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Remembering the one-of-a-kind Rabbi Bernard Baskin

Photo: Wendy Schneider
A fixture of the Jewish community in Hamilton for 60 years, his influence on this city is immeasurable.

Known for his humble wit and wisdom, his powerful oratory and his profound kindness, Rabbi Bernard Baskin was a true spiritual leader in Hamilton.

He died Wednesday, Jan. 18 at the age of 102.

Rabbi Baskin led Temple Anshe Sholom in Westdale from 1949 to 1989 and then served as Rabbi Emeritus until 2017. A year later, he moved to a retirement home in Toronto to be closer to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Rabbi Baskin was born in New Jersey and raised in Brooklyn. He had rabbinical postings in Denver and Louisiana before he and his wife Marjorie (who died in 2005) came to Hamilton in 1949 so that Baskin could lead the oldest Reform congregation in Canada and second oldest in North America in Temple Anshe Sholom.

In a tribute published by The Hamilton Jewish News, Jewish educator Laura Wolfson says a decade after Rabbi Baskin officially retired he “still came to the Temple every day, still filled in to lead Shabbat and holiday services from time to time or gave sermons as a special guest, still conducted weddings, b’nai mitzvah services and funerals, lectured regularly at the Temple’s Breakfast Club, gave advice to the Temple's leadership, still found resources to share with the religious school, and still gave his popular book talks on Wednesdays.”

Those book talks attracted a couple of hundred people each week for more than 40 years.

“Rabbi Baskin was generous with his knowledge. Through his writing, his entertaining book reviews, inspirational sermons, his thought-provoking public lectures, and all his thousands of interactions with his community, no one could fail to feel enriched by his words.”

In April 2019, Wolfson published a piece in the Hamilton Jewish News that explored Rabbi Baskin’s secrets to a long and healthy life. It was just before his 99th birthday.

He shared that it had been a “heartbreaking decision” to “forsake Hamilton for Toronto.” He had built a life there, raised a family and served his congregation and community for 60 years.

“It was where my fondest hopes were realized. Isn’t Hamilton where I belonged until the end?” the rabbi pondered. But it was logical for him to move nearer his family and he settled into a retirement home where he delivered two lectures a month, along with brief talks on the meaning of the Jewish holidays.

“I am asked, ‘How do you achieve old age?’ I don’t know but suggest that you choose your parents very carefully. It might also helpful to follow the advice of Hillel who declared, ‘In a place where there are no men, try to be a man.’  

“In addition, there is the advice of the Talmudic sage Ben Zoma who asked and answered four questions: 

Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.

Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot.

Who is strong? He who can control his emotions.

Who is honoured? He who honours others.”

In a Q&A with Hamilton Jewish News editor and publisher Wendy Schneider in 2015, Rabbi Baskin said he counted among his greatest achievements that Temple Anshe Sholom grew from 85 families when he arrived to 450 families when he retired. He was proud of having brought the message of Judaism to the larger community and to have delivered a liberal Jewish message to the Jewish community.

He said that he believed a decline in organized religion is not inevitable.

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.”

Rabbi Bernard Baskin died Jan. 18 at the age of 102. Photo: Wendy Schneider

He did despair of the loss of Jewish Hamiltonians to Toronto, pointing out that when he arrived in Hamilton in 1949 there were 3,500 Jews in the city and 60 years later there were close to 5,000.

“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.”

Among his many honours, Rabbi Baskin is a member of the Hamilton Gallery of Distinction, earned an honorary doctor of laws degree from McMaster University, was named Man of the Year by the Jewish community in Hamilton and is a B’nai Brith Humanitarian Award recipient.

Known simply as “the Rabbi,” Baskin was truly a one-of-a-kind Hamiltonian.

HAMILTON CITY Magazine is grateful to The Hamilton Jewish News for graciously sharing stories and photos of Rabbi Bernard Baskin.