Rabbi Martin & Estelle Rozenberg

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By Aaron Selkow, Executive Director

Rabbi Martin Rozenberg has impacted countless lives over the years. His dedication to the Reform Movement, leadership in congregations, commitment to the State of Israel and its history, and service as a scholar and teacher have been honored during his esteemed career. Now 91, this exceptionally humble man could be cited by many as the inspiration behind their own pursuit of study, spirituality, leadership, and justice. One such person would have been Joseph Harlam.

We know the tale of Joe (and his wife, Betty) emigrating together to the United States from Germany and settling in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, thirty miles west of our camp’s eventual home in Kresgeville. Joe was interested in contributing to the Reform Movement’s efforts to support youth. He and Betty made the principal financial gift that made the acquisition of the camp possible in 1958 when The Joseph and Betty Harlam Camp was named in their honor and opened for its first season. While our story has appropriately cited Joe as a key investor in this dream, what is lost in that story’s simplicity is all the thoughtfulness, time, negotiations, decisions, and contributions made by others that played a vital part. Martin Rozenberg was unquestionably one such integral character.

Martin first met Joseph Harlam when he was a Hebrew Union College (HUC) Rabbinical student assigned to visit Hazleton’s Beth Israel Temple to fulfill a student pulpit role there in the mid-1950s. The close personal relationship that formed between them became an institution in and of itself, with Joe regularly seeking out Martin’s guidance and friendship, and Joe serving as a mentor to Martin in return. Eventually, Joe was able to help convince Martin to return to Hazleton with his family to become Beth Israel’s Rabbi in 1957 (while he completed his Ph.D. in Ancient Semitic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania, served as American Secretary of the Israel Exploration Society, and continued to teach at Hebrew Union College.)

Joe and Betty were childless, but they believed in the power of youth and wanted to help ensure a Jewish future. They were connected to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now called the Union for Reform Judaism) where Joe served as a Vice Chairman. He was cultivated by UAHC’s President, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, and others to consider making a gift towards the inception of Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA. Martin, who at the time was serving as Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, was part of the effort to move attention towards a camp further south.

After the Union entered a contract to purchase Camp Tacoma from owner Menchie Goldblatt, a Philadelphia basketball legend and subsequently Camp Harlam’s first director, Martin, now the rabbi in Hazleton, encouraged and worked with Joe and Betty to make the gift that enabled the Union to close on the purchase of the camp. Once committed, Joe was actively engaged. Estelle, Martin’s wife and partner in this effort, speaks of the knock on her door many mornings in Hazleton when Joe had come for coffee and a chance to discuss the day’s camp-related efforts. But it was what Martin did next that might have been his most important contribution.

Before the first campers arrived in 1958, Harlam was a name, some buildings, and limited facilities. Starting a camp, however, required designing and enacting a vision so that campers could truly benefit and be shaped to lead the community into the future. This is where Martin was so vital. His experience as an educator and connections throughout the Reform Movement, his deep knowledge of Judaism and expertise as a scholar, and his willingness to prioritize being hands-on during camp’s development helped to form a strong foundation. Martin spent the opening summer at camp with over 300 campers recruited from local UAHC congregations. He remained involved as the Education Director, accompanied by Estelle who taught Hebrew classes at camp, in those early seasons to ensure that there was an intentional, integrated and meaningful approach to making a summer at Harlam rich in Jewish custom, history, values, prayer, and a strong connection to Israel. It was Martin who personally reached out to colleagues to convince them to spend two weeks of their summer vacations at camp and built Harlam’s “faculty” model that remains today.

Martin eventually left Hazleton to lead The Community Synagogue (TCS) in Port Washington, New York in 1963. He remained at the helm until his retirement in 1996 but remained close to Joe and Betty throughout their lives. While at TCS, he stayed involved with Camp Harlam as well, doing faculty stints and directing many campers from New York and elsewhere to Harlam. His ties also became more personal as his children, Bob, Karen, and Sandy became campers, and eventually when he and Estelle visited their grandchildren as they began their journeys at Harlam. And the family connection extended as Bob, now Rabbi Robert Rozenberg, served as a counselor, Unit Head and then Camp Harlam’s Education Director in the 1970s.

In many ways, Martin and Estelle never left Harlam. When you observe camp today, there is omnipresent evidence of their impact. The essence of what makes Harlam so special can be seen when we come together for Shabbat, when our campers are engaged in educational experiences, when clergy assimilate to the unique camp environment and become part of the fabric of the experience, and when a child arrives at their summer home to find a place that they could not have imagined. It was imagined, though, by Martin, and his friend and partner, Joe. And it was lived by Martin and his partner in life, Estelle*.

*Estelle, who passed away on November 2, 2019, is survived by Rabbi Martin Rozenberg (Cedar Grove, NJ). Content from this story was drawn from multiple sources, including an interview with Martin and Estelle on April 30, 2018 and input from Martin and Estelle’s daughters, Karen and Sandy, and son-in-law, Doug Berman.

Support our efforts to honor Rabbi Martin and Estelle Rozenberg by clicking here.