As leader of the Orthodox Ner Israel Rabbinical College for more than half a century, Rabbi Herman N. Neuberger helped fellow Jews escape the religious persecution of other nations and fostered dialogue between faiths.
Rabbi Neuberger died Friday of cardiac arrest at his home at the Pikesville school. He was 87. Hundreds who mourned the rabbi at services yesterday remembered him as teacher, consensus builder and friend, and all had at least this in common - they had learned from him.
He had been associated with Ner Israel since 1942 and helped develop a then-fledging institution from a 50-student school to what is now a 90-acre campus. With an enrollment of more than 800, Ner Israel is one of the nation's most prominent Orthodox rabbinical colleges.
An expert at quietly arbitrating disputes - whether marital quarrels or tensions between Jewish clergy - he also became one of the state's most politically powerful religious figures and frequently met with candidates for governor and Congress who sought his advice and support.
Baltimore's Orthodox community is strong - about 17 percent of the area's Jewish population identified themselves as Orthodox in a 1999 survey, compared with 13 percent in New York - and many said those numbers can be traced to students who settled here after attending Ner Israel.
"He was a principled pragmatist. His principles were governed and drawn from the Torah, but he was able to work with everybody and see the pragmatic solution," said Laurence M. Katz, a former dean of the University of Baltimore law school who came from Florida to attend Ner Israel in 1959.
"Many of us are here because we were attracted to the city by him," Mr. Katz said.
Many others escaped to the Baltimore area, with Rabbi Neuberger's help, from countries that threatened Jews' existence. In what became a defining cause, Rabbi Neuberger traveled to Iran in 1976 and began bringing young Iranians back to Ner Israel with the hope they would return to the Middle East to share what they had learned.
Saving Iranian Jews
In 1979, after the Iranian revolution, Rabbi Neuberger began helping Jews to emigrate from the country. In the early 1980s, he pressured the U.S. State Department to recognize Iranian Jews as political refugees - a status that allowed them to enter the United States. Once here, the rabbi waived tuition and took in many as students.
"This man saved Iranian Jewry," said Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, an official at the school. He estimated that nearly 1,000 people were brought to the United States through Rabbi Neuberger's persistence and generosity during the 1970s and 1980s.
"He moved heaven and Earth, and this man saved a community," he said.
Rabbi David Zargari, who runs the influential Torat Hayim synagogue in Los Angeles, left Iran for the United States in 1975. Rabbi Neuberger changed his life by encouraging him to continue on a religious path rather than moving to New York to become a businessman.
"Every individual mattered to him," Rabbi Zargari said yesterday.
Herman Naftoli Neuberger was born June 26, 1918, in Hassfurt, a small Bavarian town, the youngest of three children. His father, a businessman, died weeks after his bar mitzvah. In 1938, as hostilities against German Jews increased, he came alone to the United States.
On a trip to visit family in Baltimore, he stopped by the school, which had been founded about a decade earlier, and decided to stay. By 1942, he was actively involved in its administration and, as executive director, helped erect its first building on Garrison Boulevard - despite the difficulty of obtaining supplies during the war.
In 1942, he married Judith Kramer. The couple had five sons - two who became lawyers, and three who teach at the school. Mrs. Neuberger died in 1994.
In the early 1960s, Ner Israel began to outgrow its facilities, which many attributed to Rabbi Neuberger's reputation. In 1964, he secured financing for the purchase of 50 acres on Mount Wilson Lane and development of a bigger campus. All of its students had moved to the site by 1969.
Hundreds of mourners arrived there yesterday for the funeral service - on the Sukkot holiday - that was conducted entirely in Hebrew.
Despite the rigor of his regimen, strict even for Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Neuberger avidly followed current events - friends said he read several newspapers each day - and entertained political leaders and clergy from other religions. It was an unusual approach for someone in his position, many said, but it was his nature.
Cardinal William H. Keeler, who serves as a liaison between the Roman Catholic church and the Jewish community, said that shortly after arriving in the city, he was approached by Rabbi Neuberger and they pledged to work together.
"I found him to be a wonderful, generous collaborator in the efforts that we made together," Cardinal Keeler said. "He was just a wonderful person in working on issues that we held in common."
He also served as an adviser to political leaders including Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the former governor and Baltimore mayor, and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Senator Mikulski, in a statement issued by her office, said she first reached out to Rabbi Neuberger when she served in the House of Representatives.
"He helped me to know the vibrant Orthodox community in Baltimore. I have lost a trusted adviser on so many issues - from Israel and other foreign policy issues to education and care for the elderly," Senator Mikulski said. "But more than that, I feel that I have lost a friend and that Baltimore has lost a unique spiritual leader."
"He was a rock in the Baltimore Jewish community and was a beacon who drew people of all faiths closer together," Mayor Martin O'Malley said in a statement through a spokesman last night.
A humble existence
Though Rabbi Neuberger was politically connected, relatives said he lived humbly in a small apartment on campus and took time to help those who were not powerful or wealthy.
Rabbi Oberstein remembered Rabbi Neuberger arranging kosher meals for a stranger who had been hospitalized.
"His honesty was beyond question, that was something that everyone respected," Rabbi Oberstein said. "I loved him like a father, and that statement could be said by thousands of students who went to this institution."
Rabbi Neuberger was a life member of the Baltimore Jewish Council Board of Directors.
He is survived by his sons, Rabbi Sheftel Neuberger, Isaac Neuberger, Rabbi Shrago Neuberger, Yaakov Neuberger and Rabbi Ezra Neuberger, all of Baltimore; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Sun reporter Justin Fenton contributed to this article.