This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on May 13, 2009 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project and for inclusion in the Archives Collection of Congregation Beth Tikvah. The interview is being recorded at my home, 4770 Stonehaven Drive in Columbus, Ohio and my name is Nancy Pawliger and I am interviewing my friend, Gil Nestel. What is your full name Gil?
Nestel: My full name is Gilbert Nestel.
Interviewer: And when and where were you born?
Nestel: Born in the Bronx, New York on November 28, 1931.
Interviewer: A special day ’cause you came into the world then. What is your Hebrew name?
Nestel: To my knowledge, it’s Gedalia.
Interviewer: Okay and were you named for someone?
Nestel: I think I was and I’m not certain about this but I think it was the paternal, my paternal grandfather.
Interviewer: All right. And what was your father’s full name?
Nestel: Hyman Nestel.
Interviewer: And where was he born?
Nestel: In New Haven, Connecticut.
Interviewer: And your mother, what was her maiden name?
Nestel: Kate Rosner, R-O-S-N-E-R.
Interviewer: And where was she born?
Nestel: She was born in Austria.
Interviewer: And her parents or your grandparents, or great-grandparents, what was their country of origin?
Nestel: I’m not sure about either one. I’m assuming her parents were born outside the United States and my father’s father was deceased when I was born and I never met my father’s mother so I don’t know the answer to that.
Interviewer: Okay. So who were the first people to come to this country and when did they come?
Nestel: Ah, probably, come to this country?
Nestel: Well I would assume they would, I can’t go back beyond my mother’s parents. I’m not sure of the date on that.
Interviewer: Okay. Do you know if they were young people or if they were adults at the time?
Nestel: My mother came over after World War I. And her father came over about that time. So it must have been in the mid-1910s, -12s, 14s…
Interviewer: And your dad, your father’s family?
Nestel: My father was here all the time in the United States so, and I don’t know anything about his parents.
Interviewer: Okay. How did your parents meet and then when were they married? Do you know?
Nestel: They were married in New York City and I think they met at a dance.
Interviewer: And when you were growing up where did you live?
Nestel: In the Bronx.
Interviewer: In the Bronx?
Nestel: In the Bronx.
Interviewer: So you were born there and then you spent your early years growing up there?
Nestel: All of my early years.
Interviewer: Okay. And how did your parents earn their living? I assume that your father was working.
Nestel: My mother worked early on when she came to the United States as a seamstress.
My father spent most of his time working in a grocery, owning a grocery store. In the Bronx.
Interviewer: And that must have meant that you ran through a lot of vegetables.
Nestel: I learned how to do everything.
Interviewer: (Laughs) And what about your siblings? I know you have a sister.
Nestel: One sister.
Interviewer: Was she younger or older than you?
Nestel: Younger by about seven years. So she was born on January 6, I’m guessing 1937 or 1938.
Interviewer: And where does she live now?
Nestel: Now, she’s living part of the time in New York and part of the time in Massachusetts, but spends most of her life in Massachusetts.
Interviewer: And you keep in touch with her?
Nestel: All the time, all the time.
Interviewer: Yeah? Where did you attend elementary school and high school?
Nestel: New York City.
Interviewer: In the Bronx?
Nestel: In the Bronx, New York. High school was Theodore Roosevelt High School which is off Fordham Road.
Interviewer: Okay. And you attended college or graduate school?
Nestel: I attended City College as an undergraduate with a degree in Business, Downtown City College. And after the military, I went to University of Michigan where I received an M.S. and did everything but write my dissertation in Economics.
Interviewer: So what year did you graduate City College, well approximately?
Nestel: Well if I’m 31, and 17, say 21.
Interviewer: And from there you went to the military?
Nestel: Then I went to the military.
Interviewer: What branch of the military?
Nestel: The Army, was stationed in Alaska. Interestingly enough, in Ordinance, and my job was to order supplies, food supplies for the Officers’ Club in Anchorage, Alaska, for about 18 months.
Interviewer: Oh that must have been interesting. Must have gotten interesting requests? (Both laugh)
Nestel: Interesting and cold.
Interviewer: And then so how long were you in the military?
Nestel: Almost two years.
Interviewer: Two years.
Nestel: It was a two-year service and it came after I graduated college.
Interviewer: And then you went to graduate school?
Nestel: And then…
Interviewer: And then did you know your wife Judith at that time?
