This interview is with Rabbi Howard Apothaker on May 27, 1993 by Shirley Ann Jeffrey. The interview is taking place at Temple Beth Shalom in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the Oral History program of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
Apothaker: I’m Howard Apothaker. My Hebrew name is Harov-Chaim Ben-Vince & Leah. My mother’s and father’s names are Vince and Leah Apothaker. I have a brother by the name Kelly, an older sister, Lynn, and a younger sister named Lisa. My wife’s name is Marcie Golden and my two children are Alexana Golden and Leah Beth. Leah is named after my mother who has been deceased for about two years.
I was born in the city of Philadelphia and I lived most of my life…. all of my high school years and more or less my early years in high school in the same community, which is called Orland, PA, probably something like a 20-25 minute ride to downtown Philadelphia without traffic jams. I was born February 22, 1952 and got my early education in the suburban school district through high school. I was brought up in the Conservative Jewish movement. I traveled 20-25 minutes to Hebrew School, three days a week, starting when I was in third grade. I went there from kindergarten on. When I became a Bar Mitzvah in seventh grade, my Hebrew and Jewish studies were temporarily suspended. I continued in a Reform congregation later on. The reason for this was that my older brother and sister had become involved in a youth group at a Reform congregation and it was appealing to them – that youth group – and also it was appealing to me so I think it was probably in the ninth grade that I started up again, going on Sundays to a pre-confirmation program, then I went to the high school there, too, through the twelfth grade.
I also, despite having a busy athletic schedule, was able to take Wednesday nights off during my junior and senior years in high school and study at the Gratz College in something called the Isaac Mayer Wise Department where I received a degree in education – whatever a high school student can get in terms of education. I studied with a guy who I later came to know as a friend in college. His name is Howard Bogart to whom I may or may return later on. First, I was elected treasurer and then I was president of my youth group at a Reform congregation. Had I not been a member of that Reform congregation, I’m not sure where my Jewish identity might have gone.
This was a factor in my family’s decision to have modernized ourselves to the extent that we were able to continue to receive Jewish education. In all of us, I think, from my older sister, myself and my younger sister, we were all confirmed. I think we may have all gone through the high school there so it was a really good move for us.
What I took out of all of that experience was an appreciation for the intellectual density of Jewish life. It was extremely rich. I found the rabbi in the Reform congregation was intellectually someone with whom I could identify. He was a very bright person, a good speaker, particularly later on in his career, although it wasn’t the case when I was being confirmed there. I found him to grow in his sensitivity and his willingness to be a religious personality as well as a deeply human personality as he always had been.
I recall my family of origin kind of in and out of Jewish life. My mother grew up in a home that did not stress religion. My grandmother was a socialist and was the only living grandparent that I had ever known. All the others had died before I was born. She was a socialist whose family owned the general store in Bridgeton, New Jersey. During the Depression (my mother didn’t really grow up during the Depression), both of my mother’s parents were born in the United States which was unusual. But my mother’s “mother tongue” until she went to grade school was Yiddish. More than several dozen cousins all spoke Yiddish. And they all lived in the same community. That’s another story about Jewish communities in South Jersey.
My father’s family was also not what I would call a religious family. My father did not have a Bar Mitzvah. He was not trained in Hebrew studies or anything like that. And he had a younger brother who was also untrained in Hebrew studies. Yet for one reason or another, we were part of the Conservative movement when I went to religious school. I don’t know how precisely why.
Eastern European Reform was too Germanic, perhaps, for my family. We all were trained in Hebrew since then. My father, later on, when he was fifty-seven, had a Bar Mitzvah at the Reform congregation. He was one of the first persons, I think, in that Bar Mitzvah program, to have a Bar Mitzvah with a granddaughter. That granddaughter was to later become a Bat Mitzvah herself in another Reform congregation.
I didn’t have a great deal of influence. I wasn‘t very close to a Rabbi. I felt like I knew the Rabbis in the congregation. I liked and disliked some of them so what led me to Rabbinical studies is a little unusual. I decided to attend Brown University where as it happened, much to my surprise, there was a considerable number of an influence by the Jewish population on campus which seemed to turn out in much greater numbers than I expected, particularly when Providence, where a university is found in the city, not a large Jewish population which turned out to be a very strong one.
