Opinion | Memories of Rabbi Herbert (Naftali) Birnbaum

Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay

By Emanuel Goldman

Life’s journeys are filled with a rich range of opportunities for encounters; encounters, not in their adversarial context, but in their thrilling existential sense of one meeting another.

When the Baltimore Board of Jewish Education, forerunner of today’s Macks Center for Jewish Education, and its parent body The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore extended an invitation to me to serve as its executive vice president, a sense of transitional comfort set in knowing that Rabbi Herbert Birnbaum, who had served as the BJE’s executive director, would be accorded continuity in serving in his senior executive capacity.

Birnbaum, who died Oct. 4, had served the Baltimore Jewish educational scene for many years. He was a man of rigorously high standards, both personal and professional. European born, Birnbaum was a graduate of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the University of Maryland, College Park. He was credentialed as a rabbi and held a doctoral degree in education. Combined with these formal credentials, Birnbaum brought a certain touch, a certain flavor that drew on times gone by. But he was not anchored solely in the nostalgia of the past. He had a keen eye on the contemporary as well as a keen grasp of the temporal region of the future.

For him, that temporal region beamed a vision, a portrait of a soul, of a student’s soul who ultimately would take his and her place on the landscapes of the long range. It all has something to do with the very nature and character of education, of schooling, of classroom teaching, of pairing up in one-on-one chavruta learning. Birnbaum intellectually understood and vividly experienced these educational components as a sublime synthesis of the intellect and the lived experience held together by the canopy of providence.

Taking up residence with his wife, Mrs. Eva Birnbaum, z”l, in Israel, Birnbaum synthesized his personal and professional life into a unified whole that reflected the recently read Genesis chapter and verse:

Vah’yivrah Elokim Ehs Ha’Adam B’Tzalmo B’Tzeh’lem E’lokim Bara O’so…

G-d created man in His own image in the image of G-d He created him…

It was a singular daily privilege to work alongside Birnbaum; he transported the loftiness of the cited Torah text and its texture into his work-a-day life.

Yehai Zichro Baruch. May his memory be blessed.

Emanuel Goldman is a long-time Jewish community activist and former director of the Baltimore Board of Jewish Education.

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  1. Dr. Goldman’s Opinion column, memorializing Rabbi Herbert Birnbaum, of blessed memory, is beyond inspiring, sensitive and beautifully poetic…as only my dear colleague, Dr. Goldman can write.

    Rabbi Birnbaum was truly a brilliant Jewish educator who positively influenced many generations of students, teachers and families.

    May His Memory Be A Blessing.


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