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Rabbi Morris B. Margolies dies at age 90

Former head of Beth Shalom was a scholar and outspoken champion for social justice.

Updated: 2012-11-12T04:52:55Z

The Kansas City Star

Rabbi Morris B. Margolies, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom and a prominent member of the Kansas City Jewish community, died Friday. He was 90.

Known for his deep intellect and a belief that people should never stop learning, Margolies was also remembered Sunday for his work for equality and social justice. He protested the Vietnam War, marched for civil rights in the South and fought for non-discriminatory housing in Kansas City.

“Some people didn’t always agree with him, but he had to speak up,” Todd Stettner, chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, said Sunday.

“He was driven to do what he thought was right morally and ethically, and he was certainly not afraid to stand up for his beliefs.”

Upon his retirement in 1986, Margolies said: “One of the things I stand for is bringing about understanding between people of different opinions and backgrounds. And unless Jew and gentile and black and white come together, there’s no hope for this world.”

Margolies, who lived in Leawood, had a distinguished career as an educator, writer, lecturer and leader on social justice issues. He served as senior rabbi at Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue, from 1961 until he retired 25 years later.

Stettner said his work would make him long remembered in the Kansas City Jewish community.

Though retired, he remained active. In 2007, when the Dead Sea Scrolls came to Kansas City’s Union Station, Margolies helped as a scholar-curator for the exhibit, saying he hoped the two-millennium-old texts would awe and inspire people.

“Instead of reading ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ which is fiction, they can read something which is alive,” he said at the time.

Margolies was born in Jerusalem on Dec. 25, 1921 — which was Hanukkah — and arrived in the United States with his parents eight years later.

The seventh generation of a family of rabbis, Margolies received his Orthodox ordination in 1943 from the Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in New York City. He received his bachelor’s degree from the university the same year, graduating magna cum laude.

People who worked with him at Beth Shalom described him as a preacher in the traditional mold, a powerful lecturer and a superb teacher. They said he not only believed what he preached, he acted upon those words.

“We all emphasize different aspects of God,” Rabbi Henry Balser said while Margolies was still senior rabbi at Beth Shalom. “He believes in a God of justice. The God that Morris Margolies relates to cannot stand seeing poor people neglected or innocent people hurt in war. That is the heart of the soul of Morris Margolies.”

For example, when Margolies saw the way blacks were treated in the South, he went to Hattiesburg, Miss., to march for civil rights and to help with voter registration drives. He also fought for non-discriminatory housing in Kansas City. When opposition to war could hurt one’s reputation, he called the United States the aggressor in the Vietnam War.

On the eve of the 1972 election, he delivered a sermon titled “Throw the Rascal Out,” a scathing reference to Richard Nixon, who was running for a second term.

“At that time, Watergate was just beginning,” he recalled years later. But he sensed that Nixon “ultimately would be found to be the guilty party and that we would be in for one of the greatest political disasters in the history of the country.”

“Seven people walked out in the middle of my talk, obviously angry,” he said. “They submitted their letters of resignation. They said I had no basis for making such a far-reaching accusation.”

Arthur Brand, a past president of the synagogue and community leader, once said that “it was not a question of his inviting criticism. He felt that it was a requirement of his position to lead in the direction he thought correct. But some congregants found him quite controversial.”

And when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in June 1982, Margolies said he would not just stand by with fawning support.

In his Yom Kippur sermon, he called the invasion of Lebanon a “morally unjustified” tragedy because many innocent people were killed.

In addition to social activism, Margolies had a passion for Jewish history. He taught various aspects of the topic at the synagogue and for many years was an adjunct professor of Jewish history at the University of Kansas.

“He has a brilliant background in all things Judaic,” Sylvan Siegler, a Kansas City lawyer and past synagogue president, once said of Margolies. “I don’t know many rabbis who can recall so much tradition from memory.”

The Star’s Donald Bradley and Helen T. Gray contributed to this report.

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