Tending the community with Rabbi Matthew Simon

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Rabbi Matthew Simon. Photo by David Stuck

By Ellen Braunstein

For Rabbi Matthew Simon, the title of rabbi emeritus of B’nai Israel Congregation is more than an honorific. At 89, he is still immersed in the life of the Conservative synagogue in Rockville.

Along with the congregation’s other rabbis, he provides solace to grieving families who grew up during his tenure of 1973 to 2002. He also leads a seasonal discussion of books, offering anecdotes and wisdom that comes with age and experience.

His personal reading list includes collections of rabbinical sermons that most lay people don’t read.

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“I like to hear vicariously what colleagues are speaking about,” said Simon, who is inspired by the books of philosopher and civil rights leader Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, his professor at Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1950s.

“These [sermon] collections are wonderful books because you’ve learned what is happening in that community and what are the solutions. It helps you understand how you can deal with similar issues in our own community.”

Simon is 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.

Simon was the first pulpit rabbi to rise to president of a major Jewish federation. He was also a national activist for United Jewish Appeal and became its director in Jerusalem. He always sought to keep fundraising apolitical, but he sees the challenges of that, especially today.

“Israel is a political state with its own government. Since 1948, there have been different governments and different parties and we have to learn how to love Israel no matter what party is in charge. Our love is for the state and its people, not the politics of it.”

American Jews face a rising threat of antisemitism and residents of the Washington area have an opportunity to fight it on a national level, Simon said. “When you live in the capital of America it’s very important to stay aware of what is going on because Congress is here. We have to make sure that there is sensitivity on the part of governmental agencies to the peril of antisemitism.”

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 our
own communities.”

If he could meet any figure in Jewish history, it would be Moses. “He was able to influence and lead a community from slavery to freedom. We have communities that have been enslaved or are enslaved in North Africa and the Middle East that are still working out their mode of freedom. The American Jewish community has gone through that experience already and I think Moses can help us, steer us as to how to put our efforts in to free those communities that are still not free.”

A rabbi, he said, “ought to be well-read and learned and attuned to the solutions that we have found in different generations to help the community of today solve its problems. We can’t be isolated and insulated from what is happening in our greater communities. The rabbi ought to be an influential person that helps the Jewish community learn what is going on through sermons, through organizational involvement and through fundraising and sharing ideas with the laity.”

Simon is excited about staying active in a flourishing Jewish community of 300,000. “It’s alive, it’s well and it has a good structure. I’ve been delighted to be a part of it.”

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