Interview with Rabbi Nathan Zelizer on August 7, 1975 by Linda Kalet. This
interview is part of the Oral History program of the Columbus Jewish Historical
Interviewer: You came to Tifereth Israel in 1931, is that correct?
Interviewer: This was still during the Depression. Can you tell me
what was the impact of the Depression on the congregation?
Zelizer: The impact was very serious. They had nine (Indistinct) members
at that time. They had 200 members in 1929. The Rabbi quit because they
just didn’t have enough money to pay. They also had to let the cantor
go and all they had was a Hebrew school teacher who conducted the
services for them. The congregation dwindled to about 90 families and
they had a mortgage of about $150,000. They couldn’t pay anything on
the mortgage, not the principal or the interest. So the situation was
very serious. I came there for about six months to just help them out
and then I was to go back to the seminary to teach and to study. I was
there on a scholarship. Then they asked me to continue to stay there.
The loan company had the mortgage on the temple. There was a balance
of about $175,000 and they hadn’t paid for about a year. They were
ready to foreclose so Mr. Schlezinger and I went down to the bank and we
stayed there in the bank for seven or eight hours after closing and we
convinced them to give us an opportunity for a year, not to pay anything
and we would pay fifty cents on the dollar. We would try to raise some
money. After a year or a year and a half, we did raise about $75,000 so
we started paying and in the course of time, the mortgage was canceled.
We paid fifty cents on the dollar. Quite a number of churches also had
that obligation so the loan companies that had faith were ready to
assist and they came out much worse than Tifereth Israel. The situation
was not so good. The entire budget was only about $12,000 a year.
Interviewer: How did you raise the money?
Zelizer: We had, not from the pulpit, every Friday night, we met with
a few fellows and then on Sunday evenings, we met at someone’s home
just to buttonhole people and get donations. We’d get $500
contributions, $300 promises. The congregation also had some bonds
(Indistinct) 1927. They also defaulted on the bonds. So we asked the people
who had bonds to give us the bonds. Some of them returned[ them, even
the Dispatch Company, they gave us some bonds which they bought. So we
were able to somehow turn in some of those things and negotiate
(Indistinct). But we did get new signatures for $75,000, personal
signatures and of course, it took us 12-14 years but it gave us enough
time to pay off. So it took a little bit of time and we got new members.
Interviewer: How did the congregation develop in size after the
Zelizer: After I decided to continue and I had to make a living,
conditions were pretty rough, (I also brought two brothers over here and
had to support them), so I had to stay. We just went from family to
family and asked them to join. We signed them up. Membership was $25 a
year. So I got a $5 deposit and signed them up. And the congregation
grew and the Hebrew school grew. So we increased the membership from 90
in 1931-32 to about 225 in 1934-35. We doubled the congregation in a
couple of years and of course, that gave us extra money. We had
employees to support except the rabbi and my salary was $2,400 a year
and I gave them back $400 every year. Mr. Shimoni was the Hebrew teacher
and he made $1,100 and the janitor. Sunday School teachers were
volunteers and of course, I taught, myself. I taught Hebrew, I taught
preparation for Bar Mitzvah and Mr. Shimoni who taught Hebrew school,
helped me out on weekends. So in other words, we had no staff to
support. All we had was a $12,000 a year budget so we were able to do
it. The Sisterhood helped out quite a lot. When the banks were closed, I
wasn’t paid for months, sometimes. I had to pay my lodging, my room
and board – I was single – so I remember we had a luncheon and collected
25 cents a lunch, took in about $60 and it gave me about $35 and I had
nickels and dimes and pennies so I had a little to live on. We had many
functions. We had poker games to raise money for the coal. In other
words, they took off so much for the pot, I’m not a poker player. They
had various functions and of course, other organizations began to meet
at the Temple. At that time, it was the most acceptable location. The
Jewish War Veterans and the Hadassah. So we slowly got the organizations
to meet in our Temple and we were able to make a lot of money along with
memberships and special functions which provided the extra funds for the
coal, heat and mortgage.
Interviewer: Was there a lot of emphasis on recruiting?
Zelizer: That was the major emphasis. Otherwise the Temple would have
closed. You had to have a congregation – that was a matter of necessity.
There were two big congregations here. The Reform Temple had 500 members
at that time. Agudas Achim had 500 members. There were two small Temples
– Beth Jacob had 80 or 90 members and Ahavas Shalom had 80 or 90 members
so we were the smallest and we just had to (Indistinct), it was a matter
of necessity. When it is necessary, you go beyond a little bit. I did
things which rabbi shouldn’t have done and that’s why I stopped
studying for my doctorate.
Interviewer: What kinds of things did you do that a rabbi should not
Zelizer: Go out and get members. Involved myself in the financial
aspect of the congregation. Go out and urge a person who was able to
raise his dues from $25 to $35 or $40. To meet many people in order to
create prospects. I was in charge of the membership drive. Taught Hebrew
school. Taught Bar Mitzvah. Sometimes conducted services – the complete
service. We had an old house and the president and I put partitions in
it in order to make room for the increased number of children. I did
carpentry work, janitorial work. I did many things that were not within
the framework of Rabbinical duties.
Interviewer: Did the congregation continue to grow?
Zelizer: Steadily. It kept on moving until 1934. The congregation had
a membership of about 550 families which was almost equal in size to the
other congregations, so we were on a solid foundation. We began to pay
Sunday School teachers, we began to hire students from Ohio State
University to teach Hebrew, we began to engage cantors and slowly but
surely, I also began to push for an executive director. We had a
part-time business administrator.
Interviewer: A lot of lay people say that it is the lay people, not
the rabbi who are the driving force in a congregation.
Zelizer: That has been the major change in congregational functions.
