Kassel Abelson was born in Brooklyn to Elizabeth and Rabbi George Abelson. He attended the Jewish Theological Seminary and served as a United States Air Force chaplain before finding his home at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park.
He began as associate rabbi at Beth El in 1948, and with his wife Shirley and Senior Rabbi David Aronson started what would become the first USY chapter. In 1951, the year United Synagogue Youth formed as a national movement, Abelson took a leave from the pulpit for chaplaincy and returned to Beth El in 1957.
He became senior rabbi in 1959, and held the position until 1992, when he retired from the pulpit to focus on national Jewish policy. He remained active at Beth El, speaking at the synagogue’s Neila service on Yom Kippur up until recent years, with Beth El Senior Rabbi Alexander Davis reading his sermon last year.
Abelson established many programs and policies. He helped form USY and Camp Ramah with his vision for Conservative Judaism and its future. More than that, he raised funds for scholarships so any child could participate.
He authored authoritative texts — the University of Minnesota houses 45 boxes of papers and media written by or related to Abelson. As a member and chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, he drove change, including a 1983 decision permitting abortion care. He also served as president of the assembly.
While in 1992 Abelson and the assembly voted differently, in 2006, under Abelson’s leadership, Conservative Judaism opened the door for gay and lesbian marriages and clergy members.
“We as a movement see the advantages of pluralism, and we know that people come to different conclusions drawing from the same basic resources of our tradition,” Abelson, chairman of the committee at the time, told reporters following the decision. “These teshuvot [Jewish legal opinions] are accepted as guides so that the gays and lesbians can be welcomed into our congregations and communities and made to feel accepted and welcomed.”
He also championed burial rights for suicide victims, equal rights for women, and trans rights within Conservative Judaism. He condemned segregation in the Deep South in the early 1950s. Egalitarian Judaism was one of his principles.
“When he wrote the assembly’s decision on abortion, it was not political or polarizing or popularist. It was focused on reducing suffering, especially during extremely difficult times. When the decision on burial rights and suicide was published, he made it clear that Judaism should provide full burial rights for grieving families,” Abelson’s grandson Shawn Abelson said in his eulogy. “He had a subtle and almost casual chutzpa and frequently sought to challenge the status quo, to create a wider tent and a more accepting Conservative movement. [He] used his position as a rabbi and a leader in the Rabbinical Assembly to improve the lives of Jews and many others across the globe.”
Abelson found his work on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards the most significant part of his work as a rabbi, he told Jewish News in 2006.
“I felt that it was continuing the tradition of the rabbis of the Talmud — the discussion and the decisions on what should constitute Jewish life in the age in which we live,” he said. “It’s always an interchange, an interaction, between who you are, the age in which we live, Jewish tradition and the Jewish legal thought, and I believe that that’s the way it has been since the tradition started 3,500 years ago. I think it’s an authentic continuation of the process of halachic development from its beginnings.”
Abelson was still discovering new interpretations of Jewish text even after his move to senior living.
“Rabbi Abelson never outgrew his love for Torah because he let Torah grow through him,” Rabbi Hayim Herring, Abelson’s associate rabbi and successor at Beth El and friend, said at the funeral. “His eager and open mind yielded new insights as he aged.”
Abelson made a difference with policy, but his family, friends, colleagues and congregants — who are often one and the same — will remember him for the relationships he built and the lessons he taught.
He was there for people, from presiding over many Bar and Bat Mitzvas, weddings and funerals to visiting the sick and being a father figure to children in the congregation who needed him.
Herring said that Abelson taught by example and reminded him that “every Jew, and indeed every person, shares the same inherent worth and is entitled to the same human dignity.”
“In the Jewish tradition, we’re taught that we have biological parents and spiritual parents, teachers who shape our souls and character. We recognize that while we may not be able to accomplish as much as our spiritual parents, they inspire us to do more than we think and more than we’re capable of achieving.” Herring wrote in his book Connecting Generations: Bridging the Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial Divide. “The path that we pursue will invariably differ from our spiritual parents. But they also endow us with confidence because their values strengthen us to live with purpose, develop enriching relationships, and strive to make our communities better. Since 1985, Rabbi Abelson has been my mentor, teacher, and spiritual parent, and when I read about ancient rabbinic sages from the past, whose humility masked their dedication and service to their communities, I realize that some of them still live among us today.”
He continued, “My prayer is that I will be able to transmit in some measure Rabbi Abelson’s kindness and goodness in relating to all people, regardless of background, as reflections of God’s image.”
An example of this goodness was how Abelson spent Shabbat. Every Saturday after services was time for loved ones. He’d make 30 to 40 calls each Saturday afternoon to check in with family members and friends — Shawn knew to expect a call around one o’clock every week.
Calling loved ones made Shabbat holy for him, Rabbi Davis said at the funeral. He was a proud abba, saba and saba-raba (dad, grandpa and great-grandfather).
A genuine, warm and hospitable friend and a wise and fair rabbi has completed his work on Earth. Davis shared words from Abelson’s lecture “How Judaism Deals with Death and Dying”: “While I affirm the importance of the world to come, whatever role I will someday play in it will be affected by the sort of person I am and have been in this world.”
Abelson leaves us with this lesson among many others. And I expect he is taking on an excellent role in the world to come.
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