This interview was conducted as part of the Oral History program of the
Columbus Jewish Historical Society on June 6, 1994. The interviewers are Linda
Katz and Richard Neustadt.
Interviewer: We’re here basically to find out from you what this community
meant to you, philosophically and religiously and what you have done for this
community. What were some of the things that perpetuated the growth of Agudas
Achim? You know, all of that, and I don’t want you to be bashful. This is no
time to be bashful. We’re trying to do something that reflects a very positive
thing for the rabbis we’re honoring. This is an honorarium, you know, so we
don’t want you to hold back on any of this but try and start with the
beginning of your time to Columbus. Linda and I have some questions.
Rubenstein: Don’t be afraid of interrupting me and asking me questions. Number
one, I want you to be aware of the fact that I appreciate you taking the time
and really, it reminds me of the new days of the school system. I don’t know
what the school system was, there was once a time that they gave marks for who
was best, next best, and so on. In school, after a while, they decided to only
take the attendance and, as far as I’m concerned, I’m in attendance. In
other words, it’s just a question of staying power. I came every day and I did
what I could.
Interviewer: What was your first pulpit?
Rubenstein: My first pulpit was in a little town called Fitzgerald, Georgia. And
it was a very orthodox congregation in Fitzgerald, Georgia.
Interviewer: You told me about your grandpa; you said he served the whole
gamut way –
Rubenstein: I served all the Jews in South Central Georgia. It was a very novel
Interviewer: So, you had all the denominations?
Rubenstein: Everything you can think about. I mean, coming out of the Yeshiva
where the social graces or social interaction was minimal. In other words, you
could have plucked me out of shtetel, in terms of the Savoir Faire of being a
community leader. I was a scholar.
Interviewer: Where did you grow up?
Rubenstein: New York. And I went to Yeshiva all of my life and I was ordained. I
was within the classroom all my life, as we say in Hebrew, “the balabatisha
halocha, the study of Jewish law.” That’s it. Rabbi Greenwald who
was a friend of your father was a little more astute socially than my
predecessor. My predecessor, Rabbi Hirschsprung, was probably the most
outstanding scholar that this community ever had, but he never got the good
press because he wasn’t concerned with people. You come to the rabbi to work.
He makes a determination of religious questions and that’s it, Paskin Shailos
-.answers questions. You don’t have to visit the hospitals. Someone has a
bellyache, I need to go see him.
Interviewer: The rabbi before you was Rabbi Greenwald?
Rubenstein: No Hirschsprung, Greenwald was at Beth Jacob. Now Hirschsprung was a
rabbi for many years before I came here at Agudas Achim. And if you want to
meander into some of the others, I’ll be happy to go.
Interviewer: Let me tell you what I remember about something and I’d like
you to comment on it. That Rabbi Greenwald, Rabbi Folkman, Rabbi Zelizer; Rabbi
Greenwald didn’t relate to any other congregation or rabbi. And let me
bring…give you…What I perceive to be the coup de gras; as a special favor.
Interviewer: How long have you been here?
Rubenstein: Forty-five years.
Interviewer: As a special favor to my father at my son’s bris.
Rubenstein: I was there.
Interviewer: You were there and Rabbi Greenwald was there and Rabbi Zelizer
was there and Rabbi Folkman. And someone told me, it was the first time in which
anyone could remember, that all the rabbis together in one place and
participating in any kind of religious ceremony because his perception of
everybody else was Trayf, including him. Agudas Achim was not religious
enough for Rabbi Greenwald and that was his attitude. Was that fair?
Rubenstein: All I can tell you is, number one, you have a penchant for arriving at
a certain philosophical truth. That was the birth of a new generation, a bris.
Rabbi Greenwald officiated at several funerals at the Reform Temple. These are
historic facts. He had a special relationship with your father, because of your
grandfather, but aside from that, I was at the bris.
Interviewer: Were you uncomfortable?
Rubenstein: No, I wasn’t uncomfortable.
Interviewer: People told me that he had a way of making people uncomfortable,
because you didn’t believe philosophically, what Greenwald stood for.
Rubenstein: No, I was drawing a distinction between Greenwald and my predecessor.
Greenwald knew how to get along with the people who wanted to get along with. He
knew where the bread was buttered and I’m not accusing him of taking advantage
of the situation unduly. My predecessor didn’t give a damn about people.
“I’m the rabbi, you come to me; I don’t come to you.”
Interviewer: So, the political nuances of being a rabbi. You use the words,
social interaction; the political nuances. Hirschsprung didn’t care anything
Rubenstein: Hirschsprung came to the synagogue, he had Shiurim; he had
lectures on Judaism, Talmud. He came to shul; he led the services. He preached.
People had a lot religious questions. Today we don’t have religious questions.
Interviewer: Were you there with him for a while.
Rubenstein: No, I replaced him. In other words, he was out of the position at
Agudas Achim for a little over a year and, during that void period, Dr. Marvin
Fox preached. He didn’t get involved in religious questions, but he preached.
Interviewer: He was a Doctor of Philosophy;
Rabbi He was at Ohio State University. And I think he’s at Brandeis now.
But, be what it may, but then I came. See the question of replacing the rabbi
who leaves under a cloud, meaning that the relationship between rabbi and the
congregation is severed, on what ethical basis was it severed? The Theological
Seminary would not send a new applicant to where they felt the rabbi was not
given the proper sendoff or relationship that closed his tenure. And the same is
true with the Reform and Yeshiva University the same way. Now Hirschsprung was a
graduate of Yeshiva University, he went to the same school as Rabbi Isaacson of
the Theological Seminary, the oldest and the largest Orthodox school for
training of rabbis in America. It’s over 100 years old. He was one of the most
illustrious graduates. He received a special kind of degree, if not the first
individually received that degree, recognizing his high proficiency in Jewish
law – Hirschsprung. The European Rabbi, in Europe, he was a European man and you
come to the rabbi, the rabbi don’t come to you.
Interviewer: Were you born here?
Rubenstein: I was born in this country.
Interviewer: So, your congregants must have been elated with…
Rubenstein: They were unhappy with that status because they were moving into a
different age where the rabbi had to visit the sick, comfort the bereaved,
Interviewer: Wasn’t it common practice?
Rubenstein: Hirschsprung came maybe once to visit house of the mourners after the
funeral, he didn’t come every day; he might have arranged the service,
although we had a shamus, Mr. Barash (I don’t know if you remember him), who
used to take care of those things and Barash encroached on the chazen and on the
rabbi. Now that’s politics. You see when you make mention of politics, the
politics of running a congregation. You don’t have it in the Reform and I don’t
think you have it in the Conservative, but you had it in the Orthodox. People
were entrenched in that position and they had their fight.
Interviewer: You have that in any congregation.
Rubenstein: And they had their own constituency. Now, I had a very difficult job;
I never looked at it as such. I knew I had a job and I had to do it but years
later I began to realize the Cantor was a prima-donna; he was an outstanding
cantor, Gelman, the one who circumcised your son. Because Hirschsprung was not
involved; people didn’t like…he was a scholar; you didn’t have to like
him. He could be a doctor who doesn’t have a bedside manner. You go to a
doctor because he knows his business and his business was to know Jewish law and
Interviewer: So, what was your business?
Rubenstein: My business? In what regard?
Interviewer: Well, how would you describe your business?
Rubenstein: I had to be a man of many trades, in other words, let’s say, when I
came there was no building program or, there was a building program in absentia
of moving the synagogue from Washington and Donaldson Street , which was in the
inner city. It was obliterated. Today the highway covers it-to a new place,
which they spoke about, of Bexley. And many people were not happy about moving
to Bexley because there was nothing here. Across the street from our synagogue,
there were lots all the way down almost completely.
Interviewer: The back of Cassingham School, where the tennis courts are, from
there on was field.
Interviewer: What year was this?