I know my son wouldn’t go out and get members. I don’t know how many
rabbis in Columbus would go out and do it now. I stopped it about 30
years ago. But the emphasis was, we didn’t develop a leadership at
that time as much as we have right now. As a matter of fact, in the
course of time, right now, in my point of view, the entire
congregational program and functions of the congregation are in the
hands of lay people, even the religious aspect of it. They determine the
nature of the religious program. They determine as to what (Indistinct) as
a member. I was the religious leader and nobody advised me what to say,
what not to say, what to exclude or what to include in the prayers. In
other words, I was both the secular and the religious leader. Now the
rabbi has a larger committee which has the say by a majority vote.
Interviewer: Do you see any other relationship between the rabbi and
the congregation? The changes?
Zelizer: There were tremendous changes. The rabbi is not the source
of religious authority. The congregation decides the nature of the
religious program. The rabbi is not part of the general group of
committees. Many rabbis don’t even attend board meetings. For me not
to attend a board meeting was a calamity because I had to be there. I
was involved. (Indistinct) the membership, the religious program, the
education program, the hospital visitation program, the elections and
the appointment of committees were not exercised without consultation
with the rabbi. He actually determined the nature of the board, the type
of people on the board, he actually (Indistinct). The rabbi was
actually involved in asking certain people to resign from the board. An
officer, a secretary, had to resign from an office because he was
inter-married and I refused to have him on the board at that time. So
there are many instances which indicated that the position of the rabbi
at that time was a very strong position. Right now, because the rabbi is
spread out in other areas, as I became involved in the general
community, naturally, I had to let go and the congregation grew up, they
developed leadership. At that time, our Temple did not have one member
on the Board of the Hillel Foundation. They were not interested so we
had to develop – at that time we didn’t have a big United Jewish Fund.
The rabbi was pushed into the background as the lay leaders came forward
out of the background. Many of the changes that have come about have
been as a result of this change in position of the rabbi and the lay
leadership. Right now, it’s the United Synagogue of the Conservative
Movement which determines the nature of the religious programs. It’s
not the Seminary faculties, it’s the rabbis in the field who are, of
course, representing the masses of Jewish people. At that time, it was
the professor and the rabbi who exercised the religious authority,
education authority and we were not questioned. Other forces moved in
and pushed the rabbi into the background. Of course, the rabbi also
became a specialist in other areas. They became counselors, they became
psychiatrists, they became community workers of some kind. So they moved
away from the little position, therefore, there was this lessening of
being an influence in the synagogue.
Interviewer: Rabbi, you mentioned instances which would illustrate
the role of rabbi. Were there any others that you remember besides
having to ask people to resign?
Zelizer: There was the time they wanted to fire the cantor. I was
violently against it and I fought the members of the board and the
cantor stayed. There was a time, for example, a very prominent member,
Mr. I. H. Schlesinger died and the family gave $5,000 to the Temple.
That was a good sum of money in 1937-38. They named the social hall of
the Temple the I.H. Schlezinger Social Hall. I mentioned this because it
is part of the records. I came back from vacation – I used to take six
to seven weeks because in the summertime, I gave them the money and just
took off. I was single at the time. I came back and found out that they
changed the name to the I.H. Schlezinger Social Hall from the Tifereth
Israel Social Hall. At that time, they called it (Indistinct). I happened
to be visiting with a very sick member who was dying from cancer. An old
timer. A Hungarian Jew by the name of Ignatz Hirsch. I came in and he
starts crying. I said, “Mr. Hirsch, why of you cry?” He said,
“Do you know that they’re changing the name of the social hall
from the Tifereth Israel Social Hall to the I. H. Schlezinger Social
Hall? I’m dying. I gave money to build that Temple. My children, my
son and there are people in the cemetery. If a person wants to give
$5,000 or $10,000 without other people contributing, let him build a new
structure and name it. Who is going to take up the fight of the people
who are dead who gave money so that it shall be in memory of all?”
That statement moved me. That poor, dying man happened to live another
couple of years. I went to the board and I said, “This was a
mistake. We have to undo what we did.” Well, that was a dramatic
experience because you were actually in conflict with the founders of
the congregation. “Who’s going to tell the widow?” I said,
“I will.” The injustice of naming a section of the Temple
which was built by people alive and dead because of a few thousand
dollars. The situation was very precarious and it so happens that it
changed it. We compromised on a little plaque. If you go to the Temple
right now, you’ll see on a corner of the social hall, in the old
social hall, a plaque dedicated in memory of I.H. Schlezinger. There
were other objections. How can you name a Temple after a person? Suppose
a child of the Temple with the same name goes to jail? You call it the
so and so Temple and that’s desecration, that’s pure shame. In other
words, I used whatever knowledge and influence I had to change a very
important decision. This is a very important function which indicates
the position of the rabbi and the congregation in those days and the
position right now. I don’t think anything like this happen in
Columbus and anything will ever happen. Of course, a rabbi would resign
and build another congregation. To stay and fight it out – we used to do
it. I wasn’t the only one. Other rabbis did the same thing in other
Interviewer: What do you see as the uniqueness of the Conservative
congregation? When you came, there were all the other congregations? How
was Tifereth Israel different?
Zelizer: At that time, nobody knew what a Conservative congregation
was. We’re close to Cincinnati and they didn’t know what it was.
Conservative Judaism wasn’t known outside of New York or maybe
Philadelphia. In the 1920s there were 14-20 Conservative synagogues in
the United Synagogues of America. In 1930, the entire budget of the
United Synagogues of America, consisting of 150 synagogues, was maybe
$25,000 – the national budget! $7,000-8,000 was the salary for rabbis.
Rabbi Cohen used to get $8,000 a year. Of course, they didn’t pay
their bills. As a student, I was director of religion at a Boy Scout
camp in Brooklyn. A 1,000 Jewish boys. That’s the way they function.
