This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on August, 6 2008 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society Oral History Project. This interview is being recorded by Abby Goldbaum.
Schwarz: Yes, it’s Jakov Chaim ben, son of, Schrieb ben Halevi. So it’s the tribe of Levi.
Interviewer: How do you spell?
Schwarz: My father’s name?
Schwarz: I have it written.
Interviewer: It’s on this piece of paper you gave me. Who were you named for?
Schwarz: My two grandfathers; my father’s side Jacob, and on my mother’s side Hyman Weinstock.
Interviewer: And what was your mother’s full name?
Schwarz: Bertha Weinstock.
Interviewer: And where was she born?
Schwarz: In the Bronx, in New York, as was my father.
Schwarz: They were both born to sets of, two sets of Austrian parents.
Interviewer: And your father’s full name?
Schwarz: Just Phillip. They didn’t have middle names. I don’t know if it was because they were poor or what. They were not given middle names. They had only one. It seemed to suffice.
Interviewer: And, when and where were your parents married?
Schwarz: They were married in New York, and it would have been 19, let’s see, 1947. My father came back from World War II. He was an infantryman; he was in the Battle of the Bulge. He was very, I feel very grateful for many, many reasons that he came back unscathed. January 6, 1947 is the date of their anniversary. On their little mini honeymoon they went to the Catskills, to the Concord Hotel, and that particular weekend Jimmy Dorsey was playing.
Schwarz: So they always used to say with pride that Jimmy Dorsey played at their wedding, but it was at the hotel. And I used to say, “Mom, a half truth is a whole lie.”
Schwarz: I think that’s in the Torah somewhere.
Interviewer: Great. That’s great. Where did your family live when you were growing up?
Schwarz: I was born in Manhattan; I lived there for two years. And then we moved to Queens and that’s where I grew up. We moved into a newly constructed veterans’ coop. It was specifically built, in conjunction with the G.I. Bill, to accommodate returning soldiers, veterans from the war, and primarily they were Jewish war veterans, although there were several families who were not Jewish. But mostly these were Jewish people I grew up around.
Interviewer: And what ways were you connected to the Jewish community when you were growing up?
Schwarz: Well, we, there were two synagogues nearby; one was a conservative and one was an orthodox. My parents sent me, I’m still not sure why, since we were very conservative, leaning reform I guess, to the orthodox synagogue, and I received an orthodox education, and I did very well in school. I was the valedictorian there, but mainly because I loved languages and I loved learning, and when the rabbi told me they were grooming me to become a rabbi, I think I was very frightened off very quickly. It wasn’t what I had in mind for myself. I wanted to be a veterinarian and a zoologist, and loved animals, and thought, “I can’t go to yeshiva!”. So I didn’t do that. But my involvement was: attending Hebrew school; going on Saturday morning to youth services; and all the High Holidays I went with my father to shul.
Interviewer: And what was the name of the shul?
Schwarz: Young Israel of Windsor Park. The veterans coop that I grew up in; by the way, this is just trivia that I’m throwing in, and if someone wants to edit it out, can later, but we had some celebrities who grew up on our street. It was a very rich area in terms of, I don’t mean material things, but creativity and really intelligent people who lived there.
Estelle Getty from the “Golden Girls” was one who was there; I became best friends with her son in second grade. And we knew each other the whole time before she actually became a celebrity. She was active in community theater there. And I think I told you that just in the last couple of weeks I was very saddened to learn that she had died, but the family called me to officiate at the funeral, which I did, in Hollywood. So, that was very bizarre to me to be at that sort of event, but also quite a privilege and an honor and, because she meant a lot to me. We were close friends.
But also Richard Dreyfuss grew up on my street as well. And when he came to speak at Temple Israel, maybe about 10 years ago he came here to talk about renewal of faith that he was experiencing, I actually got to talk to him about Bell Park Gardens where we grew up.
And it was a very healthy family like setting. Parents cared a lot about their children’s well being, were very attentive. And the school was just across the street, and there was always somebody to play ball with or ride a bike with, and lots of things to do. So it was a very healthy place, I think, to bring up children, and lots of Jewish activities, both at home and in the surrounding synagogues.
Interviewer: Okay. How did your parents earn their living?
Schwarz: My father was a men’s clothing salesman in Jamaica Queens. It was exciting for me because it was what they used to call a fine men’s clothing store, and he used to attract a lot of well known musicians and athletes and I got to meet a lot of my boyhood heroes there. Willie Mays came and Bob Feller, the pitcher from Ohio, and Count Basie used to come in. There were a lot of interesting people who came, and it was just an exciting place to be. It was an African American neighborhood almost exclusively. And so very early on my brother and I became accustomed to what is now called diversity. We became very use to it and didn’t think too much about it. It was just sort of a natural development.
My mother worked as a bookkeeper, also in Jamaica.
Interviewer: Did she work in the family business?
Schwarz: No, no, for a construction company actually.
Interviewer: Do you have brothers and/or sisters?
Schwarz: One younger brother who lives in Santa Cruz, California, and he’s, after working some interesting jobs, he worked for Geraldo Rivera as a research assistant for a while in New York, and then Lorne Michaels from “Saturday Night Live” as some sort of production assistant. He eventually ended up as a police dispatcher; don’t ask me how, but that’s where he is now. He married a girl I introduced him to, from Columbus, who is an artist; a really talented painter. Sadly they have one child only who is severely autistic, and it’s a very difficult life. They love him very much; he lives with them, and I don’t think there could be better parents in the world, but it must be very tough for them.
Interviewer: And what is his name, your brother?
Schwarz: Shalom Schmuel, that’s his name.
Interviewer: And who was, are you the oldest?
Schwarz: He’s four years younger.
Interviewer: And where did you attend elementary school?
Schwarz: Public School 46, down the street from us.
Interviewer: And where did you attend high school?