Rubenstein: Nineteen forty-nine, but from about 1946 on, they spoke in terms of
having a building program. And that really didn’t get off the ground. And when
I came, they wanted me to do it. And I met with Harry Gilbert, who was then the
prime mover, and one of the leaders of the general community as well as Agudas
Achim, although his children grew up in Tifereth Israel, his father was one of
the founders in the 80s of Agudas Achim. His father, I think, was married in
1881 or 1884 and I…
Interviewer: I never heard him talk about his father; I never …And we’ve
enjoyed this because of all these things…
Rubenstein: You’re meeting with the historians; you have to know these things.
And he felt there was no future for his children in Agudas Achim because rabbis,
whoever they were preached mostly in Yiddish. Greenwald preached in Yiddish;
Greenwald they couldn’t understand at all because he had a Hungarian Yiddish
and it’s a little different Yiddish than the Yiddish I would speak or your
grandfather would speak or your father.
Interviewer: You speak Yiddish? Do you still?
Rubenstein: I have to come back here after I was “designated as the person
who was the rabbi of Agudas Achim.” A guy got up in a meeting and he said,
“The rabbi has to be able to preach in Yiddish; it’s written in the
contract; the constitution says the rabbi has to preach in Yiddish.” So,
they brought me back here, after almost everything was settled.
Interviewer: This isn’t so long ago! Who would think you’d have to preach
in Yiddish in 1949?
Rubenstein: It was the way it was in the constitution that the rabbi has to be
proficient in Yiddish and he has to preach in Yiddish, and therefore, Abe Wolman
of blessed memory who was the president and prime mover, he called me and said,
“Rabbi, they raised it in the meeting and it’s in the constitution, that
you have to preach in Yiddish.” I said, “OK, No problem. If I can’t
do it, I can’t do it.”
Interviewer: Was there, in your classmates, would there have been a problem
with some of the other rabbis, at that time?
Rubenstein: In the Yeshiva, at that time, we studied whatever subject we studied
and we studied in Yiddish. Translation was rare into English. In the extreme,
when they would have a word, it was very difficult to understand in Yiddish, the
Rebbe would say it in English. The Rebbes were all European people; they were
your grandfather’s age. If he was in Indianapolis, he would probably know to
speak English but they all had synagogues in Brooklyn, or the Bronx, or
Manhattan, they didn’t speak English. Now Hirschsprung, my predecessor, they
told me, was a brilliant orator in Yiddish, an outstanding speaker. He had some
very fine pulpits. He was in Savannah, Georgia; he was in Canton, when Canton
had a larger Jewish community than Columbus and then he came to Columbus. So,
here I’m coming in, certainly I had not reached that level. I was in
Charleston, South Carolina at the time, where I would learn in Yiddish. Once in
a while, I would preach in Yiddish. It was easier for me. Summertime and the
livin’ is easy, it was then in the South, things were a lot different than
they are here. Or like they would be in New York; it’s not as demanding.
People are wonderful; they’re tolerant in the South. I’m not saying they are
intolerant here, but it’s a different degree. So, I came up and I spoke in
Yiddish and “that’s all right, we’ll talk Yiddish,” and I became
Interviewer: So, how long did you continue to preach in Yiddish?
Rubenstein: On and off; in other words, there were occasions. For instance, the
Sabbath before Pesach, Shabbas Ha Gadol the great Shabbas was a great Shabbat
where the rabbi normally gives a long drasha. For many years, I would
deliver that talk in Yiddish.
Interviewer: And how many people could understand you?
Rubenstein: Here and there, when I saw it was complicated, I would go over it in
English, so I did not lose the congregation. I mean, what’s the sense in my
going up there and talk to myself? But it gave the old people a feeling of being
represented; they are represented. And, frankly, my approach was not to lose the
old families. That, if there was to be a future in Agudas Achim, we had to have
the old people. And, the old people, some of them were among the original
settlers. The people who started the congregation; certainly those who built the
old building in 1912 or 1909, whenever they started and they finished on
Washington and Donaldson Streets, so you wanted those people because their
children and grandchildren wouldn’t leave and form a Reform temple. There was
no jump to the Conservative congregation. These people felt that the Agudas
Interviewer: What a swing that was!
Rubenstein: It was; it’s very unusual, you see. This is the historical
development of Columbus is different than a lot of other communities and you
have to evaluate the community in terms of its own development. And development
of the Columbus community was that the leadership that left Agudas Achim and
went to the Reform temple, although they may have maintained a minimal
membership in Agudas Achim, the children were all going to the Sunday School of
Temple Israel, all being confirmed there, you see, until I came, except let’s
say the Goldbergs – Arthur & Harry.
Interviewer: You know a lot about my family and I appreciate this, some
things you’re telling me that I don’t know. Why was my grandmother, whose
husband was an orthodox rabbi, at Tifereth Israel?
Rubenstein: It depends on where she lived.
Interviewer: She lived on Bryden Road, across from Temple Israel, and she
never went to Temple Israel.
Rubenstein: Did she ride on Shabbas?
Interviewer: No. She walked to Tifereth Israel.
Rubenstein: It’s a mile walk and in those days, people didn’t think of riding.
Interviewer: And you talk about confusion growing up; obviously to satisfy
her, my father belonged to all three. But I was bar mitzvad at Tifereth Israel,
with Rabbi Zelizer and I was confirmed at Temple Israel. So you talk about
confusion in my head and it’s still there. And that’s why…
Rubenstein: No, No; you see the people…
Interviewer: It could be as simple with my grandmother…it was easier, that
she didn’t walk on Shabbas. OK!
Rubenstein: That’s right. That’s why I asked you where she lived because that
would be the… Zelizer’s mother worshipped in our synagogue. I officiated at
Rabbi Zelizer’s mother’s funeral, you see, but she was in the old shul and
she came. See, so I have a special relationship with both Folkman and Zelizer on
a personal level, while…
Interviewer: Well, it seems to be, and correct me if I’m wrong, a
cohesiveness or interaction between all the rabbis today, if it wasn’t there
20, 30, or 40 years ago. Is that wrong?
Rubenstein: I don’t know what it’s doing today; today is a different business;
it’s a business today. You see, there are certain things that are being done
today, which I don’t adhere to and I wouldn’t follow.
Interviewer: By the way, if there is anything we ask questions about you don’t
want to talk about…
Rubenstein: I’ll talk about anything, I don’t care.
Interviewer: What kinds of things would you….
Rubenstein: For instance, I’ll give you a specific illustration. Hospital visits
– they have a code or an agreement that I don’t visit someone else’s members
and the others don’t visit my members. In other words, you don’t go to see
someone else’s members in the hospital. Now, to me, it’s ridiculous.
Interviewer: What about if you have a personal relationship with them?
Rubenstein: You see, in other words, the rabbis visit the hospitals several times
a week, once a week, more than… It depends who’s there. Now, my successor
who follows the code, not any different than anybody else in that regard, they
put down; they have the girl check, when they get the list, you check who’s a
member and who’s not a member. They visit only the members. If I go now to the
hospital, I’ll visit everybody; I don’t go to visit a member because he’s
a… I go because it’s a mitzvah, because it’s a good thing. I don’t ask
Interviewer: I never heard that before.
Rubenstein: To me, what happens with a stranger; what happens who is not
affiliated? Nobody comes to see him. It’s compounded when you get hospitals
which have permanent chaplains. For instance, St. Francis Hospital, which was
right next to Grant Hospital. They had an old priest; he didn’t have much to
do so they gave him that post. And he visited every patient, Jew or non-Jew.
Just figure, if Mr. Cohen, who was not a member of any synagogue, had a visit,
from a priest and he didn’t have a visit from a rabbi.
Interviewer: Well, a lot of Jewish people went to St. Francis because there
were Jewish doctors at St. Francis. It was right next to Grant.
