Rabbi Joel Zaiman was active with the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.
Rabbi Joel Zaiman was active with the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies. (AMY DAVIS / Baltimore Sun)

Rabbi Joel Zaiman, who headed the Chizuk Amuno Congregation for 23 years and was recalled as an educational and ecumenical visionary, died of cardiac arrest July 31 while on vacation in Uniontown, Pa. The Pikesville resident was 81.

Born in Chicago, he was the son of Rabbi Solomon Zaiman and his wife, Ruth. He attended DePaul University and was a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he was ordained.

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He served Temple Emanu-El in Providence, R.I., before coming to Chizuk Amuno in 1980. A Sun article said that while at Chizuk Amuno, he saw his congregation more than double to nearly 1,400 families.

Colleagues said that as part of his agreement to come to Baltimore, he wanted his congregation to have a school. He assisted in the creation of the Krieger Schechter Day School for students from kindergarten to the eighth grade.

Rabbi Debi Wechsler of Chizuk Amuno said, "Rabbi Zaiman was known for his strong moral compass, his unfailing demand for excellence, his intellectually provocative sermons, his insistence on high level education for Jews of all ages, and his many contributions to Baltimore and its faith communities.

“At the same time he was a supremely humble man who liked to end his evenings with a Popsicle.”

She said that during his tenure at Chizuk Amuno, Rabbi Zaiman founded three new schools: the Krieger Schechter Day School, the Stulman Center for Adult Learning and the Netivon Hebrew High School.

“He transformed the congregation through learning, and then he turned his sights on Gemilut Hasadim [acts of loving kindness] and initiated a program to transform the congregation through service to and relationships with Baltimore city communities who were in need of assistance,” Rabbi Wechsler said.

She said that under his leadership the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Gemilut Hasadim Service Initiative began a mentoring program at Northwest High School that continues today with over 350 congregants.

“It is a credit to his leadership that Catholic, Protestant, Episcopal, and Lutheran clergy as well as rabbis and scholars from three Jewish denominations came to memorialize him at shiva,” Rabbi Wechsler said. "He did groundbreaking work in the area of Christian Jewish Studies, including being a part of the founding of the Institute of Islamic, Christian and Jewish Studies. "

When he retired in 2003, Rabbi Zaiman said in a Sun article, ″The only thing that only Jews do is study Torah. Without that, the Jewish community has lost its focus and can’t endure."

The 2003 article also said, “But longtime members say they’ll miss his thundering laugh, his patience and his personal touch.”

His friend, Emanuel Emeritus Rabbi Gus Buchdahl of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, said: “If you needed one rabbi in your life, it was Joel Zaiman. If you needed one friend, it was Joel Zaiman. And if you combined the two, you pretty well didn’t need anything else.”

He also said: “I loved the guy and and we challenged each other. We spoke weekly and critiqued each other’s sermons. We were there for each other in good times and bad.”

He became known in Christian circles for his interfaith overtures. He was on the board of the Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies and befriended the late Cardinal William H. Keeler, who once referred to Rabbi Zaiman as “a wonderful partner in dialogue.”

“He was an incredible pastor and teacher and chief executive officer. He combined all three functions seamlessly,” said Rabbi Richard Camras, a Los Angles resident who is the senior rabbi of Shomrei Torah Synagogue. “He brought me wisdom and guidance. I was blessed to have served under him for seven years in Baltimore.”

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Rabbi Camras also said, “He had a piercing intellect. He was a scholar of Jewish texts and was well versed in other religious traditions.”

“The man was a legend,” said the Rev. Dr. Jason Poling, director of the doctor of ministry program at St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute and an Episcopal priest. “He always demonstrated for me maximum faithfulness to his own tradition along with maximum respect for his neighbor’s, even as he did not suffer fools gladly. Studying the Bible with Joel was an electrifying experience. He was always pushing us to study the text.”

Rabbi Zaiman chaired or co-chaired the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education, Institute of Christian and Jewish Studies and the Baltimore Jewish Council.

He was awarded a degree of Doctor of Divinity Honoris Causa from St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

Funeral service are private.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Ann Shanok; two daughters, Rabbi Elana Zaiman of Seattle and Sarina Davis of Cherry Hill, N.J.; a son, Ari Zaiman of Baltimore; two sisters, Dr. Gail Dorph of Tiburon, Calif., and Dr. Fredelle Spiegel of Los Angeles; and eight grandchildren. A son, Rafael “Rafi” Zaiman, died in 1980.

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