Remembering Rabbi Bernard Baskin z”l
The Hamilton Community and the Canadian Reform Movement mourn for Rabbi Bernard Baskin, who lived well into his 103rd year of life. He was the Rabbi of Anshe Sholom from 1949 to 1989—and then Rabbi Emeritus until 2017. He became a part of the Holy Blossom community when he moved to Toronto to be closer to his children, Susan and David. His last “congregation” was made up of his friends and neighbours at the Russell Hill Retirement Residence where he continued to teach and counsel.
With the conclusion of Shloshim, we share these excerpts from the eulogies given by his three children and by Rabbi Splansky. Holy Blossom Temple honours Rabbi Baskin’s lifelong service and his leadership. May his memory be for a blessing.
From Judith Baskin, Professor of Jewish Studies:
The rabbinic tractate, Pirke Avot, The Sayings of the Fathers, records that the sage Ben Zoma asked: “Who is wise?” and answered his own question, as follows, “The wise person is someone who learns from every human being.” Ben Zoma then inquired, “Who is mighty?” And he responded: “The one who is slow to anger is more powerful than the mighty.” Ben Zoma next queried: “Who is rich?” and he rejoined, “A person who rejoices in her or his place in life – to that person, the Psalmist says: “You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors, you shall be happy and you shall prosper” (Psalms 128:2) And finally, Ben Zoma wanted to know: “Who is honored?” And his answer was: “The individual who honors his fellow human beings, that person is honored” (4:1).
It is these four qualities: receptiveness to learning from every source; an irenic and peacemaking disposition; satisfaction with his life choices and their outcomes; and respect for others, that characterized our beloved departed father and grandfather, teacher and friend. Pirke Avot is often referred to as the Ethics of the Fathers, an apt description of its contents and concerns. Certainly, for Rabbi Bernard Baskin, the ethical was all. What, he might have asked, can we really know about God, or about what came before the creation of our world or about what comes after our life on earth? His reply to all of these universal questions would have been, not much. All that we can know and all that we can control during our lifetimes is how we choose to behave to others.
When construction on the new Temple Anshe Sholom building here on Cline Avenue North was being completed in 1952, Dad was tasked with choosing a dedication. He turned to the book of the prophet Micah and to those words that still remain on the building’s façade seventy years later: “God has told you, O human beings, what is good,/ And what God requires of you:/ Only to do justice/And to love mercy,/ And to walk humbly with your God.” It is how we act, ultimately, that matters; Dad was a just, good, and modest man.
From David Baskin, Past President of Holy Blossom Temple:
Why was the universe created? What is the nature of God? What is the purpose of human life? These are the big questions of theology. Philosophers and religions of all kinds have grappled with these issues for as long as we have written history. My father did not spend a lot of time worrying about them. His Judaism and his theology were not concerned with “Why?” It was focused on “How?” How can we live a meaningful life; how can we make the world a better place; how can we serve our fellow human beings?
In philosophical terms, Dad would be described as a humanist. He was in this sense very much a product of his times, because the mid-20th century saw the central issues of humanism leap from the religious sphere to the secular world. The civil rights movement, the rise of feminism, the fight for acceptance of what we now describe as the LGBTQ community – all these came to the forefront during his time in the pulpit. Dad did not duck these issues; he embraced them. The various awards he received in his life from organizations concerned with these matters are a testimony to the fact that he lived his beliefs; in the popular argot, he not only talked the talk, he walked the walk, and more importantly, he urged others to do the same.
And the last point, the thing that made Rabbi Baskin Hamilton’s Rabbi, was that he conveyed that message to the wider community with energy and urgency over a period of sixty years or more. Dad estimated that he gave at least 500 speeches outside the walls of his sanctuary. He was equally comfortable in churches and cathedrals, banquet halls and meeting rooms. He believed in the importance of what he had to say. He said it well, and often. He has been an inspiration to me, and I do my best to follow his example.
From Susan Baskin, beloved Teacher and Musician at Holy Blossom Temple:
On his final Shabbat, Dad was able to enjoy the company of his family and his dear friend Ailine Hess. He discussed the Torah portion of the week with my husband Jack and was able to recall passages in Hebrew. Dad summoned up his speaking skills one last time, to give my daughter Rachel a loving blessing, laced with wisdom and his usual wit. As was their practice, they snuggled up to take a ‘selfie’ and we are all so glad to have that final memory of Grandpa.
During the pandemic, out of concern that congregants and the wider community be included in both worship and programming, Dad made a generous donation to Temple Anshe Sholom, so that equipment could be purchased to enable live streaming. Dad held a deep affection for his flock in Hamilton, in Barrie, and at the Russell Hill. He created and maintained relationships and was an important figure in so many people’s lives. Our father was an outstanding role model, who led by example and taught us to value Torah, meaningful work, and acts of loving-kindness. His last formal talk—on the subject of Jewish Humour—was delivered to a packed house this past November at the Russell Hill.
…. As he slipped away I sang to him. The last words I heard from his voice were: “Oseh Shalom Bimramov, Hu ya’ashe shalom, aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, vi’mru: Amen.” May the one who makes peace in the heavens, make peace for us and for all of Israel and let us say: AMEN.
From Rabbi Splansky:
“As loving as a father is towards his children, so does the Eternal One love those who show reverence.” (from Psalm 103)
Rabbi Baskin was a public figure. His impact reached far and wide across the Canadian landscape and beyond. Now I wish to narrow the scope, to name the personal, and call attention to the family Rabbi Baskin adored. Judith, David, Susan – while your father – and your mother, Marjorie, whose memory is so much a part of this day – loved Anshe Sholom and led this community with attention and care — you have been the recipients of a distinct kind of love. For all the years of your upbringing and well into adulthood, you shared your parents with this sacred congregation. As a Rabbi’s kid myself, I know how that goes.
We call him “Moreinu HaRav,” “Our Teacher, The Rabbi.” Only you – his children – will have the distinct honour on every Yizkor day, in the quiet moments of private remembering to call him: “Avi uMori,” “My father, my teacher.” For us, he was first and always a teacher. For you, he was first and foremost, a father. You belonged to him uniquely and he belonged to you uniquely. In the decades since his retirement – while he continued to teach and write and lead – he became more yours. His speeches at family gatherings were not the same as the speeches he gave for others. The eloquence was the same, to be sure, but the softness on his face was altogether different. He loved his people without end, but he reserved a special love just for you, his family, his descendants, his favourites. May God watch over you now, as your father watched over you throughout his lifetime.
“God’s loving care is everlasting. God’s loyalty to children and children’s children will endure – age after age, unchanging.” (from Psalm 103)