Profiles


INTERVIEWED BY COLBY FLORKEWICZ – MARCH 2015

I have done my Bat-Mitzvah project on the fascinating life of Mr. Alvin Grollman.
Born on May 2, 1925, he might be the oldest member of this congregation.

Download the full PDF report here.

Colby and Alvin GrollmanHe was born and raised on the Eastern Shore. His father had a general store on Kent Island, and then in 1915 he bought a 167 acre farm on the Chester River in Stevensville. Mr. Grollman never was interested in working in the family store. He has worked on the farm all of his life, except for a job at an Acme market for a brief time when he was 17 years old. Although he always worked with his father on the ranch, he lived in town. He finally moved to the ranch in 1951 with his wife to take over farming and cattle ranching because his father was getting too old to run it anymore. That is when he started buying the cattle. He has lived there every since, and continues in his 90’s to buy cattle to sell at auction.

Mr. Grollman had a happy childhood. His parents were orthodox Jews from Lithuania. His father was the youngest, and had three brothers. His uncles came to America first, then his father came over with his parents. His father’s parents came with nothing, and started a business here. Mr. Grollman had four brothers and one sister, and all children were born at home. He was the youngest, and is the only surviving sibling. His sister and one brother settled in Baltimore. The other siblings farmed and one went into banking. Mr. Grollman’s uncles all had separate farms in Stevensville, except one in Kent County. I asked him if anyone in the family wanted to go into business with him at his ranch, and he told me that he never wanted to go into business with a family member, because family needed to be separate from business. Evidently his brothers and sister agreed with him but, he explained, they were always there to help each other. His mother was very smart, and worked the store while his father was buying cattle. She made all the children’s clothes. When his mother came over from Russia, she settled in Bluefield, West Virginia of all places! One uncle had three successful furniture stores there. She eventually moved to Maryland because she had family here.

Mr. Grollman talked about life on the Eastern Shore in the early 1900’s. There were about 50 Jews (which were about 42 more than I though there would be!) They all owned stores and farms, and the non-Jewish neighbors were very friendly and didn’t care that his family was Jewish. Everyone loved his father, and everyone had respect for each other. His father had a way with people, which must be where Mr. Grollman gets his wonderful personality from!

Mr. Grollman spoke about what it was like to be Jewish back then. His family lived in the country, so the closest shul was in Baltimore. His parents would close up their store for the Sabbath and take the boat to Baltimore, where they would stay with an uncle. Mr. Grollman was never bar-mitzvahed. He learned Hebrew from a teacher who came to live with the family when he was young. At the age of 14, he met a man who would teach him Hebrew at the tavern he owned in town. His family started going to Temple B’nai Israel when it was first built. He agreed that it is really time for a new synagogue, since this one is falling apart.

Mr. Grollman keeps a kosher home, just as his parents did. He is very insistent that pork never comes into his home (Needless to say, I didn’t tell him how much I like bacon!) He still has a Passover seder at his home every year, and said that the tradition has been going on for 100 years! His parents used to have a seder on both nights, but he only does one. He talked about keeping kosher, and that he gets his holiday food from Baltimore. His family used to get food shipped on a bus from Baltimore packed on ice. He remembered buying fresh-killed chickens. Grollman

Mr. Grollman graduated from Stevensville High School in 1942. He was going to college at the University of Maryland to study to become a large animal vet, but had to come home and help his father with the ranch when the war started. He didn’t have to serve in the war because of his agricultural status. His brothers were all in the war, which made his mother very anxious and very lonely, but, luckily, they all came home in one piece. One brother served in Africa, one in Hawaii and one it Italy. One of his brothers was the first to serve from the Eastern Shore. He left here with another boy who unfortunately was killed at the Battle of the Bulge. At the time he came home to help his father, they had about 80 cows! He never had any regrets about not going back to school, as he was and is very happy on the ranch.
He was married for 53 years to a wonderful nurse who sadly died in 2004. He met her through his sister, who also was a nurse and worked at a hospital in Baltimore. It was love at first sight! They met in March and married in August of the same year. The Grollmans’ had six children, all girls! He has eight grandchildren. His youngest daughter lives with him, and his other daughters live either on the farm or close by, except for one daughter who lives in Boston. He is the only Grollman left in his family, since he had all those daughters and no sons!
All of his siblings married Jews, as they never would have thought about marrying anyone else. It was all right to dance with a non-Jew, but not to marry one! His wife and one of his daughters went to Israel, but he’s never been. He’d like his grandchildren to visit Israel and reconnect with their heritage. He said that maybe he’ll go next year! He’s been to Hawaii three times, and loves it there! He’d love to visit Lithuania, but said that it’s too dangerous there now.

