Rabbi Martin Siegel builds bridges with Chabad movement

Rabbi Martin Siegel
Rabbi Martin Siegel (Rabbi Yanky Barron)

It may not be often that a non-Orthodox rabbi becomes heavily involved in the Chabad movement, but Rabbi Martin Siegel is no ordinary rabbi.

While serving for 25 years as the rabbi of Columbia Jewish Congregation, he played an instrumental role in the founding of Chabad of Howard County. Siegel has been involved in Chabad for decades, since a controversial book he wrote attracted attention from the movement.

Having grown up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Siegel received his B.A. from Cornell University and was later ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

After Hebrew Union, Siegel served as a U.S. Navy chaplain from 1960 to 1962 at the Marine base of Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., doing much of his work in the base’s brig, or prison. Once while he was serving, the prisoners revolted against poor treatment from an officer in charge of the brig and seized control of the prison, Siegel recalled. The marines were preparing to take the prison back, and Siegel personally sat down with the prisoners to discuss turning control of the brig back to the military. In exchange for assurances they would not be prosecuted for the revolt, the prisoners relinquished control.

Around that time, Siegel married Judith Tobias Siegel, who died in 2001. They had two daughters, Sally, 53, and Toby, 50.

After serving as a chaplain, Siegel took a rabbinical position in Wheeling, W.Va., at what was then Woodsdale Temple, then he took a position at Temple Sinai in Lawrence, N.Y., from 1967 to 1971. While serving there, he wrote a bestselling but controversial book, “Amen: The Diary of Rabbi Martin Siegel,” describing aspects of life in Lawrence’s Jewish community that some congregants took issue with. The Baltimore Sun described the book as gaining “national attention for lambasting some members of [Siegel’s] wealthy Long Island, N.Y., synagogue. True to the spirit of the late 1960s, he criticized what he saw as flagrant materialism and lack of spiritual integrity in the congregation.”

The synagogue offered to pay Siegel’s salary for five years if he agreed to leave, he said, a deal he accepted.

Some members of Columbia’s Jewish community so enjoyed Siegel’s book that they invited him to be their rabbi. He served at CJC from 1972 until 1997, when he retired and took on the title of rabbi emeritus.

“I wanted our synagogue to be an inclusive synagogue in which all different points of view in Judaism are involved,” Siegel said. “I don’t like breaking up into denominations.”

Back when he was still a rabbi in Lawrence, N.Y., Siegel said, he and his book had come to the attention of the Chabad community in Crown Heights, and a group came to visit him.

“[The] Rebbe, according to what they said, had read about me in New York Magazine, and he sent a group to meet me,” Siegel said. “And after that, he would send me each week a series of writings from the Rebbe.”

Siegel became very interested in the writings of the Chabad tradition and friendly with the leadership of Chabad in Brooklyn. In the spirit of greater unity, he would send his bar mitzvah students on annual trips with their families to Crown Heights to help build the relationship with the Chabad movement.

Siegel also arranged for members of CJC to study with Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, the head of Chabad in Baltimore. This in turn led to Kaplan sending another rabbi, Hillel Baron, down to Columbia, where Baron started Chabad Lubavitch of Howard County, which serves as an umbrella organization for all Chabad houses in Howard County, according to Baron’s son, Rabbi Yanky Baron. Siegel explained it was originally his idea for Rabbi Hillel Baron to come to Howard County, which directly led to its founding.

“In contemporary times, one of the things I’ve been doing is teaching classes in a post-pandemic spirituality,” Siegel said. “The question is, how can we react and find meaning in the pandemic that will make us deeper and better people, and I believe the study of chassidus will help do that.”

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