Obituary: Rabbi Bernard Baskin, 102, was at the helm of Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Shalom for 40 years—and a print fixture of The Canadian Jewish News

Rabbi Bernard Baskin, who served as spiritual leader at Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ont. for 40 years, and was a long-time columnist for The Canadian Jewish News, died Jan. 18. He was 102.

Rabbi Baskin and his wife Marjorie arrived in Hamilton in 1949, intending to stay only a few years, he said in an interview with The CJN in 2010, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

But he ended up serving as rabbi to the oldest Reform synagogue in Canada from 1949 to 1989—and then was rabbi emeritus until 2017.

A lover of literature, he wrote numerous book reviews The Canadian Jewish News and other newspapers for over half a century. His reviews and remarks were published in two collections, The Essential Bernard Baskin (2008) and The Essential Bernard Baskin Volume 2 (2018).

The columns in The CJN were a well-read feature, which drew on a wide range of sources and the rabbi’s own wisdom and gentle humour.

His annual book talks in Hamilton were enormously popular and he continued to deliver them when he was well into his 90s. When he moved into a Toronto retirement home in 2017, he continued the tradition of giving lectures. His last talk was just three weeks before he died, on the celebration of Hanukkah, according to his obituary.

Rabbi Baskin’s theology was not concerned with the consuming questions of the nature of God or why was the universe created, his son David noted in his eulogy.

“His Judaism, his theology was not concerned with ‘Why.’ It was focused on ‘How.’ How can we live a meaningful life; how can we make the world a better place, how can we serve our fellow human beings?” David said at the funeral held at Temple Anshe Sholom.

“The thing that made Rabbi Baskin Hamilton’s rabbi was that he conveyed that message to the wider community with energy and urgency over a period of 60 years or more. Dad estimated that he gave at least 500 speeches outside the walls of this sanctuary. He was equally comfortable in churches and cathedrals, banquet halls and meeting rooms.”

His affection for the temple and its congregants never dimmed, his daughter Susan Baskin said at the funeral.

“During COVID, out of concern that congregants and the wider community be included in both worship and programming, Dad made a generous donation so that equipment could be purchased to enable live streaming,” she said.

“He created and maintained relationships and was an important figure in so many people’s lives.”

During his six decades in the rabbinate, Rabbi Baskin witnessed major changes in Reform Judaism, and Judaism in general. Women are now regularly ordained as rabbis and cantors in the non-Orthodox movements and there has been a return to greater use of Hebrew in Reform services.

“I think that’s all favourable,” he told The CJN. “For Judaism to exist and continue you need things like ritual to add colour and meaning to Jewish life.”

His son David reflected on the societal changes that arose during Rabbi Baskin’s career.

“The civil rights movement, the rise of feminism, the fight for acceptance of what we now describe as the LGBTQ community—all these came to the forefront during his time in the pulpit. Dad did not duck these issues; he embraced them. The various awards he received in his life from organizations concerned with these matters is a testimony to the fact that he lived his beliefs.”

Rabbi Baskin received a B’nai Brith Humanitarian Award for his interfaith work and was a Negev Dinner honoree. He also served as chair of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews and sat on the boards of McMaster University, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Hamilton Public Library.

Bernard Baskin was born in 1920 to Rabbi Samuel and May (Guss) Baskin in New Jersey. He was raised in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

He was ordained at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1947 and served briefly in congregations in Denver and Baton Rouge, La., before arriving in Hamilton.

His father never disagreed with him about his decision to become a Reform rabbi, he told The CJN. “I’m sure he would have liked if I had become more Conservative, but… I think he was pleased that I chose the rabbinate to serve in the Jewish community.”

Members of the temple recalled his long tenure, erudite sermons and kindness in comments on the funeral home’s website.

“He was not only a wonderful rabbi, but a brilliant speaker, a scholar, and a true mensch,” wrote one congregant, “I am forever grateful that 10 years ago, at the age of 92, he agreed to officiate at my father’s funeral. He was just that kind of person.”

Bernard Baskin was predeceased by his wife, Marjorie. He is survived by three children; Dr. Judith Baskin, David and Susan; seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.