Young rabbi takes over leadership

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro says he has found his spiritual home at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Congregation in Mount Washington. After 18 months working together, one of Baltimore's oldest Jewish congregations has made Shapiro, 30, the youngest spiritual leader in its history and officially installed him in a ceremony Sunday.

The service was "a celebration of the beginning of my life's work," said Shapiro.

MMAE, the shorthand name most members use, was chartered in 1887 and has evolved through mergers of several orthodox congregations. It now numbers about 400 families, a third of whom have joined since Shapiro's arrival. Many attribute that growth to Shapiro's innovation and openness.

"Whenever there is an event, he is filled with ideas," said Jeff Forman, president of the congregation and chairman of the rabbi search committee. "We have shofar-blowing and latke-eating contests. He is all about making Judaism fun and meaningful. He does not want anyone to dread coming here."

Shapiro's youth has meshed well with the needs of what was an aging congregation trying to attract new members, Forman said.

"The stereotype of the old man with the beard may not resonate with kids on Facebook," he said. "Here is a man who plays ping-pong with teens and organizes concerts and a summer camp that lets kids have fun and give back to their community at the same time."

Now there are Friday night dinners — once Shapiro cooked Mexican — bonfires with music and recently, a reggae festival performed by a traveling Israeli troop.

"You mix fun into the old traditions," Shapiro said. "And you make children welcome. Theirs is the real music, the exact sounds God wants to hear."

Shapiro blends spirituality with a sense of humor. He likes to call youth classes "Hebrew Unschool." Asked how he attracts children and teens to synagogue activities, he laughs and answers "lots of candy." Then, he admits, he is married to a dentist. His office is filled with dozens of religious and historic volumes and decorated with finger paintings, compliments of his two young children.

When Rabbi Elan Adler announced his decision to leave the congregation after a decade of service, Shapiro, who was assisting at a New Jersey synagogue, applied for the job. The two rabbis spent a month together before Adler departed for Israel.

"Rabbi Adler gave over a lot of his knowledge," Shapiro said. "He shared his soul with me."

In an e-mail from his home in Israel, Adler said his successor is "a wise choice on many levels."

"We knew he would embrace and teach an open orthodoxy that would be attractive to many people," he said. "We were impressed by his study in Israel, success in his previous position, great personal charm and impeccable character. His youth and boundless energy, along with his wife and children, were a huge asset, and we knew he would grow into the position quickly to the delight of the congregation."

Shapiro is devoted to a scholarly, spiritual life.

"I love the Torah," he said. "I love teaching it and trying to inspire with it."

After graduating from high school, he spent two years in Israel because, he said, "If you are going to live a life following a belief system, you should take time to become an expert in it."

On his return to the U.S., he studied at Brandeis University and then enrolled in rabbinical college. The numerous internships during his religious studies included prison chaplain at Rikers Island in New York, a ministry he continues at the Baltimore County Detention Center.

"When all the comforts of outside life are stripped away, many people become spiritual and look for forgiveness," he said.

His first name, translated from Hebrew, means "God will have mercy." He prefers it to Ross, his English name. "I want to bring God's mercy into the world," he said.

He has found Baltimore to be an exciting city with a strong, united Jewish community, he said.

"Wherever you are on the spectrum, there is a feeling of pride in being a Baltimore Jew," he said.

And Maryland has allowed him to indulge his passion for the outdoors, especially hiking and kayaking. "I feel the strongest connection to God in nature," he said.

While many refer to their congregation as MMAE, Shapiro prefers calling it Moses after his biblical hero.

"I want to be the rabbi of Moses," he said. "He was the perfect leader who loved and cared about the children of Israel."

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