This is Nancy Pawliger and I am conducting an interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society which is being recorded on May 13, 2009 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project and it is also for inclusion in the Archives Collection of Congregation Beth Tikvah. The interviewing is being recorded at my home, 4770 Stonehaven Drive in Columbus, Ohio. As I mentioned before my name is Nancy Pawliger and I am interviewing Carol Folkerth. Carol, what is your full name?
Folkerth: My full name is Carol Amzie Folkerth.
Interviewer: How interesting. What, does Amzie have a special meaning?
Folkerth: It was my grandmother’s sister’s name.
Interviewer: How interesting.
Folkerth: She was named after a very famous actress.
Interviewer: Oh. And how do you spell Amzie?
Interviewer: Okay. And when and where were you born?
Folkerth: I was born in Nashville, Tennessee on June 4, 1948.
Interviewer: And do you have a Hebrew name?
Interviewer: How pretty. And were you named for somebody special?
Folkerth: Huh uh.
Interviewer: They liked the name I guess. Okay. And what was your father’s full name?
Folkerth: My father’s full name was Marvin Fish.
Interviewer: And you spell Fish?
Folkerth: F-I-S-H. I think it had a C when they came through Ellis Island but they took the C off.
Interviewer: Okay. So it’s easier to spell then. And where was he born?
Folkerth: He was born in New York City.
Interviewer: And what was your mother’s maiden name?
Folkerth: My mother’s maiden name was Northcutt.
Interviewer: And how do we spell that?
Interviewer: Okay and was she born in this country?
Interviewer: Okay. And then your grandparents or great grandparents, were they born here as well or did they come from another country?
Folkerth: Well my dad’s were from Galicia and my mom’s were born in this country.
Interviewer: And when did your father’s parents come to this country?
Folkerth: They came, my grandmother came in approximately 1911 or 12 and his dad had I think had come maybe a year or two before then, certainly before the first world war.
Interviewer: And where and when were your parents married?
Folkerth: Hmmm. They were . . . .
Interviewer: Well it was in this country?
Folkerth: It was in this country.
Interviewer: This country, okay.
Folkerth: My dad was in the Army. I think they were married in ’43. I was born in ’48.
Interviewer: Okay. And where did your family live when you were growing up?
Interviewer: In Columbus? And what brought them to Columbus?
Folkerth: My dad was doing a medical internship at Ohio State.
Interviewer: And did he eventually become a physician?
Interviewer: And what field of practice was . . . .
Interviewer: And affiliated with Ohio State at that time?
Folkerth: Um hmm, and then when the old White Cross Hospital I think was established, he became part of that system and that became Riverside.
Interviewer: Oh, okay, okay. That’s interesting. Now do you have any siblings?
Folkerth: I do not.
Interviewer: Oh so you were the special one and only?
Interviewer: And where did you attend elementary school and high school? Was it here in Columbus then, right?
Folkerth: Yes, University School, at Ohio State.
Interviewer: At University School, that was a school within the University?
Folkerth: Our teachers mainly were professors from Ohio State in the Department of Education. And then we had student teachers that observed and interacted with us on projects and stuff.
Interviewer: Oh how interesting. Does that exist today?
Folkerth: No, it’s gone. I graduated in ’68, I mean ’66, and it folded in ’67. Ohio State just couldn’t afford it any more. The only one I still know left in Ohio is Kent State University.
Interviewer: Now was it elementary school as well as high school?
Folkerth: Um hmm, all the way through.
Interviewer: What was the population? What was the size of your class?
Folkerth: There were 25 kids in each class.
Interviewer: Oh my goodness. Now do you keep in touch with any of them?
Folkerth: I do.
Interviewer: How interesting. What a wonderful network to have here.
Folkerth: Yeah it was very special.
Interviewer: Now then did you go on to college and/or graduate school?
Folkerth: I did. I went two years at the College of Wooster and then I finished at Ohio State undergrad and then I went for a Master’s at Ohio State.