Rubenstein: We didn’t want them to feel that they were disenfranchised. Number
one, we had a taxi service which brought them to services every morning, whoever
wanted to go. The old part of town and brought them to Agudas Achim, so they can
maintain their friendship and the loyalty to the synagogue to which they
belonged for many years.
Interviewer: You mean, when you first moved out here?
Rubenstein: They couldn’t drive; they were older people and, when the holidays
came, we arranged for them to stay with relations, but with other people so they
wouldn’t have to ride, because these were people who didn’t ride on Shabbas
and Yontif. So, in other words, we felt – at least my feeling was, and the
congregation went along with it. There was no problem there but we had to take
care of these people, we just couldn’t walk out.
Interviewer: You’re in an area now and feel free not to say that you don’t
want to discuss it, or something, but I understand there’s a movement going
on, in relationship to the separation of men and women at your shul, and I
assume that has been going on for years; there’s nothing new about this, but I
understand that the heat is really on, from New York, and to..
Interviewer: You mean to get a complete separation, with a Mechitza?
Absolutely, I guess you don’t want to comment on that….
Rubenstein: Let me say this, off the record, we’re dealing with an area of
morality, and my approach was always honest (you have to be honest) and, while I
agree with the goals, I think the means are dishonest means.
Interviewer: You agree with which goals?
Rubenstein: In the sense that they want to have separate seating, fine, I don’t
see anything wrong with it.
Interviewer: Well, there’s separate seating available now, isn’t there?
Rubenstein: There always was separate seating, but it’s not a Mechitza, which
means, there would be no areas at all, no common areas.
Interviewer: They’d have to go upstairs? The women would have to go
Rubenstein: When I came to Agudas Achim…(there is no balcony)
Interviewer: So, what would they do with the women?
Rubenstein: They would make a barrier.
Interviewer: Down the aisle?
Rubenstein: Yeah, whatever they would work out…get an architect and do it, do
it. My own feeling is this, that I feel the same now as I felt 45 years ago,
when the issue was first raised. My opinion and I can’t speak for the rabbi;
he has different goals; he has different concepts, you see, and we dare not
judge anybody, certainly not individuals or rabbis, a leader has a certain
picture that he would like the community and synagogue to be like. As far as I
was concerned, I felt there were more overriding issues…than the segregation
of men and women over separations by a Mechitza.
Interviewer: Other things you wanted to achieve; other priorities?
Rubenstein: I felt that this was a minor priority in regards to the basic role of
uplifting in the synagogue which was in a very low state and I didn’t look for
side issues, when I felt there were other issues which were more important. When
I came to the holidays, men and women were sitting together in the back of the
old synagogue. It was never done officially, but it was done because people
wanted it. It was communicated to me and they told me this is what it was. I
didn’t bother with the seating; I took two ushers and one charge and I said,
“When women come, send them upstairs. It’s on the books until it’s
changed. That’s the way it is.” So, in essence, when I first came, the
first holidays and the second holidays, in the old shul, I maintained strictly,
which was not being enforced before, the separation of men and women. There were
one, or two, or three older women who couldn’t walk up, I put them in the
back, that’s all. This was at the old place. In other words, let’s say old
lady Schottenstein, Max’s mother. Or Hattie Stetelman, whatever her name was,
Norm Gurevitz’ mother-in-law. They couldn’t walk up five steps and the steps
were rickety. They were not such great steps.
Interviewer: Did you get flack for letting them sit downstairs?
Rubenstein: No, no one bothered me. You see, but I enforced the separation.
Couples were not sitting together. Sidney Katz, I don’t know if you ever knew
him, big heavy-set fella, sat with his wife in the back. He said I want sit
there; I said OK. He had no right to be there, see. So now, when we were to move
into the new shul and there was no gallery, there was no women’s section, what
were we going to do? Before we built it. Before, No this was a question of what
are we going to do, because the synagogue had to be constructed a certain way,
if you’re going to have that, if you’re going to have a separation, a
Mechitza, whatever it is, you’re going to have to build the building a certain
way. And, there must have been about 40 people there; the leaders who got
together, men and women, and they said that we’re going to have men and women
sitting together. I said, you just can’t go ahead and change that. They said,
well it takes a two-thirds vote, so, democracy! I saw I didn’t have a single
person who would stand by my position. And my position was that they should have
a Mechitza, a separation, as they had in the past. Upstairs they had the gallery
and separation. So, they voted, in other words they were ready to have total
mixed seating. I says, You can’t do it. I agree you feel that we should have
men and women sitting together or family pews, call it what you like, I would
like to have the following: one section for men only; and one section for women
only on the sides and the first five rows should be for men only; I don’t want
a woman’s skirt looking up there, understand what I mean? It has to be a
semblance of respect; and that’s the way it worked out. A few days later, Leon
Schottenstein, of Blessed Memory, came in and said, “You can’t do
it.” I said, “Leon, where were you at the meeting?” He said,
“My father said he won’t step into the synagogue; he’ll have his own Minyan.”
Interviewer: You forgot, the 10 ton elephant, Leon Schottenstein, walked in
the door. What do you mean by that? He was heavy; There was Leon Schottenstein
with very deep pockets walking through the door.
Rubenstein: He wasn’t all that important at that time, although he was an
important individual, don’t get me wrong, he was a good friend.
Interviewer: You’re right. Back then, he didn’t have that kind of money.
Rubenstein: Right! He wasn’t poor; but he wasn’t that rich. The big man was
Harry Gilbert, Yenkin, The Goldbergs. So, I said, “Leon, I agree with
you.” He says, “Well, let them make the separation a little chapel,”
meaning we have a little chapel that flows from the main synagogue. Let the men
only. I said, “Take it up with the boys then.” As far as I’m
concerned, I was alone. And I had the choice; now I say this quite candidly, it’s
either I leave the synagogue or I go along totally with mixed seating.
Interviewer: I mean what ….with the people; I know that. I’m sure that
had something to do with it.
Rubenstein: Well, no, in general; in other words, I felt, and coming back to the
question you posed before, well I tell you strictly off the record, because most
of the people who were involved are dead, and if they were alive, they would
deny it. I had a similar situation in Charleston, South Carolina. I had built a
synagogue there also and the officers had agreed, the congregation, agreed to
have separate seating, a Mechitza and everything. About two or three days before
Yontif, when the synagogue was just completed, in other words, we were ready to
move in for Rosh Hashonah, there’s no Mechitza. So, I called the president of
Yeshiva and I said, “Dr. Belkin, you were here when they promised they
would put in a Mechitza.” Now, I want you to know, I am a graduate of the Yeshiva
and you were there and they promised you and me that they would have a Mechitza.
It’s two days before Rosh Hashonah or Yom Kippur. In two days I won’t be in
the synagogue and I won’t be there for Rosh Hashonah or Yom Kippur, it will be
because they reneged on their pledge, that was the agreement. In Europe, it’s
very strict. So, he says, “What do you want me to do?” I said,
“You call the guy, you call the president of the congregation, who told you
there would be a Mechitza and tell him that the rabbi will not be there, because
that’s what you promised and you pulled the promise.” So, I laid my job
on the line. The morning of Rosh Hashonah, before, the night they had services
and they put up a Mechitza. And I came to services and when we got all finished,
about 2, 3, or 4 weeks later, he came and said, “What did you make such a
fuss about, why didn’t you let them run it the way they wanted?” What are
you, a trouble maker? I said, “Look, if I can’t stand up for my
principles,” and I was a poor man, I think we had one kid; I was waiting
from one check to the other to pay bills, but when you stand for something, you
have to know what you’re standing for. And that generation; it’s a different
time, that’s why I tell you I can’t make a judgement. If I was running the shul,
I would have the problem and I would have to make the decision and this is the
only fair way to go.
Interviewer: What would you do today?