Schwarz: It was called Francis Lewis High School, and the big adventure there was leaving the nest of Bayside, Queens for Flushing, Queens. [Laughs] We used to hop on the bus and go to Francis Lewis, and that’s where we went to school. It was, we weren’t quite the first graduating class, I think we were third, but we were the smallest graduating class. We had 600 people. I was the editor of the yearbook, and I was lucky because all the other years had 1500 students or more. So I had a real small group and made my job easier.
Interviewer: And you said you were valedictorian?
Schwarz: Only in the Hebrew school.
Interviewer: Oh, in the Hebrew school.
Schwarz: No, I was not.
Interviewer: That’s interesting. Where did you attend college, and what degrees did you get?
Schwarz: I did my undergraduate work at Queens College, also in Flushing; and it was a commuter school, part of the City University of New York. I still tell people that it’s hard for me to believe looking back that I only paid $32 a year for tuition. I’m sure that’s why New York City went bankrupt at some point. But it was an excellent school, and they had some wonderful professors. We didn’t live there, we commuted.
Other woman’s voice: It was part of City College?
Schwarz: Yes, City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and Queens were all in the same network, and it was really a wonderful place to be. I, at the beginning I felt a little bit sad, and maybe a little resentful that we couldn’t afford to have me go to an out-of-town school like many of my friends. But I was very satisfied.
Other woman’s voice: I understand at the time that City College was an elite school. It had special tests to get in.
Schwarz: Just as they did for in high school. I had applied for, it is called Stuyvesant High School. We had to pass a special test in math. And, again, I was accepted, but when I found out it was an all-boys’ school, and I would have to take three trains to get there, somehow it lost its luster for me. But they had schools like that, Bronx High School of Science, Brooklyn Tech, and, yeah, everything was very competitive at that point. But I really loved my education. I had some great teachers. Oh, my English Literature primarily, and psychology and foreign languages, that’s what I studied. I was then offered a teaching fellowship, a graduate teaching fellowship at Ohio State which was how I ended up in Columbus. It was a Ph.D. program, and I got a Masters, and then did my oral exams successfully, but never finished a dissertation and I began in the work force at that point. I did teach college writing and literature at Franklin University and Ohio State for about five years, but kind of left that field.
Interviewer: And where did you work after that?
Schwarz: At that time, as I remember, hunger and homelessness were very much coming to the fore in the 70s, mid 70s. I think I got my time right. And I felt like I wasn’t doing very much to help social problems. I love literature and poetry and all that, but it was a luxury as far as I was concerned when people were starving and had no roof over their heads. So I ended up going, I just sort of wandered into the Social Security Office, and I was hired as a claims representative. And I worked with disabled and homeless people for about 12 years. I was also a liaison with the AIDS Task Force when it began. So it kind of met my need to be attached to something I thought at the time was meaningful in a larger sense. I guess I didn’t know yet what Tikkun Olam meant, but I was, my instincts were pushing me in that direction. After that I went to, actually I met Don, your husband at, the Legislative Service Commission where, I tell people it’s sort of ghost writing for the elected officials, that’s the simplest way to put it, and I was there about 10 years. Also worked after that with the Department of Education. And then ended up where I am now which I don’t know if you’re up to that yet; I was hired…
Interviewer: It’s very interesting, your career path. So tell us about that.
Schwarz: It’s a lot of zigging and zagging, although I think, if you look carefully, there are some threads there that you can see constant through it. What happened was that Dick Lambden, who was the head of Wexner Heritage Village till he retired last year; I think he was a long time head of the place, called me and asked me if I was interested in being a chaplain for the hospice that they had. And I knew I had no formal credentials for this. He said that I was recommended, that some people remembered me from when I was president of Beth Tikvah, I think it was in the early 90s; and they thought that I would be a good fit. I called him on it, and said, “I was sure he went down a list of 20 rabbis who all said ‘no’ first.” [Laughing] But he laughed. I’m sure there was some truth to that. But I decided to just take a leap and left state government finally after so many years, and I thought I’m going to try this. And, for me, it was a beautiful fit instantly. I was humble and excited all at once. It was exactly what I felt I could do well, and exactly what I thought needed doing. So they hired me, and I feel very blessed by that, also to be Jewish community chaplain at the same time. Again I really wasn’t qualified in any way on paper. Dick took a chance on me, and I’ll be forever grateful for that. As part of my responsibilities, I was asked to visit the women’s prison in Marysville weekly; the prisons in Marion, that’s Marion Correctional Institution, and North Central Correctional Institution, they’re almost side-by-side up there. I had to visit and lead a worship service at Lutheran Village every week, and once a month at Trillium Place which is an independent living facility on Sawmill Road, or near Sawmill Road. I still go there, by the way, once a month. Nursing homes, people who are unaffiliated; I officiated at many, many funerals. One of them was our local TV celebrity, Flippo the Clown.
Interviewer: Oh, right, Bob Fishman.
Schwarz: Marvin Fishman, yeah, it’s Marvin Fishman is his real name. He went by Bob Marvin, but, so Flippo was two steps removed from his real name. But that was quite an interesting experience. I was being very focused on that because his daughter was very grief stricken and wanted a Jewish ceremony. And when I arrived at the Schoedinger funeral home it was like a circus. There were people in clown makeup, and Arnett Howard was there with a trumpet and high hat and glitter and flowing cape; and little people as you might see in a circus were there. You know it was very bizarre and surreal, and some man came up to me too and said, “I have about 10 minutes of standup I’ll be doing, so just let me know when I go on.” And, of course, none of this was acceptable to anyone. The daughter and the son did not want any of this. And it became a little delicate because he had this public following, you know, that wanted to give him a sort of tribute, that they felt in their wisdom, he would have wanted, and it was, I didn’t have good P.R. that night. I had to just slam the door on everybody, but the service was beautiful, and I think it met the family’s need which was what I always try to use, what I still use as the guide for that.
But, so, I had a lot of really interesting experiences with that position. After a time, it was felt that I should be going to school to actually, I think it was two years into it, they felt I should be going to school to actually become qualified to do what I had been doing. So I ended up taking a clinical pastoral education course at Mount Carmel; and that’s completed, and now I have a year ahead of me at Riverside Methodist Hospital, more of the same, but I will be working there full-time like it’s a chaplain’s residency. That’s what it is. And I work at Regency Hospital part-time which is the old Mercy Hospital. Were you there long enough to know that, in German Village?
