A ‘Rabbi’s Rabbi,’ Kassel Abelson Passes Away At 99

Rabbi Hayim Herring came to Beth El Synagogue as an assistant rabbi to Rabbi Kassel Abelson, then became his associate rabbi and eventually succeeded Abelson as senior rabbi. But they were more than colleagues.

“It went well beyond that,” Herring said. “We only grew closer over the years.”

Abelson, who had been part of Beth El Synagogue for 75 years and instrumental in countless milestones in the history of the congregation, passed away Tuesday, July 18 in Florida. He was 99 years old. He is survived by his children, David (Susan), Elissa (Rick), Sam (Sharon), and many loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Rabbi Abelson was a gentleman and a gentle man, drawing people together with his personal touch marked by humility and warmth, compassion and optimism,” wrote his son-in-law Rabbi Rick Sherwin. “Kass loved the generations of his family and all branches of his family tree. All of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren loved their Abba, Saba, and Saba Raba.”

Beth El Rabbis Kassel Abelson (left) and David Aronson (right) flank then Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey (Photo courtesy Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives.)

Beth El Rabbis Kassel Abelson (left) and David Aronson (right) flank then Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey (Photo courtesy Nathan and Theresa Berman Upper Midwest Jewish Archives.)

Abelson became associate rabbi at Beth El in 1948, under senior Rabbi David Aronson. That same year Abelson, his wife Shirley, and Aronson were instrumental in starting USY that same year. In 1951, Abelson took a six-year hiatus from pulpit duties to be a chaplain in the United States Air Force, returning to the North Minneapolis synagogue in 1957.

He was part of the Beth El Music and Arts program’s establishment, as well as the synagogue relocating to its current St. Louis Park location.

“By the time I started in 1999, he was already retired, but was a very active, retired rabbi,” said current Beth El senior Rabbi Alexander Davis. “So he was here and he was leading services on the High Holidays. And he was available for people’s simchas or tzuris. He was particularly active on the national scene.”

Abelson was a president of the Rabbinical Assembly and chair of the RA’s  Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, where he showed leadership over crucial issues. 

“His many teshuvot – responses on issues of Jewish law – defined a variety of aspects of Jewish practice for our movement for a generation,” said Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of the RA and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in a statement. “He was an important force in the adoption of equal roles for women in our movement, and it was under his chairmanship of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards that openly gay and lesbian individuals gained broader acceptance within the movement, including acceptance to rabbinical school.

“Rabbi Kass Abelson was a ‘rabbi’s rabbi’ and a trailblazing force. The Rabbinical Assembly, and the entire Conservative-Masorti [movement] mourn the passing of this outstanding leader, pastor, scholar, and colleague.” 

Herring said that as Abelson got older, his worldview expanded.

“He was highly principled, but never lost sight of klal Yisroel,” he said. “That’s why people – whether assistants or just colleagues on the Law Committee, congregants and even non-congregants – flocked to him. He didn’t preach. He listened. He asked questions. He really accepted people, regardless of station, for who they were.

Davis said in Abelson’s time as both president of the RA and chair of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, he reached across the denominational lines. On a national level, he reached out to the leadership of both the Orthodox Union and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform Movement’s professional association.

“[The lines] were no less divided back then, but he had the ability really to bring people together,” Davis said. “He was very close with the Rabbi [Jerry] Herzog from Knesseth Israel, as well as with Rabbi [Norman] Cohen from Bet Shalom and Rabbi [Max] Shapiro from Temple Israel. He had personal relationships with those rabbis. They were not just colleagues but friends.”

Herring said that he later learned of the less public, behind-closed-doors discussions that took place to discuss what he called “thorny issues.”

“There was such mutual respect. It was just amazing to see,” Herring said. “And I got to ride in on those very long coattails.”

Donations in his memory may be directed to Beth El’s Rabbi Kassel Abelson USY Leadership Fund or Beth El’s Shirley R. Abelson Aleph Preschool Fund. Gifts in Rabbi Abelson’s name may be made to STEP in St. Louis Park or – as Rabbi Abelson would appreciate – to any tzedakah program. Funeral service is 11:30 a.m., Sunday, July 23 at Beth El Synagogue, 5225 Barry St. W., St. Louis Park, followed by a private family burial. Everyone is invited to the Shiva minyan to honor Rabbi Abelson at 7 p.m., Sunday evening, at Beth El Synagogue. Service and shiva are available on Zoom.