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Communal Leader Marion Wilen Dies at 90

February 10, 2011 By:
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Marion A. Wilen

Marion A. Wilen, a powerhouse volunteer for the Philadelphia Jewish community and countless other social causes, died Jan. 17 of complications from pneumonia. She was 90.

Her death coincided with the national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man she greatly admired. In 1963, Wilen was at the helm of a Philadelphia delegation to the "March on Washington," where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

It was one of her proudest moments, friends and family said, but only a small glimpse of what the Wynnewood resident accomplished in a lifelong commitment to equality, Judaism, Israel and her community.

After graduating high school at age 16, Wilen went on to study education at the University of Pennsylvania, and in 1940 became one of the first women to earn a master's degree there, said her daughter, Amy Wilen Buckman.

She taught French for one semester before deciding to be a "professional volunteer," said Buckman.

"She always said she'd rather chair a committee than serve on it," recalled Buckman.

Though Wilen and her husband, Bernard, 92, were "practically founding members" of Adath Israel in Merion, Buckman said they later switched to Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood because her mother didn't think it was fair that girls, at least back then, were not allowed to read Torah at the Conservative synagogue.

"She tried to change it," said Buckman. "The rabbi at the time didn't accept the change, and so they left."

As at her former synagogue, Wilen took an active role at Main Line Reform, serving on the board and, more recently, participating in a seniors group.

She also made her mark as a dynamic and respected leader in the broader Jewish community. She traveled to Harrisburg to lobby state education leaders to institute a Holocaust curriculum in public schools, became the first non-lawyer to head the local branch of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and was deeply involved with the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

On top of all that, she served as the president of the women's division, and later, as the national vice president, of the American Jewish Congress.

Despite her aggressive support of progressive politics, Wilen never held an elected office, though she ran for the Haverford Township school board twice.

Beyond what Wilen did to benefit the Jewish community, her legacy was inspiring those who knew her to also get involved, said Buckman.

She was the type of person others would turn to for advice, continued her daughter, including former Governor Milton Shapp, who occasionally called her at home.

"She just was a force for good and menschlichkeit wherever she went," said Bonnie Squires, a Main Line publicist and Democratic Party activist who Wilen had mentored.

For all her accomplishments, Wilen's "supportive husband" of 69 years, her three "exceptional children," and "handsome and accomplished grandchildren" topped a four-page handwritten list of "things I am proud of in my lifetime" that she gave to family members before she died.

In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by sons, Barry Wilen and Dennis Wilen; and four grandsons.


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