Ner Israel College at 60: A guiding light in the journey to Orthodoxy


Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger, 75, has been part of Ner Israel Rabbinical College for 55 of its 60 years and its guiding spirit as president much of that time. His and the institution's ways are interchangeable.

When the rabbi arrived in 1938 from his native Bavaria, the 5-year-old Orthodox yeshiva had fewer than 40 students in residence.

Now, as the quiet Owings Mills campus on leafy Mount Wilson Lane prepares to welcome alumni, parents and benefactors to a 60th anniversary celebration next Tuesday, Ner Israel has 200 students in its high school division, 300 at the college level and 120 taking post-graduate courses. All are male.

Accredited by the state and the American Association of Rabbinical Theological Seminaries, the college issues bachelor's of Talmudic law and master's of Talmudic law degrees, as well as a doctorate.

Strict adherence to the ancient laws of Jewish Orthodoxy, Rabbi Neuberger believes, is not just a matter of comfortable tradition and intellectual stimulation for an isolated faculty and student body, but a moral necessity for all Jews in the hurly-burly of today's world.

QUESTION: Are Jews from the more liberal Reform and Conservative branches turning to Orthodoxy?

ANSWER: There certainly is a trend. To the greatest extent, people coming to Orthodoxy come from among unaffiliated Jews. But there is a movement to the Orthodox among members of Reform and Conservative congregations, as well.

Q: Why?

A: I feel that most of the ills of our society have their roots in the permissiveness of this generation.

People need definite guidelines, a commitment to discipline in the ordering of one's priorities. This is what brings people to Orthodoxy.

Q: What are the relative numerical strengths, locally, of the three main branches of Judaism?

A: About three years ago, the Associated [Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore] found about 22 percent were Orthodox, 22 or 23 percent were Conservative and about the same number for Reform. The rest are unaffiliated.

I don't know how scientific the study was, but those are probably the latest statistics for metropolitan Baltimore [which counts a total Jewish population of about 95,000.]

Q: Is the growth of the Orthodox branch a recent trend?

A: In the last 20 years, Orthodox Jewry has increased tremendously. We have a number of people who were totally unaffiliated before they got exposed to the discipline of Orthodox Jews. Learning about the laws of the Torah changed their lifestyle. This is not one or two -- this is literally thousands.

Q: How has the face of Judaism changed in Baltimore since the early days of Ner Israel?

A: I can't tell you about the other branches, but I can tell you about Orthodoxy.

When my wife and I were married here close to 50 years ago, strict observers of the Sabbath in Baltimore were hard to find. Today, you see them in the city every Saturday afternoon.

I would say 75 percent or more of the Sabbath observers are Orthodox. You find it in the Jewish day schools. Every Orthodox congrega

tion is full of young people having different kinds of gatherings, classes, the small kids' play groups and what not.

So there is a very vivid, viable, pulsating Orthodox life in Baltimore.

Q: What is the role of Ner Israel Rabbinical College in this change?

A: Well, it has a lot to do with Ner Israel. New interest in Orthodoxy is based on the study of the original sources, and putting these teachings into practice.

I would say that over 50 percent of our students, who come here from all over the country and even the world, stay in Baltimore, get married here, go into teaching, or the rabbinate, or other occupations and professions such as the law or medicine.

Almost every Orthodox endeavor in the Baltimore community is headed by one of our former students.

Q: What is the influence of the college nationally?

A: If our students get anything here, they get the feeling of responsibility for their community, and they exercise those teachings about becoming involved, becoming active in Jewish life.

If you go to Los Angeles or San Francisco or Denver or Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago -- in each of these towns you will find former Ner Israel students having a profound effect.

Q: Do all of your students come from Orthodox homes?

A: No. I would say that at least 20 percent of our parents are not observant to the extent that their sons are, so you have a situation where a good portion of our students have

totally changed from what they grew up with.

Q: Why is this?

A: A combination of reasons. In some instances, it is because of individuals in their communities or at another college who have had an influence on them. In some instances, it is because of a trip to Israel.

We have students who went to Yale or one of the other Ivy League colleges and were not particularly observant, but then a contact with people on the campus was the experience that turned him around.

The common denominator for all of our students is a commitment to observing the religious and moral standards of the [Jewish] law as we understand it. There is no dispute about that. But how he got to it is different in almost every case.

Q: Are your foreign students as varied as your American students?

A: It's very, very interesting. We have Iranian students who considered themselves traditional Jews. They knew there was a God and knew there were certain religious laws, although they were not observant in the same sense that we understand.

The Iranians were not taught with the same standards they would have been here, but it is an easier problem to deal with them than to deal with Russians who grew up -- and their parents grew up -- in a Communist situation where religious life was not tolerated. You have to instill in the Russians the basics that the American students and the Iranian students have grown up with.

Even so, a Russian student can show such progress that you would think he had 10 or 12 years of Jewish experience.

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