B’nai Israel Emeritus Rabbi Matthew Simon Dies at 91

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Rabbi Matthew Simon. Photo by David Stuck

Matthew Simon, a Conservative rabbi who marched with civil rights leader The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, led B’nai Israel Congregation in its move from Washington, D.C., to the center of Jewish Rockville in the 1970s and was president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington in the 1990s, died Sept. 10. He was 91.

He had been rabbi emeritus at B’nai Israel since 2000. He began his tenure there in 1973 and, at a time the Conservative movement was beginning to ordain women rabbis and cantors, oversaw the synagogue’s theological shift to egalitarianism.

“Through Rabbi Simon’s ongoing efforts, the congregation continued its trend toward equal religious rights for women, affording all members the opportunity to be counted in a minyan, to receive an aliyah and to read from the Torah,” according to a history of the congregation.

Simon took part in the creation of the Consolidated Hebrew School, “which educated children from five different Conservative congregations at the site nearest their home, thus eliminating many hours of travel time for hundreds of grateful parents,” the B’nai Israel history said.

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Rabbi Michael Safra, B’nai Israel’s current senior rabbi, came to his position after Simon had retired. “It was impossible not to feel his presence or legacy at B’nai Israel,” he told WJW Monday. “Still today, my work at B’nai Israel is very much built on Rabbi Simon’s accomplishments. It happens frequently that when I introduce myself as the rabbi of B’nai Israel, that someone volunteers to me the impact that Rabbi Simon had on their life. Rabbi Simon officiated at so many b’nai mitzvah, weddings, funerals and other special moments in the lives of our families,” Safra said.

In addition to serving as Federation president from 1995 to 1997, Simon was extensively involved in the Jewish federation world and the organized Jewish community in general: Twice he was the national chairman of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal, and was the honorary president of the Rabbinic Cabinet of The Jewish Federations of North America, and was chairman for five years of its National Funding Councils. He was chairman of the Jewish Welfare Board’s Jewish Chaplains Council. He was a past national president of ZBT Fraternity, and a past president of the Washington Board of Rabbis.

“Rabbi Matthew Simon was the consummate Jewish communal leader,” Federation CEO Gil Preuss said in a statement. “As the first pulpit rabbi to serve as president of a major Jewish federation, he brought a unique and thoughtful lens that was reflected in every role he played during his incredible lifetime and inspiring career. I am deeply grateful for all he taught me personally and for the legacy he leaves for our Greater Washington Jewish community.”

Simon was a founder of the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, called Mercaz, and was its president. He was also president of Masorti, the movement’s international synagogue organization.

Matthew Hoffer Simon was born in Johnstown, Pa., on Aug. 6, 1932. He was the eldest child of Rabbi Ralph Simon and Kelsey Hoffer Simon.

Simon was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1958 after having received degrees from the University of Chicago and California State University, Northridge. He served as a Navy chaplain in Japan and retired from the Navy as a captain after 28 years of Naval reserve service. He continued to provide chaplaincy at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda until his 90th year.

Before coming to B’nai Israel, Simon served congregations in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

It was as a rabbi from Los Angeles that Simon took part in the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., according to Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“I had very good relationships with the black clergy in the San Fernando Valley,” he said in 2011. “We worked together on social action issues, on voting rights and housing rights, not just in Los Angeles but all over the country.”

King had a particularly close relationship with Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Conservative rabbi, philosopher and civil rights activist, JTA reported. To Simon, Heschel was a “teacher, mentor and friend.”

A 2022 profile of Simon in WJW described him as “a rabbi and a fundraiser, a powerhouse combination of skills that brought the District-based synagogue of 300 members to a 14-acre cattle farm on Montrose Road that has become the suburban spiritual home of 1,400 families.

“Simon raised tens of millions for the land and what would eventually become the Gerald S. Snyder Building and the Thelma and Melvin Lenkin Education and Activities Center in Rockville,” the profile continued.

Of all the honors he received, Simon particularly savored being Camper Number 1 at the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah.

“Simon didn’t really have a choice in the matter,” according to a 2022 article on the Camp Ramah Wisconsin website. “His father, Rabbi Ralph Simon, spiritual leader of Chicago’s Congregation Rodfei Zedek from 1943 to 1987, was the charismatic engine behind the founding of the first Camp Ramah.”

Rabbi Simon was predeceased by his son Rabbi Joshua Reuveni Simon, and will be missed by his beloved wife of 65 years, Sara; his surviving children Ethan and Betsy (Jeff); his daughters-in-law, Sandy Katz and Dr. Miriam Bensimhon (Danny); and his loving grandchildren, Molly, Ezekiel (Joni), Maggie, Dylan, Marley and Charles Buddy; as well as his brother, Carmi, and his sister, Tamar Hoffs (Josh).

Contributions may be made to B’nai Israel Congregation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

In the 2022 WJW profile, Simon said the biggest challenge facing the Jewish community is finding out “how we want our children and grandchildren to be educated as Jews. We have to create a community that meets the needs of the younger generation so they become intelligent members of the community and feel that the community has needs they can be a part of,” he said.

The defining feature of Jewish life today is local community activity, Simon said. “There are issues in every community that I’ve lived in that have to be dealt with on a local level, and it is the synagogue that functions on that level. Before we start looking at how we’re going to solve the world’s problems, all of us have to deal with those issues that are in ourown communities.” ■

Ellen Bernstein, David Holzel and Aaron Troodler contributed to this article.

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