“Rabbi” is a term of honor. They are the ones who hold our most honored roles — those of teacher, role model and spiritual leader. The main objective of a rabbi is to positively impact and influence his or her congregants and peers. As such, one of the crowning achievements of being such a figure is to see the fruits of your labor develop before your eyes.
On Oct. 23, the local Jewish community lost such a rabbi: Rabbi Morris Kosman, a founder of Camp Shoresh and a leader of Beth Sholom Congregation in Frederick, Md. Kosman, say those who knew him, was the epitome of what it means to be a rabbi.
“It’s hard to encapsulate 89 years into one story,” said Rabbi David Finkelstein, director of Camp Shoresh. “Rabbi Kosman was really larger than life. You could see in his congregants that they had started to internalize his messages, his teachings and love.”
Kosman came to Frederick in 1961 — at that time, Beth Sholom was the only synagogue in Frederick County. Jews were very few and far between. It was a difficult place for a young rabbi. However, he was exceptional and made everyone else feel that they were too. His job was to bring Jews together, and people would come from miles around for his services.
“People loved his sermons,” recounted MJ Minton, a longtime friend. “Most of the people in the congregation couldn’t even read Hebrew. He would translate the Torah readings as he went along, reading one line in Hebrew and then translating it to English. People came to know the melodies that he had brought with him. He taught the people of Frederick how to be Jewish.”
Kosman was very passionate about his Judaism. He loved people and especially wanted to share his excitement for Judaism with his congregants.
“He didn’t preach Judaism, it bubbled over him,” said Shabsi Schneider, Kosman’s son-in-law. “People were drawn in after speaking with him and seeing his passion. His love of Torah and mitzvahs was contagious. He was a one-man show in Frederick: rabbi, cantor, b’nai mitzvah teacher, Hebrew school teacher.”
“He made many people become more aware of and practice their Judaism. He did that well into his 80s, and when it came time to retire, he was very reluctant because he loved what he was doing,” added Schneider. “Even when he retired, he remained in Frederick because he wanted to be close to the congregation. He loved his congregation, and they loved him equally.”
It was for this same reason that Kosman decided to establish Camp Shoresh. The camp was a part of his dream and vision. He brought papers for the land on which the camp now stands to Finkelstein before there was any money or plan for it.
When the time came to establish the camp, one necessity was the approval of other denominations. Kosman and Finkelstein received letters from 13 local leaders saying that if Kosman was involved with the camp, they would support it wholeheartedly.
“The rabbi and his sons had been dreaming about starting a camp where kids could be proud of their Judaism,” said Finkelstein. “Many of these kids were the only Jews in their communities or schools. [The rabbi and his wife, Carol], felt that an educational Jewish day camp could give these kids a new life and teach them to be proud Jews.”
The camp started with 19 kids at Beth Sholom.
“He would come and just sit for hours to talk to the kids and drink it in. They gave him this special energy that made him alive and whole again,” Finkelstein said of Kosman’s enthusiasm. “Each of his students and campers and congregants have made their lives better by knowing him.”
“He started Camp Shoresh for kids to pray hard and to play hard,” said Minton. “People wanted to learn, and he wanted to teach. We wanted to pray after he taught us, He inspired us to want to have kosher kitchens. He knew your name, your children’s name, your spouse’s name. He made everyone feel that he was engaged in his or her life, and he was.”
To fully appreciate everything that Kosman did for his community, one needs to look beyond the organizations that he was a part of and look at how he reached out to affect individuals, no matter how small the interaction. One of the best examples is the effort that Kosman put into helping his students.
“He would drive students to and from Jewish day school in Baltimore every day,” said Finkelstein. “He probably put hundreds and thousands of miles on his car just going up and down Highway 70. His congregants would donate their old cars for him to drive. He always wanted to do what was right in God’s eyes. In my 37 years working with him, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone, and that’s so rare. He always found a redeeming quality or something special and would turn people completely around.”
According to Minton, Kosman wrote 21 short stories that are compiled into a book entitled, “Remember, I come from a small town,” an authentic memoir of his experiences with his congregants. The lifelong project will be published posthumously.
“The whole audience at Sol Levinson sang the Shema to his tune, and everybody was bawling,” noted Finkelstein. “He moved many mountains during his time, and we have so much love for him.”