Interviewer: In what field and what department?
Folkerth: Jewish History.
Interviewer: So you knew that that was going to be your focus. Now what got you interested in that area?
Folkerth: Honestly, it was kind of “beshert.” I was doing a major in Sociology. I was, as a senior, closed out of a Sociology class so at that point they didn’t have anything available. You had to go to the Registrar’s Office . . .
Folkerth: And I’m looking through all the things, you know, what can I possibly take that would fulfill the credits?
Interviewer: Sure, sure.
Folkerth: And it was American Jewish History with (Professor) Mark Raphael. And it changed my life.
Interviewer: And had you been religious in your family before that? Had Judaism played a part, I mean did you observe the holidays?
Folkerth: Not really.
Interviewer: And you weren’t a member of a Temple I would imagine then?
Folkerth: My dad wrote his check to Israel and we went and bought corned beef at the old Martin’s but that was about it. (Both laugh) So I really,
I loved the class and then finished my undergraduate degree in Sociology and then went on. Actually I started briefly with a Master’s in Soc and then changed and went and finished in Jewish History.
Interviewer: And did you have an idea of what you were going to be doing then when you graduated?
Folkerth: No idea. I worked for a while at the Melton Center for Jewish Studies when they were just getting started, in their early years. And then a friend of mine reached out to me to work at the JCC and I said, “No, no, no, no, no” for like two-three years. And then finally he said, “You know, you’ve got to get out of the ivory tower. You’ve got to get into the real world.” If you want to call the JCC the “real world,” you can decide. But last week, no, well yeah, about a week ago, I finished 25 years.
Interviewer: Oh my goodness. That’s really impressive.
Interviewer: You’ve seen a lot of changes there. So when you came, what was your first job when you came there?
Folkerth: When I first came to the JCC my job was Adult Programmer. So I did things like Bridge and how to write a Resume. And then they said, “We brought you to make the Jewish Center Jewish.” And I got involved in Jewish educational programs for adults.
Interviewer: Did you know about it or did you learn as you…
Folkerth: Oh I learned it.
Interviewer: On the job.
Folkerth: A university education is just pure what you’re interested in. It didn’t prepare me, at least in that field, unless you were going on to get a PhD and do research, you know, in what you’re interested in the field. . And it’s ended up being a really good career, Nancy, and in each stage I was challenged and able to feel like I was making a contribution and I then became the Program Director and then for, gosh, about 15 years I was the Assistant Executive Director, and now the Executive Director for more than three years now.
Interviewer: Is it three years?
Folkerth: Um hmm, so it’s been good, it’s been good.
Interviewer: Well you certainly had a lot of on-the-job training and could see the changes and so what are the challenges today for you in your job as the Director?
Folkerth: Well, I mean, first it’s such a bad economy. The first thing is to keep the JCC financially stable and able to do, fulfill our mission. And I think in addition to keep its relevancy in the Jewish community. I think one of the things . I’ve always liked about Center work is, as a historian, I think what fascinated me so much about Jewish History was the way it connected me to being part of the Jewish people. And I think as a historian you see that so directly. And at the JCC where it’s kind of a big tent, everybody can come and feel comfortable hopefully, that you get more of a sense of the Jewish people…
Interviewer: In today’s world?
Folkerth: In today’s world. I think there’s a religious aspect to it but it’s a lot of focus on culture and peoplehood and connections that kind of transcend, I believe, religious belief. I see that as a very positive thing. Not that there isn’t a role for .religion and religious belief but I think that in the future that connection is going to be pretty important. I think it’s important now and I think in the future it’s going to be even more important.
Interviewer: And also to reach out to different populations.
Interviewer: In new ways…
Folkerth: Yeah I think, it’s interesting and stimulating. You know, I mean you’ve kind of got the Jewish world there and some of the battles are fought out in Center work and Center life just as they are in the larger stage of the Jewish community.
Interviewer: Um hmm. Are there any particular memories that stand out to you about your times there?
