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Miriam Finkel, lifelong social justice advocate, dies at 94

It was important to her to live in a diverse neighborhood and constantly speak out for equality and opportunity.

Mrs. Finkel and her daughter, Amy, bonded over their shared appreciation for justice and equality. "She instilled values that were deep and true by doing things,"  her daughter said.
Mrs. Finkel and her daughter, Amy, bonded over their shared appreciation for justice and equality. "She instilled values that were deep and true by doing things," her daughter said.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Miriam Finkel, 94, a lifelong advocate for the oppressed, marginalized, and underserved, died Wednesday, Oct. 27, of heart failure at home in East Mount Airy.

Seeking to make an impact on a world in which she found too much prejudice, injustice, and pain, Mrs. Finkel reached out to people of color, immigrants, political refugees, the unhoused, those with disabilities, and others who needed aid, comfort, and guidance.

She supported the Rev. Leon Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Center in the 1960s and was head of the political action committee of the Association for Jewish Children, now the Jewish Family and Children’s Service.

In the 1970s, she helped Russian Jews fashion new lives in the United States after they fled, or were ejected from, the oppression of the Soviet Union. One of those people, Vladimir Oliker, now a mathematics professor emeritus at Emory University, told the family after her death that Mrs. Finkel was “a light at the end of our very dark tunnel.”

The second female president at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Mrs. Finkel led the synagogue’s efforts to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, support Habitat for Humanity, form a Black/Jewish dialogue group, and protest injustice in Washington.

Her goals, she told her family, were to make a positive difference in people’s lives and be an example so others could make a difference, too

“Our love for justice teaches us the right thing to do,” she said in 1989 when she was made president at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. “And how I respond to poverty and homelessness is how my children and grandchildren will learn to respond.”

She also served as the synagogue’s vice president, president of its women’s group, and on the board of trustees. She volunteered at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and helped introduce archaeology education to the public schools.

“She knew how to make an impact,” said her son Ken. “She was so committed to doing what was right.”

Born Aug. 6, 1927, in Atlantic City, Miriam Lippman graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1945. Her father died when she was 6, and she became especially close to her two older brothers.

She and her twin sister, Hannah, liked to play pranks on friends and family by pretending they were each other, especially when they roomed together at the University of Pennsylvania. She studied psychology and graduated in 1949.

She met Morris Finkel on a blind date, and they married in 1949. At first, they lived in West Philadelphia and later moved to West Oak Lane, then East Mount Airy. Her husband ran an antiques business on Pine Street, and she worked as a social worker for children.

Later, they had sons Ken and Ned and daughter Amy. “She was such a role model for me and my girlfriends,” her daughter said. “She had enormous energy, and taught me independence and to be engaged and involved.”

Mrs. Finkel like to bake, read the New Yorker, travel, and spend time with her grandchildren. She had leadership roles at ethnic food festivals and antique shows and took part in a medical drug trial at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for chronic lymphatic leukemia.

Shortly before her death, Mrs. Finkel voiced concern over the fate of the Afghan evacuees coming to Philadelphia. “It was personal to her,” said her daughter.

Her family said one of her favorite quotes was: “We are free only when we have an errand on Earth.”

“She would point to a headline in the paper and say, ‘What are we going to do about this?’” her son said. “She was always looking for something good to do.”

In addition to her son and daughter, Mrs. Finkel is survived by seven grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and other relatives. Her husband, son Ned, sister, and brothers died earlier.

A memorial service is to be held at 2 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17, at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, 8339 Old York Rd., Elkins Park, Pa. 19027.

Donations in her name may be made to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel-General Fund, 8339 Old York Rd., Elkins Park, Pa. 19027.