Reform Leader, KI Rabbi Simeon Maslin Dies at 90

Rabbi Simeon Maslin (Courtesy of Robert Sirota)

Rabbi Simeon Maslin, a national leader in the Reform movement and the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel for 17 years, died from cancer on Jan. 29. He was 90.

The rabbi guided the Elkins Park synagogue from 1980 to 1997, his last stop in a 50-plus-year career that included positions in Chicago, Curaçao and Monroe, New York. He also served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, an organization uniting about 2,000 Reform rabbis.

As a Reform leader, Maslin wrote the book “Gates of Mitzvah” in 1979, which, according to current KI Rabbi Lance Sussman, introduced classic Jewish life cycle practices into the movement.

Before “Gates of Mitzvah,” the movement focused on its platform of the moment, Sussman explained. It would hold conventions to codify values like the affirmation of a belief in God or Zionism.

Maslin’s insight helped modern Jews go deeper and conduct baby namings, marriages and funerals in an authentic fashion.

The Reform leader was also a family man who died surrounded by loved ones at home, according to his daughter Naomi Godel. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, Judith Maslin, his three children, Godel, David Maslin and Eve Maslin, as well as 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

“He was quite a presence,” Godel said. “He was worthy of respect and adoration.”

Sussman agreed. KI’s leader for the past two decades called the synagogue’s emeritus rabbi one of his biggest influences.

The younger rabbi, who is retiring this June, met his predecessor about 30 years ago when Maslin was leading the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Sussman, then serving at Temple Concord in Binghamton, New York, drove down for a reception for Reform rabbis at KI.

Since Maslin was president of the conference, Sussman already knew of him. But then he heard the older man speak.

“I was wowed,” the younger rabbi said. “His sermons were literary.”

Sussman had no idea that, about a decade later, he would inherit Maslin’s legacy at the Elkins Park institution. But when fate brought him back to KI in 2001, he found a willing elder in the longtime Reform leader.

The younger rabbi described Maslin as “always available” to get lunch, talk on the phone or exchange emails. To his successor, the older man imparted institutional memory of the synagogue and a rabbi’s knowledge of how to engage with its longtime members.

“A congregation is a very complex community,” Sussman said. “To navigate it, you have to know the people.”

Sussman appreciated the relationship not only because it helped him, but because it was cool for him. He was engaging with one of his role models in the Reform movement.

KI’s current rabbi read “Gates of Mitzvah” before he ever met Maslin. And he credited the book with deepening and revitalizing Reform Judaism.

Rabbi Simeon Maslin with his wife Judith. (Courtesy of Judith Maslin)

Reform Judaism is about navigating cultural change and keeping the religion relevant to each new generation, according to Sussman. For most of the movement’s history, starting in the 1800s, its leaders succeeded.

At a Pittsburgh convention in the 1880s, they affirmed the concept of God, rejected kashrut and described the Jewish experience as religious, not national or ethnic. During a Columbus, Ohio, gathering in the 1930s, leaders moved in the direction of Zionism and the idea of Jewish peoplehood.

Then in the 1970s, they supported the Civil Rights Movement while resisting the Vietnam War. But after that, the Reform movement fell into a malaise, according to Sussman.

“We’re not marching in the streets now,” he said. “Where am I going to go?”

It was Maslin who provided the answer in “Gates of Mitzvah.” Focus on the timeless traditions that make up a Jewish life.

“He played that role of reintroducing tradition into Reform Judaism,” Sussman said.

Born in 1931 in Winthrop, Massachusetts, near Boston, the rabbi graduated from Harvard University. He became ordained in 1957 at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Through his travels, he stayed close to his hometown, vacationing in Maine with his family. He loved boating, fishing, the Boston Red Sox and going on long Sunday drives. As a retiree, he conducted High Holiday services at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

But what he perhaps loved most was spending time with his grandchildren. During her eulogy at Maslin’s funeral, Galia Godel, Maslin’s granddaughter, talked fondly of spending Maine mornings with him at the Bookland Cafe.

They would eat lox or whitefish on bagels and then read while sitting together; Galia preferred books while grandpa preferred the newspaper.

“I felt so special and grown-up, that he took me with him, and was more than a bit chagrined this week to receive the same anecdote from more than one cousin,” Godel told the audience at KI. “He made each of us feel special.”

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