Rubenstein: I don’t know. See, he has different goals than I had; there were
Interviewer: Well, you don’t know what percentage of the congregation wants
which way. He should know by now; he certainly could take a survey and find out
in a week.
Rubenstein: Let me say this, you don’t work by consensus, if you believe what
you’re doing is the divine law; it’s not a democracy, it’s a theocracy, it’s
a difference. As I say, having been burned and been told about New York,
otherwise I wouldn’t have mentioned this. New York criticized me for taking a
strong stand on this issue. So, there’s a lot to talk about and many years
have gone by. He may feel it’s a great conquest to bring the synagogue back to
separate seating. I see it as a basic moral issue.
Interviewer: By the way, the people I was with over the weekend and why I
brought this up. There were three couples and two of them belong to your shul
and I’m leaving if they do that (enforce separate seating). And, very
strong, these are people in their 60’s who said, “I’ve sat with my
husband all my life praying and being part of a congregation and, all of a
sudden at my age, he’s going to sit over here.” That was it.
Rubenstein: My own feeling is this, I come back to what we’re talking about. We’ve
dealing in morality and ethics.
Interviewer: Yes, well you were saying that it was a question of morality and
Rubenstein: Religion is basically honesty and integrity and, to me, these are the
main issues. And you have to represent that because it extends beyond prayers,
even beyond Tzedakah, charity, you understand. If you can’t expect honesty in
synagogue then you’re bankrupt and I feel there’s a right way and a wrong
way of doing this. If you want to do this and it’s come up maybe 3, 4, or 5
years ago and they more or less voted it down, meaning voting down the idea of
having Mechitza. I’m not here to make the issue, so you establish little
groups and you hope those little groups become larger and they will wield the
vote to turn the congregation around. To me, this is really demeaning Judaism.
If they feel this is the do or die, they come up and say it.
Interviewer: What governing body does Ahavas Sholom and Beth Jacob come under
the same one as Agudas Achim?
Rubenstein: There’s no such thing as a governing body in Orthodoxy except Jewish
law and who determines Jewish law? In other words, while the Yeshiva University
is the umbrella that we operate under and Stavsky operates the same school; he’s
a graduate of the same school. We are independent. Every synagogue is
Interviewer: What about the Jewish Theological Seminary or HUC or anything;
there’s nothing like that?
Rubenstein: There is but they can’t impose…Let’s say even HUC and I don’t
know about the Jewish Theological Seminary. They may have a stricter control
over their constituent synagogues or temples, but as far as… Let’s say that
Tifereth Israel decided they want to have a certain rabbi who is not a graduate
of the Jewish Theological Seminary; they like the guy, he’s great. The guy
they have is a dud, we don’t want him, and so, fifty guys get together and
they decide: We have Rabbi Cohen; he’s a terrific guy, a spellbinder, he’s
the guy for us but he’s not a graduate of the seminary. He’s a graduate of
HUC or Yeshiva College or whatever it is. But he’s not affiliated. And the
seminary says, “No way.” They say, “What do you mean, no
way?” They would say, “no way.” They would say, “Well, we’re
finished with you; meaning we will not supply you with any materials.” You’re
independent; you do what we want. And that’s what they would do. The same
thing would happen with HUC or the Jewish Institute of Religion. I think they
have merged now. Or the Reconstructionist Society; they have the same thing.
Meaning that, theoretically speaking, each synagogue is an independent entity.
It’s more so in the Orthodox field because you may have ten seminaries that
supply rabbis. Let’s say Ahavas Sholom has a rabbi that graduated from the
Baltimore Yeshiva that ordains rabbis.
Interviewer: Baltimore has over 100,000 Jews; they come from all over.
Rubenstein: But here it’s different. In other words, New York won’t…New
York can’t tell the president of all the Schottensteins; they give a lot of
money. If Jay Schottenstein would say, “Now look, rabbi, this is the way it
must be, I think it would be counter-productive because if Schottenstein wants
to do it, 90% of you don’t want to do it.” Les Wexner is not involved; Les
Wexner received a doctorate degree within the last week or two from the Jewish
Theological Seminary. So, Les Wexner, although he maintains an affiliation here,
because his parents and grandparents were members of Agudas Achim and he’s a
vice-chairman of the board at Agudas Achim.
Interviewer: He’s not that big of a giver?
Rubenstein: He gives money but he comes to shul for Yizkor to say Kaddish
for his father or grandparents.
Interviewer: But he’s active…
Rubenstein: He’s not active anymore. He gives money, you see. In other words,
when Temple Israel had a problem with an assistant rabbi, they needed money, he
gave them money.
Interviewer: I want to get back to you. And some of the contributions that
you’ve made, both to the synagogue and to the community. If you were
reminiscing about what you feel are some of the highlights of your career, what
would come to mind?
Rubenstein: It’s a question not of substance but of spirit. We spoke in terms of
what Agudas Achim was like in 1945, 46, 48, 49. Although it was the leading
synagogue, the “big shul”, the “great shul,”
translation – it was the leading shul in the community. But it had fallen
upon poorer days and the spirit was lagging. Now, you had to give these people a
sense of pride.
Interviewer: What years? Put us in context here.
Rubenstein: I would say by 1949, it had reached the zenith of despondency. I
remember saying something, with a guy who went to shul and a very good
man, a very wise man. We were discussing something, negotiating my tenure at the
time, my time, money, and so on. It was a give and take, you know. We were
negotiating. So, I said at that time, “What are you so proud about; you’re
wallowing in the dust; you’re as low as you can be and you’re trying to give
me conditions.” I said, “I’ll walk away from the whole thing.”
That’s what I said. Abe Krakoff. He was a merchant.
Interviewer: It was my mother-in-law’s father. It was Cece Wasserstrom’s
Rubenstein: A very wise man and a good man and man who was in my corner all the
way. He says, “Don’t ever say that we are wallowing in the dust; that we
are in the mud.” But that was a true statement; and I was not afraid to say
it. A lot of rabbis were afraid; afraid of their own shadows.
Interviewer: So, what was your role then?
Rubenstein: Number one, to elevate the synagogue in believing in itself and, one
of the things we want, we wanted a good Sunday School; we had a pre-school, the
Agudas Achim self-development school which had two grades, incidentally. We gave
up that school when the center opened, so that it could become a community
program rather than an Agudas Achim program, having Agudas Achim
self-development school in the building at 1021 Bryden Road, which Harry Gilbert
made available to our synagogue, where we had our Sunday school. One of the
major things we brought in, I brought in my wife to be the director, but while
she’s not the president.
Rubenstein: I’m telling you. Anyway, we made major changes in the educational
system. Every one of our teachers was a professional teacher. We knocked out all
the teachers; I know a lot of people are angry with me. If you set up a school,
it’s got to be run like a school. While they may not have the Judaic
background, which we will have to supply them with, when you walk into this
classroom, it’s a classroom. It’s not disorderly; there’s a sense of
decorum, and a sense of dignity because this is what we had to bring into the
synagogue. It’s a learning situation; no more volunteer teachers; every
teacher has to be paid, whatever we feel the budget will be, they’ll be paid,
so we can make demands on them. If they don’t get paid, you can’t expect
somebody that volunteers to prepare studies and lessons and tests, and all that
business, you can’t do it. You can do it, but if you have teachers meetings
and so on, you have to run the school like a school. It’s got to be run like a
school, so that was something. Plus that, the synagogue itself had to be
operated like a modern synagogue, not in its theology but in its form.
Interviewer: In the business aspect? In terms of fiscal responsibility, are
you talking about?
