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A calling for caring

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

Through scratched glasses, he saw the Greyhound bus. The ticket was $61, but he had only $11 to his name and a stranger's phone number.

At a desk 3 miles away, a rabbi worked in solitude. Every now and then, Kodak moments, half-hidden by paper stacks, stole his gaze. The phone rang. A voice begged for money and mercy.

In biting night air, the 67-year-old rabbi gave $50 to a man in a red shirt, standing by a yellow pay phone. Thanking the rabbi, he bought his ticket to Atlanta.

Walking to his car, the rabbi decided to tell no one of the kind act. Not even his wife of 42 years.

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Tonight, members of Temple B'nai Israel celebrate an unofficial milestone. Among active reform rabbis in Florida, none has served one congregation longer than Rabbi Arthur I. Baseman.

For 35 years he has internalized their pain, hope and unanswerable questions. Family and friends will call him loving. Testimonies of his respect for different paths to God will reveal his tolerant heart.

All will say that, when needed most, he is always there.

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Arthur I. Baseman's journey to God began on a sidewalk in Malden, Mass.

Seeing a bulging trash can one day, the 10-year-old knocked it over. Although no one had seen him, seconds later he was on his knees picking it up. "My conscience wouldn't let me walk away," Baseman remembers.

Growing up across from an orthodox Jewish synagogue sustained his early steps. Baseman, his parents and two brothers shared a two-story brownstone with his grandparents.

"I remember seeing men walk in the synagogue, get a pinch of snuff from boxes on wooden pews and put it up their noses," says Baseman.

Often, his grandfather, the synagogue's treasurer, would bring home its problems, carrying them up to Baseman's parents' apartment and back down to his.

At 16, Baseman's growing faith was tested in his father's delicatessen, the Regent Deli. While serving a dining city councilman, the teen remarked that the city was being rejuvenated by new businesses.

"Yeah. It is being re-jew-venated," Baseman remembers the man saying.

"I was angry and wanted to say something, but knew if I did it would make things hard for my father," Baseman says. He kept his cool.

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While reading Shakespeare's The Tempest in Widener Library on the campus of Harvard University, a young man made a decision.

"At that moment I said I wanted to be a rabbi," says Baseman. "I was pretending to like medicine, because that's what my parents wanted. I knew my parents would not want me to have such a fate. To live in a religious fishbowl. To be downgraded by people like my grandfather. They would be disappointed."

They were.

"You might be throwing your life away," he remembers his mother telling him.

It wasn't until Baseman began seminary three months later at Hebrew Union College in Portsmouth, Ohio, that his parents gave their blessing. Upon graduating, he took student pulpits in West Virginia, Wyoming, Iowa and back at Hebrew Union.

On Nov. 23, 1963, Baseman, 27, was asked by fellow rabbis to deliver a eulogy for the slain President Kennedy at a memorial service at Hebrew Union College.

"I was nervous. Our world had been shakened and people's hearts were lacerated," says Baseman.

The young rabbi spoke confidently. He reminded students that hate cannot stain the steel of love.

In 1965, now a reserve Army chaplain at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Baseman again spoke on behalf of others. Jewish soldiers were being denied the right to attend worship services on Fridays. The bold young captain challenged the commanders and was cited for insubordination. At a hearing, Baseman was exonerated and the Jewish soldiers were allowed to attend services.

Receiving an honorable discharge in 1966, Baseman, now married, took an associate rabbi's position in Roslyn, New York. But by 1968, he was ready to be a full-time rabbi. And in 1969, he accepted a position at Temple B'nai Israel in Largo.

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During his tenure at B'nai Israel, Baseman's small shoulders have helped many in and outside his congregation bear heavy tragedies. Those close to him marvel at his resolve and sincerity.

When asked to recall just one memorable moment during his tenure at B'nai Israel, he buried his head in his hands and was silent for nearly 10 minutes.

Finally, tearfully, he told the story of a handicapped man and his wife involved in an auto accident near the temple. The wife was killed instantly. The husband survived. Her funeral was held at the temple and he delivered the eulogy.

In the aisle near his wife's casket, the man wept and blamed himself for the tragedy.

"I tried to relieve him of his guilt, but I couldn't. I couldn't make him feel better," Baseman said. "So I just held him in my arms."

For once, the rabbi wasn't there like he thought he should be.

Such a desire to empathize defines him.

"If I'm with Arthur, I'm the most important person there is," said the Rev. Joe Diaz, of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clearwater, a friend for 20 years. "He climbs up on the principles of caring and respect to reach others."

Kinfay Moroti can be reached at 580-3177 or kmorotisptimes.com.

Alex Rosenbaum, 13, left, and Rabbi Arthur I. Baseman practice Tuesday for her upcoming bat mitzvah at Temple B'nai Israel in Largo. "He doesn't get frustrated when you mess up," says Rosenbaum of Baseman. Temple B'nai Israel today celebrates Baseman's 35 years of service at the temple.

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