Folkerth: Oh goodness. Well you talked about on-the-job learning. When was Israel 40? That would have been in ’88?
Interviewer: I think so.
Folkerth: 1988. So I was in charge working with a committee to plan the “Israel 40” celebration and it was to be a big deal. We had the Symphony and our Director was conducting the Symphony. And we are about less than a month, maybe two weeks from a very major celebration when a couple of the Rabbis called our Director at that time and said, “You can’t do that on that day because of the “Omer.” So he came into my office, “You can’t do that on that day because of the “Omer.” And I said, “and what would that be?” Here I’d been working with a committee, nobody told me. With all this staff, nobody knew. So, you know, you talk about on the job . . .
Interviewer: Right, right, what a challenge?
Folkerth: You have to make it work and we did. And to the Rabbis’ credit, they did too but.
Interviewer: What was the outcome for people who don’t know?
Folkerth: Well it was a bit of a compromise where we had certain programs on that day and moved certain programs to another day. It was close enough to I think it was “Lag Ba’Omer” and we were able to do it then.
Interviewer: Diplomacy, right?
Folkerth: Diplomacy, politics, whatever, all those things. I think probably the most, the things that stand out most to me in working at the Center are the people that I’ve gotten to know, Florence Melton for one, that I felt very close to and worked very closely with in establishing the Adult Mini School here at the Center which was the first site outside the pilot years.
Interviewer: And is now national and maybe even international.
Folkerth: It is, it’s international. Columbus takes for granted Florence Melton and all the major philanthropists in this town that are world-renowned and we have them right here in little Columbus. And I think for 22,000 Jews we have things, are blessed to have things that most people couldn’t dream of having.
Interviewer: Right and even though if those philanthropists do give internationally, they never forget where their essential site where they began was, yeah.
Folkerth: And for people to see a little bit of how they look at the world and it’s just, you kind of feel like you’re living history I think in a very unique way.
Interviewer: Well to get back to you personally, I know that you’re married. How did you and Jeff meet?
Folkerth: How did we meet? Well between my freshman and sophomore year of college I was working in a bank downtown as a teller for a summer job and Jeff was working for his dad’s law firm and his dad’s firm was the firm for the bank and so they had business there and so several times a week he had to bring over papers or I don’t know what he would bring over to tell you the truth. And he kind of, most of the other tellers were probably my parents and my grandparents age. So as a young man, he figured out well if I go to this window, I might get special treatment.
Interviewer: I’m sure he did.
Folkerth: Yes, that’s how we met.
Interviewer: And when were you married?
Folkerth: We were married in ’68 and young.
Interviewer: Yeah. How old were you then?
Folkerth: I was 20 and then had my daughter at 21 which today seems so weird. And so I think in a lot of ways both family, Jeff, his family, Laura, the JCC, my time at the Melton Center, JCC, it just all comes as part of my growing up in an interesting way that I think people today, they don’t marry until they have careers, it’s just different.
Interviewer: Um hmm, yours is a composite of all those things?
Folkerth: Because yeah those things kind of go together when you think about growing up. It’s an interesting way.
Interviewer: And Laura, now, talk about her.
Folkerth: Laura will be 40 tomorrow.
Interviewer: Oh how exciting, congratulations to her mom.
Folkerth: Thank you, thank you. Great kid, has Alex who is 17, a junior at Arlington High School, who could believe that.
Interviewer: And is Laura working?
Folkerth: Laura works. She’s an attorney.
Interviewer: Here in Columbus, right? So they continue to be an active part of your life, right?
Folkerth: Yes they do, very much so.
Interviewer: So no plans yet to retire?
Folkerth: Well Jeff, my husband, retired January 30th. But in his retirement plan I need to continue to work. I’ll be 61 this year. I’m thinking about another five years or so if everything is okay.
Interviewer: Well there’s still a lot to do in the field that you’re doing.
Folkerth: There’s always a lot to do. There’ll be a lot to do long after me.
Interviewer: How did you become involved with Beth Tikvah?