Rubenstein: We’ll get to fiscal responsibility in a moment. Number one, no one
received a prayer book from the synagogue or a Machzor, which was for the
high holidays or the Shalosh Regalim, Pesach, Shavuos, and Succos; they had to
bring their own. Now if you had to announce a page, you couldn’t announce a
page. Everyone was at a different page, in a different kind of book. They did
not have Taleisim, no one had a Talis, you bring your own Talis. Nobody provided
Yarmulkas. I said, you come into this shul now, you are going have a
Yarmulka, you going to have a Talis, you’re out of uniform prayer book. And do
you know what it means, let’s say for the high holidays. Do you know what it
means to introduce for between 1500 and 2000 prayer books. Do you know what an
expenditure that is? Now you’re going to walk into Agudas Achim, or announce a
page, everyone is on the same page; you will not have to bring your own Machzor;
you’re going to follow by yourself. But, this is what it is. So, we’re going
to start on time; we say that the services start at 9 o’clock, that’s when
it starts. You have a wedding at 4:30 or 5:30 or 6:30, that’s when we start,
you see. People didn’t believe me, you see. I remember walking out of a
wedding at 4:20, 20 minutes after it started or 18 minutes after it started,
walking out into the old school, you walked down, there were steps and people
were coming in. They said, “Rabbi, where are you going?” I said, “the
wedding is all over.”
Interviewer: You stepped on some toes when you did that.
Rubenstein: No, I didn’t…I was particular. But it’s giving it a sense of
decorum, you see, I felt that, if there is a theological or a philosophical
difference between Orthodox and Conservative or Reform Judaism, judge it on that
basis, not on the package, what’s inside the package. You want to be a Reform
Jew, fine. If the theology of Reform Judaism moves you, fine. You want to be
Conservative Jew, fine. Want to be Orthodox Jew; this is what we have to offer.
The Rabbi and the Cantor will be well-dressed, as well as can be. That’s the
way it worked. Everyone is running it; I’m sure that the Shamus, especially,
ran his own fiefdom. Simple illustration, after the reading of the Torah, he had
the people go downstairs. The social hall was downstairs in the old Synagogue.
And he invited like ten or fifteen of his cronies to come down to have some cake
and schnops. And he’s running his own business, you see. They walked down one
week, two weeks, and I asked him. The fourth week, I get up and I say,
“Gentlemen come back.” He says, “We’re going down to have some
cake and schnops,” he says. I say, “The whole congregation goes down;
or nobody goes down.” “You’re not running a concession,” I say.
So he cussed me out real good but what can I do? This is what had to be. You’re
running a congregation, a democracy in action.
Interviewer: So, you’ve always been a man of principle?
Rubenstein: I don’t know what people say; I’m not a man of principle. But I’m
telling you what happened, you see. In other words, I saw certain issues that I
felt were important. I’ll give you an idea. In the old school, there were
assigned seats. Everyone had a seat. In other words, let’s say your father, of
Blessed Memory, he had two seats at Agudas Achim. If he wanted guests, he’d
get a few more seats. They were assigned certain seats.
Interviewer: According to what?
Rubenstein: In general. In other words, they paid. We’ll come back to the fiscal
policy, which you asked me before. I’m giving you the practical procedural
changes that I brought around, that I saw, that I felt was going to be a modern
congregation. If you want to disagree with me theologically, fine, it’s a free
country, go where you want. I never solicited a member; I never asked anyone to
belong to Agudas Achim. I said, “This is what we have to offer; if you like
it, fine. You don’t like it, God bless you, I can sympathize.” You like
me, fine. That’s not the point. The point is, the Rabbi’s here to help in
the raising the money for the Synagogue and helped organize it, but not to ask
someone to affiliate with Agudas Achim. I visited a fellow in the hospital. He
says, “I’m going to join your shul.” I was the only Rabbi who
came to see him. I says, “No!” Come to our services and you’ll see
the membership committee, Abe Silverman (do you remember him?). Do you
understand what I mean? He was the membership chairman or whatever. Do you
understand what I mean?
Interviewer: Well, we got more membership than Abe Silverman. You might
remember his son, Herkie Stiles, who was a comedian; that’s before our time.
Rubenstein: Anyway, these were some of the situations from…the question of
bringing the Synagogue up to date and out of form. I don’t know what we were
talking about before we sidetracked with all this.
Interviewer: Well, we were talking about the things that you felt were
most memorable in your career.
Rubenstein: This is the way it was. Now, in terms…seats, now let’s get back to
seats, and to me this was one of the highlights of my relationship with Jews at
Agudus Achim. They did not have enough seats to go around.
Interviewer: On Washington – So they were assigned but only the families who
gave the most money.
Rubenstein: I would have put all the people, especially young Rabbi.
Interviewer: Whatever it is, let’s just see what he looks like, it’s
worth a peak, you understand. Let’s pay the price. Well, what happened was
that a lot of Jews who were survivors came. And they came to the seating
committee, Moishe Horwitz, Sara Schwartz’ father. A nice sweet fellow. He
said, “No way. We have no room for you, you understand.” So they came
to me, new American survivors of the Holocaust. They said, “Rabbi, we
want to come to shul.” Abe Wolman was the president. He said,
“Rabbi, what am I going to do?” I said, “Find places for these
survivors.” He said, “We don’t have any place.” I said,
“Put up fifty chairs on the pulpit for survivors. These are the survivors
of Jewish D Day. Now, if you don’t find for these people, you
might as well close the Synagogue; the Synagogue doesn’t have the right to
exist.” While we need money, and that’s what happened.
Interviewer: So, they sat them on the pulpit?
Rubenstein: Wherever, they found a place for them. They found a place. And I knew
that when we’re moving in here, seats are on a first come, first serve basis.
Leon Schottenstein. We had a mortgage of $35,000 when we moved into the
Synagogue, when we had pledges for about $60 – $70,000. We had more pledges.
Interviewer: A mortgage for $35,000? That’s all?
Rubenstein: That’s all. We did a fantastic job anyway. And we had about three
times as much money to cover the mortgage payments. And how we got a mortgage;
it was very difficult times. Different times.
Interviewer: You’re talking 1949-1950 dollars?
Rubenstein: Yeah! In 1949-50, 1951. We moved in here in ’51. You see, I’m
talking about 1949. You’re going to start to build a building, you got to know
the money is coming from somewhere, you see.
Interviewer: Do you know that the Leon Schottenstein family is endowing this
award that you’re receiving?
Rubenstein: I didn’t know that. So, listen to this. I don’t know this…it’s
not going to color my opinion because I say what I want to say. I’m not
beholden to anybody.
Interviewer: Good! OK! I just wanted you to know that. We didn’t want it to
be a surprise.
Rubenstein: All right! So, I don’t mind. It doesn’t bother me. I’m not
surprised by anything. Leon Schottenstein was a dear, dear friend. And when I
cussed him out once from the pulpit, he knew it was him. He was angry, but, he
Interviewer: He may remain nameless! But he knew who he was.
Rubenstein: No, No, No. He called me up that evening and apologized. I’ll tell
you what the incident was…Life is very strange. So, I said to them, I said, it’s
a new school here, no assigned seats. First come, first served. You want to come
to pray, want to take a front seat. Fine, no one’s going to bother you. And I
said in the midrash, you understand. As Fiddler says, “If I were a
rich man.” Only Leon Schottenstein says to me, he says, “Rabbi, he
says, I got twenty people at a thousand dollars a shot who will buy for their
families at a thousand dollar a seat, permanent seats, and we’ll pay off the
mortgage without any question.” I says, “Leon, no one is buying the
Synagogue. If you paid me one hundred thousand dollars a seat, I wouldn’t
permit it.” And people were aware; money talks! And I’ll tell you why. I
says, “I was the Rabbi up there on Washington-Donaldson’s Street, where
there was seat assignments. During Kol Nidra, you couldn’t find a seat. A half
an hour later, the Synagogue was half empty. During the day, there were certain
times when you almost couldn’t get a minion, the lag. And they come back late
in the afternoon to hear the blowing of the shofar but for four or five hours,
there was no one in the Synagogue. But when you have un-assigned seats, the
Synagogue is full almost all the time.” And I said, that’s the basis. It’s
not that I don’t desire money, but democracy in Judaism is what’s important
to the school, as I see it. “While you’re a rich man and you’re
philanthropic and you want to help us, I says I don’t want to see you
strolling in here at 11:00 on a Yom Kippur when the services started at
8:00.” That’s what you were doing in the old school. You see. He didn’t
particularly like it, you understand, but I had to say it the way it is. I walk
a straight line.
