As Beit Tikvah Congregation's new rabbi, Larry Pinsker settled into his new office, a visitor couldn't help noticing stuffed animals and action figures on a bookshelf, including ones of Moses, Sigmund Freud and Plastic Man, a 1950s precursor of Elastic Man.
The longtime rabbi, a comic book aficionado and collector of superhero figurines, has left his former post as associate rabbi of Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, Canada, largest conservative Jewish synagogue west of Toronto, to lead Beit Tikvah, a small Reconstructionist congregation housed at First Christian Church of Roland Park. Beit Tikvah also has its own Kesher Day School.
The congregation numbers about 80 membership homes, according to Beit Tikvah's website, http://www.beittikvah.org.
Cheerful and colorfully dressed in a yarmulke that matched his tie as he prepared to lead his first Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday, Nov. 1, Pinsker, who succeeded Rabbi Becca Gould, arrived Oct. 24. He is now living with his daughter, Sarah, in Lauraville, while he looks for a place to live.
The action figures and stuffed animals are not there simply for Pinsker's enjoyment.
As a rabbi and associate rabbi through the years, "I spend a lot of times talking to kids," said Pinsker, who is in his mid-60s. "Sometimes, they're not sure what to encounter."
He said he often talks to children about problems and people in their lives, but that he does not consider himself a counselor.
"Counseling is a contract," he said. "I'm there just to listen. That's a profession Jews are very adept at."
Raised in a nominally Orthodox family, Pinsker is now spiritual leader of a congregation that prides itself on being "warm, diverse, and egalitarian," with "a progressive approach to Jewish life," according to the site. "Beit Tikvah welcomes interfaith families, couples and individuals regardless of race, ethnicity or sexual orientation," the site states.
That approach is in keeping with Reconstructionist Judaism, which the site defines as integrating "a deep respect for traditional Judaism with the insights and ideas of contemporary social, intellectual and spiritual life."
It would seem to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from Orthodox Judaism, which is known for strict adherence to Jewish law. But Pinsker, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, said he has deep respect for Orthodox Judaism as "rich, nurturing and incredibly connective. I have nothing but respect and great admiration for the way in which (Orthodox Jews) build community and promote the value and ethical values of religious life," he said.
"I think everybody is beginning to be conscious of those questions that border on someone's (idea of) heresy," Pinsker added. "I think there are daring things said in every movement that need to be addressed in every other movement."
Although new to Beit Tikvah, Pinsker said he has a clear sense of the congregation's desire for more "song, mindful prayer and learning."
He also believes that that although north Baltimore, unlike Pikesville and Owings Mills, is not a hotbed of Jewish congregations, there is a silent population of Jews here who are looking for ways to reconnect and to re-engage with the Jewish faith.
"He's unique because of the enthusiasm he brings and his passion for learning," said Ray Wacks, Howard County budget director and a former Baltimore City budget official, whose wife, Diane Wacks, is president of the Beit Tikvah board of directors. "He brings a depth of learning and scholarship hat we haven't seen before."
"There's not a moment that's not a teachable moment for him," said Esther Miller, a member of the board.
"I think there were other places he could've been," said Sarah Pinsker, who has attended services at Beit Tikvah since college. But Sarah Pinsker, who works for the Abilities Network and Epilepsy Foundation in Towson and is a singer/songwriter and science fiction writer, said the opportunity for her father to be close to her was a big draw.
"I talked up the congregation, too," she said. "I think it's a lovely congregation."