American-born Rabbi, Who Gained Prominence As Human Rights Activist in Argentina, Named Senior Rabbi

Marshall Meyer, an American-born Conservative rabbi whose human rights activities in Argentina thrust him into national prominence, has been named senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun here, it was announced today.

The 55-year-old Meyer will succeed Rabbi William Berkowitz, who retired from his post as head of the Upper West Side synagogue in August, 1984. Berkowitz has for the past 35 years conducted the popular Dialogue Forum Series in New York. Meyer will assume his new duties at Sabbath eve services tomorrow.

Ernest Schwartz, president of B’nai Jeshurun, in making the announcement to reporters, described Meyer as "a man of extraordinary energy. Having him here is great for B’nai Jeshurun, great for the Upper West Side, and great for the Conservative movement."

Meyer, who last year served as vice president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, had for the previous 22 years been spiritual leader of Communidad Bet El in Belgrano, a suburb of Buenos Aires. In 1962 he founded the Seminario Rabinico Latino-Americano in Buenos Aires, serving as its rector.

Meyer said today that B’nai Jeshurun will seek to offer New York Jewry a place for all segments of the population — senior citizens, singles, children, and young couples. He said community and ecumenical affairs along with social action will be part of his activities while rabbi of the synagogue.

CONTACT WAS INITIATED LAST YEAR

Schwartz told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that a search committee was formed to find a new rabbi for the ninth oldest synagogue in the United States — the first Ashkenazic synagogue in New York — after Berkowitz notified the synagogue of his intention to leave the post.

Contact was initiated with Meyer in December, 1984. Schwartz said he was offered the post last March by unanimous approval of the 11-member Board of Trustees of the synagogue. He responded affirmatively to the offer last June, according to Schwartz.

The synagogue, celebrating its 160th year, had an average membership of 500 persons during the High Holy Day services last year. Officials for B’nai Jeshurun anticipate Meyer will attract new members, although they declined to speculate on how many.

Pointing out Meyer’s "qualities of courage, leadership and scholarship," Schwartz said, "we look forward to the key role that he will play in the spiritual and physical revival of our synagogue."

ACTIVITIES IN ARGENTINA

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Norwich, Connecticut, Meyer attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and received his rabbinical ordination in 1958 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. The following year he went to Argentina where he had a post as an assistant rabbi in a German synagogue in Buenos Aires.

That short term assignment turned into a 25-year stay in that country, during which he led congregation Bet El from a synagogue in a private home with 30 worshippers to a larger institution with more than a thousand families and its own school system and a summer camp, that has sent some 2,000 youth on aliya to Israel.

During his years in Argentina, he also witnessed the savage brutality of both the extreme right and left and of the military regimes that followed the collapse of Maria Estela Peron’s government in 1976. He became an outspoken critic of the military junta’s human rights abuses. Some 1,500 Jews were among the some 15,000 persons who disappeared during Argentina’s "dirty war" years in the mid 1970′s.

In 1984, Meyer was one of two Jews appointed by President Raul Alfonsin to a 16-member government investigative committee that looked into the disappearance of thousands of Argentinians. The committee’s report was presented to the government, and its finding serve as evidence now being used during trials of leaders of the former military regimes in Argentina.

ROLE OF RABBI IN THE COMMUNITY

According to Meyer, the rabbi of a congregation must serve as a moral and spiritual leader whose responsibilities must include pointing out social injustices. "The synagogue is a place where one should not be served as aspirin," he said, but should be provided with the "moral strength" to confront social and other issues deemed important to the betterment of society.

In stressing the need of the synagogue to work within the community, Meyer said "it would be the irony of ironies to be totally concerned with that which is Jewish." He said that "a community that is only able to speak out when confronted with anti-Semitism" and not when the rights of other community members are threatened, "loses its right to speak."

On Israel, the rabbi asserted, "We believe most fervently that Israel occupies the role as the center of the Jewish people." He said he and the congregation will work to enhance that role. In 1984 he was given the Dor L’dor Award of the International B’nai B’rith for outstanding achievements in the service of humanity.

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