Folkerth: Well Mark Raphael who I took the first class in Jewish History from, undergrad, was the, I think part-time, Rabbi at Beth Tikvah at that time. And as I got to know him personally after class, and then interest in Jewish Studies, he invited me and some of the other members of the class to come to Beth Tikvah and so I did. And that was probably in ’71 maybe, ’72, something like that. And I just loved it. I mean it just felt like family right away and, being an only child, it just, I don’t know, Beth Tikvah has always been that family to me.
Interviewer: I think for you and for a lot of other people too. And how did Jeff feel about it?
Folkerth: He jumped right in. Jeff’s been on the Board too and directed traffic at many a High Holiday service n the old building. It’s been a wonderful affiliation for us.
Interviewer: And then how long were you involved in Beth Tikvah before you became President?
Interviewer: You were President in what, ’83?
Folkerth: In 1983-’85 I was President, so what, about 12 years. And I probably was on and chaired about every committee, Ritual, Religious School, Hospitality. I mean some of them had a little bit different names then, Breakfast and Shabbat dinners and all that Social Action work.
Interviewer: You know, in a way, when I think about, it mirrors what happened at the JCC for you. You got involved on the grass roots and were involved in a lot of different departments and then became the head. And then…
Interviewer: …at Beth Tikvah it was similar to that.
Folkerth: Yeah, that’s true.
Interviewer: So you knew?
Folkerth: It was something like?
Interviewer: Yeah. So what do you remember about the time during your presidency?
Folkerth: It would be interesting to know what some other people said. Through my presidency?
Folkerth: It was somewhat of a challenging time at Beth Tikvah because as the First Vice-President I had to terminate the Rabbi and then hire, led the search to hire the Rabbi who, thank God, is still the Rabbi. So, you know, I was very green and inexperienced at doing that; had never done anything quite like that.
Interviewer: Well it would have been a difficult situation even if you had been experienced.
Folkerth: Exactly. So it was one of the biggest challenges I think I’ve ever had.
Interviewer: And as I understand, there was, there wasn’t unified opinion about the change in the Rabbi and so that must have been so stressful.
Folkerth: There was not unified opinion about the change and I worked with some great, committee people, Board people too, but our primary goal really, not only was to do the best for the Congregation and make the change, and it was painful, emotional…
Interviewer: I’m sure.
Folkerth: …because the guy was a lovely man with a lovely family, had a good heart. It wasn’t like he was doing something…
Interviewer: Unethical or something, yeah.
Folkerth: Yeah that you could say, “Okay, this is it.” It was not that at all. It was philosophical differences with the Congregation. And so it was very painful and could have divided the Congregation.
Interviewer: I’m sure.
Folkerth: And one of our primary goals in leadership through that time was to keep everybody together. We tried to keep the Congregation together and not everybody agreed and then even after the decision and after Gary was hired and everything, some people still, I’m sure had bad feelings about it. But I think that Gary’s tenure has proved that we made the right decision for that time. Change is just hard, I mean, and it was fast change. Tony Holtz came on the heels of a beloved Roger Klein and in some ways it would have been very difficult for anybody stepping into those shoes of Roger’s. He walked on water in that congregation and when he left nobody thought that he could ever be replaced. And so in comes this guy who tried to do his best and had a different philosophy and it was a disaster.
Interviewer: And yet I hear that he’s very successful now in a very large congregation.
Folkerth: He is doing well. Yeah, all in all it came out just fine, but it was…
Interviewer: Well it must have been very hard to be a leader at that time of the Congregation when you had to deal with this unrest and support, or lack of, for the new Rabbi who was then starting his rabbinate which was to be a long-tenured and a very good one.