So the Conservative movement had no name. It was an Orthodox
congregation except the men and women sat together not by decision but
by habit. They conducted the same services – that’s why we, of course,
never had (Indistinct) congregations those days. Every Conservative
synagogue was a shul, we would daven, we had a daily minyan, we had a
Saturday afternoon shalashuchs, we wore yalmalkas. Friday night, we had
late services which we adopted from the Reform but we also had an
earlier service that petered out. But there were no changes except I
preached in Yiddish, not English. I didn’t wear my yalmalka when I was
outside the synagogue. In my personal (Indistinct), walked, as I still do
so in my behavior as a rabbi, there was very little difference between
Conservative and Orthodox except mixed seating and perhaps leaving out
certain portions during the High Holidays – special poems, traditional
roles. We had certain changes. But the changes were minor. In the course
of time, of course, the Conservative movement grew and right now, the
Conservative movement, in my point of view, will consolidate with the
Reform movement in the course of time. There will be two types of
Judaism – liberal Orthodox and there will be liberal Judaism. Of course,
there will be a break away from each but they will be minute, small
organizations. The major body – right now they change the services,
knock out whatever they want. There is no such thing as this you’re
allowed to do and this you’re not allowed to do. We followed the law.
I can see it but I’m an old timer. But from my point of view, the
Conservative and Reform movement will consolidate in the course of time.
Interviewer: When you first came there, did the Conservative movement
have its own prayer book at that time?
Zelizer: We had the United Synagogues of America prayer book,
published in 1913. We used Silverman’s prayer book and before that
time, we used Adler’s. There was no prayer book. We used Silverman’s
Saturday prayer book and the United Synagogues of America had already at
that time, published a holiday prayer book for the three major holidays
– Passover, Sukkoth and Shavuous. For the High Holidays, we used
Silverman’s prayer book which became the official Conservative prayer
Interviewer: What were some of the other changes in Conservative
Zelizer: From that time until now? Shortening of the services. Many
congregations began to read the Torah on a triangular cycle. Not the
whole section, every week. Not in our congregation. I left it as a
traditional right wing Conservative congregation. We made no changes
while I was there. I fought the changes.
Interviewer: Talk a little bit about that.
Zelizer: For example, in my time, I retired July, 1974. For four or
six year prior to my retirement, there were requests that I start
counting women a minyan. I just didn’t discuss it. I said no. There
were aggressive (Indistinct) that I cut out certain prayers on Friday
night. There was a (Indistinct) several times. On Friday night we sang
Lcha-Dodi. There were several Lachol-Dodis. They said, “Why do we
have to sing all of them? Why not sing on Friday night, two at the
beginning. Two at the end?” I said, “You mind your business.
We’ll sing all of them.” They attend the United Synagogues of
America convention, they become members of the committee and they come
back as authorities as to what we should wear and what we should not
say. I did not permit a religious committee to offer any suggestions as
to the content of the prayer and the extent of elimination. For example,
during the daily service, one man who lost his wife and came to the
minyan every morning. If you know the service, you will find that you
say Ashray at the beginning of the service and then after that,
Shamone-esra. They said, “Why do we have to repeat the Ashray? Why
say it twice?” Well, he doesn’t know that the nature of the
service is such that it consists of two parts, Shachareit and Mousov. In
other words, the second Ashray is the second half of the services and if
you leave out the second Ashray, you actually conduct half the service.
That’s the historic and (Indistinct). So I try to keep a
service in tact in order to preserve a certain traditional atmosphere.
It worked because people came. I told the women and the president of the
Sisterhood that when the time comes when I will not have men come to
Sabbath morning services, I will call up women. But as long as I have
men come, why should I have a woman? We used to have, when I came here,
twelve people come to Friday night services to listen to my sermon.
Saturday morning, we had six adults and one of the men would go round
up, by car, four or five children to have a Sabbath morning service.
When I left, Saturday mornings, we’d have 400-500 people for a Bar
Mitzvah. Friday night, we’d have 150-200 people. So why would I change
a functioning program when I was sure if I made the changes, the
attendance wouldn’t have been much bigger? As a matter of fact, I don’t
know how much more (Indistinct) service I attended (Indistinct) services. I
think Orthodox services are attended better, a greater number of people
attend service. So it’s not a question of changes, it’s a question
of what results would I get? Twenty years ago, had I known that I would
be in shul every Saturday morning and I would have 500 come to the
services, I’d (Indistinct). I don’t know how many come to Temple right
now because (Indistinct). I doubt that there’s (Indistinct). As a matter
of fact, one or two may have stopped altogether.
Interviewer: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the
Conservative congregation? Why would someone go to a Conservative
Zelizer: The reason a lot of people join a Conservative congregation
is because they want a certain traditionalism that won’t change. But
they want tradition in change and not change without tradition or
tradition without change. The Conservative movement, somehow, has never
down and said, “let us change,” until recently. For
example, the mikvah was abolished although it was continued to be used
for converts. The Conservative movement didn’t say, let men and women
sit together in the synagogue. Men and women starting sitting together
so the rabbi didn’t object. In other words, the people were beginning
to lean in directions but those changes did not affect the basic
traditions of Judaism. A Conservative Jew would say, “Outside, I
could eat fish, I don’t have to be eating cheese all the time.”
Even you can’t eat if you really want to follow the law. I know before
I went into the service, I never ate downtown except lettuce and tomato
but when I cam back in 1945-46, I went to director of the community and
I went to lunch and I couldn’t just sit there and eat lettuce. They
had fish, cheese. I didn’t eat meat. Some, I ate everything, some, I
ate nothing. But I was able to participate in a luncheon. Well, that’s
a change. I’d drink a cup of coffee. Those are changes which we
adopted and somehow gave a certain satisfaction to Jews who wanted to
preserve tradition and at the same time, they wanted to be part of and
parcel of the larger community and sit there, not like a lettuce man or
celery or bring your own little sandwich so they could participate in a
meal. These are some of the changes that came about. Certain liberation
that people accepted.
Interviewer: Were there also weaknesses? Things that would keep
people from coming?