Interviewer: Yes, yes.
Schwarz: It’s a new hospital now called Regency. It’s a long-term acute-care facility, and I work part-time there. And I mentioned Trillium, and I still go to the prison. So, you know, I’ve had to cobble together a very odd sort of life, but it’s been extremely rewarding.
Interviewer: Are you still considered a community chaplain?
Schwarz: Not a community chaplain. Rabbi Sharon Mars, a female rabbi, is now in that position.
Interviewer: And you work with her?
Schwarz: No, not at all. She’s, she and Rabbi Kozberg work together. I’m a free lance. You know where “free lance” came from? In the Middle Ages the knights some of them would just hire themselves out like mercenaries; they were free lancers. That’s where it came from. I know you don’t want that on this tape.
Interviewer: That’s okay.
Schwarz: I’m a free-lance chaplain. And I, you know, when I was in, this is not really black humor, but when I was in Hollywood for this funeral, this producer came up to me and started to talk to me about what I had been doing. And she was really interested in all these different kinds of jobs. She said, “That would make a really interesting series; every week to go into the prison, to go into nursing home, going into a hospital.” And I said, “You know you could call it ‘Chaplain Charlie’.” Wouldn’t that be good? [Laughing] So, if you see it on TV in the next couple of years, you’ll know the idea was born there. [Laughing]
Schwarz: Don’t hold your breath though. So that’s what I’m doing. It’s a mosaic of responsibilities. I feel privileged beyond what I can possibly say to be doing this work.
Other woman’s voice: So the individual institutions pay you? You’re paid by…
Schwarz: If they pay me; a lot of it is volunteer. You know, I’ve come to not worry about the money so much. This is one of “follow your bliss” things. And trust the universe, very Wayne Dyer and that kind of thing. I feel like my needs have gotten a lot simpler and I’m managing. You know, it’s okay. I’m not being unrealistic about it and I don’t want to dwell on money issues. But I will simply say the rewards are elsewhere, and they’re enormous. So I feel very fortunate. Let me leave it at that.
Interviewer: Tell us about your family, a little bit; your children.
Schwarz: Well, when I came to Columbus I had been married to a Jew by choice, Ann. I think you remember her, perhaps.
Interviewer: Oh, yes.
Schwarz: She was Italian. She had converted on her own. I had never really asked her to do that, and I wasn’t particularly observant at that time in my life. It wasn’t that much of a take, religiously, when I was growing up because, I assume getting sidetracked is an occupational hazard here, so I hope you don’t mind.
Interviewer: That’s fine.
Schwarz: I learned a lot at that orthodox synagogue, but I didn’t learn really to love my faith there. And an example of that that I can point to is how we really all sat squirming every minute in class. If we asked questions, we would get smacked in the back of the head in the way of these old movies, it’s considered a comedic element to show that, but it was very frustrating to an inquisitive student. And then one day, on the Jewish teacher’s desk appeared a Jewish National Fund tzedacha can, and he said to the class, “If you bring money in, you can leave early.” So, they got a lot a money from our class, you know. But, I mean all the guys did was to run down to the local deli, and fish sour pickles out of a big barrel, you know, and just hang out till they were expected home. Did they learn to love their faith, or Israel? No. There didn’t seem to be an understanding of what was going to be helpful in that regard. So, as I grew older, and I was maybe, let’s see, maybe 18 or 19, I only had a very general vague kind of marginal attachment to Judaism.
Interviewer: Now, how did you meet Ann?
Schwarz: In Italian class. I was Signore Schwarz, and she, Signorina Bruno. And so I think it’s a truism, in New York at least, to say that Italians and Jews are very similar in terms of family dynamics, and that was true of hers too, very warm giving people. And, so, we latched on to one another, and she wanted to convert, and did; orthodox conversion and everything which was very impressive at the time. We came out and she had what is usually called the zeal of the convert. She was making sure we ate kosher and did everything just so. And when the children are born, as often happens, is when we started to focus on actually joining a synagogue. And I knew nothing about it, because we never had been members anywhere. We attended our local shuls, but we never really belonged. And so Beth Tikvah was the first place I ever came to that I felt that sense of belonging. I liked it immediately.
Interviewer: How did you come to Beth Tikvah?
Schwarz: Well, you know when Hannah was born I called around to talk about a baby naming ceremony which I had some vague sense I should be doing. You know, inviting my family out and doing this. And I was told that unless you were a member, that you, that the Rabbi couldn’t help you. And we were poor, and we didn’t have any money to join, and so we felt very funny about it even though, of course in retrospect, I realized had we not been as proud as we were, and spoken to some committee we would’ve certainly have been permitted to join. We just didn’t grasp it yet. But the rabbi who was at Beth Tikvah just for a year or two from South Africa…
Interviewer: Tony Holt.
Schwarz: …was so nice on the phone. I don’t know what he was like as a rabbi in the synagogue, but he came to our house and he was the nicest person. And really spoke to us, encouraged us to consider joining, and we did after that. But he was gone. It must have been just around that time, this was 1982, I don’t know if you would even remember when he left, and when Gary came.
Interviewer: I remember when he came, because Jay was born in ’81, and he came literally a few days after.
Schwarz: So, wasn’t it only about two years? Yes. So, he was gone, and this new guy Gary Huber was there; talked to him. And Gary was very charming and welcoming, and I think though what kept us really interested was not so much the youth of the rabbi, as the maturity and wisdom we felt in the membership at large. I, Ann and I both felt such fondness so quickly for everyone we met there. And it was still small enough at that point, where I think it was possible to really know virtually everyone. I remember the first people who were reaching out to us were Arthur and Frieda Shimsky. I’ll never forget their kindness. But both of you, I mean everyone was very friendly. And I started to get interested. Hannah signed up for religious school. Dora Sterling was a sweetheart, you know, and always made fun of me, because Hannah was not wanting me to leave class. She was getting afraid. I had to sit in a chair outside the class, and she had to come to the door every so often to make sure I was there. And Dora kept saying, “Just go away.” And I said, “I feel that I can’t do that.” And I moved, I kept moving the chair a little bit farther every week, and finally went in the library where I went to spent that time. And then the first day I did that, one of the teacher aides came in, with Hannah holding his hand, looking for me in the library just to make sure I was still there. [Laughing] But both she and Mari did really well in school and I just slowly got more and more involved, more interested in things. So, am I sticking to your script here?