In my very first semester at Brown, I took a course from a non-Jewish professor in the religious study department whose name was (Indistinct). Turns out later that he became, even though he was not a prize scholar or anything where we call Judaic studies, he was partly the director of the Judaic studies program. He was very knowledgeable in the field even if he wasn’t published or particularly read in the field. But to my great surprise, there was a fellow there whose name was Jacob Neusner and he was known, for better or for worse, countrywide. He is far and beyond the most published Jewish author in America in both scholarly and in popular fields. He certainly was not a personality that drew me to Brown but he certainly was a personality that had a lot to do with my approach academically to Judaism and to Jewish studies and still has that influence in his writings, even if again, that influence happily is an intellectual, not a personal one.
That being the ease, the department of religious studies, on campus, was a very strong department with good people. In fact, I found out that among the courses outside a major, the course in religious studies was taken by more people at the university than any other department, meaning that it had a really strong department. I had originally gone there with the idea of possibly majoring in political science, possibly history and ended up majoring in religious studies. By the end of my sophomore year in college, I think I had possibly made the decision to go to rabbinical school. I had a friend who was possibly making a similar decision and other people who had made decisions who didn’t get in. But I made that decision based on a number of factors but mainly it provided the kind of challenge and the kind of midst that I felt comfortable with.
I graduated in 1974 and wrote an honors dissertation that won a prize in religious studies. The topic happened to be “Jewish Groups in the Testament”. Nevertheless, this interested me and I went onto rabbinical school from there. I entered Rabbinical School with the intention of becoming a scholar in the field of Jewish studies and of going through the process of learning and being a rabbi, perhaps making that part of the ability to be able to earn money in case other things didn’t work out. I specifically remember during my rabbinical school interview being asked what would I do if I wasn’t chosen as a rabbi. I said I’d go into my father’s business. I really didn’t have any plans and I felt fairly confident that I would get in given my academic credentials and the people who were recommending me.
The course of study was a good one but one that I needed to enhance considerably with outside work. I did that by taking a couple years off in the middle to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and to meet some personalities to nail down my Hebrew into the best shape possible to work with some of my ideas that I had taken away from my academic studies at Brown that were not provided at the evening college. Ultimately, I decided in the end of my last year in Rabbinical school, not to pursue a full-time academic teaching position, that is, not getting the Ph.D. in the shortest time possible but to go into the Rabbinate and to work for a shorter term. And that’s what brought me to graduate school of Hebrew Union College and also to Columbus because I decided from my New York experience that I would try to experience a different campus. There was a professor and still is a professor at the college who was a student of Neusner’s who I trusted academically and thought he would be good to work with. So I commuted, starting in 1980, between Columbus and Cincinnati. Every week I would leave Cincinnati on Thursday afternoon and had this part-time job in Columbus with a congregation that numbered between 40-50 families. When I got here, it was a part-time job. I would leave Sunday evening and return to Cincinnati. I lived in an apartment here and a dormitory there.
The community was a different community when I began here. First of all, it was much smaller than the Cincinnati community which I never really got to see. But I was impressed with the institutions that had been established here in such a small city. There was a Jewish Center and there were plans for a new one at that time. Although there was not a community Mohel, there had been one and later there would be one again. There was a kosher food market. There were most of the institutions that the larger cities had Jewishly. I didn’t get to know the population that much because the congregation had been kind of a maverick congregation until many of the more proper Jews in the community (except for a few) were not associated with the congregation and I had enough to do in the three plus day weekend that I had here, to administer to the needs of the congregation which included religious school and a soon-to-be Hebrew program, life cycle activities, and so on.
My knowledge of the community was not very thorough. I had certainly been in all the institutions but never actually stepped foot in the old Beth Tikvah that’s been there forever. Except for that, all the other institutions are pretty much as they were except, as I said, the Jewish Community Center built a new building. Since then, the Jewish Family Services has moved to its own building. The JFS, which used to be in the Federation building, has moved twice so things have been happening.
