COLUMBIA, MD — Rabbi Hillel Baron hops out of a white van with his partner Bob Hurwitz on a sunny Friday afternoon.
The heat doesn’t slow Baron down as he whips out a tent and table from the back of the vehicle. He and Hurwitz set up the tent, which is actually a mobile sanctuary. Then, Baron digs through the van once more and turns around with snacks and six colorful Zohar journals in his arms.
“Don’t forget the shofar,” he directs his partner. Hurwitz, a volunteer for the Jewish Federation of Howard County and partner-in-chesed to Baron, runs back to the van as Baron carries the sanctuary and materials to the elderly rabbi waiting for them on the porch of Panda Family Home Assisted Living.
This meeting Aug. 28 was one of 15-20 visits Baron makes as part of his job as chaplain for the Federation every week to homebound Jewish community members. The meetings consist of spiritual discussions, Shabbat candle deliveries or prayer. Baron started these visits about a month ago.
The tent’s original incarnation was a 3×3 foot sukkah, which Baron repurposed for a matzah-making booth, or bakery as he called it. Then, the Federation realized it could use it as a way to bring shul to those who can’t go or are under quarantine.
“You can’t believe how much the isolation affects this demographic,” Baron said. “They live through communication. Now they feel like, ‘What am I living for?’ when they can’t see their family or grandkids. And this brings spiritual sustenance.”
Baron blew the shofar for the recipient of the day’s visit, Rabbi Martin Siegel, who was thankful to hear it. It brought back a spiritual memory for him.
“It reminds me of when I went on a trip to Rebbe Schneerson’s grave,” Siegel said. “I was so committed to him. There we were in the middle of Brooklyn on a bus hearing the shofar, in such a holy moment. It draws me to the desire to repent, because I felt the presence of the Rebbe in that moment. It made that trip a spiritual journey.”
“See how [Baron] does it from the side of his mouth? I blow the horn from the front, there’s lots of different styles,” Hurwitz remarked.
“Well, you can’t do it with your mask on though,” Baron replied. After a laugh, Hurwitz had to leave. But Baron and Siegel stayed a while longer to reminisce on Howard County and their longstanding friendship.
In 1986, Siegel had requested a rabbinical student to temporarily help design a Chabad Lubavitch Center, which would not follow any previous model. Baron arrived and the center, and helped Siegel at the Columbia Jewish Congregation. Baron became attached to the community that he and his wife settled in Howard County, raised seven and are now integral to the county.
Today, Baron still runs into people at the JCC who say they remember him from the late ‘80s. While both of the rabbis shared a genuine love for the community, they recognized that it’s hard to keep it together in isolation.
“To build the community in lockdown is hard, but we must overcome that isolation in a new sense,” Siegel said. “Humility is the key. To not evaluate myself on how much attention or value others put on me, but to just make myself an instrument.”
Both the men agreed that despite all the tragedy the pandemic has incurred, everything happens for a reason.
“I say, the greater the good, the greater the concealment,” Baron said.
Siegel nodded. “I phrase it, the darker the darkness, the greater the light at the end,” he said.
Finally, Baron had to pack up to make hospital calls. The chaplain calls anywhere from six to 12 hospital patients a day.
He said a prayer with Siegel, wished him Shabbat Shalom and went on his way to his next effort to counteract the isolation so many feel right now.
If you or someone you know would like to arrange a visit with Rabbi Baron, text him at 410-340-0371.