Folkerth: Very difficult. And I’ll tell you two other things in addition to the whole philos-ophy and that whole emotional upheaval of the Congregation. I think that there were a couple other challenges; Nancy, that should be recorded for history. And one is that Beth Tikvah was a little bit of a renegade Congregation, all it’s life and we didn’t quite do things the way the big UAHC wanted us to do things. You probably heard this from Gil too. We went about letting the Rabbi go and made our own decisions in our own way and hired somebody new and we got more than a slap on the hand for that. And that was kind of early right, Gil was still President, I was the Vice-President, and we did get quite a nice little talking to about that. And it was difficult because to some extent maybe we didn’t know what we were doing and we just did it. But I think also it’s a history in the Congregation of independence.
Interviewer: I just want to say, I wanted to say, helped to form the identity of the Congregation as having a mind of its own and an approach that didn’t have to be the same as everybody else.
Folkerth: As you know we never had plaques much and we’ve always done certain things a way that was in concert with our philosophy and that to some extent, although some of it may have been a little bit of experience, but I think that it was an independent kind of move. But we all got through it and they did come in and they did eventually help us and we made nice and it worked out. But, and that was tough too because at the time we’re going though this with our people in the Congregation, your national organization is important.
Folkerth: So it was tough. The other piece is that at that time, 25 years ago, a young woman was…I don’t want to say not respected, but I think had to earn respect in a way that a man in that role would not have had to. And there had been one other female President, Barbara Creinin, who was a little bit older but at least we had had one. But even in Columbus, it was a very unusual thing and in the United States it was even more unusual and it was a challenge.
Interviewer: What do you think gave you the strength to do well in that job because I know that you did?
Folkerth: Some of the people around me. Bob Mayer was a wonderful mentor and…
Interviewer: A wonderful man.
Folkerth: A wonderful man. And a couple people from the community that people might not associate with Beth Tikvah or with helping us, but one that helped me very much was Jim Feibel.
Folkerth: Jimmy was at that time the President of Beth Shalom, probably for the third or fifth time. I don’t know what his tenure was.
Interviewer: A generous and caring man.
Folkerth: Exactly. We would have these meetings of Presidents and I would go, and they were all men. None of them would talk to me. I’m coming from not only unaffiliation basically as a kid, but also from a part of town that nobody even wanted, well, what are they doing over there?
Folkerth: You know?
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
Folkerth: So I would attend these meetings and really Jim was the one that reached out to me. He said, “Sit with me. Here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why this is being discussed.” I mean he is and has been a total mentor for me and he didn’t have to do that. He didn’t know me. He wasn’t in my Congregation. He didn’t know my family. He knew nothing, but he was a generous man that said, “Ah here’s a young woman, nobody’s talking to her so I’m going to sit with her and have a relationship.” That made all the difference, and it was a big help to Beth Tikvah. And so there have been a few people like, even outside the Beth Tikvah family that I think have been very helpful. Rabbi Folkman was another one, at Temple Israel, and Bob Levy from Temple Israel early on. There were a lot of people that just kind of didn’t have to do it but they did. And we had a really good Board. We had, oh, I don’t think they have this now but I mean a lot of Board Meetings were fights. Sometimes they were just “knock-down-drag-out” fights about philosophy.
Interviewer: Because people felt so passionate about important philosophical opinions you mean?
Folkerth: It was not easy and I managed to get people around me, like Dawn (Heyman), people who could be kind of the voice of reason.
Interviewer: So you must have grown up a lot in that job or really defined who you were there.
Folkerth: Absolutely, it was the biggest growth experience that I think I had, without a doubt doing that.
Interviewer: And now when you look back?
Folkerth: I don’t know how I did it. (Both laugh)
Interviewer: And then you had your family then also as your responsibility, your job as well.
Folkerth: Yes. I started working at the Center in ’83-’84 so it was about the time…
Interviewer: It was in the middle of. So you’re someone who takes on challenges?
Folkerth: I guess.
Folkerth: Sometimes I think you just do. People ask me to do and you say, “Oh, well okay.” I don’t know.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to say about Beth Tikvah?
Folkerth: I think Beth Tikvah, the strengths of Beth Tikvah are what is going to keep it strong and I think that, probably going through a little rough patch here but I think their openness and acceptance of people is really ultimately the strength that will keep them vibrant and a wonderful place.