Interviewer: It’s fine. We can be flexible. How did you choose to live on the north side of Columbus? I’m curious. A lot of Jewish people didn’t.
Schwarz: We started on North Gould Road actually; the slum of Bexley.
Interviewer: Oh, okay.
Schwarz: And which became actually a housing project not too long after that. And, really, there was a little too much murder and mayhem around the environs there for us to stay. But actually we found a cat. I didn’t write this down, but I’m realizing that this is true, we found a cat we named Ernie. He actually was sitting, waiting at the elevator, when I came off in Denney Hall at Ohio State after teaching. I came down, and there was this cat sitting by the elevator, and there was a terrible thunderstorm, and there was nobody around, and I picked him up and took him home. And we weren’t really allowed to have cats. And the apartment complex we lived in, which is run by one of the luminaries, the Jewish luminaries of this community bought the property, sent me an eviction notice, or, actually, an ultimatum “get rid of the cat or move”. And we moved, and we moved near Ohio State where I was going to grad school, and where Ann was the secretary of the English Department for a while and so that’s. It was really an accident. It had nothing to do with anything rational. We just didn’t want to give up our cat. And, by the way, I became friends with the Rubin family in later years, even though I was awfully angry at that time that Mr. Rubin didn’t want us to stay there. But actually became very close with a couple of the members of the family, and they’ve been wonderful people; very generous with the prisons, for example. So, one thing I didn’t say about Beth Tikvah that I don’t want to miss. Oh, I guess we will be getting to this, never mind. It had to do with the establishment of the Yachad group which I was lucky to do.
Interviewer: Was that your first major volunteer commitment to Beth Tikvah?
Schwarz: Yes, in our kitchen we talked about the special challenges of Jews by choice, and interfaith couples, and also Jews who had never really been educated in any way, shape or form about their heritage. And it was a way for people to connect for the first time, or reconnect with Judaism. At that time there were several couples who were very excited about the opportunity to be together. I guess it was kind of a chaverah actually. We didn’t call it that. Some people objected, in the temple, because they thought it was a segregation type thing, that these people were being branded, you know, that they were identified as people who didn’t really belong. But they wanted this, at the beginning, because they took special pride in their newness. And I remember when they started, this particular group did things like erect a Succoth, and they established something called Israeli night. I don’t know if we still have that.
Interviewer: I remember that.
Schwarz: Yeah, they had a special thing of music and food and all that, which was fun. And all those people, too became very active in terms of temple politics.
Other woman’s voice: It’s a very strong group.
Schwarz: Yeah. And I think the temple was very different from some of the other institutions in town, in terms of its willingness to really embrace these types of people, and to encourage them to let them be board members, for example.
Interviewer: You were involved in the Yachad. What else were you involved in, next step in the ladder?
Schwarz: Adult education. My daughter called me one night, and asked me if I wanted to be on the board. I was a little thrown, and I felt immediately unconfident about this. And she said, “Stop your whining and just say yes.” And I got bullied into it, and I was basically…so I was the adult ed chair which, I don’t think it was the most successful year that that program has had, but I learned a lot, and I do think we had some good programs.
I was asked then, by Abby Freeman, to do a special study about the religious school. There had been a lot of complaints at that time. We had a principal who lived on the east side and was not on site very often. I can’t remember her name, and she was a very nice woman, very smart woman, but I think that she was overextended in other commitments, and really wasn’t giving to the temple and its members what people seemed to want. She was not available during the week. She was just always out on the east side where she lived. But I had to do an objective study of how things worked, and where they weren’t working. She resigned shortly after that, although I think the study was not overly harsh or critical of her individually. I think we tried to solve some problems, but she left. And then I persuaded Sonia Covitz to be principal. I was very fond of Sonia; she’s a character. I think she’d be the first one to admit that. But very interesting person, and she tried her best. And then after that David Lambden got hired. But, so, education issues I guess, I was involved with.
The other thing was the Torah Fund for Shavuot. I was asked by Gary to speak. I don’t remember the sequence particularly, but I also did a poetry lecture at one point. He had Charlene Fitts…
Interviewer: Oh, yeah.
Schwarz: …who was a local professor and poet. And he asked me. He asked Steve Fink, who’s a professor at Ohio State in English. But Steve had another commitment, and Gary did his portion. But we did, I thought, a pretty interesting evening of poetry readings and study. So there were things like that, where, I think, the temple wisely looked to its strengths, and tried to match people with what they could offer.
I wanted to say something, before I forget, about Joe Vogel unless…
Interviewer: Vogel? Please do.
Schwarz: I’m jumping the gun here, but it’s okay. I found this picture of someone called rabbi, wait, what was his name? I have it in here. He’s blowing the Shofar at the original Beth Tikvah. I didn’t know him, but maybe as I’m looking, as I’m talking, I can look for it. Here it is, Bennett Herman.
Other woman’s voice: Yes, he was our first full-time rabbi.
Schwarz: And it shows him blowing a shofar, and then it says “the tablets were carved in wood by Joseph Vogel for the opening in August ’62 of the first Beth Tikvah building.” And Joe was one of those people I liked also when I first came. Another character with a really interesting history as a novelist and artist and calligrapher, I guess he taught himself calligraphy when he was about 150 years old, and he was always interested in everything; and did some beautiful woodcuts, and just an all around talented person. But he sat me down one day, and I told him when I worked with Social Security that I had to go into the old Ohio Pen down on, is it Long Street I think, downtown.
Other woman’s voice: Spring Street.
Schwarz: Spring Street, that’s right. It’s been torn down, of course, many years now, but I had to go into that place, and take Social Security applications from the prisoners, who, you know, o in many ways they were still entitled to benefits. They had worked, paid into the system, and so, you know, they were trying to get their just desserts here. And he smiled and said, “I worked in the Ohio Pen many years ago too. I used to take, fill in the health histories, the medical histories, of the people who were incarcerated.” And, I said, “Well, that sounds interesting.” And he said, “A lot of interesting things happened.” And the one anecdote that I remember, I wonder if you know this story or not, I’ve always remembered this. He was doing some office work, is this going to shut off?
Other woman’s voice: No.
Schwarz: Okay, because I want to get this story in. He heard a commotion in the hall, a lot of screaming and yelling, and he went out and asked one of the guards what was going on. And there was some kind of very serious altercation between two of the inmates. One had attacked another with what they call a shiv, this makeshift knife; probably from bedsprings I’ve since learned, they way they do it sometimes, and had killed this other inmate. He stabbed him fatally. And they put the guy in the hole. One guy, of course, went to the hospital and died, and the other one was thrown in the hole. They took the weapon and brought it back to the office, bloodied, and this other guy was already doing life and it didn’t matter, or he was set to be executed. It didn’t make a difference that he killed another person, there wasn’t anything more they could do, so they didn’t need this as evidence, he told me. And Joe looked at it, and he was drawn to it, and he said, “Can I take this home with me?” And they said, “Well, we’re just throwing it away.” So he washed it off, and he took it home, and he looked at it, and he thought and thought and he wondered if he could use it to make something beautiful from it, a work of art. And he took some wood and he began to carve, and the Ten Commandments that are the tablets, that I think are still in Beth Tikvah, were made with that knife that was involved in a murder.
Interviewer: How interesting.
Schwarz: And the reason that I think that this is so wonderful is that whenever people ask me about Judaism, and I do a lot of Judaism 101 with Muslims and Christians in prisons, for example, I talk about how we try to see the ways in which we can bring light out of darkness. We see our God as doing that, and we see ourselves created in His image as doing that as well. And, to me, this crystallizes that whole notion, taking this knife that had caused pain and injury and death, and he made something so beautiful and creative with it.
And when I taught Sunday school at Beth Tikvah, Gary had me teaching a special group of kids who were, for some odd reason, really interested in Sunday school. It was only a handful, but they were interested. He had me in charge of this group, we called them Shomreh Or, the Defenders of Light was the name of this group. And one day I took them out in the sanctuary, and I told them this story, cause they thought it was the coolest thing, you know, because somebody had made it with a knife from prison. And I tried to make that point, about even when you have a terrible situation, to try to make sure you find what is holy and what is sacred in it wherever you can; that’s part of being Jewish. And they said, “Can we tell our parents?” I said, “I guess so.” Joe had died and so he was no longer going to be embarrassed if he, I don’t think he would have cared any way, but I said, “Yeah, sure.” And then I got so many phone calls from people saying, “My kid told me this wild story, and I just, I’m sure it’s not true but….” And I said, “Oh, yes, it is true.” So there are some people who are aware of that, I don’t know if they are still members. But, yeah, it’s a great story.
Other woman’s voice: I was never aware of that.
Interviewer: I was never aware of that, and we all knew him quite well.
Schwarz: Yeah. He was a very endearing guy in a lot of ways. All right, I wanted to make sure I did that. There were other people who…
Interviewer: I’m glad you did. That was an interesting insight. So, when did you decide you wanted to become president, or did somebody talk you into it?
Schwarz: Again I was sort of drafted. What happened was, as usual, Don Silvin, who always seemed to move the chess pieces with a vision in mind, had arranged, he was president and he had Evie who was his vice president, become president, and he asked me to become vice president.
[Side of tape ended.]
It wasn’t that I didn’t think of it as important or a great honor, but I just didn’t have confidence that I could do this thing. I had been much more solitary in my life than many of the people who had been in leadership roles at Beth Tikvah, and I just kind of took a deep breath, and said okay. And Evie, that year something happened; either her parents or she had health problems, and she had to withdraw. She was president for one year I think and then suddenly, unexpectedly, couldn’t continue. So I was sort of catapulted into that role then.
But what I wanted to mention, you asked here, people who had an influence. I guess Don did teach me a lot about community connections and leadership.
Interviewer: Don Silvin?
Schwarz: Don Silvin, yes. He was a good friend to me when he was here, and a good mentor.
Dora Sterling, I guess for me, helped me to remember Beth Tikvah was a family first and foremost. Evie helped me to remember to focus on the educational purposes and mission of the synagogue, being an educator herself, and, you know, trying to make the school as excellent as she could make it. And so, those people taught me a great deal.
I like to think that, you know, this old saying that when the mind is ready, the teacher appears. I have what is sometimes called a teachable spirit, I think, and there were many, many people who taught me very valuable things along the way.
Two other people I am remembering, Madeline Rivera, who, you know, was a magnificent singer, who was a Jew by choice also. And Liz Meyers, who I hired as an administrator, was also a convert. And both of them were, I thought, just radiant presences in that place, and loved Beth Tikvah the way I did, and gave everything they had to try to preserve what was great about it when we all arrived, we arrived roughly the same time, and also to push it forward in certain really important ways. So those people were all very important to me.
Interviewer: Now, as president what was the greatest accomplishment and why?
Schwarz: That’s kind of phrased unfortunately, don’t you think? [Laughing] My greatest accomplishments.
Interviewer: What are the highlights?
Schwarz: My proudest accomplishments? Okay, well I put a bunch of stuff down here. Let me see. I would say, in general, most of what I tried to do was connected to this concept of tikkun olam. Trying to create a healing environment, trying to make it a place of peace, a place where people would see the best in each other, and would try to carry that into the world. I don’t want to sound grandiose about it, but I think that did push and inform a lot of what I did. I did really, did feel, satisfaction weaving into temple operations the converts. I mentioned that before. I hired a developmentally disabled custodian very purposefully, Todd, who was there a long time.
Other woman’s voice: He just left.
Schwarz: Yeah, I heard. I know that there were some complaints here and there about him, but he was pretty much “old faithful” for a long time. And he tried his best, and I thought that was a good deed we did as a group to take him on, and to be patient with him and to support him. And he actually had a career with us, you know, that he wouldn’t have had maybe somewhere else. So that was a good thing.
We tried something for one season called “soup and service”. Friday nights we offered soup, two different kinds of soups, for people who came to, before the service. We had cups, and it was in the lobby. I don’t know if you even remember this, but it was because we got a lot of people who were just checking the place out, who weren’t members, who were just coming and showing up. We knew nothing about them. And I thought that this mitzvah about hospitality was important, and that was one way we did it. You know, we had these big urns of soup and, or tureens I guess, is that the term? I’m probably using the wrong term. But that worked pretty well, and a lot of people would really take advantage of that, and I liked that.
I initiated a volunteer appreciation concert that was free. Each year we had this guy Kent Masuda, who was a violinist with the Columbus Symphony, who would come with a local civic orchestra, chamber orchestra, and they put on a pretty nice concert. I thought it was, and they were all volunteers as well, so we had recognition of volunteers, and part of that was done by engaging the services of volunteers too from somewhere else. So that part, I thought, was really good. And a lot of people came to those concerts. It wasn’t the New York Philharmonic, but it was still nice, and they played earnestly. [Laughing] So that was good.
We had great speakers that I remembered: Rabbi Mark Angel, who was the rabbi at the oldest Sephardic temple in the United States; David Ariel, who was a professor at the Cleveland College of Jewish Studies, talk about Jewish mysticism; Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, was here as part of the Book Fair, and Beth Tikvah was was chosen as the place where he would do a reading and sign books and so on. And I actually was privileged to have dinner with him beforehand. We talked less about poetry than about cats, and losing your hotel key. And, in fact, he did that during our dinner. He was an older man at that point. He started to panic in the way sometimes a person in advanced years might when they’re not sure what to do. He had not a real key, but a key card, which he’d never used, and he misplaced it, and was so upset and he was so relieved when I helped him actually get a replacement card. But it’s funny, regardless of how lofty a person’s position is, it’s always the earthy common things that humanizes them so much, you know. So, he was another one that came.
Leonard Wolf, who was the father of Naomi Wolf, who you might know from magazine articles and books about feminism, but he was interesting; he was a “vampirist,” he called himself. And he studied vampire stories and tales. He’s a poet and writer, and he’s given credit in Frances Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Frankenstein films. He’s listed as a consultant because he was so expert at that. But he really came not to talk about that. He came because he was hired by the family of Isaac Bashevis Singer to be the translator of the Yiddish journals that Singer had. And Leonard Wolf was an expert Yiddish translator. So, but he came, and talked about some of the challenges of translation, and I thought that was a really interesting talk.
One thing, Abby, that you were involved in, I found in my old notes here, was that we nominated the Social Action Committee for the J.C. Penney Golden Rule Award in 1993.
Interviewer: Oh, right.
Schwarz: Never before, I guess, had this sort of committee been nominated. I think we got a plaque eventually, didn’t we?
Interviewer: We didn’t win it, but we tried.
Schwarz: Yeah, but what’s good about having a copy of this, is that it reminded me of how very much was done, the Torah Fund that enabled us, for example, to give donations and contributions for hurricane relief and to Morris Dees’ Southern Law, what was it?
Interviewer: Southern Poverty Law Center.
Schwarz: Right. We had also adopted some families, I think, locally. Let me see what I wrote here. Sorry for this dead air space.
Other woman’s voice: Was that when we adopted the Vietnamese family?
Interviewer: I think that occurred earlier.
Schwarz: No, but this was just giving food, it says here “food, shelter and clothing.” I don’t know exactly what we were doing. Oh, here it is, here it is.
Interviewer: We delivered food.
Schwarz: Boxes of, yes, and baskets of food during Christmas and Hanukah. Friends of the homeless shelter we brought food to.
Interviewer: We did sandwiches; we made sandwiches, Lauren Engler.
Schwarz: And Robin Thomas, I think, was involved with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, maybe at that time.
Interviewer: Yeah, yes. We helped with that too.
Schwarz: Jeff Folkerth, I think, was part of that maybe. We did, it says “bake sales for hurricane relief in Florida, and then the Native American Indian Center.” And this leads me to another interesting story about when I was president. They were very grateful that donations were given. I don’t think they considered themselves a forgotten group here in Columbus, in Central Ohio. They were very grateful.
I got a call when I was at work cause I did have a full-time job at the time, a call from the office. I’m sure it was Liz who called, and said that there was a structure that had been erected on the west side of the parking lot, and they didn’t quite understand what it was, that there was smoke coming out of it. And it turned out it was a sweat lodge that had been erected, for what they called Vision Quest by Native Americans, who put it on our property because they had assumed we were friendly, we were a friendly tribe, and, you know, we weren’t going to be upset. And they had nowhere else to go, and there were men in there, you know, sweating, and doing other spiritual things. And I had to talk to them, you know, and had to come home from work, and go out and, “Excuse me.” And they introduced themselves, and they had kind of stereotypical Native American names and they were very involved in this ritual. And I couldn’t see kicking them out or anything at that point, but I said I wanted to talk to them when they were done. And just told them I was glad they felt welcome, but I would appreciate it if they would give us a “heads up” next time before, you know, pitching their tent, so to speak, there. But it was the oddest thing. You know, in a way it’s funny and it’s absurd, but it’s also so endearing to realize that that’s what Beth Tikvah meant to people of all types. That we were the crazies who were going to say, “By all means, you know, are you children of God? By all means, come here and do what you need to do.”
Other woman’s voice: What a wonderful story.
Schwarz: Now, I don’t think they came back, but I was still really happy that that happened.
Schwarz: Yeah. So that was another thing that happened. I don’t remember the question, but I hope I answered a little bit, whatever it was. The things I was proud of. I was proud of everyone. I felt, I remember, when I left I said the blessing that you’re suppose to say when you see a rainbow, and I looked out at the congregation, and I remember saying that blessing, and saying, “We are each other’s rainbows in this place. This is a place where we are the promise for everyone around us, we can be that.” And I took such pride in it. Not that I was president so much as that I felt as if I belonged to this wonderful community. It really was an honor for me. So…
Interviewer: That’s wonderful.
Schwarz: It was the hardest thing.
Interviewer: Your greatest challenge?
Schwarz: My greatest challenge was number one, when I came in, it was discovered that we owed tons and tons of money in taxes that had never been paid. We had never had a professional bookkeeper before. I think that they did the best they could in the office but.
Interviewer: I didn’t know the congregation paid taxes.
Schwarz: There were back taxes to be paid. I’m not sure at this point what it would have been for.
Interviewer: Maybe for employees, maybe for employees’ benefits.
Schwarz: Yes. I bet it is, I bet it is. And we had to hire a bookkeeper, very quickly, to get us out of that black hole that we were in. It was scary, it was really scary. We didn’t talk to people about it because, what is the saying, “one positive action is worth a thousand sighs.” [Laughing] So we just did the best we could. We did finally settle everything, you know, which was a great feeling. That’s not a very glamorous kind of thing to talk about. But the other biggest challenge from my perspective. Oh, you know what, what was the proudest thing that I didn’t say? I’m sorry. Founder’s Day. We did that big ceremony where we recognized all of the original members of Beth Tikvah. It was called Bereshit, “in the beginning.” And we created a booklet. Joe Vogel did a beautiful cover for it, and I don’t know if I have it in here; yeah, “In the Beginning of Beth Tikvah, a Shabbat Service honoring the founders and earliest members.” So you must have been there.
Other woman’s voice: You don’t have a copy of that.
Schwarz: I think I have one somewhere. I think I have the actual booklet.
Interviewer: We would love to have it for the archives.
Schwarz: Because I think there are a lot of people quoted in there. What I did was interview the old members and say, “What did you like about this place when it started?” And I remember Marty Seltzer saying, “Well, sweeping the floors.” There were a lot of reminisces that were really great. And I really loved the chance to honor these people I thought so much of personally, and as I said, you might have been part of that. They were like 25-year members, or something like, that at the time. And I said, I remember saying, “Let’s not be squirrels who forget where the acorns are buried.” That’s how I, I didn’t want to forget, as the temple grew larger, the people who were so instrumental in setting it up. And that was definitely one of the things I was proudest of. It was a chance to really recognize and repay people for all they had done. So that’s, I’m glad I didn’t forget that.
Other woman’s voice: Did you have any controversy when you were president?
Schwarz: Yeah, I’m getting to that now.
Interviewer: Do those come under the personal challenges? [Laughing]
Schwarz: Yes, we’re up to that. I took an unpopular stance at the time. Beth Tikvah, I felt, was very vulnerable to engulfment by the Jewish establishment in Columbus. I felt very, perhaps some might say irrationally, protective of the place. I was afraid that it would be swallowed up by other institutions, and lose its very unique and quirky identity as a synagogue. I made it clear that I respected all of the institutions in town, the JCC, the Federation, the Foundation, so forth. But I didn’t feel a need to, sort of, fuse with anybody. And when I finished my last year, I think I was past immediate past president, I took a stance saying personally I didn’t think it was a wise decision to merge with the JCC, and to have, what I remember Robin called it, a campus concept. Marty, at the time, talked about a stronger Jewish presence on the north side. I guess I felt we were just as strong as we needed to be, and just as appealing as we needed to be. We were growing steadily without anybody’s help, without anybody’s outside supervision. We weren’t being told we had to have a kosher kitchen; we had to abide by certain rules because there were other people who were going to be there who had requirements of us. It felt wrong to me. And I remember making a very impassioned speech at a meeting with a strategic planning committee. I have all my notes here of the whole speech and everything, tried to present it humbly, but in a very impassioned way. And I was the only dissenting vote who didn’t want to move. I wanted to stay where we were. I wanted to…
Other woman’s voice: Was that moving to Sawmill?
Schwarz: That was when it began. Steve Heck was an architect at the time had come up with a plan of expanding the building on site. We had gotten the agreement of the neighbors for us to do that. We had gotten zoning approval. It was easy. But people had big eyes, and wanted something different. I felt it was a mistake. And I was the only one voting, I mean, I was voted down in a horrible landslide [laughing]. So, it really, at the time, it upset me, not because of personal reasons, but I really felt it was a crucial, pivotal moment, and something terrible was going to happen. And something that, I think, my then rabbi and good friend held me accountable for. I resigned from the temple because I felt strongly about it, and I don’t know if he ever forgave for that. But I didn’t really feel like I was abandoning the place so much as saying, perhaps, we were right for each other for a certain number of years, and, then, maybe, this wasn’t the place for me now. And I with great reluctance, and great sorrow, kind of pulled out.
Interviewer: Now, was this at the point where there was an effort to have the Jewish Center come into the temple on the site?
Schwarz: For daycare, yeah.
Interviewer: Okay, so it was early on?
Schwarz: Yeah, I felt that we shouldn’t. I felt if we had a need for religious school students to have more classroom space, we could do that ourselves. And we had it all planned. We were going to build an art gallery. We had a peace garden. We were going to set up on where the sweat lodge was [laughing] ironically. And we had all kinds of people in mind to do the gardening. I remember, Judith Nastalsky would have been perfect to lead that; she’s famous for her gardens. And there were a lot of, you know, I just could see it being such an exciting thing, but it really, I just have to recognize, just because I wanted it, didn’t mean it was the right thing for the majority of people. The majority of that group, the vast majority of that group, wasn’t really listening, and didn’t agree with me. That’s their right. But I just thought, well okay maybe somebody else needs to be leading now. And that was the end of it. So I think David, wait it was Marty, and then it was David Binkowitz after me. It was Robin, Marty, David. That’s all I remember. After that I didn’t keep up.
So, I’m not trying to paint myself as some sort of tragic hero. I think what I am saying is that was, by far, the most difficult thing was having a gut feeling that this was an important decision, and that things were leading the wrong way from my perspective, but having to realize, you know, majority rule; that’s how it goes. And I just felt, okay, take it over. And I was horrified, really, in certain respects, what was happening the next several years in terms of all of the struggles involved, and then, I guess, learning now that nothing’s happening any way, and that the enrollment went down ,and they don’t even need the space now after all that. So I don’t even what this was all about, you know. And the challenge for me was to be able to say, “I did the best I could as a servant of the temple”; which are what Levites are supposed to do. And I did the best I could, and other people should have the same opportunity to make contributions, and to shine, the way I was fortunate enough to have.
Interviewer: Since then, what Jewish communal activities have you become involved in, and why?
Schwarz: Well, apart from the obvious chaplaincy duties that I mentioned before, you know, nursing homes, hospitals, hospice, prisons, I’ve done some baby naming, which have been a joy to do at people’s homes, and I remember the rabbi who helped me when I was in that situation.
And,, by the way I always do encourage people to join synagogues. I think the rabbis in town may not fully understand that about me. I don’t know what they think, if anything, but I always encourage people to join temple, and tell them how wonderful my experience was. I never badmouth anyone or any place because I’m grateful for what I had. But I do help with things.
I help with conversions. I helped Rabbi Apothaker with several actual conversion ceremonies at the mikvah at Beth Jacob. You know, filled out the certificate and all that. You know, that was a great feeling. People were so excited you know.
I’ve written for an interfaith journal called Epiphanies; several articles alongside Buddhists and Hindus and whoever else felt like throwing something in there. I’ve delivered lectures and messages at various churches who have invited me to speak. One of them, last year, was an amazing experience for me. It was a black Pentecostal church, congregation. I had never been to one. It was, it was like a pizza with everything on it. I mean, it was speaking in tongues, and full out gospel singing and, you know, I mean it was quite different for me. [Laughing] I was invited. I was the only white person in the building, and asked to speak about Israel and the importance of supporting Israel. And I said, “Okay I’ll do that; I can do that.” And that was a really great experience. I think all of us can learn every single day of our lives, there are things to learn. And I’ve had a lot of chances to do that.
Teaching Torah at prison has been great for me. It’s made me actually learn, in detail, reading commentaries and all of that. I’ve learned so much,and I like to share that with people.
I lead worship services still. I still do funerals. And the latest thing is a wedding service that I was asked to prepare for a young interfaith couple for this November, and I meet with them once a week and do some counseling with them.
Interviewer: How do people find you to do this?
Schwarz: It’s very strange. I don’t really know.
Interviewer: Advertise? Just by word of mouth?
Schwarz: It is that. It’s people, I just met a lot of people, and, I guess, just as a human being I think it’s important to touch every life you encounter, that’s what real life is to me. It seems to have worked out that people find me if they want me.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful. Now I’m going to end on a light note. What is your favorite Jewish holiday, and why?
Schwarz: Okay. If you let me also say something on a light note. I forgot to say one thing. It was only a minor challenge, but we had bats, not in our belfry, but in our sanctuary.
Interviewer: I remember.
Schwarz: We had bats, and I remember, on more than one occasion, where Liz would scream into the phone, “There is a bat there and clawing at people.” I taught her enough about the wildlife aspect of this, for her to be able, after a while, to be quite good at catching them, and bringing them to the Ohio Wildlife Center on Billingsley Road. And we brought them a number of bats. But we used to, I used to say, we should advertise that we had bat mitzvahs and everything. [Laughter] That wasn’t a terrible challenge. That was just sort of a odd thing.
Okay, what is my favorite Jewish holiday? I did think about this. And I would say Tu B’Shevat. I mean I love all the holidays, but for me, Tu B’Shevat is the holiday that deals with the environment. It takes, it’s able to posit the Jewish people not only against the backdrop of history, but also in the natural world that we are supposed to be a part of, that we’re supposed to be stewards of. And festival of trees and the Seder ritual that often accompanies it, that’s not something too many people do, but Tu B’Shevat Seders are really fun. You get to taste a lot of unusual fruits, and I think it tends, things like this can invigorate a person’s faith; not just the usual, by rote, attendance at the same set you know well, many of which you love, but do all the time. But to take something and make it a little different, you know, and make it a little exciting. And, so I even wrote, if you’ll indulge me, and I can keep quiet after this. But I wrote a poem about this, that I found, called “The Tree” and it was for Tu B’Shevat.
The Jewish people have a tree.
Its roots reach into memory.
It’s nourished by a fertile soil of blessings, sacrifice and toil.
Its trunk’s the Torah.
Law its bark supporting us when times are dark.
Its branches joyfully extend to shepherd, shield, inspire and defend.
Its fruit, so healthy and so sweet, is kindness to all those we meet.
Each proud leaf waving in the air is every Jew’s sincerest prayer.
We thank God for the sacred land, like us, created by His hand.
And I think, I started by talking about memory. I think that is what the value is of the Jewish Historical Society. We always sing that song Al Shlosha Devorim, on three things the world stands: Torah or law, Avodot, work or study, and then Gemilut Hasadim, deeds of loving kindness. But I think that there is another, which is memory. I think that the world stands on memory, because through the portal of memory is where I see dreams coming from, imagination coming from, and vision coming from. When you remember what was, you’re able to figure out not only where you’ve been, but where you want to go. And I think that that’s the beauty of the Historical Society. I’m really, really honored that you asked me to be interviewed.
Interviewer: Well, thank you so much, Jack. And we’re very honored that you came, and did this interview, and obviously, gave it a lot of thought and preparation. And, on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, I want to thank you for contributing to the oral history project. And this concludes the interview.
Schwarz: Thank you very much. I hope that went okay.
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