Nestel: No. We met at the University of Michigan. She had transferred in her junior year from City College. And it turned out that I was renting an apartment and the young man who was my roommate was going to a dance and Judith was at that dance. And he found out that she was a City College student and suggested that I call her, and so I did.
Interviewer: Natural connection.
Nestel: And so I did.
Interviewer: And when did you get married?
Nestel: August 15, 1959. Going on 50.
Interviewer: And what was your wife’s former name?
Nestel: Judith Goldberg, G-O-L-D-B-E-R-G.
Interviewer: Okay. And she was a student then at the time?
Nestel: She was an undergraduate and I was a graduate student and the story goes, good friends of mine would not date undergraduates. (Both laugh) You heard that story. I said, “An undergraduate degree will become a graduate if you stick around long enough.”
Interviewer: And did she pursue an occupation?
Nestel: Well she had a master’s degree in Art, Art Design I guess is better. And then did some design work and raised a family. But never worked full time.
Interviewer: Well talking about your family, would you tell us about your children?
Nestel: Well I have two (lovelies), a daughter and a son. The son was born in 1966, January 5, and my daughter was born April 31, 1968, the son in 1966, daughter in 1968.
Interviewer: And where do they live?
Nestel: Son lives in Bethesda and my daughter lives in Reston, Virginia. Bethesda, Maryland, Reston, Virginia.
Interviewer: So near each other?
Nestel: Near each other, see each other reasonably often. Both have children.
Interviewer: Yes, tell us about their children, your grandchildren.
Nestel: My son has two, Emily and Julia. Julia now should be about 10. Julia is 8 and Emily is about 10. Naomi just recently, in the last three months, gave birth to a grandson, Jackson.
Interviewer: And what do your children do when they’re not active being parents?
Nestel: Well (laughing) they’re looking for work.
Interviewer: Well in the time that they did have jobs, what were they doing?
Nestel: Well Daniel was, he had an undergraduate degree from Brandeis and then he came back to Ohio State and received a Law degree and a Master’s Degree in Sports, something related to sports, then worked for the NCA, but most recently he’s been a lobbyist in a variety, with a variety of firms. Naomi went to the University of Wisconsin, got an undergraduate degree and is currently working for Freddie Mac as an outreach person coordinator.
Interviewer: It’s nice that you see them often. And what about you in terms of work? Are you still working or are you retired?
Nestel: No I retired in 2001 and arrived at Ohio State in 1965 so I spent 36 years at Ohio State and this past what, 2001, so eight years have gone by.
Interviewer: Well when you came to Ohio State, what position did you fill?
Nestel: Well at that time I was, the Bureau of Business Research, which was over at Hagerty Hall, needed somebody with some background in statistics to do a Columbus area research group, a study to figure out what goods and services are. currently being produced and to forecast what the Columbus area would look like in the future. And I joined a group of three or four other staff people who, most of whom were faculty in the Business School. When that ended I moved over to the Economics Department and spent three or four years there and when that ended, joined with a faculty member in the Economics Department to do a series of longitudinal studies of labor market, behaviors of four age(dart?) groups, each gender separate, young women, young men, women. And that was the first such study done in the United States on a continuous basis. And that went on for, I don’t know, 10-15 years. And then at the end of that there was an opening over at the College of Public Health or School of Public Health for a health economist and even though I wasn’t one, I was able to get that position and spent the remainder teaching and doing work in the area of health economics.
Interviewer: Working through a resource and reinventing positions for yourself?
Nestel: Well those were the glory days, the golden age of higher education. The jobs were reasonably plentiful and opportunities were pretty good.
Interviewer: And so you’ve been in Columbus for quite some time and seen a lot of changes here?
Nestel: Yep. When we came the only high-rise was the Leveque Tower. That gives you an idea of how long we’ve been here.
Interviewer: How did you feel about when you made the decision to come to Columbus and all in all do you think that was a good decision to make?
Nestel: Yeah for me it was a good one, for Judith, less good. The problem is, if you come from Ann Arbor and you come to Columbus, there’s quite a different lifestyle. Ann Arbor, you get to know people and you can impact in the community. You can join activities, you get to be known a little bit. Here it’s much larger. Ann Arbor at that time was probably 50-60,000 people. Columbus has always been in the hundreds of thousands. So it’s was a different…Judith was involved in a dance company so it was somewhat of a shock for her. For me it was a job.
