal, welcomes Jews of all stripes and varying degrees of faith, and isn't as "monolithic" in its thinking as traditionally Orthodox congregations in the area are.
Ner Tamid's motto, as stated in the program for the installation ceremony and dinner, is "Something for everyone."
Ner Tamid's place in history, and its niche today, are not lost on Motzen, who spent the past year with Ner Tamid, including six months as its interim rabbi, after graduating from Ner Israel Rabbinical College, in the Baltimore area.
Where Ner Tamid once was the only game in town, now, "There's a synagogue on every street corner," he said in his installation speech to a standing room only audience that included guest speaker Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, president of Ner Israel.
Motzen urged congregants, many wearing traditional bonnets and black hats, to "live up to" the synagogue' name, which means eternal light or flame.
Motzen promised to help "bridge the gap" between the modern world and the world of the Torah.
"Only a meaningful Judaism will reverberate with our youth and allow us to pass the torch to the next generation," he said.
Motzen, who grew up in Canada and is married with two children, also has a sense of his own place in the history of a congregation that has had only two rabbis before him. The first, Herschel Leibowitz, was there for 27 years, and the second, Chaim Landau, served for 25 years.
"It's a great history to drop on," Motzen said before the ceremony.
His wife, educator and social worker Hindy Motzen, told the audience, which included three front rows of past and present rabbis, "You are role models for us. We look forward to building and growing with you for many years to come."
"I guess that's always the role of a new rabbi," Landau told the Messenger — "not only to maintain the shul, but to build it (up) and expand it and guarantee it a future in which the broadest representation of Jews will be able to enjoy the warmth and hospitality of a wonderful congregation like this."
President of the board Barry List, communications director for a scientific institute, said Ner Tamid's niche, as a synagogue with a Montessori school, is to be "a very welcoming shul that embraces people of all backgrounds, and a good place to bring young children."
Congregants have a sense that Motzen is the right man for the times. After a national search for a new rabbi, the congregation settled on Motzen in its own back yard.
"He has energy and vitality. He's bringing in young people," said Cerrill Meister, owner of the store Eye Candy, in Hampden.
David Greenfeld, a founding member of Ner Tamid, whose father was president of the board, remembers when Jews flocked to the synagogue and audiences surpassed 1,000 for the high holidays.
"This rabbi is working on bringing it back," the 81-year-old congregant said during a crowded cocktail hour. "He does things that make us all comfortable. He's very accepting. He's not going to do anything that's against the religion."
His nephew, Jacob Hellman, 25, said Motzen has been "a positive influence" on a congregation that is changing with the times.
"It's not the Ner Tamid I grew up with," Hellman said. "It's a new Ner Tamid."
"Everything is changing, as I see it," said Landau, 59. "It's the nature of civilization. Nothing stands still. Dealing with the changes is the challenge."
For Motzen, that means not associating with labels.
"We must learn to love and respect and find common ground," he told the audience.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun