Old mission, fresh start: Baltimore’s Beth Tfiloh embraces rare leadership change to start its second century

·7 min read

At the end of his final sermon as spiritual leader of Beth Tfiloh, the Baltimore synagogue he has helmed for 43 years, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg made mention of his successor, 39-year-old Rabbi Chai Posner, giving a small smile amid the gravity of the moment.

Wohlberg, 77, told the hushed congregation he’d brought his “black rabbi hat” along to give Posner to symbolize the transfer of leadership from one generation to the next.

Then he produced not the traditional fedora of a “rebbe,” but a battered black baseball cap, the words “Chief Rabbi” colorfully splashed across the front. And everybody laughed at one more of Wohlberg’s perfect punchlines.

“I’ve always been a rabbi you could have a little bit of fun with,” Wohlberg said later with a borscht belt shrug. “You don’t have to dress in black and turn your back on modernity to be an Orthodox Jew.”

It isn’t that Wohlberg failed to appreciate the importance of passing the torch at Beth Tfiloh Congregation, the biggest Modern Orthodox synagogue in Maryland — and by some accounts in the United States. He’s just the third senior rabbi in its storied history, and the changeover to Posner, his hardworking assistant for the past 12 years, is a linchpin event of the temple’s celebration of its 100th year of life.

It’s just that the man one local Jewish newspaper calls “the master of the sermon” has rarely met a moment so sacred he didn’t think he could make it more enjoyable, and thus more influential, with a bit of unexpected shtick.

“You’re supposed to serve God in joy,” Wohlberg said in his office, surrounded by shelves of books on Jewish learning and some of the many gag gifts he has accumulated over the years. “If there’s a dominating, driving factor at Beth Tfiloh, it’s that. It’s a great mitzvah to be happy.”

Modern Orthodox Judaism, practiced at 3,500-member Beth Tfiloh, is a subset of Orthodox Judaism, the scripturally and behaviorally conservative branch of the faith that claims about 10% of American Jews, according to the Pew Research Center.

Its adherents, like all Orthodox, consider it fundamental to study the Torah and observe its ancient system of Jewish laws. But unlike most Orthodox, they see it as equally important to consider how best to apply those teachings to the problems of contemporary life.

The way a rabbi balances those imperatives, scholars say, can give a Modern Orthodox shul, or synagogue, its personality and appeal. At Beth Tfiloh, levity wasn’t always part of the equation.

The community was born in the early 1920s, after a group of families seeking to avoid discriminatory housing covenants settled in the Forest Park neighborhood of West Baltimore. They set up Beth Tfiloh (”house of prayer”), the first of the district’s many synagogues, in 1921.

Their rabbi, Samuel Rosenblatt, had a scholarly mien and a formal manner. He held a doctorate from Columbia University, spoke nine languages, and would become a fixture on the Johns Hopkins University faculty as he shaped the synagogue over the next 52 years.

Posner says Rosenblatt’s ways fit the gravity of his mission, which was to “establish that Modern Orthodox Judaism could become a serious religious and cultural force in the United States.”

By the time he retired in 1972, Beth Tfiloh had acquired its first permanent home; added an elementary school; established social, cultural and sports clubs with more than 1,300 participants; emerged as a staunch backer of Israel; and moved to its current site on Old Court Road.

No less important, the rabbi in 1936 introduced the first bat mitzvah ceremonies for girls in Orthodox Jewish Baltimore, an idea that flourished. He retained the tradition of keeping men and women separate during services but did away with the “mechitzah,” a screen most Orthodox temples use to divide the gender-based sections.

Such changes, radical for their time, likely opened doors for more worshippers, affirming Beth Tfiloh’s identity as “a place of welcome,”

berg says.

That old-and-new blend, Posner says, became the formula Rosenblatt’s successors could use in ways that suited their personalities as the decades passed and times changed.