Interviewer: Typical with so many families.
Nestel: Yeah and it pays the bills and the opportunities were very good.
Interviewer: How did you get involved with Congregation Beth Tikvah? Was that the first temple that you joined when you came here?
Nestel: Yeah, yes.
Interviewer: So what year was that?
Nestel: Well I’m trying to remember. Danny was eight so, and he’s now 42 so it was 34 years ago. So if we’re in 2009, it’s 34, so it must be about ’75…
Interviewer: You’ve seen a lot of changes since then?
Nestel: The reason we got involved was the education, Daniel’s religious education. And at that time the Congregation probably had 80 families.
Interviewer: Eighty families?
Nestel: Eighty families and was located in Indianola, on Indianola.
Interviewer: Was that the first site for the Temple?
Nestel: That was not the first site but it was the site where, prior to the move, where the Congregation spent a good part of its time. I don’t remember (the first site), You’ll have to ask Manny Luttinger. But it was small and people got to know each other and it was a little more, quite different than what is is now. You can’t expect a Congregation of 550 to look like a Congregation of 80.
Interviewer: Oh absolutely, and the relationships too. So how many years were you a member before you became President of the Congregation?
Nestel: Well I was President between ’80 and ’82, or ’81 and ’83, one of those. Eighty-one and ’83 I was President. So, and it started really with Don Simon, though he may not remember. He called me up one evening and said, “Would you like to be Treasurer?” Those were the days with no computers and we would enter everything by pencil.
Nestel: And then once you’re on the Board, you sort of have a life of its own unless you decide that you no longer want that life. So from the time I became Treasurer I probably went through, I don’t know, four years, right after Bob Mayer and it was Carol Folkerth So I sat in between, Bob was President when we moved and I came soon after.
Interviewer: Yes he was President from ’79 to ’81.
Nestel: And I was ’81 to. 83
Interviewer: Eighty-one to ’83. And Carol followed you?
Nestel: Eighty-three to ’85. So we sat, I was Vice-President when Bob was President. That was the time when Roger Kline decided he no longer…he really wanted to move out, wanted to move on to other things.
Interviewer: And Roger Kline was?
Nestel: The Rabbi at that point. There had been a number of Rabbis prior. Marc Raphael was also, down at William and Mary,.was also one of our congregational Rabbis. But Rabbi Klein, he was in a Ph.D. program in Philosophy at the University of Chicago and he was finishing a dissertation while servicing and servicing very well
And then when he left, we had to go find a replacement. And it was during that period of time that I was President, during that replacement.
Interviewer: So was that a challenge to take care of that.
Nestel: Oh it was a tremendous challenge, it was a tremendous challenge because, Carol Folkerth came after we found that our replacement was unacceptable and we had to find another replacement.
Interviewer: Oh during her tenure?
Nestel: At the onset of her tenure. And that’s when Rabbi Huber came. So in between Rabbi Klein and Rabbi Huber was Rabbi Holtz.
Interviewer: And how do you spell his name?
Nestel: Probably H-O-L-T-Z.
Interviewer: Oh Holtz.
Nestel: Yeah, Anthony, we used to call him “Tony,” had a lovely wife and two (three) lovely daughters. He was a Ph.D. from South Africa. How we hired him still is a mystery to me because around the table we had more faculty members. And we never asked him beliefs, you know, like asking, like interviewing a Rabbi you ask him if you believe.
Interviewer: You just take it for granted that…
Nestel: I mean we never really probed hard enough and maybe we shouldn’t have but nonetheless we didn’t. And then he arrived and he was probably the most apolitical in that kind of a role. You have to believe a rabbi has to know where his, where, his strengths are, where his weaknesses are, who to trust and who not to trust. And Tony Holtz, by the way, he’s now in Charleston I think in a huge congregation.
Interviewer: As a rabbi?
Nestel: As a rabbi. And he’s very successful, probably the largest congregation in the state. So it’s no reflection…it’s a reflection on our mismatch.
Interviewer: Or his development at the time?
Nestel: Oh whatever, whatever.
Nestel: So it’s turned out okay for him if you follow his life history.
Interviewer: So he came on and in other words he was selected during your Presidency?
Interviewer: And then he came on at what point in your two years?
Nestel: Almost at the beginning.
Interviewer: At the beginning? Okay. And then he was a surprise?
Nestel: He was totally dependent on me for everything. He couldn’t make a decision. And I’d get a phone call almost daily: “What should I do and what shouldn’t I?” And I think this was probably his first rabbinate, first full-time rabbinate. And he was very insecure and he was very apolitical. And in fact, one of the most interesting periods was when he came up for tenure. There was such a division among the Congregation. We weren’t that big then, maybe 120 families, I’m guessing. I think when we moved it was about 110, so maybe 120, who knows, somewhere in that range. And we held endless number of board meetings.
Interviewer: Now how long had he been a rabbi? So he started when you came on in ’81 and then he was coming up for tenure at the end of that term, after two years.
Nestel: I think it’s two years. He’d come up, I mean, maybe the dates may be wrong but I think the sequence is correct. And we had endless board meetings. I mean endless, because I was President there and I’ve always felt everybody should have a say. This is not my, this isn’t my Congregation. I’m there simply, here simply to be the bottom line when somebody has a question. But it’s the Congregation’s decision and we had a, a split board…and most of the board members were sitting on the fence as you can imagine. There was always strong for and strong against. But the majority are sitting in the middle. And this went on for, I would guess at least nine months.
Interviewer: Nine months?
Nestel: I’m guessing now. Maybe Carol and others who were around could clarify.
Nestel: But it went on a long time, this deliberation of what we should do. And there was one young lady from Canada who’s on the Board and whom I can’t even remember her name but I do remember the story very vividly. And she was a psychologist and she was sitting there and she was quiet. She was one of those fence-sitters that you couldn’t get, and I wasn’t probing. I didn’t go around the room, “What do you think?” And finally she raised her hand and she said, “Gil, we cannot rehire the man because there’s enough dissatisfaction, even if the majority were in favor, we can’t do it.” Because…
Interviewer: For the good of the Temple?
Nestel: For the good of the larger Congregation. And her comments, because she had been so silent and really didn’t take an active role in trying to move the rest of the people in one direction rather than the other, it was a swing statement and we decided that we could no longer rehire him. And then I had to go to his house and tell him.
Interviewer: I’m sure that was a difficult moment.
Nestel: And when I told him, he couldn’t believe it. That’s how apolitical he was. He didn’t realize that there was that strong an opposition to him.
Interviewer: So that was one of the challenges of your presidency?
Nestel: That was probably the most difficult because, you know, he had a family and kids. He bought a house. So I mean, he had only been there for a couple of years. And the expectation now when that happened, I don’t know if you know the rabbinate is a union of the highest, it’s a unionized organization. And then the Union sent out some representatives trying to convince us otherwise.
Interviewer: Oh, trying to help you feel that it would be important to retain him?
Nestel: To retain him. So we had a dinner. Howard Fink was there. It was out on the East side. That was an interesting experience because there was a representative of the Union of the Reform movement. There was a lay person and there was us. And the representative of the rabbinate wanted, realized, suggested that maybe he needed some help, psychological help, whatever, and they would provide it for him. And we ought to consider that and then reconsider at some later date whether he…
Interviewer: So they wanted to do whatever they could in order to retain the status quo and to uggest that that might be a better solution than to move to a new person?
Nestel: Yes. The lay person and we disagreed because you can’t tell somebody to change their philosophy. Maybe you can and maybe they will say they would but why would you want to do that? And I don’t think he would have done it. He was a very bright guy. He was no…he didn’t come off the streets.
Interviewer: So ultimately…
Interviewer: …you decided that for this consensus and for the better of everybody, that he should leave?
Nestel: …he should leave.
Interviewer: For his betterment as well as the Congregation.
Nestel: And then I went over and told him. We did this before, the meeting with the Union came before I visited them.
Interviewer: And then who was the new Rabbi who came after him?
Nestel: That’s your current Rabbi.
Interviewer: Oh that was Gary Huber then…
Nestel: That’s Gary Huber.
Interviewer: Who started his tenure then?
Nestel: Right after Tony Holtz. And he was a young Rabbi, Assistant Rabbi out of St. Louis, somewhere in Missouri.
Interviewer: So when your term ended then, Gary was not even on board yet, right?
Nestel: Because I was on the Search Committee for that one.
Interviewer: And you were on the Search Committee to make sure that maybe a better match was made.
Nestel: And Carol was the Chair of that Search Committee because she was Vice-President at that time and President-Elect.
Interviewer: Well it’s interesting to hear that Tony Holtz is now in a good position for himself.
Nestel: I think so.
Interviewer: and that it turned out maybe to be the best for everybody.
Nestel: I think so.
Interviewer: Difficult decisions happen.
Nestel: I don’t know, you know, you never could tell what it would have been had he stayed. And there are still some people who feel that we made the wrong decision, I’m sure.
Interviewer: And missed an opportunity.
Nestel: Missed an opportunity ’cause, but I think it was the right decision. I think we gave him a fair crack. I think we, the process we went through was a fair process. It wasn’t, the President and the Vice President didn’t like him and…
Nestel: It was a tough decision and the votes were at best 50/50.
Interviewer: I’ll bet everybody learned something in that process. Are there any other memories that you have of your presidency that you want to share besides this time of challenge?
Nestel: Well this is also the time when we moved into the new building. And Judith was very much involved in the design.
Interviewer: The new building which is the current building now on Olentangy River Road?
Nestel: Yes, 6121. We had gone from, I don’t know if you’ve seen the building on Indianola…
Nestel: It was a (Indistinct). It’s near Walhalla. It sits on the corner and the building is still there. It’s really a quaint, it has an upstairs/downstairs and with 90 families, we did pretty much everything to keep it going. But it was a very dangerous building because no parking whatsoever and the kids would leave Religious School and particularly Hebrew School in the afternoon and some of them would disappear down the ravine. I mean it was a day and age where things were safer than they are now but still it was a dangerous area. And then we were…we were outgrowing it. When we were outgrowing it Jack Resler had been watching and maybe had been, you know Jack Resler was a benefactor in the Jewish community.
Interviewer: Was he a member of Beth Tikvah?
Nestel: No he was not a member. (Interjection by Rose Luttinger: He later became a member and joined our Board.)
Nestel: He always believed that the northwest corridor would be the growth corridor and he was absolutely right. And he was watching our Congregation and had detailed notes. He’s one of those reasonably well-to-do, but you would never know it by appearance. And he decided that he would provide some land for a new building for us.
Interviewer: That was very generous.
Nestel: It was very generous and he owned lots of land up in the northwest. He had invested in that part of the city and wanted us to move around the Sawmill area. It’s interesting how everything sort of cycles. And a group of people like, you know, the Finks, Sondra Fink and Howard, others. Don Simon was very active in this. I was not active in the search. They were searching for property.
Interviewer: For location?
Nestel: For the location. We wanted to stay on campus because of the close identity with the University and Battelle. And most of the Congregants, a fair number of the congregants were University or Battelle employed. And that was one of the reasons Roger Klein found it of interest and one of the reasons he didn’t want to move with us because he knew the composition issue would change somewhat if we moved out to the suburbs. And he didn’t want to expend that kind of energy.
Interviewer: Maybe you should explain who Roger Klein was.
Nestel: He was the previous Rabbi. He was the Rabbi at the time of the move.
Nestel: And so we were searching, a group of us were searching, a group of the congregants were searching for land. They found the current property, the property that we’re currently on. There was a building on that property and they tore that building down. And then they wanted to hire an architect and Jack Resler then said, “Well I will match your fund-raising five-to-one.” That’s the famous story.
Nestel: Five-to-one. “I will give you the land and I will match, land free, and the construction of the building I will match.” At that point, I must have been treasurer at that point. I was treasurer at that point. And he said to us, “You raise a hundred
and fifty and I’ll give you seven-fifty (thousand).” Nine hundred (thousand) is what it cost to build and furnish.
Interviewer: And it was completed then when?
Nestel: It was completed in…
Interviewer: Eighty-one or so?
Nestel: Probably a little earlier. What year are we now? We’re celebrating, just celebrated 25th so we…
Interviewer: You started your presidency in ’81?
Interviewer: Were you in this new building then?
Nestel: In the new building.
Interviewer: You were. So it was probably ’80.
Nestel: Yes, yes, could be. The date, that date would be easy to fill in, easy to fill in. So, the reason I’m mentioning the five-to-one is that we had no mortgage which made (lower) dues possible. We had no plaquing and that was a general principle that to this day still prevails. So it’s been watered and watered and watered. But that’s a guiding principle at least some of us abided by.
Interviewer: In other words not having physical representations of donations.
Nestel: No, no, no matter, and the argument was, it was a very simple argument that many of us agreed with, that a dollar for somebody who had very little is equally as important as five thousand dollars from somebody who has a lot.
Interviewer: Sure, sure.
Nestel: So it’s a philosophical question. But nonetheless, we did fund-raise about the hundred and fifty. He did give us the seven-fifty, that would be seven-fifty. He died before the building was built so there was some question about whether the family would honor it. And the family did honor it. And equally important, those were the days when interest rates were about 17-18% and I was handling the money in the most conservative 17- or 18% C.D that was possible in those days. And
Jack Resler found out what I was doing and said, “You’re a crazy . . . . Give me the money and I can do a hell of a lot better.” So he took his money and our money and invested it for us.
Interviewer: I see.
Nestel: So we, this was a, everybody won. He wanted a Jewish architect. We didn’t want an architect and we discussed it with him and agreed we should have one.
Interviewer: Who was the architect?
Nestel: Acock and Schlegel. And Acock is still in town. And Judith was the foreman on that job, my wife.
Interviewer: Your wife?
Nestel: My wife Judith was the on-site…
Interviewer: Foreman for the construction of the building?
Nestel: foreman of the building for the Congregation. And then much of the design and the décor was to her credit, and others. She is not the only one, Sondra Fink, Sue Levin, there were others who participated but I think Judith put in the yeoman, the major share…You always need a single person and that’s how we got to know Acock and Schlegel. To this day we know Schlegel very well.
Interviewer: Is there anything else you want to say before we go on, about your experiences with Beth Tikvah?
Nestel: No I think that’s, one other point and this was mainly Bill Gilbert. There are families that would come in to us and say, Board members, and would say, “Well my son is playing soccer and but there’s Hebrew School. Do you think it would be possible for us to change Hebrew School?” And Bill and I would say, “Look it’s your choice. We have Hebrew School on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you want your son to get religious education, this is not a supermarket. You don’t pick cans of peas.” So we said, “I think the Board was a very functional Board.” The Board met. We didn’t have much, many expenditures. Rabbi Klein I don’t think was a full-time, he might have been a full-time Rabbi at that point. But prior to that we had part-time Rabbis.
Nestel: So Rabbi Klein I think was a full-time Rabbi.
Interviewer: Uh huh.
Nestel: So our expenses, we were lucky . . . .for Jack Resler.made it possible. And it was that period soon thereafter that the growth of the Congregation took off partly I think because of the northwest sector, partly because of reasonable dues, and maybe partly because of Rabbi Huber. I don’t know and it’s hard to disentangle all the factors.
Interviewer: Well and I think there was a statement about who the congregants were, what philosophies were important.
Nestel: Yes all of that.
Interviewer: And when someone came to the Congregation they were welcomed so I think it was the combination of all of those things.
Nestel: Yes, all of those factors I think were important.
Interviewer: So I was wondering if you have been active in the greater Columbus community in other regards?
Nestel: At that point or…
Interviewer: Then or now, then or now?
Nestel: No not really. I’m doing a lot of volunteer work now at the Community Resource Center (food) bank here on High Street, south of East North Broadway. Judith, my wife, and I participate help with deliveries and ordering of the food shelves in the kitchen and then I spend a little time once a month going to Marion prison.
Interviewer: Well . . . . who is the beneficiary of the food bank?
Nestel: Anybody in, this particular food bank services families as far north, to my knowledge, as Worthington.
Interviewer: So anyone can come in.
Nestel: Anybody can come in, homeless people, if they’re qualified. I mean they have to meet certain requirements.
Interviewer: Through a social services agency?
Nestel: If they meet those requirements then they can come in and pick whatever food they feel they need. It’s tough now.
Interviewer: Yes it’s a wonderful service, particularly today. And then you mentioned about going to the penitentiary.
Nestle: That happened about five or six years ago where this community rabbi gave a talk at Beth Tikvah. I must have been still a member of Beth Tikvah, I was a member of Beth Tikvah then. And was looking for volunteers, what they call “outside brothers” who would service about 14 Jewish inmates out of a prison population of about 1,400 in Marion, Ohio.
Interviewer: And what is the name of the prison?
Nestel: The Marion Correctional Prison. It’s a medium-security. It has about 1,400 inmates, 14 of whom are Jewish, one percent. It’s probably now 1,700 inmates. It’s overcrowded. But in any event they had, they introduced a faith-based program, part of the Bush philosophy of faith-based initiative I’m sure they were funded by federal dollars. And the idea was to take prisoners, electively, who decided they wanted to be in this program, and put them in a dorm setting, getting them out of their cells into a dormitory and to learn about their own religion and the religion of others. So…
Interviewer: So it was a total environment then?
Nestel: It was all environment and there were some Muslims, Christians and Jews. And they would have a rabbi coming in. The community rabbi in Columbus would motor up once a month, once a week, up to Marion and teach not only the Jewish prisoners about Judaism, but he would also teach, I assume, the Muslims and the Christians about Judaism. And then they had a minister and whatever…
Interviewer: Come in other times?
Nestel: To do the same thing. It is a ten-month program at the end of which they get a diploma and then whether it makes a difference or not, who knows? And then they go back into the prison.
Interviewer: Oh, oh, okay. So they have this hiatus for ten months and then they go back into the prison?
Nestel: Back, and presumably they know a little bit more about the Muslim religion and a
little bit more about Christianity and a little bit more about Judaism. Now some of these Jewish prisoners, there’s one prisoner trying to become a rabbi which is kind of interesting. Interestingly, just for the record, the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements couldn’t care less about these Jewish prisoners. The people who have, the Jewish organization, Cain A Chabad, the ultra-religious and so these Jewish prisoners have become ultra-religious.
Interviewer: Wait a minute, so you say that organizationally they’re not involved with the prisoners, but individuals are and the Chabad is?
Nestel: I’m saying that the Jewish community at large, be it the Orthodox, the Conservative, the traditionally Orthodox, the Conservative and the Reform movement families have not made an attempt to visit with these prisoners.
Interviewer: But the Chabad has?
Nestel: But the Chabad has made, Chabad is always proselytizing and they’re always trying to bring in, and my first meeting with this one Jewish prisoner I asked him, “Why would you want,” and he wasn’t involved in the Judaism to the extent he is now. “Why would you want the most extreme Judaism to study?” And his answer was kind of interesting. He wanted structure. And when you think about it, that’s what the prison is all about because they tell you at 9 o’clock in the morning, 3 o’clock so they pray three times a day. They know when they pray. when the holidays come.
Interviewer: It fits in with the rest of their prison life.
Nestel: So yeah, the Reform movement has, I think, made a mistake because maybe. I think, I don’t know…
Interviewer: I think there are so many areas in which everyone should be attending and with cut backs, etc. it’s difficult, but yes there are individuals who do it like you. You go up with a group.
Nestel: I go up with, it used to be, remember it all started with Beth Tikvah. Rabbi Goldfarb, I think his name was, was the community Rabbi about four or five years ago, and he was a Reform Rabbi and he would go up there and the prisoners appreciated. Even though his orientation was Reform, he was tolerant about the Orthodox and they liked him very much and they learned quite a bit from him.
Interviewer: A very congenial man.
Nestel: And they learned quite a bit. His wife was also very active in the community. She got a better job, I think in Los Angeles, and so he uprooted himself.. That was a great loss. Jack…
Nestel: Jack Schwartz replaced him. They felt fairly positive about Jack but Jack’s a different person. And now Lenny Sarko is servicing them.
Interviewer: Oh, and so how long have you continued to go?
Nestel: This is now probably the fifth or sixth year.
Nestel: But it started, Beth Tikvah, we organized ourselves, since this is once a week, four weeks in the month. We organized, we started out with maybe three or four of us and we realized we couldn’t do that. So we shopped for, we looked for eight volunteers and at some point we had as many as 14. Now we’re down to about seven or eight and Beth Tikvah has dropped out almost completely except for Maury Schwartz. (Interjection: Marty Seltzer, Mike Fliegel) The others are coming from other congregations or from the Chabad.
Interviewer: It’s certainly an interesting program.
Interviewer: Now how else do you spend your leisure time and do you have any particular hobbies that we should know about?
Nestel: Well I’m still gardening with my lovely wife.
Interviewer: You have a very extensive and beautiful garden.
Nestel: Yeah, thank you. And then we travel occasionally to visit our kids. Travel occasionally to go outside the United States, but that’s not a high priority. And I’m a fountain pen collector.
Interviewer: How did you get involved in your extensive collection of fountain pens?
Nestel: Well that started with my father when I was in high school. He had a serious appendectomy, a serious appendix rupture, and was rushed to a hospital, Fordham Hospital. And at the end of that, and the operation was successful, it was caught early enough, he gave the doctor a fountain pen which, I don’t know how he even had it, it was a silver-filigreed Waterman. And I remember that fountain pen. And I said at some point, since I did a lot of flea markets, I enjoy walking, just walking around antique shows. I said, “I’m going to find that fountain pen,” because I thought it was kind of interesting.
Well I looked for a number of years and didn’t find it and one day out at Sunbury, which is a little north of Columbus, in a flea market setting, I found that fountain pen and it wasn’t operative so I brought it down on campus. There was a pen repair shop opposite the Law College. It was run by an incredibly huge black African-American who was a fountain pen collector. And I walked into his shop, the first time I’d ever been in his shop, with this Waterman pen to get it repaired, to have it repaired. And I saw hundreds and hundreds of pens that I had passed up. And the moral of that story is, I’m talking, in those days a fountain pen was a dollar,. And at that point I got sucked in. So I went out to flea markets in those days.
Interviewer: So you were telling us about the fountain pen collection.
Nestel: And then I decided to recapture all that I had lost, all that I had seen. And over the years I have collected quite a few. And they’re valuable now because I don’t know if fountain pens will ever come back, they should. Handwriting should come back. Nobody’s going…
Interviewer: How many, how many, excuse me, go ahead.
Nestel: Yeah, I probably have about a thousand now.and there are tens of thousands still to be found.
Interviewer: Oh I’m sure, I’m sure, I’m sure. I was interested in when you talked about your family and about your life. Were there any values that were a part of your family that you live by today or values or philosophies that you’ve developed for yourself?
Nestel: Yeah. I wrote down about four or five. One: hard work; encouraging education, we can expand on that; the importance of a Jewish mate; frugality. Those are several characteristics and obviously family, love of family.
Interviewer: And those were important not only in your growing up and that you’ve shared with your own children as well? Yes?
Nestel: I think that some, probably didn’t articulate it specifically, but…
Interviewer: But lived it.
Nestel: But lived that example, provided an example.
Interviewer: What’s helped you get through tough times?
Nestel: Well I also wrote down a few…
Interviewer: …some of the ones that you talked about.
Nestel: Well I would say self-confidence is a major one. I’m generally optimistic and I just don’t overreact. I think everything that goes up comes down. I mean, it’s like the Stock Market to some extent. I was never in that situation where I didn’t have enough financial means so I had the luxury and the frugality part of it, never overspending, never overcommitting.
Interviewer: And looking at is as a choice. You looked at it as a choice?
Nestel: Yeah. And so I didn’t have to, and I think the young people today are in an entirely different situation that they probably have undersaved and we know all of that. And then when something happens, you know, it’s tough for them to change their lifestyle.
Interviewer: Certainly is.
Nestel: And if you can’t change your lifestyle then (mixed voices) how do you contend?
Interviewer: I wondered if you had a message about life and love that you wanted to share with your children, grandchildren, and the generations to come. If you had a message, what would that be?
Nestel: Well here are several ideas. I think, to me, and they’re not necessarily in any order, I think you have to be a good listener. I mean if you’re not a good listener, I mean, you’re making a big mistake because I think most people have something to offer. And it depends on how much you want to reach out. But I’ve reached out to people in the prison and I don’t think they’re much different than some of the people outside of the prison. They simply made a few bad choices. And maybe they couldn’t help what they did. Maybe they do need help. I think I would argue strongly for pursuing of education. I think you should give something back to your people in the community. I think that’s important. I think you should live within your means. I think you should be positive. Some of that I’ve repeated, be positive under stressful conditions.
Interviewer: Sounds like a beautiful life to me.
Nestel: Thank you.
Interviewer: And I want to say thank you on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and Congregation Beth Tikvah for your contribution to the Oral History Project and I hope that your children will be able to read what you’ve said because I think it really is important.
Nestel: Thank you, thank you.
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Transcribed by Honey Abramson
Corrected/read by Marilyn Cooper/Rose Luttinger
Proofread by Marvin Bonowitz/Rose Luttinger