Rabbi Bernard Baskin (1920-2023) reflects on life and Judaism (as published in 2010)

(Credit: Rotary Club of Hamilton)

Rabbi Bernard Baskin of Hamilton died at age 102 on Jan. 18, 2023. This story was originally published on March 17, 2010, shortly after he turned 90. An updated tribute is forthcoming from The CJN.

“I think if one is in good health and is lucky enough to reach 90, it’s a source of celebration,” he said in a telephone interview last Wednesday from Boca Raton, Fla., the day after his March 9 birthday.

The rabbi—who served Hamilton’s Temple Anshe Sholom from 1949 until his retirement 20 years ago, and who still maintains an office there as rabbi emeritus—believes that “if one reaches old age and is in relatively good health, one should persist in trying to maintain some kind of involvement in life.”

This year marks the third winter he has spent in Florida, but he is still lecturing and preaching, he noted. In fact, he was anticipating a trip to Edmonton to speak to the Jewish community there April 15.

In Hamilton, in addition to having headed Anshe Sholom—which he says is the oldest Reform congregation in Canada, taking into account the age of its cemetery—Rabbi Baskin has also been involved in interfaith work and community cultural matters.

Recognition he has received for his work includes a 1959 honorary doctorate from McMaster University, and a B’nai Brith Humanitarian Award for his interfaith involvement. As well, he served on the university’s senate, was voted into the Hamilton Gallery of Distinction, and is a former Negev Dinner honoree.

A regular columnist for The CJN for some 50 years, Rabbi Baskin has also written many articles and book reviews for the Hamilton Spectator.

In 2008, to mark his 60 years with Anshe Sholom, the congregation held a public event attended by 450 people, and published a book of Rabbi Baskin’s writings, The Essential Bernard Baskin. The temple now has 420 families, making it the largest of Hamilton’s three synagogues, and is headed by Rabbi Jordan Cohen.

Rabbi Baskin has had a lifelong interest in books; as a youngster he thought he might teach English literature in a high school when he grew up, and following his retirement, he and his late wife, Marjorie, who died five years ago, ran a book business, mostly selling Judaica. Last year, he donated 8,000 volumes to the University of Alberta, following a suggestion from an Edmonton bookseller with whom he was acquainted.

The rabbi has given book talks at McMaster and at the Hamilton Public Library, where he served as chair for many years. He also gives 12 lectures a year to groups of 80 to 100 people at the temple. “It keeps me intellectually stimulated,” he said.

Lecturing, preaching, keeping up with world politics and “reading that matters,” as well as his ties with family and friends, all lead to “a rather full and I would say interesting life,” the rabbi said.

“Older people, if they’re able, should choose to remain in life, not withdraw. This requires the luxury of good health, [but] even people who are not in excellent good health should try to maintain some kind of involvement,” he advised. “I think withdrawal leads eventually to a kind of inertia, both physical and mental, and that leads to, I think, a quick demise.”

To stay healthy, the rabbi said, “one has to be realistic about one’s diet, to try to remain within reasonable good weight, to maintain some kind of regimen of exercise, to stay alert, to have a schedule, to have friends, stay away from smoking if possible, alcohol in moderation. All these things lead to better health, one hopes.

“And then, of course,” he added dryly, “you have to choose your parents very carefully.”

A native of New Brunswick, N.J., Rabbi Baskin was raised in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, Rabbi Samuel Baskin, served a large congregation there.

A graduate of Brooklyn College, Rabbi Baskin was ordained at the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1947, before serving congregations in Denver and then Baton Rouge, La. The seminary later merged with Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Baskin said that as he grew up, he became increasingly less convinced that Orthodoxy was for him. “I found it quite restrictive. I also found that many of its teachings were things I couldn’t accept, which seemed to in many ways contradict what I thought about the universe,” he recalled.

At one time, he considered becoming a Conservative rabbi.

His father never argued with him about his choice, he said. “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.”

Reflecting on his long career, Rabbi Baskin said he both liked and found meaning in the rabbinate.

“I’ve lived through such momentous and cataclysmic events as the Holocaust, the Second World War, and, of course, the birth of Israel,” he said. “The Holocaust has made for tremendous changes in Jewish life. We no longer have a community in eastern Europe, which was the dominant community until North America. We no longer have a community in the Arab countries. At one time, we had a strong Sephardic community in the Arab countries. That’s all disappeared with the birth of Israel.”

Israel—which Rabbi Baskin said he visited with congregants before such trips became popular—“has become the centre of our concern, the centre of our involvement.”

Having visited a dozen times, and with a granddaughter who has made aliyah and is serving in the Israel Defence Forces, the rabbi said he has “a strong connection with Eretz Yisrael.”

Since his ordination, he has seen major changes in Reform Judaism, and in Judaism in general. Women are now routinely ordained as rabbis and cantors in the non-Orthodox movements, and in the Reform movement, there has been a return to more ritual and greater use of Hebrew at services.

“I think that’s all favourable,” Rabbi Baskin said. Speaking of ritual in particular, he said he thinks that “for Judaism to exist and continue, you need things like ritual to add colour and meaning to Jewish life.”

On a personal note, Rabbi Baskin wanted to talk about his family and how proud he is of them: his son David, a former president of Holy Blossom Temple whose wife Joan Garson is president of  the Reform Zionist umbrella, Arzenu; daughter Judy, an author and professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oregon; daughter Susan, a music teacher who used to teach at Leo Baeck Day School; and seven grandchildren.

As well, he added, his late wife was head of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, and his late brother, Leonard, was a well-known American artist who illustrated A Passover Haggadah and whose works are in major museums.

When the rabbi arrived in Hamilton in 1949—succeeding noted philosopher Rabbi Emil Fackenheim—he and his wife intended to stay only a few years.

But with the birth of their children and their growing involvement in and appreciation of the community, “fate ordained otherwise,” Rabbi Baskin said.