Rabbi Fredric Kazan Dies at 87

Fredric Kazan with two of his grandchildren, in 1995 | Courtesy of Liebe Gelman

A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Congregation Emanu-El as Temple Emanu-El. 

Fredric Kazan, a longtime Conservative rabbi and educator who spent his life among Philadelphia’s Jewish congregations, died on Jan. 4. He was 87.

Over the course of his career, Kazan served Jewish Philadelphians at various institutions, including Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Congregation Melrose B’nai Israel, Congregation Emanu-El, the West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center, Adath Israel on the Main Line, Beth Sholom Congregation and Congregation Kesher Israel.

According to his daughter, Dr. Liebe Gelman, congregants at many of those institutions told her in the days following her father’s death that they considered Kazan to be primarily “their” rabbi.

This, Gelman believes, was a vivid expression of her father’s impact, and a status that was earned through decades of close attention paid to his congregants. For years, Kazan kept index cards with detailed family histories of his congregants, so that sermons he delivered at simchas and funerals seemed to come from family members themselves. That care, along with his personal magnetism, drew hundreds into his orbit.

“My father was an extremely charismatic person,” said Dede Kazan, one of the rabbi’s five children. “Whenever you walked in the room, you felt his presence.”

Kazan was born on Oct. 30, 1933, and his early life among Jewish institutions and those frequented by Jewish Philadelphians presaged his later, professional involvement. Kazan was born in South Philadelphia, the neighborhood where he’d help his uncle with his pushcart at the market. While still a boy, the family moved to Forrest Avenue in the Oak Lane section of Philadelphia, joining Temple Sinai prior to its move to the suburbs. He became a bar mitzvah at the synagogue and attended Hebrew school at Gratz College. In the summers, Kazan went to Camp Ramah.

After graduating from Central High School, Kazan attended Temple University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem (he’d continue his studies at Gratz College, Dropsie College and UCLA). As he learned Hebrew and fell further in love with Israel, Kazan was vexed by pressing questions, both professional and philosophical. Should he become a rabbi or teach philosophy? How would it work with his soon-to-be-wife, Marian Axelrod, if he was in Israel and she was still in Philadelphia?

Axelrod, who had known Kazan since they were teenagers, answered the latter by traveling to Israel via sea and air. The professional dilemma was resolved when Kazan had a meeting with David Ben-Gurion. The meeting with one of Israel’s founding fathers convinced Kazan that the American rabbinate would the best way for him to serve his fellow Jews.

Kazan and Axelrod were married by Israel’s first chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, in 1955, when Kazan knocked on the eminent rabbi’s door and asked him for a little favor.

Prior to their return to Philadelphia, Kazan and his family lived in New York while he attended the Jewish Theological Seminary, and East Paterson, New Jersey, where he was a student rabbi. He led Congregation Ner Tamid in Van Nuys, California, also serving as an Air Force chaplain.

Back in Philadelphia with his family, Kazan took the pulpit at his first local congregation, Congregation Melrose B’nai Israel, and never looked back. He loved Philadelphia — its history, its Jews and its football team. He led Jewish-themed tours of Philadelphia, and watched Eagles games with the television on mute and the radio broadcast of the game turned up. He was also a devoted supporter of Golden Slipper Club & Charities, served as a leader within the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and was a committed Zionist.

Rabbi Bob Layman, a longtime friend and colleague of Kazan’s, remembers Kazan as a an exuberant, extroverted presence, never afraid to share an opinion or an idea, with “an enormous capacity for work.” However charismatic he was with congregants, it was in conversation with colleagues, Layman said, where Kazan “truly let his hair down.”

Kazan was predeceased by his wife, Marian. He is survived by his children, Liebe Gelman, Dede Rachel Kazan, Adam Kazan, Faith Kazan and Linda Kazan; his sister, Bonnie Kanefsky; and five grandchildren.

jbernstein@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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