Zelizer: Yes. Some people objected to any change. Some people felt
there weren’t enough changes and they went to the Reform Temple. It
was much easier. Our emphasis was on education. The only Temple in
Columbus, Ohio that always had a Hebrew School was the Tifereth Israel
congregation. We abolished the Sunday School. We moved the direction of
more of a maximum and less of a minimum of Judaism but not maximum to
the point where the child has to wear a yalmalka all the time, separated
from the rest of community. We emphasized a program that made the Jew
feel comfortable outside the synagogue and inside the synagogue. I never
told my child, “Don’t go to play football,” and he’s a
rabbi. I used to go watch football on Shabbat. I came to services first.
After we’d go to shul, we’d watch what we want. These are some of
the changes that we, ourselves, the rabbis made. But they were not far,
far away from the basic traditions that made a person feel at home, feel
better. When Jews have a serious occasion, they want a certain
traditionalism. As a matter of fact, you’ll find right now, masses of
liberal Jews who want more of the mystic aspects of the Jewish life to
turn them on. I think the reason some of our young people are going to
the gurus is because we became too logical. We became too compromising
and too much saying our prayers in English. The result is they lack this
spiritual mystic attitude of the synagogue.
Interviewer: What were the different constituencies in the people who
came on Friday night and people who came to the daily minyan or on
Zelizer: We always emphasized . . . I said to people, come to
synagogue for one purpose or another, but come. Well, some people came
to Sisterhood meetings. I never saw them Friday night or Saturday
morning. But I gave them credit. We used to play cards there, too. This
we cut out but we played cards because it was necessary to raise money.
Just like some synagogues have bingo. They have to raise money. But in
the course of time, as the budget was stabilized, we cut that out. Of
course, we were pressured also by the United Synagogues of America. So
some people came to (Indistinct) but never came to Saturday morning. And I
said, fine, I encouraged people. I said, “You don’t have to come
to Shabbat morning but come to some function.” We had children in
Hebrew School who never came to Saturday morning services. So we always
emphasized that you have to be together with your people in the
synagogue for some reason. If not for religious reasons, for social
reasons, for institution reasons. But identify yourself through the
synagogue. So we did have these classifications where some people never
showed up except on occasions. But that was fine. If they can’t come
on Saturday, come Friday night. That’s why we adopted Friday night
services. Of course, later on they realized it and Saturday morning
became more important. Some Conservative congregations are doing away
altogether with Friday night services. I began to feel it was a false
service. I didn’t like to preach Friday night. The kind of audience I
got? They were tired, sleepy. I was tired and it was not the time to
preach a sermon. I even started (Indistinct) to cut the Friday night to
have a 5:00 o’clock service and then go home and eat with your family.
And not have to rush to do the dishes. Friday night, you spend with your
Interviewer: Were there groups that dominated the services?
Zelizer: Not as much as today. There were always people who tried to
dominate. I had young men and old men. They tried to dominate. Everyone
had ideas. But they talked and nothing happened. Now, of course, these
ideas generally bring results. And there are changes, rapid changes.
Some congregations have a different kind of service every Friday night.
They have rock ‘n roll, they have – I don’t know, I heard a lot of
what goes on. From my point of view, it’s lowering the level of the
synagogue and tradition and I think it’s going to play havoc unless it’s
a passing phase and it goes away. There has to be a certain sameness,
certain tradition, a certain climate that we have to create and we
cannot create it without tradition.
Interviewer: Were there people that were not reached by the kinds of
services that were offered?
Zelizer: Many people.
Interviewer: What kind?
Zelizer: Well, if we didn’t reach them by the services, we reached
them in the hospitals, at serious occasions, on joyous occasions. I did
lots of visiting. We reached them at certain meetings. I went to B’nai
Brith meetings, I went to veterans’ meetings, to Zionist meetings. In
other words, I was the visible connecting link between them and the
synagogue. We had educational groups. Some came to our study groups. We
started some new children. Some came back. We paid more attention to
those who came than to those who didn’t come. We tried one by one. We’d
send out, for example, I had cards printed. if Mr. So and So didn’t
show up for six months. I would send out a personal called a (Indistinct).
You’d be surprised. I sent out six or seven cards every week and one
or two would show up. I would like to see them. Come after the
(Indistinct), I still have samples of those cards. I did the same thing
with children. We had confirments who had to attend a certain number of
services. They didn’t – I’d call the parents. There was a certain
moral philosophy. The secretary didn’t do it, I did it. Then when the
congregation became so big and I was so much involved, I lost out. Of
course, you get tired, too, after awhile. I used to send out one letter
a month. But I wrote it. Then hundreds of letters went out, I never
wrote the letters. I didn’t know what letters went out under my name.
That’s another aspect of the congregation.
Interviewer: You mentioned Hebrew school. What is your concept of the
synagogue as a Bait Midrash, a house of study?
Zelizer: The concept of the synagogue as a house of study? From my
point of view, prayer comes before study. Like we say, (Indistinct)
(Indistinct). So the rabbi says, “Let me (Indistinct).”
This is the concept of Jewish tradition. First you pray. In other words,
you don’t ask (Indistinct)_, you perform a mitzvah. Then you say the
schema. What does it mean? These are just a few of the traditional
supports to emphasize that first you have to habituate a child
(Indistinct). This, of course, has changed. Now the emphasis is on study
and not on prayer. This is another change in emphasis that has come
about in the synagogue – all synagogues – and the rabbinate.
Labavituress go to the Jews and say go put on tafillin, just put it
on and don’t ask any questions. They’ll do very well. It’s going
on right here in Columbus (Indistinct). It’s been going on for weeks.
Coming in with that kind of a concept, not just having bull sessions
about Judaism. What does it mean? The days to perform. So my concept has
been this concept: first, let’s pray, recite the Brocha. When you eat
the piece of bread, make the Brocha. Never mind the why. By the time you
find out why, you lose the habit, you’ll be too lazy, you’ll forget
to pray. That’s what’s happened. This is my concept.
Interviewer: What is your concept of the synagogue as (Indistinct)?