Wohlberg wasted no time doing just that when he was hired in 1978. Myrna Cardin, 78, whose family has attended Beth Tfiloh for generations, said that by the time the synagogue hired Wohlberg after a nationwide search, the energetic, down-to-earth 34-year-old felt like the right choice.

“When I was growing up, the rabbis and cantor were way up there, above everyone, in the pulpit, and you had nothing to do with them,” she says. “I absolutely loved that Rabbi Wohlberg brought a sense of irreverence, a fun.”

Raised in a strict Orthodox home in Brooklyn, New York, he was immersed in Jewish law and literature. But he was also obsessed with current events and read four newspapers a day. Whatever his sermon topic, Wohlberg wove in references to people and events in the public eye, using their stories to illuminate enduring themes.

“He talks about issues in a way that just hits you in the heart,” says Lauren Braunstein, 36, a Pikesville mother of four. “He brings up people and politics, not just Judaism. Forgiveness, humility, respecting your parents — he talks about them in a way that sticks with you. And isn’t that what Modern Orthodoxy is supposed to be, relating the archaic to the now?”

Wohlberg published 36 sermons in his first book, “Pulpit Power,” in 1986. His most recent collection, “What We Can REALLY Learn From the Rich and Famous,” published last year, cites everyone from Redd Foxx to Axl Rose in addressing such themes as perfectionism, old age, letting go.

“The shtick is good, but the sermons made me,” Wohlberg says.

Synagogue leaders see his achievements as at least the equal of Rosenblatt’s. Wohlberg, among other things, helped spearhead the creation of Baltimore’s only coeducational Jewish high school, oversaw the absorption of two older synagogues, and established a series of joint programs with Liberty Grace Church of God, an African American congregation near the original Beth Tfiloh synagogue.

Beth Tfiloh also reintroduced a moderately sized mechitzah, an idea that might have been controversial had he not at the same time suggested allowing women to serve as chairpersons of the synagogue’s board and carry the Torah on the women’s side during services.

“I gave a sermon and said we should be more Orthodox and more modern,” he says. “That worked. The ideas passed unanimously.”

After starting a nationwide search for his replacement, Beth Tfiloh leaders say, they realized they had the ideal candidate on hand — a man they’d hired in 2010 for his intelligence, down-to-earth personality and cheerful feel for young families.

The handover to Posner officially takes place Saturday evening at an installation ceremony.

Gary Eidelman, president of the congregation, helped make the decision to hire Posner in 2010. He compares Posner to a raw talent a baseball team might draft, hoping he develops into a starter. He said the younger rabbi has expanded his expertise in so many areas that he’s “throwing strikes, and he’s ready to become our ace.”

The congregation approved Posner as successor in a unanimous vote, and members say that rather than dreading the change, they look forward to it.

Wohlberg says Posner is so much better attuned to the changing landscape in America that he’s convinced it’s time to relinquish leadership.

Posner has commissioned an architectural firm to consider a redesign of the sanctuary to give it a more intimate feel. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, he’s experimenting with shorter but no less impactful services. Most of all, perhaps, he’s learning to apply Orthodox wisdom to such newly prominent issues as race, LGBTQ concerns, social media use and a bitterly divided political landscape.

“There will be issues that come up that will be challenging for us in this time, just as there have been in other times,” he says. “But I know clearly where our mission is. It’s the same as it was 100 years ago. Even in the middle of unprecedented times, that’s going to stay the same.”

Posner has been unofficially running the place since January, at which time Wohlberg accepted a new title: rabbi-in-residence. He’ll hold that support position through 2025.

His protege sounds ready to draw on his legacy while embracing the future.

“I think Beth Tfiloh has been successful in choosing rabbis who were like-minded and would carry on its mission,” Posner says. “I very much feel that Rabbi Wohlberg was the next step in what Rabbi Rosenblatt started, and I’m the next step in what Rabbi Wohlberg started. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next century brings.”