Interviewer: So, that’s what you said from the pulpit one day?
Rubenstein: I said it at a committee meeting – an Executive Committee meeting when
they were looking for money. You know, you just go in with a group of people who
are going to raise the money. Now, coming back to your fiscal responsibilities.
Let me tell you how it was. And this was the way it was for many, many years. I
hope I’m not boring you; I don’t know, it’s important.
Interviewer: No, this is good. But here’s what I want to get to after this,
is I’d like you to tell us what some of the plaques and awards are for.
Rubenstein: Anyway, let’s get back to this.
Rubenstein: They used to sell seats. In other words, in order to cover the budget,
about thirty days or less before Rosh Hashona, people would come in and buy
seats and the money they got from buying seats, paid for the budget.
Interviewer: On Washington Avenue and all that?
Rubenstein: And, you should know that if you raised 30-40% of your budget in a
couple of weeks in September and it came to April, you’re out of money. Abe
Yenkin’s father, Jacob Yenkin, was the treasurer, and he used to loan the
Synagogue money. He laid out the money, personally, to pay the salaries. And
that’s the way it was. I came to the Board meeting, and said, Gentlemen, it’s
all lost. Sell seats. We want to start a business. Our budget is $50,000, it was
about $18,000. The whole budget of Agudas Achim on Washington Avenue.
Interviewer: Oh, my gosh! What is it over here now, roughly?
Rubenstein: About a half a million dollars.
Interviewer: Well, why is yours a half a million and Temple Israel’s a
Rubenstein: Maybe it’s more; I don’t know; I’m not interested.
Interviewer: Temple Israel has a million dollar budget? I don’t know how
many families are in each place, do you?
Rubenstein: And they serve different purposes, and different elements. But getting
back to what we were talking about. I said, “Look, let the financial
committee say, look, this is the budget – $25,000. $25,000 is a minimum
escalating, start with so much. Every one gets two seats. These for children,
these for guests. That’s the way it works; that’s the way it’s got to be.
I’m not going ask Mr. Yenkin to supply, he’s an old man, to supply the
alter. And he finds it’s a big mitzvah, to help the Synagogue pay. We can’t
be that way; it can’t be that way.” They looked at me, “Rabbi, what are we
doing?” That’s the way it worked in Charleston, the same thing. Wherever
we went, that’s the way it went. I don’t have to look at any Jew and say,
“You coming up with another $100 or $200 dollars or $1,000. We don’t have
enough to pay the Rabbi, or Cantor.” That’s the way it went.
Interviewer: How many years were you at Agudas Achim?
Rubenstein: About twelve years. Thirty-three years. But these were some of the
things that they had to contend with. A lot of other things that we tried to
make, tried to keep. One of the things we did away with is giving a donation
when you’re called to the Torah.
Interviewer: An aliyah?
Rubenstein: After you have an aliyah, you had a mishabayrach you made another
Interviewer: When did you do that? You did it here too.
Rubenstein: It’s one of degrees, you see. You don’t make the revolution.
Everything’s the evolutionary change. A fellow came to the Synagogue; Abe
Krakoff; he’s called to the Torah. So this is what he would do. He would make
a donation to the Synagogue for $5.00. $3.00 dollars for the Rabbi, $2.00 for
the Cantor, and $1.00 for the shamus. Do you want to give the Talmud Torah, give
another $2.00 or another $3.00. So every time an individual is called to the
Torah, he would make the contribution. Number one, I insisted that he must make
a contribution to the Synagogue. If he wants to make…you can’t leave the
Synagogue out. You make it for the Cantor, for the Rabbi, you make it for the
Synagogue. You’re working for the Synagogue. And the next stage was, it came
very fast, and I had a lot of criticism from my colleagues in the group,
“Well, no donations for the Rabbi, the Cantor, and the Shamus. If you want
to make contributions for the Synagogue,” the Hebrew school.
Interviewer: You said this?
Rubenstein: I enforced it. I didn’t say it, I enforced it. Ok? What I said, I
did. There was no playing around. And the Shamus was very angry. Now $2.00 meant
a lot in those days. You can’t imagine, you see. But, if I would make $8.00 or
$10.00 on a Shabas, it was a meaningful contribution to my salary. And it seems
ridiculous today, doesn’t it, but that’s the way it was. You have to face
reality. They fought me tooth and nail. Gelman made a lot of money and money was
not that important to him (he was the Cantor). He didn’t….he was not
involved. But Barash, if he could have killed me, he would have killed me. I
took away his…
Interviewer: Like I said about an hour ago, you stepped on a lot of toes. You
didn’t like…because you enforced principled things and people were running
their own business, you know.
Rubenstein: Well, if I made mistakes…
Interviewer: No, most of them probably were not mistakes. You were very
principled about some of the things and they didn’t like that. They were used
to doing business the other way.
Rubenstein: They had their own business, you see.
Interviewer: No one likes change. You know, you were doing change, Whether it’s
good or bad change. People don’t like change. It’s a very simple equation.
Rubenstein: There were a lot of things which we cannot even begin to consider
today. Who was to lead the services, not on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur but on
a week day? Well, sometimes even on the Shabbas. A guy gave the shamus $2 or $5
or $3, he set them up to do it. This is a truism and I see the resentment in the
congregation. First of all, he was unfit. You see, so I had to do away with all
Interviewer: Talk a little bit about Columbus and what you perceived were
your community activities, your general community activities and what you got
involved in Columbus.
Rubenstein: When I came, the spokesman for general community activities was
Folkman. I’m not speaking about the Jewish community although I can speak
about. Now, I’ve got to be honest; first of all, you’ve got to know what you
see and, number two, you got to be fair enough and honest enough to say it.
Folkman was the man. He represented the Jews, to the eyes of the general
community and the general community did not think of federation. The Rabbis were
the leaders that reflected…
(Tape ends abruptly)
End of part 1
INTERVIEW WITH RABBI SAMUEL W. RUBENSTEIN
This interview was conducted on June 6, 1994 by Linda Katz and Richard
Neustadt in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the Oral History program of the Columbus
Jewish Historical Society.
Rubenstein: This is what I feel is a true judgment of how the general community
looks upon the Jewish community. Looked! I don’t know about now.
Interviewer: What year are we talking about?
Rubenstein: I’m talking about the 50s and earlier.
Interviewer: When was the association of rabbis started?
Rubenstein: That’s later. Really, it’s unimportant, if you pardon the
expression. The general community felt that what the rabbis said, whether it was
Folkman, Zelizer, or myself…in the early days, it certainly was Folkman and
his predecessor in the Reform pulpit. All I can speak about is Folkman, because
I know he was here. No Jew in the organized community would refute or contradict
that which the rabbis said. I met with them later on, with mixed groups,
non-Jewish groups. It was always thrown out that Protestants had problems. Even
the Catholics had some dissension. But the rabbis? Nothing! Whatever the rabbis
said, that’s it! The word of God! Now this is difficult for the average
Jew to understand…that’s the way it was, good or bad.
Interviewer: You mean that’s the way the non-Jewish community perceived the
Rubenstein: Right, absolutely. This was what they felt. I’m telling you straight
facts. I was involved in many, many meetings with non-Jewish groups. I was
president of the Columbus Board of Rabbis on several occasions, so I represented
them. But before that, before there was a Columbus Board of Rabbis, I was
privileged to chair the only and first conference on religion and race. I was
the Jewish representative for Columbus. Big, big event, three or four days.
