New Life for Orthodox Leader : Rabbi Plans 'Act II'

Times Staff Writer Although he was flashing a red-and-green traffic light to control the rattles

and whistles that interrupted last week's Purim service, Maurice Lamm found his efforts less than successful.

The 54-year-old rabbi, about to step down after 13 years as leader of the Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, raised his hand and tried to shush the full house of nearly 1,000 people. That didn't work either.

Finally, the man whom some call the leading Orthodox rabbi in Southern California, took a microphone to beg for silence at the service commemorating the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from a plot to massacre them.

But the noisemaking persisted, set off again by every mention of Haman, the villain of the ancient story. Noise making is a traditional part of the Purim service.

"That's one of the things I won't miss," Lamm said later. "But the kids were having fun, so I don't mind. I will miss the sturm und drang (German for storm and stress) of this kind of congregation, though."

Beth Jacob, with 750 families, is the largest congregation of Judaism's strictly observant Orthodox branch in the western United States and perhaps in the country, Lamm said.

As its leader, he found himself going beyond traditional duties to take on a kind of mission" representing Orthodoxy to the rest of the Jewish community and the city at large.

Now, rather than carry on in the pulpit of the prosperous congregation--his successor is rumored to have been lured from New York at a salary just over $100,000--Lamm has decided to step down and launch what he calls "Act II."

Although he plans to sell his house on South Rodeo Drive--"otherwise how can I retire?"--Lamm plans to remain in California.

Author of Standard Works

"I'm not about to go to sleep," he said. "I don't intend to move out of the fast lane. I'll be working on a larger map, and able to determine for myself how far my interests take me."

Already the author of two standard reference works--"The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage," and "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning"--Lamm has contracts to write four more books.

Additionally, he will teach part of the year at Yeshiva University in New York, which is headed by his brother who is president of the Orthodox institution, and will chair a national commission on Jewish hospice care for the terminally ill.

Lamm said his announcement of his retirement plans, made from the pulpit more than two years ago, caught congregation members and fellow rabbis by surprise.

"They said you sound like a mid-60s flower child," he recalled. "They said I should retract because I don't know what it's like out there."

Transformation Seen

Still, he said, he has done all he could as a rabbi of a congregation.

"No, I didn't exhaust the possibilities, but I exhausted my potential in the pulpit," Lamm said. "Everything I would have been doing from now on would be a modification or repeat of what I've done. I don't want to travel the same road."

The last 13 years have seen a radical transformation of the Jewish community in Los Angeles from "Sun Belt Judaism to metropolitan Judaism," Lamm said.

While the middle-of-the road Conservative wing is introducing innovations, Orthodox congregations have stuck to tradition and increased their numbers, he said.

This represents a turnaround from 20 years ago, when many believed that Orthodoxy would wither away as much of the Jewish community was assimilated into the mainstream of American life, he said.

Ordination of Women

In Southern California, Lamm said, "there has been an influx of Orthodox Jews from the East, primarily young professionals. And secondly, there is a feeling that Orthodoxy is a legitimate option. There is a very powerful movement of people coming back toward tradition. There has been an injection of fresh blood and fresh thinking and stricter adherence to traditional norms."

This includes the ordination of women rabbis, a step not likely to be followed by Orthodox Judaism.

"This is not because we place a lower value on women at all, but because we're preserving the tradition that the rabbi is a male figure," Lamm said. "That does not mean that much of what the rabbi does cannot be fulfilled by a woman--it can be. But the sacerdotal, the religious observance part of it, is male oriented. We believe that men and women are equal, but in the respect to which they're different, they're simply wired differently."

Acknowledging that his comments might prove controversial, he added, "Vive la difference. I always get into trouble when I talk about women, even when I praise them to the skies."

His wife, Shirley, said she is "delirious" with joy at the thought of moving on to other things.

"There have been a lot of accomplishments and a lot of frustrations," she said.

Although a rabbi's duties are more or less clear, she said, those of a rebbitzin, or rabbi's spouse, are largely undefined, which can be a problem.

Sense of Right and Wrong

She has devoted much of her time recently to a matchmaking service for Orthodox singles, among other tasks.

"You rely on your own sense of right or wrong and on support from your husband," she said.

But there was often a feeling of being watched--"of being looked at for not doing the right thing. Now, she said, "Nobody will be looking over my shoulder."

Lamm was born in New York. He holds a degree in English literature and was ordained by Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, "probably the most renowned and leading scholar of the 20th Century."

Lamm began his career as a lieutenant in the Army chaplain's corps, then headed two congregations in New York.

While rabbi at the Hebrew Institute of University Heights in the Bronx, he was also field director of Jewish military chaplains for the Jewish Welfare Board, assigned the rank of major general--and his own helicopter with two stars--during visits to Vietnam from 1969 to 1972.

Memories of those days include escorting the charred remains of a chaplain who was killed in a plane crash near Da Nang.

The chaplain had requested that he be buried in Israel. Lamm accompanied the body from Vietnam to a hilltop graveyard outside Jerusalem, where the burial took place at midnight on New Year's Eve, 1970, with the American ambassador, a military attache and gray-bearded, black-coated Hasidic Jews in attendance.

"It was an unforgettable kind of scene," he said.

'Foremost' Rabbi

Since his arrival at Beth Jacob, Lamm has become "the foremost Orthodox rabbi in Southern California," according to Murray Wood, community relations director for the Jewish Federation Council.

While many elements of the Orthodox community find the federation too secular, Lamm and his congregation have been active in communitywide activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry and other issues, Wood said.

"Sometimes he's represented a minority point of view, or that of a smaller segment of the community. It's not always been welcomed, but it's never deterred him," Wood said.

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