Interviewer: Yeah I think that’s always been a hallmark of the Congregation. People say that they come and they visit and that’s the place. I know it was even for us too when we came here, the most welcoming of any Congregation.
Folkerth: And I don’t know if on any one Friday night they’re the most welcoming. But I think in terms of acceptance of lifestyle, of background, of people’s journeys in Judaism. That’s what has kept me there and I think that, I think that’s kind of special. And the Reform movement does that well but I think Beth Tikvah has always done that especially well.
Interviewer: You would hope though that people would feel that those doors were open for them to have alternative opinions and still be accepted.
Interviewer: That’s true in any place…
Interviewer: …in any congregation. I was wondering if you’ve been active, I don’t know when you would have had time to, in any other part of the Columbus community? It’s basically been the Jewish community, hasn’t it?
Folkerth: Well any part of the other Columbus community? I did serve on a couple United Way committees in Education, involved as a volunteer at Riverside Hospital for a while, but most of it has been in the Jewish community, the early Kol Ami Hebrew School and things like that, the Historical Society a little bit.
Interviewer: And through the Jewish Center interacting with other organizations…
Folkerth: Yes, yes.
Interviewer: …throughout the community?
Interviewer: Do you have any hobbies?
Folkerth: (Laughs) I have no time.
Interviewer: No time to do those? (Laughs)
Folkerth: Yes my hobbies are my poodles.
Interviewer: Your poodles?
Folkerth: I have three poodles (Coco, Maya and Katie). They’re my babies. I got them through Poodle Rescue and they have given me a wonderful, different look at life and perspective on life and they keep me sane.
Interviewer: Are they toys or what kind.
Folkerth: One miniature and two toys.
Interviewer: And I wondered about your early life and the values in your family and are there any of those experiences from when you were young and values that you live by today or that you’ve developed for yourself.
Folkerth: I think a lot of them. I think that, the fact is, sometimes it’s a little surprise to me that my parents actually sent me to University School, but it shouldn’t be.
Interviewer: You mean it surprised you…
Interviewer: That they did?
Folkerth: Yeah, well thinking back, it was such a, you know, kind of a liberal, out-of-the-box place (Laughs). And it’s sort of just the fact that they did that gives me a perspective on them that maybe I didn’t have because they passed away when I was in my late 20s, both of them…
Folkerth: So I really didn’t know them as a…
Interviewer: As an adult?
Folkerth: I was in my 20’s. But I think that that school was totally dedicated to diversity, and I had friends of all races and religions and beliefs and everything. By design University School recruited people from different walks of life and, I mean, I think that’s what shaped me.
Interviewer: And what helped you get through some of the tough times that you talked about?
Folkerth: Well, I mean, of course Jeff.
Interviewer: Oh he’s the calm one and you’re the, okay.
Folkerth: A feeling that I want to make a difference and do good.
Folkerth: Even if I failed or made a mistake, did this or did that, ultimately feeling like these were good causes, whether Beth Tikvah or the Jewish Community, whatever. It was important work. And that kind of gets you through it.
Interviewer: And if you were going to give a message about life and love to your children, your grandson and generations to come, what would that be?
Folkerth: (Laughs) Well part of it would be to be open to what might come your way because what came my way was really Jewish History and involvement in the Jewish community where I had had none. And I think to just kind of be open to that. There’s a saying that if you have the chance to either sit it out or dance, that you should dance.
Folkerth: And that’s what I would like them to know.
Interviewer: Absolutely, what a beautiful way to end this. Is there anything else that you would like to say that you think we left out?
Interviewer: It’s been so much fun being here with you. And I want to say on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and Congregation Beth Tikvah, I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project and helping us to get to know you better. Thank you, Carol.
Folkerth: Thank you very much, my pleasure.
* * *
Transcribed by Honey Abramson
Corrected by Carol Folkerth
Proofread by Marvin Bonowitz
Edited by Rose Luttinger