Interviewer: All clergy?
Rubenstein: Clergy and we had the Wolfes who were involved; in other words, there
was a black leader. I don’t remember who, 1983. If this was at the U.N. in
Geneva. I might have given it to…I gave it to Mellman. Let’s get back…
Rubenstein: As I said, I represented the Jewish community as the agreed person, it
need not have been a clergyman, but Ben Mandelkorn was kind enough to ask me to
serve. I did not seek to serve; I did not think I was worthy of serving. He
said, “You’re the man to do it; we want you to do it.” And I did it.
The bishop was involved; the Catholic Bishop: the head of the Metropolitan
Church Board that represented Protestants. I represented the Jewish community.
And there was a colored minister called Parish, very fine man. He represented
the black community. And it was the first meeting of religion and race and the
only meeting. Nattie Rackman, the chancellor of Baralon University. He was a
vice president of Yeshiva University at the time and Benton Synagogue. One of
the great leaders of Jewry came to represent the Jewish community. They had a
tough bishop who was on his way to Selma, Alabama. They invited me to attend to
walk to Montgomery and Selma, but I wouldn’t go. And I’ll tell you why I
wouldn’t go. I was a rabbi in the South for two occasions; I was a rabbi in
Georgia and I was a rabbi in Charleston. All these good intentioned people and
they’re good people; they’re remarkable people. When they go away, they
leave behind a lot of trouble for the local Jewish community. “So, you’re
the rabbi that made all the trouble for us.” Now I’m not here to place
any Jew in a precarious position. It’s nice to have my picture taken in the
paper, appear on television, walk with Martin Luther King, even in the front
row. And I know. The reaction that would befall the Jewish community because a
Rabbi who came from the north came in to walk in Montgomery, to walk in Selma,
and those communities had to live to bear the cross, if you will.
Interviewer: They represented a principle down there, too?.
Rubenstein: It’s a different thing; you represent prudence so you don’t
jeopardize someone else (jeopardize Jewish communities.) So, the principle
dies…let them kill all these people. This stuff doesn’t work.
Interviewer: An interesting dilemma. I don’t understand what you
jeopardize. Why is the Jewish community jeopardized?
Rubenstein: You don’t think of it now; you’re going back to the 50s, or the
early 60s. At that time, the Jewish people, you know all the privileges and all
the rights with the Supreme Court decisions and the break in the new South,
there wasn’t a single Jewish politician or rather black politician who had an
important position in the South then.
Interviewer: What are you saying, the racists who were the majority down
there at the time would resent the Jews for walking with Martin Luther King. Oh,
I thought you were talking about Columbus.
Rubenstein: I was the one that they wanted to go from Columbus; they asked me to
come. I was active; I was chairman of this thing. I said, “I appreciate the
honor, I can’t leave my congregation.” I couldn’t tell them what my qualms
are…my moral qualms. It’s good to be a great man with all the publicity,
but at what cost? You’re harming others. You’re placing people in a very
great danger. The Jewish people were in great danger; they burned the
synagogues. We’re not that far away from that, in the South. I lived in the
South. I know. I lived in a little town in Georgia, there were 10,000 people. I
was the big hero. They asked me to go to the city hall to see the mayor. It was
a dry county and they wanted to make it wet and the women came to me. The women
always complained that the husbands got drunk and they beat them up, you see.
And they came to me and they said, Rabbi, we want you to go to the mayor and
talk with him. I said, “What do you want me for?” He says, “We
never saw a Jew who was drunk,” that was in those days. Today they would
have to go to the club to see that, do you understand? So, when I went to the
mayor, he says, “Rabbi, wonderful to see you; why are you here; we have no
problem.” I said, “I know I have no problem; I have no problem because
it’s important that you don’t have a problem.” But I knew the South: I
knew the South and I lived the South.
Interviewer: Of all the things that you got involved in, as far as Columbus?
The general community.
Rubenstein: So this was…in other words, I was the head of that group. From there
a lot of activities flowed. We were involved with the guy who you made a
Congressman out of – Shamansky. He was then in charge of… he and I headed a
committee to make an activity between the bishop and the Jewish community. And I
was the person who went with him. He was a layman and I was a rabbi. We wanted
to represent the general community in terms of their relationship; a dialogue
with the Catholic Church.
Interviewer: It’s still going on. Rabbi Bleefeld is doing a great job in
that regard; he is among the most capable of the rabbis. I’m not here to judge
him; I’m just judging what I see. They are all nice guys; they’re all nice
fellas. My own failing with the Columbus Board of Rabbis was very early on. It’s
gotta be 20 years ago when one of the Rabbis-one of the new Rabbis that came in
somewhere, somehow in between said that we should petition the PLO to come here,
or something like that. And that was the last time I went with them. While they
voted it down, there were other guys who said it was a good idea. Maybe it was
20 years too early; I don’t know. I’m squeamish about meeting with
watchamacallit – Arafat.
Interviewer: You have a long memory; that was a long time ago.
Rubenstein: No, no; I have a short memory.
Interviewer: A long memory is the guys for 5,000 years have been a bunch of
years. So, what kind of credibility do they have in 1994. And that’s what you’re
telling me. I wouldn’t argue.
Rubenstein: It was different then because they were shooting up schools and were
doing up a lot of things which were very, very difficult. Especially the PLO,
and Arafat, in general, so. And this is what turned me off the Columbus Board of
Rabbis. It’s a new spirit. Folkman was a Zionist . Zelizer was a great Zionist
leader. I was involved in a Zionist organization; I was a vice-president, then
president. I’m still a president on the books but what am I going to tell you?
I can’t go along with some of these things; I stayed away. It aggravates me
and I can’t stand that aggravation; I’m an old man.
Interviewer: What are some of the awards there on the wall?
Rubenstein: The big thing I did, in terms of the general community, is that I
represented the United States Government at the U.N. In other words, I was a
U.N. representative in Geneva for two weeks.
Interviewer: Oh! How did that happen?
Rubenstein: I got appointed by the president of the United States.
Interviewer: Who was the president?
Rubenstein: Nixon. It was in the 70s. I met with Reagan; Reagan was here.
Interviewer: No, No, This story is 1983.
Rubenstein: That’s right; that’s when I retired.
Interviewer: Let’s talk about the U.N.
Rubenstein: That was the big picture. I was in the U.N. in 1971. It was a very
unusual experience. First of all, I wore a yarmulka on the floor of the U.N.
Very, very interesting.
Interviewer: That was one of the highlights of your career?
Rubenstein: It was important.
Interviewer: What was your mission?
Rubenstein: I was in charge of…There were a few of us who were brought in as
experts in education. And I was one of the fellas; and the fella sitting next to
me was the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in New York – a very bright,
capable fella. Very, very interesting.
Interviewer: What had you done that made you…
Rubenstein: I ran schools and so on…I don’t know. They chased me. I never
sought any of these things, I want you to know.
Interviewer: But you must have made a name for yourself in education for them
to have selected you?
Rubenstein: No, I ran the school. I was one of the founders of the Columbus Torah
Academy in general. In addition to that, I lectured here at the Trinity Lutheran
Seminary, on the graduate school level. So, I don’t know. They liked me. My
friend, Congressman Sam Devine, had a lot to do with it. But in general; I had
opportunities. I didn’t seek them; they came. Let me say this; I never sought
Interviewer: The responsibilities of a rabbi are so varied and have such ups
and downs to them, it’s very difficult to go out and seek this stuff.
Rubenstein: You can’t. Some of my colleagues, especially a fellow along College
Avenue was chasing every script. You understand. You do the best you can.
Interviewer: What’s the Shofar Award?