Zelizer: The Conservative (Indistinct)_ in general was to build a
synagogue center. As a matter of fact, the Tifereth Israel congregation
has (Indistinct) but they ran out of money. My concept, and the concept
of the Conservative movement is that the synagogue should include every
function: physical, educational, charitable and religious. In the east,
the Jewish Community Center, the (Indistinct), the synagogue provides the
services. To the Jewish community, on a religious basis and on a social
and physical basis, that, of course, would keep the Jewish people
together because the community centers are supported by the Red Feather
agencies. Of course, they have to open up the membership and that, of
course, leads to other complications. My ideal synagogue would be a
synagogue that has a house of study, a house of prayer and a house of
assembly. Not just to have meetings but to (Indistinct), baseball and
(Indistinct) and everything. A synagogue should be an all inclusive agency,
physical, social, spiritual and educational. A synagogue without a
Hebrew school is a dead synagogue. A synagogue without proper physical
facilities is a synagogue that provides only a portion of the needs of
Interviewer: Talk to me a little bit about the role of education. In
1950, the congregation voted not to affiliate with Columbus Hebrew
Zelizer: The congregation did not vote not to affiliate. That’s
wrong. In 1950, we went to the Columbus Hebrew Schools time and again,
that we should be a branch. That we should coordinate and have a
community synagogue and our Hebrew school. They voted it down. Then I
tried to buy a (Indistinct). We tried to take over Ahavas Shalom because I
wanted branches. So I had a meeting at my house with Dr. Marvin Fox,
Rabbi Baker and two other leaders of the Ahavas Shalom and some of my
machers – about nine or ten people. The services would be completely
Orthodox. (Indistinct) because Marvin Fox wanted them in their own place. I
appreciated that. I would much rather see us go out of the synagogue as
go to the Reform synagogue because a traditional synagogue provides the
membership for other agencies. So I was going to use that place for
educational and a youth activities center in addition to ours. Then I
was going to go up north. In other words, after I came back from the
service, the Ahavas Shalom was on Ohio Avenue and they applied for a
Conservative rabbi in the seminary. They called me and I said,
“Absolutely not, because there’s no reason to have two
Conservative congregations.” I was against B’nai Tikvah because
they have a bigger Reform congregation. Why have two? The Reform Temple
built a branch over there. My concept was to branch out just like a bank
branches out and serve (Indistinct). So you develop a large program and we
had money. So I was going to take over Beth Jacob in order to lose that
location. I saw that our neighborhood was declining rapidly. As a first
attempt to branch out, I did a complete (Indistinct) that we would take over
the budget and the budget would be the same. The religious services
would be exactly the same. I would preach (Indistinct). They had no
other rabbi except Fox and they did not approve it. So we wanted to
infiltrate, to branch out but Columbus Hebrew Schools did not accept it.
Mr. Abe Robbins fought against it and we lost out. And Ahavas Shalom
also did not accept our proposition. Had I been younger, I would have
opened up another Conservative congregation – a branch in the far east
and up north, near the university because I think that people would have
Interviewer: How did the congregation react to political events? For
example, the McCarthy era.
Zelizer: Well, the richer members of the congregation were always the
Conservative people. I had a hard time getting some of the board – our
congregation is ruled by a board. We used to have general meetings every
month but it turned out to be too chaotic so we cut out meeting, the
board (Indistinct) the congregation. It was small, nine members. Now it’s
up to 17 or 18 members. The annual meeting, which is nothing but a
phony. They read reports, there are nominations, state of the Reform
Temple and Conservative congregation. None of it is good, in other
words, it’s very bad. That’s why so many people are turning off
because they have no say. They’re used as work horses but not for
policy purposes. So (Indistinct), the McCarthy era, they didn’t take any
stand at all, that is, the board. Some of the younger members wanted to
take a stand, not so much during the McCarthy era but remember, we were
active in the organization of the Urban League here in Columbus. I was
condemned by some of my machers because I was taking a liberal attitude
toward the government of the black people. I went to Lazarus to urge
employment to hire blacks. People called wanting to know why do I mix
with those things? I was almost fired because I stood up fought
for rent control, some people called me a communist. The older people
didn’t want to rock the boat. But younger people from Ohio State
University, professional people couldn’t budge the old-timer – they
Interviewer: Oscar Smilack was a member of the congregation. Do you have
any reflections about him?
Zelizer: There was a member of my congregation who was a good friend of
mine. It was a very interesting family – intelligent, educated, and of
course, when he was arrested, for communism and sent to Lima State Hospital,
I was asked to go and talk to him. Of course, we were able to get him out of
Lima State Hospital because he didn’t belong there for observation. We had
many meetings and at that time, to convince him, not of his ideology but to
be (Indistinct) at that time, he was actually helping the Communist Party was
something to be considered. To make certain statements which would have
released him from whatever problem he was in. But he was the type of man who
just would not budge. I could not influence him at all. The congregation
wanted to throw him out as a member. I fought it and I won. Every person has
a right to belong to a congregation (Indistinct) as a member. I think the Jewish
Community Center also adopted the same attitude at that time. But a great
majority of people wanted him out. Of course, my function as a rabbi was not
to take sides too quickly, otherwise I would be involved in …. like
capital labor. We had in Columbus, capital labor and a capital committee
that would meet from time to time for lunch and the purpose of this meeting
would be to discuss capital labor and religion. My philosophy was that the
church and the synagogue or the rabbi cannot take sides that fast. I have to
test the moral issues and values and then try to win over both sides for a
certain compromise. This was my position. That’s why I never marched in
the streets, that’s why I never took part in rallies. Because (Indistinct)
the (Indistinct) and the confidence of some of the wealthier members, what do
I have left? (Indistinct) act too fast and they took sides too fast on capital
labor . I’m more conservative than liberal.
Interviewer: What role did Israel play over the years?
Zelizer: A major role. As a matter of fact, I was president of the
Zionist organization here in Columbus, 100 members (Indistinct) and when the
Zionist organization reached a membership of 1,200-1,400 people here in
Columbus prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, our congregation
played a vital role. The Conservative rabbinate, as a rule, had a staunch,
loyal, active part in building the Zionist organization and Palestine and
Interviewer: Did you preach sermons on Palestine and Israel?