This congregation is housed in a church building at 3100 East Broad Street. Frankly, except for a short stint for four months as a student Rabbi – my other student Rabbi congregations and my time as a Rabbi of a congregation have all been spent in a church – I’ve never been appointed as a Rabbi in a building that was built as a synagogue. Therefore, I’ve been involved in putting together and sharing a part of a synagogue every single week of my rabbinical career for the past thirteen years. Plus, if you multiply that by fifty-two, you get something in the area of 650 services for Friday nights; if you count Saturday and holidays, probably a lot more than that.
Of the active Rabbi’s, I’ve been here the third longest. Rabbi Stavsky’s been here many years. Rabbi Berman has been here one year longer that I, since 1979 and I’ve been here since 1980. My predecessor was Marc Raphael who set the tone for this congregation and made it a participatory congregation many ways. He wrote creative services and in a sense, told the congregation that we’re going to have creative and different kinds of experiences in this group. If you want me as a Rabbi, these are the conditions and people who came from other kinds of experiences knew the tone was set by Marc Raphael and they followed in his lead so that he was an important influence at the beginning of the congregation and I would have to say his influence is still felt because of having set the tone and created the expectations for the congregation.
Linda Schottenstein, who was leading services at the time, on a part-time basis, continued to lead them but also eventually we worked so that she would be the regular person to sing on a weekly basis. We’ve been working together for thirteen years except for one year that she took off for personal reasons. Our congregation has now grown over these years to a membership of about 220 plus, 90% are dues paying members and there are some complimentary members. So it’s over 200 dues paying members in the congregation. We developed a Hebrew program since then. Our Hebrew program is unique, different from the community schools which also have changed since I was here, from a community program into another kind of program. It used to be almost completely independent of the Federation and now it’s a beneficiary wing of the Federation. We decided that given the experience of a lot of people that a two day a week, two hours per session Hebrew program produced very meager results in 95% of the kids we tried to teach. So we tried something else. We would deliver the same amount of education in smaller classes for one day a week for one hour. I think we’ve been fairly successful in doing that. Not to say there hasn’t been some trade-offs. There have, but with strong teachers and smaller classes, we have been able to deliver almost as good an education in a less restricted atmosphere and with less pain on the parents, particularly in a working population which defines most of the women in our congregation, and men, for that matter, they couldn’t schlep the kids to and from school twice a week. Once was enough.
We have developed a youth program, a pre-school program and a bunch of other things one could put on a resume. But I guess the big development of the congregation has been that a Lang Range Planning committee that was started years ago and who made it their first mission to be able to hire a full-time Rabbi and be able to pay that Rabbi, has made the decision to create a permanent home. And working that out over a year, it was finally decided that what we would need to define a permanent home would be a building of our own in a location which was apt to be a part of the growing population in Columbus. We, therefore, kind of built a congregation which is for ten or fifteen years from now. We decided to do that and had a find raiser for that purpose. I would say that congregation will meet in its own facility sometime in 1994 but it’s hard to say exactly when. It will serve a population to include a congregation and people who want to have a smaller and more open congregation, a democratically run congregation of people who still live on the eastside but will also serve the local population including people who don’t wish to travel as far to get to religious schools and so on in Gahanna, Blacklick, Westerville and New Albany, I would like to talk about a few people in the community that I’ve met. I want to speak first of all, about the congregation, people who have made a big difference in our congregation for me, personally. Understand that I came here as an unmarried person and the congregation was very much my family for the first four or five years of my life in Columbus. I didn’t have any relatives even near to Columbus. None that I knew of, none that visited, so I had to make most of my family here among the congregants. One of my initial contacts was the Feibels. Jim Feibel was the founding president of the congregation and that family was very much a location to people whom I can now identify. Up to the time that I got married, I went to their home for Rosh Hashanah dinner prior to the Rosh Hashanah service. That kind of identifies who your family is. And then the other family with whom I became close (this is more on a personal level and people who I spent more time with) Connie and Ed Fruendlich and their family, Dr. Lewis and Maryleone Basch (he’s now deceased). There was more of a regular everyday type of relationship with Ed who was the only other male other than my brother to be part of my wedding. Those people were very much quite central in my early years with the congregation.