Rubenstein: Boy Scouts. I was active in Boy Scouting. I was a rabbi to the Boy
Scout Camp in New York for two years. I was a member of the Order of the Arrow,
which is an honorary society of Scouting. Real tough stuff; they gave me this
Interviewer: You’ve got all kinds of awards? What other organizations were
you involved in?
Rubenstein: Sports. I got something in sports. It’s an honoring what-his-name; I
gave him the honor.
Interviewer: You gave one to Meyer, you mean? You have this picture? We have
this picture of Henry Kissinger with the rabbi.
Rubenstein: Yes. We might want to take a picture.
Interviewer: Looking to see what’s over here. Oh, this is Dorothy. Oh,
good, she gets her own wall? Do you have a wedding picture? Do we have a copy of
Rubenstein: No, I don’t think you did. Go ahead and take a picture out of there.
Interviewer: Who is this up here?
Rubenstein: Oh, that’s Saul Shenk and Rabbi Zonteman, who we brought in from B’nai
B’rith. He met with the Pope and we brought him here from B’nai B’rith to
speak about his meeting with the Pope. You have to say hello to people. You do
what you have to do. I don’t want to be beholden to anybody.
Interviewer: May we have that picture? I think he has some pictures on that.
The Governor’s award…for Outstanding Leaders.
Rubenstein: I want to tell you something. And they remind me every time that I’m
a registered Democrat. What you’re registered and what your actions are, are
two different things. My feeling was that there are enough Jews taking care of
the Democrats. I mean that; and I think it’s important that….
Interviewer: What was your interest in Academy of Cleveland all about?
Rubenstein: I could use the money. Schottenstein’s the only one that gives
Interviewer: Do you know who that gal is?
Rubenstein: Where? Beverly D’Angelo; oh yeah. She received the award and I
received it. See, how things change. When I did it for four years for the
governor, it was Steinem. Gloria Steinem came in dress jeans. It was a very
formal affair. Do you see how things change?
Dorothy Rubenstein: When my husband was retiring, he made a speech from the
pulpit. He turned to me and said, “The best is yet to be!”
Interviewer: This is what he said to you? How beautiful. That is so
beautiful. That’s what he said. I think I’m going to read this for the tape.
“To Dorothy during a cold, winter Friday night. A beautiful child, birth of
the traveled flight. It was the birth of a gorgeous life who was destined to
become my wife. It was twenty-six years since she was planted on this earth that
she was enchanted, but she will continue to be a sweet little child, always
making my life worthwhile; bringing waves of hope and cheer to the world she
holds so dear. As you continue to show life, love and happiness so that all
humanity will be impressed with her worth and cleverness. Winter to me has but
one joy – to recall that you were not born a boy. Amidst the storm, cold and
snow; I remain forever aglow with the beauty of your grace when I behold your
lovely face. Years may come and years may go, but you maintain the pace that
will lead us to eternal grace. And every test that we face we hope to God we
will stay in the race. For everything is the best, health, wealth and happiness
too. All these things depend on you. Love, Sam.” And he wrote this on what
Mrs. R: I don’t recall. When he came back from the School.
Rubenstein: I am against any individual, who is a head or an executive of an
organization to get an award from that organization. They offered us many awards
on my retirement. I wouldn’t take it. They can keep that stuff. I knew before
that was my job. They can keep the awards. That’s ridiculous. That’s a job!
You know the gold watch syndrome…everybody gets the gold watch because they’ve
been there twenty years.
Rubenstein: They all think, this is it. I’m saying that…number 1.
Interviewer: You’re also saying, “it’s not sincere.” What can
someone do; what can a constituency do, if they believe in something. They
believe in an individual who has done a terrific job. It might be embarrassing
to you; It might be uncomfortable.
Rubenstein: A half a dozen times, groups come to me, from the synagogue, different
agencies of the synagogue. I said, “No way!”
Interviewer: Maybe this is just a little idiosyncrasy of yours.
Rubenstein: No, No. I’m telling you how I feel. By the Federation, I think I’ve
had two or three come forth over the years, the Ben Gurion Award presented to
Rabbi Samuel W. Rubenstein in recognition of his meritorious service to the
Columbus Jewish Community on October 18, 1981.
Interviewer: That’s very nice! They are all wonderful organizations. I
particularly value China and the work they do.
Rubenstein: I’ll tell you, the number of …It’s an award given in 1973, the
year the Yom Kippur war broke out and we took a group to Israel. There were
very, very few groups going to Israel. And we received this citation. We took
groups for at least 25 years to Israel every year. To me, going that year, when
very, very few were going.
Interviewer: It was courageous; people were frightened.
Rubenstein: We were on the outskirts of Damascus; we were 18 miles from the front
lines. That day we went and it was the only day where you were able to get
clearance, because the night before, I sent my guide up to the military post and
said we want to go to the front lines. He said, “You can’t do it.”
At 6:00 in the morning, I met with him, in the dining room. I says, “Look,
Interviewer: You weren’t afraid?
Rubenstein: I was concerned but I wasn’t afraid. I prayed to God, that’s all.
Interviewer: All right. Let’s go back in here. Two or three institutions
that you were instrumental in starting?
Rubenstein: One is the Columbus Heritage House and the other is the Torah Academy.
Interviewer: That’s very valuable; very important.
Rubenstein: In other words, when we started the Torah Academy, everybody was
against it. They said that it would divide the Jewish community; it was
parochialism, that it’s ghettoism.. I was the only one who really – . I’ll
say this quite modestly that having the most important orthodox pulpit. We’re
not on the fringe; I’m a rabbi. He said what he said. It was not. Let’s say
if Guatemala would make a statement, and the United States would make a
statement, there would be a difference. It would be different.
Mrs. R: (Referring to photograph) I want to tell you; this is a group of
two families. How did you get so many people in it.
Interviewer: Who are all these people?
Rubenstein: My cousins. And that wasn’t all of them. We used to have family
reunions and we would have a maximum of 126 when we quit counting and 93 or 94
showed up. It was incredible. My grandfather had 11 children and each one had
families. Let’s get back . We were talking about the two institutions that we
helped establish. One was the Columbus Torah Academy and, as I say, when you
went out on a limb on some of these issues which were unpopular, you placed your
prestige and the prestige of the congregation on the line. I was a rabbi in
Charleston. I could do whatever I wanted. No one would bother me. I said, quite
frankly, they were good people. But no one would second-guess you. In Agudas
Achim here, with a number of very important community leaders. You know, Harry
Schwartz, Abe Wolman, Abe Yenkin, Harry Gilbert, Sylvia Schecter. All these
people – When you got out of line, and you took an issue, I wasn’t afraid –
Rubenstein: The second and this was the most difficult, was what eventually became
the Heritage House. Almost everybody was getting to Heritage House. I’ll give
you an illustration. And this was more. The American I can understand. What
happened was, when I came in 1949, the Jewish Community Council, it was called,
the same as what the Federation is called today, the council of groups that
represented the Jewish Community of the Federation said, number one, we don’t
want a Jewish home for the aged here.
Interviewer: Who said that?
Rubenstein: The Jewish Community Council, rather they contributed $5,000 to a home
in Cleveland. We had an on-going relationship. If any of our Jewish people had
to go to an old folks home, they would go there. We’d help pay for it or pay
for it. And one man, only one man, said to me, and that was Louie Mellman, Bob
Mellman’s uncle – a very strong man – Bob Mellman went along with the general
community – Schanfarber, others, they didn’t want a….
Interviewer: Was it mostly the Reform Community that didn’t want it?
Rubenstein: It was the whole community! They voted! Excuse me, the community
voted! I’ll give you an idea you can’t judge history by now. A lot of people
make the mistake. I’m a historian. I have all my credits for a doctor’s…
Interviewer: Maybe they did not want the financial responsibility.
Rubenstein: No, no, no. There are a lot of angles.
(Tape ends abruptly)
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