Zelizer: Yes, I preached many sermons on Palestine, the Arabs,
atrocities. One of my friends died, Rabbi Berlin, who was a collector of
mine in the Yeshiva. He went to Israel in 1936-37. He was slaughtered and
some other events which led me to be quite active in the Zionist
organization at that time.
Interviewer: What would you say the purpose of your sermons were?
Zelizer: The purpose of my sermons were primarily individual. I published
two sermons a year for the Ohio American Legion News for the last 30 years.
(Unable to understand what interviewee is saying).
My sermons were
personal with exceptions, of course. My sermons deal with the question of
using the religious forces to maximize our potential. In other words,
behavioral scientists tell us
that we only function to 10% of our potential, our brains, our bodies,
that’s all we do, 10%, some 9%. But not 100%. My tradition was to use
religion as a force to help you overcome the ugliness of life and face the
realities of life and become just a little bit better – mentally,
physically, socially, spiritually, charitably and so forth. All through the
eyes of the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, Jewish philosophy. In other
words, my sermons did not deal so much with the economic aspect of the
Jewish people, the (Indistinct) aspect of the Jewish people or the
(Indistinct) aspect. I (Indistinct) on Israel, not too much. I always felt that
they knew as much about it as I did. They read articles, they watched
television. I’m not a political analyst. My business was to study the
Talmud, to study the Midrash, especially, which was the Hagaddah, the poetic
tradition of Jewish tradition. To utilize that as a means of enabling a
person to face life, to face death, to face family problems, to face
individual deteriation to face growing old, to face human relations. In
other words, my Judaism, to me, is the bread and butter that I eat and not
to be aggravated so much by what I see and hear. Those are my sermons and I
use whatever sources I possibly could get.
Interviewer: What was the role of interfaith activities while you were
Zelizer: From 1931 until I returned from the army in 1945-56, I had no
law. I was interested in building the congregation. I took very little part,
only to (Indistinct) rabbi as a representative of the Jewish people of the
general community. Secondly, I wouldn’t eat outside. I couldn’t even
have a cup of coffee. When I went into the army, I lost over 100 pounds. I
ate non kosher meat, I had to because otherwise, I would have died. I met a
lot of Christian ministers. There ware 500 Jewish Chaplains mixed in with
8,000 Christian Chaplains in World War II. That opened my eyes to
Christianity. I never knew what a Christian was. I didn’t care what a
Christian was. I only saw their evil history. I only saw torture and hatred
and anti Semitism. But when I went into the army, we used to discuss and
study together, we used to say prayers, we carried around in our pockets,
Catholic prayers, Protestant prayers, Jewish prayers. I began to realize
that there was another world besides the one in which I lived and I wanted
to take an active (Indistinct) part in the community. So I changed my diet and
began eating out – fish, cheese, omelets, etc and I got myself on many, many
committees. I started being (Indistinct). Of course, at that time, I (Indistinct)
ulcer. I had a lot of help. I also became a chaplain at the mental hospital
for (Indistinct). I was very much involved in the Christian community. Black
and white relationships, housing, recreation. I am still a member of the
Commission. Parks. I was president of the Columbus Recreation Commission for
five years. I signed millions and millions of dollars for the city. I was
involved in aging – senior citizens for 10 years. In other words, there was
a lot of involvement. Television work. A lot radio. And I loved it. I had a
radio program everyday for a year. A Christian minister and myself (the
tapes are someplace – I don’t know where they are). So there was
involvement because I always felt that I had a product to sell and if I
could sell it to Christians and I could convert them, I think I did a
mitzvah, a good deed. If I had my way, I’d go out in Columbus and preach
to Christians that don’t accept Judaism as the best thing in the world.
(Unable to understand what interviewee is saying).
Interviewer: What is your personal philosophy on the rabbinate?
Zelizer: The rabbi is going to function as a rabbi. There has to be a
rabbi and not something else. The rabbinate as it was, was good. The
rabbinate as it is now, I don’t care for it. In other words, to become
merely a technician, a functionary of an organization without the due
respect and reverence that the rabbinate did receive throughout the years. I
don’t want to be that kind of rabbi, I wouldn’t like it. I’d much
rather be a professor, a doctor, a lawyer or a volunteer of some kind. A
president of a synagogue. Unfortunately, religion has become very big
business. It’s very unfortunate that you have to have a lot of money to
belong to a religious institution. It is too bad that the nature of
leadership is determined by the amount of money that you give. Not by the
scholarship that you possess, not by the ability that you are able to
display and if you rub the shoulder of somebody the wrong way, the masses of
people have nothing to say as far as your (Indistinct) is concerned. The general
community today, the people who play the part are the people who give
$1,000. Of course, you have to have it but in the meantime, there are other
good things that fall by the wayside, as victims, sacrifices as a result of
this tremendous organization that has developed involving millions of
dollars, not a nickel or a pushke or a penny. So the kind of person who
becomes a rabbi today has to know how to be subdued and teach motherhood,
fatherhood, (Indistinct). But get involved in matters which hurt some of the
functions that I mentioned before. That’s why some are leaving. I don’t
see too bright a future for the pulpit rabbi because of the size of the
congregation. When a congregation becomes too rich – 25-30 years ago, they
needed me badly. Now they need a rabbi like a hole in the head. They’re a
dime a dozen. Because they have the teachers, they have the principal, they
have the Cantor. 30-40 years ago, when the rabbi was hired, there was
nothing. Now a layman conducts services, a layman preaches. That’s not a
Interviewer: What were your priorities as rabbi?
Zelizer: I changed in the course of time. When I came and they wanted to
close the synagogue, my priority was to go out and get members and get
money. As the congregation became bigger, my priority was in education. Get
a principal. As the congregation grew larger, my priority was to get some of
the people involved in other agencies, get more representation or the
Foundation board, the general educational committee. We had a lot of
representation in those days. Priorities changed but as got I older, my
priorities became preaching to the people. The last 5, 10 or 15 years, this
was what I enjoyed the most. The first couple of years, I hated it, maybe
because I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t experienced. Preaching, especially
of Talmudic interpretation of the Bible and life as we see it.