The leadership of the congregation is a changing one so I’ve pretty much been a part of managing the change from president to president. Almost all were not part of the congregation when I first started here so that a lot of my work has been to hold the essence of the congregation together because there’s not a constant board or a constant group people of people to maintain the ethos of the congregation except, as I’ve said, some of the founding members who still exert a large spiritual influence on the congregation. Herb Bronstein, who was the first Vice President of the congregation and who represents it, in a sense, the conservative faction religiously. I’ve sought their counsel when it comes to keeping a balance between ideologies and so on. I think what the congregation has liked the most and what the leadership has allowed me to do, have been to experiment, try something one year and even if it were successful, try something different the next year. I have an expression, “If it worked last year, try something else next year.” Try to do new things and think of new ways of expressing yourself. They have been very good at that. We continually change our songs although we found there’s a need both for us and for the congregation to continue to build our program and change our program. Almost no one says, “Well, we had it last year so we need to have it this year.” Virtually everyone is satisfied saying we had it last year and we have To make a decision. “Do we want to have it this year?” An example of that would be that we have had an extremely powerful and fun Purim program for a number of years. Last year, I decided we would do something else. There was some disappointment with that but I think people understand that you can’t get into a rut. There is only one person in the congregation who has ever done anything in a sense, has a hold on it, and so I think that the congregation has very much been willing and also has had my personality in saying, “I’m willing to be one of the Minyan. I’m willing to be part of the group. I don’t have to be honored or put in a special place every time I show up.” That’s been very healthy for the congregation. So there’s an ethos there that’s been real positive and important.
I’d like to talk a little bit about my colleagues. Probably the one that I have been off and on closest with has been Rabbi Berman. He did Marcie’s and my wedding in 1986. I have probably consulted with him more than anyone. If you were to ask me, “Who do you think you’re the most like in this city?” I’d have to say, I’m most like Rabbi Stavsky. Not religiously or politically but in terms of our passion and desire visa-vie people. We see our jobs very much as part of our personal lives and it isn’t “us and them” but pretty much a group of people going after the same goals in an organic type of fashion_ I’ve known Rabbi Goldman, who is here and who started an inter congregational form Sabbath which we have all the time. I got along real well with Rabbi Bob Levy who was actually in my Olpan class in Israel when I was in my first year in rabbinical school. Cindy Axelrod was there but Bradley Bleefeld is there now at Temple Israel. Rory Huban and I sometimes share duties and have a cordial relationship. The guy I really miss is our community Mohel, Moishe Herszage, Ava Shalom. He treated Rabbis with a very high degree of respect and was extremely easy to work with. He had no airs. We had a really fine relationship. He was a real asset to the community.
Another thing I miss, unfortunately, is the small kosher market that was set up that Irv Szames ran. That is now Leah’s Bakery. Had I had my druthers, Martins would have closed down and we would have had the small kosher market, maybe also the kosher bakery. I thought that the community could sustain one good kosher market in a small situation and that would have strong community support. It may have served the community well.
There’s another fellow with whom I’ve gotten along real well and that’s Cantor Chomsky. He and I both have more or less the same social agenda even if we’re both given the social action. I’ll get back to that in terms of our congregation in a minute. He’s very much involved with issues of Social action and helps his congregation out in that area and that’s been an important part of Temple Beth Shalom, the social agenda. We have made that part…if you’re going to compartmentalize it…in our congregation, our social action and our religious committee is under the same general heading. It’s a religious practice.
I think we are lucky to have the Melton Center for Jewish Studies here in Columbus; however, my feeling is that groups could outreach much better to the general Jewish community, that they could be sending lists of their people to the congregation saying, “So and so is available to lecture at your congregation” and this is the minor, they could do better for the community, much better than just publishing the schedule. Hillel has been kind of a poor sister and I think also needs to be integrated a little better in the community although they’re building a new building. They must be integrated somehow. They’re raising millions of dollars for this thing. Someone is integrated. I don’t know who it is. Maybe it’s some of the people who spend time at Hiller House. Some institutions have come and gone since I’ve been here. When I was here, there was a group called Beth Am which was a Reconstructionist group that was meeting for a while then kind of went away. Then there was a group of people who were involved in support for Israel outside of the Bonds organization and outside of the more upper level apex types of things it was kind of a support group for Israel, here, which has come and gone. There have been other community wide programs involved in social actions and social problems, like drug and alcohol and things like that which have a community basis and have kind or withered inter-personal counseling and special kinds of counseling programs. They’ve had higher and lower profiles. We’ve also tried Black-Jewish relations which have come and gone.
