Jonathan Oleisky, managing partner of Jmore, will be the guest speaker at the 16th annual Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog Memorial Lecture on Oct. 26 at Adat Chaim Synagogue.
The yahrzeit lecture, which was established by Rabbi Essrog’s wife of 42 years, Toby, will be held at 7:30 p.m. following Shabbat services.
A local and national leader in the Conservative movement, Rabbi Essrog — who died in October of 2002 at age 68 — was the spiritual leader of Adat Chaim, now located in Owings Mills. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native also served for nearly three decades at Beth Israel Congregation, then in Randallstown, as well as at Beth Shalom of Carroll County and B’nai Israel in East Baltimore.
Oleisky — whose father, Rabbi Arthur Oleisky, was close friends with Rabbi Essrog and met him through the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly — said he was “humbled” when approached by Mrs. Essrog to deliver this year’s lecture.
“I’ve attended more Pesach seders and yom tov meals at their house than with my parents,” said Oleisky, reflecting on nearly 28 years of celebrations with the Essrog family.
Oleisky will offer recollections and anecdotes about Rabbi Essrog and his longtime role in the community, as well as talk about Jmore’s mission as a multi-media company serving Baltimore’s Jewish community.
Oleisky called Rabbi Essrog a “true community rabbi” and praised him for his “love and respect for everyone.” Oleisky said the rabbi always had a strong passion for all things Baltimore, especially for the Orioles, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Center Stage.
He said that passion extended to Rabbi Essrog’s tenure as a president and officer of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international organization overseeing the laws and standards of Conservative Jewry, and to the World Jewish Congress.
Rabbi Essrog, a father of three, was also deeply committed to raising funds to fight Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Rabbi Essrog came to Baltimore in 1961, only two years after his ordination from Yeshiva Torah VaDaath in New York and after two years of active duty service as a U.S. Army chaplain. (He subsequently served in the U.S. Army Reserve for 28 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel.)
A lifelong learner, Rabbi Essrog earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yeshiva University in New York, and later received a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.
With his easy smile, friendly demeanor and extensive knowledge of Torah, Rabbi Essrog thrived as a pulpit rabbi. On the sanctity and role of being a spiritual leader, he once told The Sun: “The ministry involves you with people at the most significant moments in their lives. We are here to celebrate their happiest moments and hold their hands in the saddest. In any week, we can virtually go through an entire life cycle.”
Among Rabbi Essrog’s most ardent admirers over the years was former Beth Israel congregant Ira Glass, the longtime host and executive producer of the award-winning public radio program “This American Life.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to services as an adult that were as interesting and entertaining as his services and his sermons,” Glass, 59, told Jmore earlier this year. “I never have found somebody who was as funny and thoughtful and emotional in their sermons as Rabbi Essrog. I was always looking forward to his sermons and thinking that that would be a great job, to be out there once a week and talk for a while in front of people and tell some stories. Then, when I’d been in this job for a period of time, I thought, ‘Oh wait, in a different context I’ve created a version of that job for myself.’”
Over the years, the Essrogs traveled throughout the world, including 35 trips to Israel, as well as to Poland and Lithuania to visit remnants of Jewish life and former concentration camps in Eastern Europe. They also met with world leaders, such as President Bill Clinton at the White House and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
In the early 1990s, Rabbi Essrog helped raise funds for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum project. He was also a past president of the Baltimore Zionist District and the Baltimore Jewish Council, and served as a chaplain with the police and fire departments of Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
A Towson resident, Mrs. Essrog fondly refers to her husband by his Hebrew name, Itamar, and recalls his honesty, sincerity and commitment to Judaism and helping people.
The couple met when Mrs. Essrog was a teacher in the Philadelphia school system and visited her brother and sister-in-law living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., during winter break. The mother of her sister-in-law lined up a number of dates for Mrs. Essrog during her visit to the nation’s capital, including one with the rabbi.
Ten days after their initial meeting, Rabbi Essrog flew up to Philadelphia to visit his future wife. On their second date, he proposed marriage. “It’s a romantic story you usually read in a book,” she said of their courtship and life together.
Past speakers of the memorial lecture have included Rabbi Jan Caryl Kaufman, retired director of special services for the Rabbinical Assembly; Dr. Michael L. Sanow, a sociology professor at the Community College of Baltimore County, Catonsville; and Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl, emeritus Temple Emanuel rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
The Rabbi Seymour L. Essrog Memorial Lecture will be held at Adat Chaim, 10989 Red Run Boulevard, Suite 109, in Owings Mills. For information, visit adatchaim.com or call 410-833-SHUL (7485).
Linda L. Esterson is an Owings Mills-based freelance writer.