Interviewer: Who would you say has control of the Jewish community in
Zelizer: The control of the Jewish community is in the hands of those who
give the most money. The others are nothing but little puppets who play the
game and are being used as captains, majors, and privates for the purpose of
raising funds which is necessary but I don’t know if it’s necessary to
raise so many funds. I think the government should provide many of the
services that we have right now. I don’t think a Jewish Center is
sometimes necessary. I think there are beautiful recreation centers in the
community that we pay taxes for. I’ve got my name on many of them – they’ve
got swimming pools, this and that. Why should I support it? On the far
eastside are two Jewish Community Centers, on the westside, on the north
side. Do we have to have Jewish hospitals? For what purpose? Do we have to
have a Jewish Family Service? We can go to agencies – the government
provides those things. I don’t think we need a home for the aged for
Jewish people. At a time when Jews kept kosher, it was necessary. But 90% of
the people, they don’t care whether it’s kosher or not. So why do you
have to (Indistinct)? Last Saturday morning, I had lunch with 50 or 60
people. Saturday morning I had conducted services for 30 people. I told my
wife, when I get old, put me in a beautiful, (Indistinct) home. The control
by virtue of necessity is in the hands the professional money raises and
those who give the money. Those who don’t give the money have nothing.
Interviewer: All these things that you just mentioned, do you think the
synagogue role should play?
Zelizer: The synagogue should play every role. The synagogue should
provide all the functions.
Interviewer: In other words, there is no need for a Jewish Community
Center, a Jewish Family Service? The synagogue should take over counseling?
Zelizer: The synagogue should take over and provide them the services
that the community provides.
Interviewer: What do you see as the relationship between the Federation
and the synagogue?
Zelizer: The relationship between the Federation and the synagogue was
never too healthy. But after the Federation became very monolithic, giving
money for Jewish education and they extended themselves to the synagogue is
now subservient to the Federation. On a national level, there is some
discussion. In Columbus right now, the synagogue plays a very minor role
except as a listening post. Five to ten more years, when they develop their
own (Indistinct) and they’ll be able to reach as many people as possible. The
synagogue will become more subservient to the Federation. The Federation is
the big organization right now and the synagogue will become a subsidiary of
Interviewer: Do you think those wealthy people who run the community, is
that the Federation? Is that synagogues?
Zelizer: Yes, the Federation manipulated because they had the leadership,
the money, they have the funds. When an organization makes $40,00 and has a
staff, the glamour of being harmonious. People don’t like to belong to a
divisive organization. The synagogue is a divisive organization.
That’s why I believe there should be many Hebrew schools in Columbus,
not more. The Reform and Conservative should have Hebrew schools. The
leadership and the nationalists (Indistinct) teach your children, use the
synagogue as a laboratory to put the ideas into practice. Tifereth Israel is
a strong congregation because it has a good Hebrew school and the children
come and they pray and the daven. I’ve gone to many synagogues, since I’ve
retired and I don’t see such a program in Columbus except in Israel.
Interviewer: What are the kinds of tension that arise in a synagogue
aside from what you’ve mentioned?
Zelizer: Do you think the synagogue has problems? In my synagogue, we
didn’t have too much of that. There seemed to be a tremendous group. I don’t
know why …. in some synagogues, there are tensions, politics but in the
Tifereth Israel congregation, I never had that kind of tension between
groups. There used to be fights. When I was a (Indistinct) rabbi in 1932, Mr.
Feitlinger became chairman of my installation committee and they brought
down a Judge Guesserman to be the chief speaker and 25 people walked out.
They happened to be Republican and he was a Democrat. I didn’t know
anything about it. This is a (Indistinct) story, it’s not a dead story. People
are still living, Guesserman had a heart attack but he’s still alive, 80
years old. Feitlinger was appointed immediately after my installation in the
Court of Domestic Relations. These were some of the problems. For example,
used to have Jewish politicians and bringing a candidate running for Mayor.
All of a sudden, he’s walking around – on Yom Kippur. We had some of it
but we never had problems. They just dropped out or we got them out. We did
use strong methods.
Interviewer: Such as?
Zelizer: Such as asking a person to resign. Like this person was
secretary and he married a non Jewish woman and I said, “Get out.
Resign.” At that time, inter-marriage was not as kosher as it is today.
We accept it. The secretary of my congregation, for example, became the
president of the Men’s Club at Agudas Achim. I went to him and said,
“Mr. (Indistinct)_, you cannot serve two gods at the same time. If you’re
going to be secretary at Tifereth Israel, how did you become president at
Agudas Achim?” Mr. Lou Gerther, it so happened, later on, he was
disbarred. I had a lot of trouble but these were some of the things which
were (Indistinct) for the sake of building a congregation.
Interviewer: You did mention about the role of women in the congregation.
Do you have any other reflections on that?
Zelizer: The role of women in the congregation – the more work they did,
the less work the men did. They raised the money and the congregation became
bigger and bigger, year after year. They took over the Sunday School, the
Hebrew school. They took over the provision of (Indistinct) for Passover
(Indistinct). I saw that in the course of time, a transfer of activity from men
to women. It always bothered me, it always kept on repeating. Sometime in
study groups…this was not a healthy situation. The (Indistinct) Jewish
(Indistinct) to women will take away something from the women, from the program.
Every time a woman comes to a meeting, she leaves out something else at
home, especially a younger woman. My philosophy has always been that a woman
should be the source inspiration to the man, to the family. Leave the child
at home when he comes form school. Not to run around. This is my philosophy,
even in the synagogue. Of course, I accepted the changes because there was
nothing I could do about it. But unhappily. I am very unhappy with the women’s
movement. I think we’re paying the price in divorces in the end. We’re
paying the price in the breakdown of the family and in professional
unhappiness. There is something ‘chasing’ these people. For happiness,
they cannot find at home. Maybe the man caused it. That there is a
sociological question involved rather than an economic sociology. I’m not
so concerned about theology. I don’t think God tells you whether a woman
or a man comes up to the Torah. I don’t think he can see that far,
especially a Jewish God. He is too old. (Indistinct)
Interviewer: What would you say is your greatest fulfillment at Tifereth
Zelizer: I left a strong congregation. That was my greatest fulfillment.
