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Simeon Maslin, influential rabbi, national Reform leader, and author, dies at 90

He embraced interfaith living. "I've had Christians ask me many times, 'Can I go to a Jewish service?' Of course they can," he said. "There's no secret cult here. Everyone is welcome."

Rabbi Maslin was a dynamic speaker with inclusive messages for his listeners.
Rabbi Maslin was a dynamic speaker with inclusive messages for his listeners.Read moreCourtesy of the family

Simeon Maslin, 90, of Philadelphia, senior rabbi emeritus at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and an influential author and speaker on Jewish life, died Saturday, Jan. 29, of cancer at home.

As senior rabbi at Keneseth Israel from 1980 to 1997, Rabbi Maslin spoke often and wrote extensively about his faith and its collision with modern issues. A teacher and mentor to many in the United States, Australia, South Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere, he lectured about the importance of religious diversity in communities, the essential role of women in modern life, world peace, the separation of church and state, and other topics.

He was president of the New York-based Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1995 to 1997, active with the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and a member of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and other groups.

He called himself a “religious naturalist,” described God as a “guiding friend,” and published, among other books, God for Grown-Ups: A Jewish Perspective in 2019, Uncle Sol’s Women in 2014, and Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle in 2009.

On a 2020 podcast about God for Grown-Ups, he said: ”For a religion in a scientific age to have meaning we have to strip it of its mythology.” He published opinion pieces in the Jewish Exponent, The Inquirer, and elsewhere and said in a 1997 Inquirer article: “The function of a Jew is to be cocreator, with God, of the world. The task of the human being is to perfect the world, using the tools God gives us.”

“He left his mark as a brilliant orator and thinker, an interfaith leader deeply committed to social issues and learning,” said David B. Ruderman, an award-winning author and the Joseph Meyerhoff professor emeritus of modern Jewish history at the University of Pennsylvania.

In an online tribute, current leaders of the Central Conference of American Rabbis recalled Rabbi Maslin for his “extraordinary scholarship, his gorgeous singing voice, his cherubic smile with a gleam in his eye, and the way that he made each rabbi and — indeed, any person with whom he was speaking — feel that they were the only person in the room.”

In his memory, the congregation at Keneseth Israel established the Rabbi Simeon Maslin KI Distinguished Speakers Fund.

Born March 18, 1931, in Winthrop, Mass., near Boston, into an Orthodox family, Rabbi Maslin earned a bachelor’s degree in modern European history from Harvard University in 1952 and a master’s degree in political science from Penn in 1954.

Originally interested in working in government, he was inspired at Penn to act on his religious inclinations and was ordained in 1957 at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He later received a doctorate of ministry from Chicago Theological Seminary.

Known as Shim, short for Shimon, his Hebrew name, Rabbi Maslin met Judith Blumberg at Penn, and they married in 1954. They had daughters Naomi and Eve and son David and lived in Elkins Park when he worked at Keneseth Israel. He worked earlier with congregations in Monroe, N.Y., the Caribbean island country of Curacao, and Chicago.

Later in life, he led High Holiday services at Bowdoin College in Maine and volunteered as a chaplain on cruise ships so he could meet with Jewish communities at ports of call around the world.

Away from his official duties, Rabbi Maslin liked to fish and sail, relax at his summer home in Maine, play Scrabble with his wife, and cheer for the Boston Red Sox. He liked classical music and was known for his sense of humor and success at knowing the answers to Jeopardy!

He recorded personal milestones in little notebooks, was devoted to his family, and turned breakfasts and lunches with his grandchildren into special events. “He was an interesting person,” said his wife.

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, in an online column, wrote that Rabbi Maslin was “my colleague, my friend, my mentor, my counselor, my confidant. And in the words of [singer] Paul Simon, he was my role model as well.”

In addition to his wife and children, Rabbi Maslin is survived by 10 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and other relatives. A sister died earlier.

Services were Jan. 31.