When he spoke about cattle ranching, he had a gleam in his eye. He attributes his longevity and good health to working outdoors his whole life and doing what he loves to do. It was clear that he loves animals as much as I do. He currently has 20 cows. He knows more about cows then anyone I’ve every met! He doesn’t drive the cattle truck anymore, and has a man helping out. He used to have horses in the 1940’s, but got rid of them when his father bought tractors. He used to ride his horse “Buck” on the weekends, and talked about him fondly. His daughters rode for a while, but he said that stopped when they discovered boys! Personally, I would rather ride horses! He was very interested in hearing about my horseback riding lessons, and wanted to know all about the horse I ride.
He also had chickens, and his wife sold the eggs to the American Legion. But they couldn’t continue to raise chickens because raccoons and foxes were killing them. They had sheep, too. We had a very interesting talk about the different breeds of chickens. He even suggested that I raise some chickens myself, which may not be a bad idea!

When my mother and I pulled up in front of his house, the first thing I noticed was a flock of wild pigeons across the road in the field. They were hanging out with the geese and are evidently a common site! Mr. Grollman told me that they come from under the Bay Bridge to eat in his fields. He has a wonderful dog, Gordie, a lab-greyhound mix, who spent the afternoon of the interview sleeping on my feet.

Mr. Grollman took us up to the barn (Gordy had to run ahead of us, of course!) to show us the cows, as he knew how much I love all animals. It was wonderful! I got to be right in the middle of all of them, and I learned a lot about the different breeds. The calf was my favorite. All the cows were very friendly and enjoyed having their necks scratched!

I asked him what he thought of the changes he’s seen in his lifetime. He said that as soon as the Bay Bridge was built, the area got much more crowded. And when they built the second span, it got really crowded, and the traffic got to be awful. It was very inconvenient for the residents. He talked about the days of the ferries, and wished they still ran, and said that it was a lot better here long ago. He said that it was much easier to be in business back then, because there wasn’t the competition that there is now.
I asked him about the name of his road, Grollman Road. One of his brothers become a county commissioner (he was the only Jew) and renamed the roads after the families that have lived on that road the longest.
He talked about his road 70 or 80 years ago, when it was called Chester River Road. A boat would dock at the end of the road to haul produce and supplies grown here to be sold in Baltimore.

Grollman cattleI asked him if he minded being interviewed, and he said not at all, that he enjoys it. He was previously interviewed for a book about the history of Kent Island, and a book about the Jewish Museum in Baltimore. He wasn’t crazy about the author, since she never mentioned anything about Temple B’nai Israel! It’s nice to know that he has such love for this shul Mr. Grollman’s advice to me as a young Jewish person was to always keep my Jewishness and always be proud of being Jewish. He told me that it is very important for me to be Bat-Mitzvahed, because it is such an important milestone in my growing up, and that I will be very glad I did this. He told me how important it is to learn to say the prayers in Hebrew, which is something he still does. He said that if anyone ever says anything negative to me about being a Jew, I should remember what his mother told him and he never forgot – “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” He said that it worked the few times in his life that he encountered anti- Semitism, and that I should remember it always. I asked him if he encountered any anti-semitism growing up on the Eastern Shore, and he said hardly any at all, that everyone was very nice.

Mr. Grollman told me that, “it’s been a good life – the Lord’s been good”.

I hope I’m able to make that statement when I’m 90.

You all saw Mr. Grollman earlier – he was the nonagenarian who did such a beautiful job on his aleya. I’d like to thank him for coming today (and thank his daughters very much for bringing him) and also thank him for giving me a very special gift for my bat mitzvah – In one very special afternoon, he not only taught me the importance and pride of being Jewish, but he taught me to follow my heart and to do what makes me happiest in life. I hope I get to spend more afternoons with him on his beautiful ranch, because he said, “Come back any time.” I really think he meant it! Mr. Grollman, would you please stand up. (Applause)

From the Star Democrat, Easton, April 6, 2015

By BETHANY ZIEGLER

Rabbi Donald Berlin

PHOTO BY BETHANY ZIEGLER

http://www.stardem.com

ST. MICHAELS — Donald Berlin likes to say he didn’t really decide to become a rabbi until about six months after he was ordained.

“I went through a lot of back and forth, not so much to the profession, but what did it mean,” Berlin said. “What did it mean to me?”

That was in 1965. Fifty years later, it’s safe to say he’s happy with the decision he made.

“I can tell you after 50 years, I was blessed. I really enjoyed my work,” Berlin said. “It provided me an opportunity to do so many different things that I’m not so sure I would’ve wanted to do any one of them all the time. It gave me an opportunity to preach, to lead worship, to work with youngsters in terms of religious education.”