I built something from nothing into a big, strong congregation. Good
leadership, good rabbi, endowed – not as good as I am – a Cantor, a good
school. If it’s not destroyed in the course of time by other forces and
there are forces hanging at bisection. If it doesn’t move away too far
from tradition, I think the congregation is moving very far from tradition.
My finest sense of fulfillment is my (Indistinct)_ to the congregation. The
congregation gave me the opportunity to be a chaplain in the penitentiary
for 27 years. I helped a lot of people. Mental hospitals, veterans hospitals
and I also became very active in recreation and other senior citizen
programs in the community. I owe a lot to the congregation. They treated me
very well and I retired and that’s my fulfillment.
Interviewer: Was there an emphasis on the youth movement in the
Zelizer: All the time. The Junior Hadassah met in our congregation. I
taught them and reorganized them way back. We had a Maccabee Group. We had a
Boy Scout troop in our Temple – the only Temple that had a Boy Scout troop
before the Jewish Community Center moved to its new location. We had a
Hebrew school. We had a United Synagogue Youths. My son was president of the
national United Synagogue Youths – of all the United Synagogue Youths in the
United States and Canada and Argentina.
By the way, also my greatest fulfillment is the fact that I sent a number
of rabbis to Reform and Conservative shul. Eugene Borowitz is one of my
students. When Borowitz was my student, I tried to put him in the seminary –
there is a big story to tell. I came down in the summer to preparatory
classes. I taught him Talmud – he was my star pupil. Joe Kline – I helped
him and I studied with him. Bill Lackritz, Director of Education. I studied
with him. My son and Harold Jay another rabbi. So, of course, on a personal
basis, we influenced a number of children to follow. There were more. My son
is the only rabbi of a Columbus rabbi who became a rabbi. There was a
certain satisfaction in the home because usually rabbis’ children have a
tough time. I was always out – now I’m always in.
Interviewer: It is really hard on the family.
Zelizer: Difficult on the family but you have to walk the line. You have
to be very careful. Of course, I taught my son myself. We had no Hebrew
School at that time, we had no Torah Academy. So we taught him ourselves. He
doesn’t like it as much as I did because of some of his changes. He has a
congregation of 550 members. I was so involved there wasn’t time for the
satisfaction. I was too busy. I knew nothing else, I was so involved. The
first thing you have to do is build the congregation, (Indistinct) the
congregation. There is another problem involving the (Indistinct) of present
day rabbis. They jump from one place to another place – higher salaries,
etc. I never had that. I had offers but I stayed here. It was a challenge to
build a small place into a big place and wouldn’t leave it. Many of the
younger rabbis move around from town to
Interviewer: Finally, do you have any other general reflections on
your years at Tifereth Israel?
Zelizer: The years I spent in the rabbinate are the only years I
knew. There are no other years. I started going to school for my
doctorate and I began to study Turkish because I was going to write a
dissertation on the Jews of Salonaka in the year 1415. Then I did work
in American Jewish History with Dr. Ripke. I don’t regret that I never
got my doctorate. I don’t think it was actually necessary in my work
as a rabbi. I love people and I love the challenges of people, the
variety of people. I love the fact that I was sitting up there on a
platform with millionaires and I didn’t have a nickel. The politicians
who govern the lives of hundreds of thousands of millions of people – I
didn’t govern the lives of anybody. It gives you a position that you
couldn’t achieve in any other profession. It also gives you a lot of
exposure and, of course, you have to be an extrovert.
Perhaps the greatest reflection that I can make at present time is
the fact that I developed a sense of humor as a result of the hard
knocks and disappointments, that I had to face with people, problems,
the inability to solve many problems. You saw the deterioration of
morality, of character, of honesty, of decency. You saw the competitive
life that faced you everyday. You saw the (Indistinct) chasing among rabbis –
of course, I was part of the game. You saw the false front that we all
put on, giving the impression that “I am the biggest.” I know
that rabbis come to (Indistinct) and they have large audiences.
Some of them don’t even have a minyan. They don’t even have ten
people Saturday morning. You see all these things so the general
problems of human suffering because rabbis face a lot of suffering and
the rabbis are exposed to (Indistinct) daily inadequacy and helping people
– the lawyers, the doctors, the professors, the counselors, the marriage
counselors. So how do you fight these realities in life? You fight them
by reading light Jewish literature – Shalom Alechem and other Jewish
stories. So I started reading, not the heavy stuff, not theology, not
philosophy but the humor stories. Jewish stories which enabled my
parents, who were not as wealthy and were not as educated to face life
with a sense of dignity and hope and faith. Where did they get it? They
got it in this weapon that Freud says “Humor is a weapon which you
fight the realities of life.
The Bible has no humor because David used a sword. In Israel today,
there is no humor because they use tanks and airplanes. The American Jew
has lost his sense of humor, he is afraid. The
European Jew developed that sense of humor and the great Jewish
comedians are descendants of immigrants. So I’ve accumulated so many
of these stories and I read them from time to time and I laugh. I was
able to face the steady exposure of sick people. A rabbi sees 50 or 60
people a week. All kinds of people in all hospitals. A rabbi gets people
coming in with mises, with chores, with troubles. And there is not much
you can do because most of the time, it’s already too late. Every time
somebody dies, a piece of you dies if you know the person so many years.
Every time a mother comes in, “Where is my son?” It hurts. So
you have to develop a defense mechanism and the rabbinate give you an
opportunity to develop this defense mechanism which makes you feel
Interviewer: Thank you, Rabbi Zelizer, for sharing your personal life
experiences with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
End of interview