One of a kind: Rabbi Bernard Baskin

December 2015
by Wendy Schneider

Unquestionably the most famous Jewish Hamiltonian, Rabbi Bernard Baskin, at an unbelievable 95 years of age, is as articulate and sharp-witted as he was during his 60-year rabbinical career. The rabbi’s thoughtful speculations about the future of synagogue life and the preoccupations of our modern age, demonstrate, without a doubt, that he will always be ...

What do you see as your greatest accomplishments?
Well I think there are two of them. Number one is my bringing the message of Judaism to a larger community. And number two, bringing the message of liberal Judaism to the Jewish community. Anshe Sholom is the oldest liberal congregation in Canada. When I got here in 1949 we had maybe 85 families in the congregation. When I gave up my ministry after 40 years we had 450 families. So that, and my interfaith activity probably loom in my mind as the major achievements. 

How did literature come to play such a central part in your career?
My father was very much a scholar. He had a very large library and encouraged reading, so I became a good reader early on. I believe very strongly that if you don’t learn to read in your early years, you never come to it. People who find no interest in books and literature are people who unfortunately never learn the kind of wonders they can find in the world of books from an early age. I fortunately did. And I found that there was always an audience  receptive to discussion about books. The sisterhood of my first congregation in Denver had a monthly book meeting. Well I found that very good and so I became involved there and in the general community and my interest in literature and what it offers in the widest sense became one of the major things in my ministry. One of the most interesting and unusual venues where I gave book talks was in a government mandated leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, where there were a number of Jewish residents. Another unforgettable venue was in the local jail in Denver, where I was asked to give book talks to its Jewish prisoners. I found those who came to the lectures for the most part, were quite intelligent, as well as well-read. Leprosarium and prison. Books will carry you a long way, into many foreign ports. 

Are we seeing the decline of the synagogue?
Well there’s increasingly a falling away from organized religion, which is unfortunate. I think digitalization, news information lead away from the notion of the synagogue. The increasing importance of science in our society, giving answers to ancient questions about what causes all of your ailments and diseases have people looking to psychiatrists and doctors rather than what the rabbis have to say on Friday night, drawing inspiration from the Torah. Synagogues, certainly Reform and Conservative congregations, and to some degree Orthodox, seem to realize you have to bring in new modes of worship, and ways of understanding Judaism to congregants and I think this will prove successful as time goes on.  Religion is cyclical in the sense that there are times when it draws a great deal of involvement and times where it loses that. We’re in one of these waning periods when religion is losing out to other things. if you hang on, like the stock market, it comes back, you know. 

What are the greatest challenges facing a rabbi today?
Well one is to keep his or her congregation interested in Judaism. Another thing is to bring younger people into the fold. You know one of the main reasons for religion, apart from doctrine, is community.  I mean why does an average person join a shul? To build friendships. A member of your family dies. Members of the congregation come to the funeral. They come to the shiva. So the synagogue, or the church, apart from doctrine, becomes a place where people meet, where people can find answers to some of their questions from others who have suffered in a similar way, or found joy in a similar way. It makes for a kind of involvement which you don’t get when you live alone. I think younger people, increasingly don’t seem to need that. They find their meaning in Facebook you know, get all the information they want from their friends. They don’t need a synagogue youth group. There’s also another answer these days to lack of synagogue membership. People say, we’re spiritual. We don’t find meaning in prayers which are institutionalized from a prayer book or what our rabbi has to say every week using the Torah as a basis for his sermons. We find our meaning in the cosmos. We find meaning in friends who can give us inspiration, not in a weekly service at a specified hour. In other words a kind of new mood has developed where people think they’re spiritual. I think it’s just an escape from responsibility in many cases. And the word spirituality becomes a new code word for not getting involved. 

Do you think we are a fragmented community? 
I think in some ways the Jewish community is more cohesive today than in the past. There was a time when the congregations thought only in terms of their own future, rather than the Jewish community’s future. That’s still true of course. Each institution has to think in terms of its future, in terms of its membership. We’re a small community and it’s very difficult to draw from new people if we don’t have enough of them to maintain membership. At the same time, being a small community, we do feel a sense of unity which doesn’t exist, for instance, in Toronto. In many ways, especially in activities which involve the total community like Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’atzmaut, we find a way of getting together, which is very wholesome and useful. When I came to Hamilton 60 years ago there were 3,500 Jews in town. Today there are close to 5,000. 60 years. That’s a very, very small growth. Why? Well most of our younger people move to Toronto. It’s true of my children. We lose our younger people. And now older people are moving to join their grandchildren in Toronto. Will this change one day? I hope one day it will. Hamilton is becoming much more of a livable city, much more of a city that offers opportunities, culturally and otherwise.  I leave it to other people to make predictions about the future. I won’t be here to see it all but I hope what we’ll have is a fruitful, growing, livable, vibrant Jewish community until the days to come.

Watch: The Hamilton Jewish News interview with Rabbi Baskin


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