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Rabbi leaves a legacy of lessons His retirement will bring wealth of new opportunity


At lunchtime on Mondays, a fundamentalist Christian, local attorney and feminist psychologist gather in Columbia's Town Center to discuss the Torah, the ancient text central to Judaism.

Discussions are enlightening and invigorating, they say. The group bonds each week. But the uncommon mix of people likely would never have met if not for the class and, more importantly, its teacher.

He is Rabbi Martin Siegel. And he has spent his life mixing people and ideas.

His family is multiracial, and some of his best friends are Catholics and Protestants. His Columbia Jewish Congregation (CJC), which until recently was unaffiliated with any branch of Judaism, welcomes Zen Buddhists and Jews for Jesus alongside Orthodox and Reform members.

The rabbi -- a national figure and one of Howard County's leading clergy members -- has been relentlessly outspoken on many hot-button social issues of the past quarter-century. He once publicly challenged Columbia founder James W. Rouse about the town's incorporation movement.

This week, after 25 years with CJC, Siegel, 64, will retire. On Friday, he will deliver his final sermon -- on what he has learned. In retirement, he will keep mixing it up, working as Amtrak's national chaplain while running his own institute for spiritual healing.

A soft-spoken man with dancing eyes, Siegel leaves behind a generation of Columbians shaped by his all-inclusive spirituality and challenged by his views.

"The way he has been, he has been an enabler for people in town and all over the area to become as good as he is -- he is not a big ego in the pulpit," says longtime friend Suzanne Waller, a former Columbia Council member. "We [CJC] have a profoundly unique Jewish experience, and he is the most interesting part of it."

Adds the Rev. Richard H. Tillman of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Wilde Lake: "He is somewhat of an institution. I see him along the lines of someone like Jimmy Carter, an elder statesman who may not be at the center of things anymore but is very, very influential."

Siegel was a young rabbi when he arrived in Columbia in 1972. He had grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., near Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers -- he's been a baseball devotee all his life -- and received a degree from Cornell.

He also wrote a book, "Amen: The Diary of Rabbi Martin Siegel," which gained national attention for lambasting some members of his wealthy Long Island, N.Y., synagogue. True to the spirit of the late 1960s, he criticized what he saw as flagrant materialism and lack of spiritual integrity in the congregation.

He was quickly fired, but seemed ideal for Columbia. "It was like a marriage," says Waller, who helped recruit Siegel. "A perfect fit."

The Oakland Mills Meeting House -- one of Columbia's four "interfaith centers," where congregations of different faiths share facilities -- was 2 years old.

The new town's interfaith centers were, in the eyes of Rouse, to be an integral part of the diversity of the new town -- a place where anyone could worship and where religious leaders serving the same community could work together and learn from one another.

Once here, Siegel incorporated an eclectic mix of interests and ideas into his life and his congregation. He performed interfaith marriages and wrote all the prayers at CJC.

He and his wife, Judith, adopted two girls, one of whom is African-American, in the 1970s and raised them in Columbia's Harper's Choice village.

Siegel constantly took classes and read -- one of his enduring passions, along with eating and baseball, he says -- especially theological texts.

Over the years, he also explored yoga, meditation and massage. As his spirituality matured, he says, he became more conservative in his Judaism. He now wears a skull cap and prayer shawl every day.

He learned about a new-age healing method called reiki, a hands-on technique that promotes health through relaxation, prayer, meditation and journal-keeping. Several months ago, he became a reiki master.

At the same time, he became involved in such social causes as homelessness, poverty, hunger and most recently welfare reform. He helped found -- among other organizations -- the Howard County Food Bank, the county Partnership Against Substance Abuse and the National Religious Alliance Against Substance Abuse. He has served on dozens of national and state committees and boards and has received a presidential medal for service.

In 1974, he started the Jewish Family School that instructs young people before they do their bar or bat mitzvahs, the Jewish coming-of-age rites.

"The things I like to do best are starting new things," Siegel says. "I believe we are here to learn and serve others.

"I was very influenced by scientists -- they were at the edge of physical knowledge. I've spent a lot of time trying to learn enough to realize what I don't know. I'm now approaching the edge of that."

Friends and colleagues say Siegel is tireless, constantly growing and challenging those around him to rethink the status quo.

In 1995, Siegel was frequently in the news as spokesman for the controversial Columbia Municipal League Inc., a grass-roots organization that tried to get Columbia incorporated as a city.

"Politically, I don't always vote. But when I do, I vote for those who I think will use their power to help people," Siegel says. "I had started to see the CA [Columbia Association, the homeowners association] as a club that took care of itself and not the citizens."

In January 1995, on a national radio show, Siegel and Columbia founder James W. Rouse argued over the best course for Columbia's future. They ended the show at odds and, off the air, accused one another of not understanding Columbia. Later, he told Rouse, "I spent 23 years working to improve this community. greatly respect you, but I deserve the same respect."

Eight months later, after less than a year as spokesman, some CJC members had become uncomfortable with his dual public roles. Siegel stepped down, but still insists that Columbians have become complacent.

Which is why he loves Baltimore, for its sense of community and, of course, its baseball.

Siegel shares season tickets for seats near the Orioles dugout at Camden Yards. He sometimes wears an Orioles cap and jersey. He and baseball buddy Mike Clark have been to about 10 games so far this year, they say.

"He is big-time into the Orioles," says Clark, a Quaker who met Siegel about 20 years ago while working as a reporter for The Sun. "Sometimes, he can be very vociferous, but he is usually fairly quiet at the games. I think he uses it as a time to chill out and relax."

At one point during most games, he meets with a group of Jews near a Kosher food stand to pray, Clark says.

In his retirement, Siegel says he may be busier than ever: He will be the national chaplain for Amtrak and will run a personal healing organization -- the National Institute on Behavioral Health and Spirituality -- that will run workshops and provide individual counseling.

Siegel's successor at CJC, Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan, previously worked in a Philadelphia congregation and asked through Siegel not to be contacted until he arrives in Columbia next month. On Friday, Siegel will deliver a final sermon, "What I Have Learned." Unlike most sermons, which he delivered without notes, he put this one on paper, he says.

Two of his big lessons: The material world is a part of a higher, more profound spiritual world, and the Torah is the best guide for creating positive actions that lead to positive consequences.

He will continue to be part of CJC, and he will continue to teach classes on Bible study and Torah but will likely cut back from about five a week to three or four.

Until last year, CJC had been the oldest unaffiliated Jewish congregation in the county, meaning that it was not officially associated with the four main branches of American Jewry: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist.

The congregation voted last year to become Reconstructionist, in part to build ties to a larger Jewish community as Siegel prepares to leave.

"It's very possible that what I have tried to build here will continue and will be strengthened after I am gone," he says. "If there has been some truly good and useful stuff here, it will endure. What is not good will change, and that will be good."

Pub Date: 6/17/97

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