Other institutions which have grown have been the Holocaust Memorial Services both in City Council and in the State House. That seem to have taken off a little better and The Community Relations council organized it nicely under Sam Horwitz. He’s really been doing a nice job with the Jewish-Christian community and some issues having to do with Israel and we’re only hoping that a project we’re working on now will have a Habitat for Humanity which is connected with a larger Christian organization known mainly through the outward faith of Rosalyn and Jimmy Carter, who are involved in that project: This will become a wider community program. It’s a good place where the Christian and Jewish community can get together and do something useful. It’s also time bound.
A little bit about the future I guess is a good thing to do. Demographically, the community has been moving. It’s a strong community; it’s a very rich community per capita. No one thinks they have enough money but this is a really rich community per capita and a community that spends its money in Jewish areas. It used to be, with fewer and lesser institutions, without a very strong symphony, without a full-time ballet company, an opera and other kinds of programs many Jews who would otherwise give their money to these large community institutions have been giving their money to Jewish institutions and has kept both the secular part of our community and the religious part in very strong shape. We have a Chabad House that has two separate buildings, a Chabad Torah Center and something on campus. For a community this small, that’s incredible. We have Aishe Ha Torah here which is a very expensive program to run. We have a community Torah Academy here which is a very expensive program to run particularly with the number of Russian immigrants we’ve had over the past several years. So we’ve been able to support these many institutions by the considerable generosity of people who contribute to a lot of other things but also turn their dollars into the community. I am hoping that will continue and will bode well for the future of the Jewish community here in Columbus as long as the economy holds up.
The Center’s shifting. We’re as we have now, a quadrant on the northwest side which is almost a community within itself From the self-conscious stand point, there’s an idea that there’s a kind of line running through southern Arlington on Lane Avenue, kind of cutting an arc in that there’s a community in the northwest that does not frequent the eastside community that often. Now the community is looking to create some kind of a coalition between Beth Tikvah and the Jewish Community Center. I think to somehow combine resources.
The next community that is growing is on the northeast side. From a psychological standpoint, there is not the same kind of gap, the line that is drawn between Bexley and Eastmoor and Upper Arlington and Worthington. There are historic reasons for this. People who live in Upper Arlington have never lived in Bexley. Those who live in Gahanna and New Albany, may have had origins in Eastmoor or Bexley. They have had origins for the eastside community and may commute. These people will have first generation family from Gahanna, Westerville and will not have the same origins and relationships as the earlier residents. They will need a separate node of Jewish identity. Beth Tikvah may provide this for the Northwest community. Beth Shalom should provide it for the Northeast. At least this is what we project in the first five or ten years, succeeding the establishment of our plant there. That will further enhance the movement of Jewish people to that area. People with children who want to send them to religious school will more likely feel comfortable settling in Gahanna than otherwise. We are looking forward to create and not only be a center for Jewish community, but to be a spoke in the wheel that emanate from the Jewish Center on College Avenue. The Center will continue to lose members. It may hold its membership steady. At a certain point, it will lose members or it has to contract in some way because there won’t be enough Jews in the area to support it as it has become accustomed. The Gallery Players are leaving this year. So it is a symptom, not that anything is wrong with the Gallery Players or live theater. We have more live theater in Columbus than less but it requires a tremendous amount of extra community support which is not found in the arts of the Jewish community.
As these institutions move out, the community becomes decentralized. We are going to have to be like a very good university that has a main campus and satellite campuses which provide important services to the main campuses. Jewishly, I think we need much more variety here. We need much more experimentation. We are a very conservative community, Jewishly. We’ve got experimental worship here and mystical worship there. We need to have social groups here other than around synagogues. Winding Hollow Country Club, prayerfully, will stand on its own weight. But I doubt it, as a long term proposition for the Jewish community. We’re going to need decentralized Jewish groups in order to maintain the Jewish community, Chavarah style or some other style. The last issue of demography has to do with inter-marriage. That’s a daunting challenge – to turn a phrase.
Interviewer: Thank you Rabbi Apothaker, for sharing your personal life experiences with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society