Berlin said he decided to become a rabbi as a teenager. He grew up involved in Jewish life thanks to his parents, who he said weren’t strict in their religion but were deeply committed to their community.

“They were very involved with the Jewish community and had a very strong commitment and interest in Jewish life. So I did get that,” Berlin said. “They were my real role models, for which I’m very grateful.”

The St. Michaels resident is a native of Montreal, Canada, who made his way to America for graduate school in Cincinnati, Ohio. At the same time, his student pulpit was located in Staunton, Va., so for two years, Berlin would take an 11- or 12-hour, overnight train ride down each weekend. He said he would have returned to Canada given the chance, but at that time, he had to go where the opportunities were, and his movement was limited. He eventually became an American citizen in the country’s bicentennial year, 1976.

His work in Staunton as a student led him to his first professional congregation — a temple in Roanoke, Va., that effectively came looking for him when it found itself in need of a new rabbi. During his time there, Berlin worked part time at a veterans hospital, got trained as an addictions therapist, became involved with a mental health association and Jewish family service, and served on a county-appointed board that dealt with allocating funds to mental health organizations.

“Those things combined to give me a whole area of interest in behavioral stuff while serving the congregation and doing the kinds of things that rabbis do in congregations, which is to conduct services, preach sermons, run a religious school, do personal counseling, officiate at life cycle events,” Berlin said.

He also found other ways to keep himself busy.

“I represented the jewish community in many ways to the larger community as a rotarian and visited any number of churches,” Berlin said. “And I went and spoke to practically every college within 100 miles of Roanoke. Many of the students had never met a jew, let alone a rabbi, and so I became sort of a role model and a symbol.”

One of the things Berlin is most proud of from his time with that first congregation is his involvement in the civil rights movement. He said growing up in Canada he had lived around people who were critical of the American south and segregation, so living and working in that area, he made a commitment toward changing it.

When he agreed to the job, Berlin said, he made a deal with the congregation that he would accept it only if he was given the freedom to say what he wanted without being censored. They responded with the condition that in return, they didn’t have to listen.

“Actually, they did a lot of good things, my congregation. I was very proud of them. But it was a gradual process. I got involved little by little, and I never did anything to embarrass them,” Berlin said. “I was somewhat measured. I tried to work a little bit under the radar.”

After six years there, Berlin and his family — by then consisting of a wife, son and daughter — moved to Allentown, Pa., for five years before eventually settling in Baltimore for the next 23. Berlin said this was the largest congregation he had worked with until that point, made up of almost 1,200 families.

Berlin retired from this congregation in 1999 on his 63rd birthday. But his retirement didn’t mean he stopped working — he served as an administrator for the reform Jewish movement Washington, D.C., for a time and held a similar role in Chicago. He was an interim rabbi in Atlanta, a rabbi-in-residence at a 3,000-family congregation with four other rabbis on staff and, for several years, spent four to six weeks serving a congregation in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Eventually, he stopped working but never stayed inactive for long. Currently, he serves as president of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis and has in the past served in leadership roles of both the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. He and his wife moved to St. Michaels in 2001, and on the Mid-Shore, he is involved with Chesapeake Chamber Music, the Talbot Association of Clergy and Laity, and the Academy for Lifelong Learning at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum as both a student and instructor. He also is a member of Easton’s Temple B’nai Israel.

As Berlin takes time to reflect, he said one of the things he most enjoys is when he hears from people that his work or words have had an impact on their lives. He said he’s gotten more than a few calls from people from his past telling him he had a “profound effect” on their lives, including two men who later became president of the seminary from which he graduated.

“I enjoy the surprise of having touched someone’s life in ways that I never could have imagined,” Berlin said. “It’s humbling, frightening, exciting. It touches your ego when somebody feels that way.”

He said it’s also satisfying to think back on the work he’s done in various communities and some of the more intense things he’s been called upon to do, like officiating over the funeral of a Jewish police officer or the first funeral he ever conducted as a student, that of an infant.

“That’s more than 50 years ago, but I remember how scared I was and how emotionally impacted I was,” Berlin said.

Though his reasons for wanting to become a rabbi changed several times over the course of his life, he said he’s glad he stayed the course and has enjoyed where it has led him. After 50 years as a rabbi and 55 years of marriage to the woman he calls the most important part of who he is, Berlin is a happy man.

“I think it’s most satisfying to have been able to take my faith and become an advocate in a way in which other people are touched,” Berlin said. “When I say I am blessed, I say it with a special exclamation mark. It really is fortunate.”