Rabbi Noah Golinkin, the former spiritual leader of a Columbia synagogue who earned a national reputation for programs that taught Hebrew literacy to more than 150,000 Jewish adults, died Thursday at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center & Hospital of complications after surgery. The Columbia resident was 89.
His one-day Hebrew Reading Marathon and its forerunner, the Hebrew Literacy Campaign, are credited with quickly giving adults enough knowledge of the language to follow the Hebrew prayer book. He wrote textbooks widely used to teach adults because he could not find any suitable for his programs.
He is best known for his crash course, an eight-hour program that uses familiar Hebrew words, repetition, exercise, humor and encouragement to bring Hebrew reading familiarity to those who did not learn it as children.
His mission was to teach it to the estimated 1 million American Jews who have not learned to read the ancient language, said a son, Rabbi David Golinkin of Jerusalem, president of the Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies.
He did not want modern American Jews, with their emphasis on secular education and diminishing familiarity with the language of the prayer books, to lose the language of their religion and drift away. Cutting across denominations, his programs encouraged participation in services and kindled interest in further studies, he and family members said.
An animated man, he traveled the world to teach Hebrew and trained others in his methods, until his recent surgery.
"It has been used for 4,000 years, and Hebrew is our link with our ancestors," Rabbi Golinkin told the Baltimore Jewish Times in 1998, when asked why Jews should learn Hebrew. "It's our link with Jewish people around the world. We want the Jewish people to continue. We need a bridge to the future."
"He created a new concept of teaching adults Hebrew," said Rabbi Susan Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation of Columbia, where Rabbi Golinkin was the rabbi emeritus. "He advocated the importance of teaching Hebrew at a time when it wasn't on the national radar screen. He revolutionized modern Jewish Hebrew education."
He believed that ignorance of the language made people feel uncomfortable at services, and that relieving that was the key to religious participation.
"His greatness as a rabbi is that he was not limited in any one particular area. He was a pulpit rabbi, a congregational rabbi, and he was a scholar and a teacher. He was an innovator. He was able to do it all for a long, long time," said Rabbi Philip Pohl of B'nai Shalom of Olney, who knew him for 25 years. His synagogue repeatedly sponsored Rabbi Golinkin's one-day Hebrew course and follow-up programs.
"The difference it means to a person who can all of a sudden come to a service and even just follow along with a service - to just follow the text along with her finger - to connect what is being heard from the pulpit to what is being read on the page is a tremendous experience. For an adult to experience it, it is a religious experience. We like to have people have religious experiences in synagogue," he said.
Rabbi Golinkin was born in Zhitomir, Ukraine, the son and grandson of rabbis, and grew up in Vilna, Lithuania, where he earned a degree in Polish law from Stefan Batory University.
He immigrated to New York City in 1938 and studied at Yeshiva University. After moving to Worcester, Mass., where his father was appointed chief rabbi, he earned a bachelor's degree in American history from Clark University in 1940. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1944.
During that time, he worked to raise awareness of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.
From 1950 to 1965, he was the rabbi of the Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Congregation in Arlington, Va., where he challenged his congregation to learn Hebrew and began 12-week courses.
Rabbi Golinkin left to become founding director of the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington.
He also was a civil rights activist. He sat with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1963 March on Washington and advocated school desegregation.
From 1970 to 1978, he led a congregation in Knoxville, Tenn.
In 1978, when the Conservative movement issued a new edition of its prayer book and when Rabbi Golinkin took the pulpit at Columbia's Beth Shalom, he wrote in a Rabbinical Assembly newsletter that without broad Hebrew literacy, congregations were unlikely to see broader participation in services.
The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs responded by sponsoring a nationwide Hebrew education effort.
He remained rabbi of Beth Shalom until 1986, and is credited with helping to shape what was then a young but growing congregation.
He started the one-day class in 1986 when a former student - teacher and author Danny Siegel of Rockville - told a crowd that Rabbi Golinkin could teach Hebrew to adults in one day. He responded by coming up with the marathon and a textbook. The program took off.
Rabbi Golinkin and his wife, Dvorah, taught the marathons, and another son, Cantor Abraham Golinkin of Columbia, managed the Hebrew Marathon Network and edited the textbooks.
"My father's textbooks were used in 45 states and Canada, and overall he was able to teach 150,000 Jewish adults to read and understand Hebrew," Cantor Golinkin said.
At his death, Rabbi Golinkin was preparing a book on the Passover Seder, the family said.
Services were held Sunday.
In addition to his two sons and his wife of 51 years, Rabbi Golinkin is survived by three grandchildren.
Sun staff writer Frederick N. Rasmussen contributed to this article.