Interview with Rabbi Steven Abrams on May 18, 1993. This interview is taking place at B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation at Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio as part of the Oral History of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.
My family came to America from Europe. We are Ashkinas Jews. My father is first generation. My grandfather on my fathers side came to the United States, escaping from the army in Russia. This was very common. He got to the German coast and came into the United States, not through Boston or New York or Philadelphia which was so common but through Galveston, Texas, which was part of an experiment worked out by the people who were arranging transport and immigration to America. The Jewish people were arranging immigration to try to sort of spread the immigration out and get people out of the Northeast corridor and perhaps into farming and other kinds of things. So my grandfather came in through the port in Galveston and like so many in the South, became a peddler. Eventually, he had developed to the point where he could open a store and he opened a store in a little town in St. Joseph, Louisiana, population of about 150 today. The only Jewish family in town, he met my grandmother in New York, however, where he traveled to try to find a wife. They raised their family in St. Joseph, Louisiana, where I visited when I was perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. My father took the whole family to St. Joseph to see where he grew up and the house and so on, which was a great shock because we discovered that he didnt walk three miles to school, which he used to tell us. His house was right next door to the school.
They were the only Jewish family and my grandfather owned the big general store in town as well as several other stores. For Passover and for High Holidays, they would travel to Natchez Mississippi, take a room in a hotel to go to the synagogue there. Besides that, my father had virtually no Jewish background except what his father could give him which was also not very much. My grandfather came to America when he was very young, again, running away from the army.
There are lots of great stories about my fathers upbringing but none of them of Jewish content. From this, I assume and I perceive, knowing my aunts and uncles, that outside of a social and cultural kind of concern, Jewish life did not play a major role in the family. Later, toward the Depression, my grandfather lost everything between the stores doing very poorly and an investment in cotton futures that went sour, as so many others did at that time. So by the time of the Depression, the family was no longer well to do.
I’m aware of my father going to the University of Louisiana and cutting sugar cane to make enough money to go. He left the University of Louisiana after a dispute that had to do with being a Jew. About a week and a half into his sophomore year, his three roommates discovered that he was a Jew and they threw him out of the second storywindow. He did not get supported by the administration of the university. At that point, he transferred out of the University of Louisiana and eventually found his way to Boulder, Colorado, the University of Colorado, where he did graduate and still has a great love for Colorado the Denver and Boulder areas.
Later in their life, my grandparents moved to New York because most of their children had moved to New York. Indeed, through most of my growing up, the whole family, except sometimes for us, lived in greater New York. My father graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in accounting although his great love was Shakespeare and the law. He was always a very practical man and his whole life he worked for one company, Schenley Industries which was an alcoholic beverage manufacturing distributor and he retired about five years ago. He lives in Florida with my mother. The family has begun to scatter, they no longer all live in New York. Maybe I’ll get to that later.
My mother was born in Poland in the town of Brisque. My grandfather was from a Hasidic family and my grandmother was from a Misnaged family and it was amazing that they got married. My grandmother tells the story of how her father was horrified at their Chasima, their wedding, when all of my grandfathers family came and were dancing on the tables and all over the place. He was very offended by this behavior. It didnt hold, in any case. My grandfather became a big Zionist and, indeed, shortly after my mother was born, when she was still an infant, they moved to Israel (then Palestine). Times were very hard, my grandfather was working as an accountant or a bookkeeper in the almost new city of Tel Aviv. In fact, he and his brother bought the land that eventually became Kikar Dizengoff. Back in the 1930s, my grandmother was increasingly unhappy in Israel, it was all of my grandfathers family in Israel but my grandmothers family had all come to America. She was increasingly unhappy without her brother and sister and because economic times were hard, my grandfather sold his share of the land in Tel Aviv, left his job and the family in America sent them money and they came to America.
I think in some ways that was very hard on my grandfather. In Israel, he was a professional, in America, he did not know the language and he didnt know his way around. As a matter of fact, from the 30s until he retired, he owned laundromats. He and my grandmother worked very hard in laundromats. I don’t think he was ever very happy with that but he made a parnossa, he made a living and that was important. My grandfather, in Poland, was a chess master so my earliest memories of my grandfather are two: 1) teaching me to read Hebrew, and 2) teaching me chess. Throughout my life, we played chess. In fact, the way I knew that my grandfather was failing was when I was about sixteen or seventeen and for the first time, I started beating him in chess. At my grandmothers advice, I let him win so I only actually beat him twice. I realized that he no longer had what he once had. That was very painful and very difficult.
I was working at Camp Livingston, the Jewish Community summer camp from Cincinnati, when he died. I did not attend his funeral for some reason, at my parents encouragement. I always found that very painful. However, my grandmother is still alive. She lives in Florida in a nursing home near my parents. She was always extremely independent and shes not independent now and thats also very painful for her.
So my mother was born in Poland. My grandmother was Chaim Weitzmans first cousin and, in fact, grew up in part in his household in Europe. There were very close linkages with Zionism from very early days. We have a lot of family in Israel, mostly from my grandfathers side but some from my grandmothers side also. Whenever I go to Israel, its a lot of fun to get together and to be with them.
The family on my fathers side. My father had five siblings and all but one lived in greater New York most of their lives. I was born in Cincinnati because Schenley Industries had its headquarters in Cincinnati at that time and then we proceeded five different times to move back and forth between New York and Cincinnati when Schenley moved its manufacturing headquarters. So it was just coincidence that when my father retired, we ended up in Cincinnati and that sort of set me in Ohio. I was very active in our synagogue youth group and through that, I developed a very strong interest in Judaism. When I went to college, my best friend turned out to be someone who wanted to be a Methodist minister. He did more to set my direction than anybody else because to hold my own identity, I had to become a more and more knowledgeable Jew. Before I knew it, I wanted to be a rabbi as he wanted to be a minister. Then I remembered that when I was confirmed at Temple Sholom in Cincinnati, which is a Reform temple, Rabbi Braf had a private meeting with each confirmant. In the meeting, he said to me, “Have you thought anything about what youd like to be when you grow up?” and I said, “I think I’d like to be a rabbi.” And he looked at me with very wise eyes and he said, “You have plenty of time to change your mind.”
However, I did get more and more involved in Jewish life. In college, more and more involved. In fact, I transferred from Ohio University to University of Cincinnati so I could be close to Hebrew Union College and take courses there and continue learning. Which I did. Eventually, I graduated from the University of Cincinnati and entered Hebrew Union College.
At the same time, I got married. I met my wife in high school in a youth group. We met at a Bnai Brith Youth Organization convention although wed known of each other for a long time. We were both officers of this Region of Nifty, the Ohio Valley Federation of Temple Youths so we saw each other a number of times in that year and we were friendly but we were not particularly close. In my very first class in college at Ohio University, the first day of classes, the first class I went to, in my normal humble manner I was explaining to the professor why he was wrong about something, a girl sitting in the row right in front of me, turned around to tell me to shut up. It turned out to be Barbara. That night, we took a walk to Hillel, trying to find our way around campus. We came across a couple who told us this amazing story about how they met the first day of classes and ended up getting married and theyd just graduated and came back for the beginning of school to see their friends. We laughed and chuckled but sure enough, the same thing happened to us.
We got married just a week before we left for Israel. We moved to Israel for about fifteen months. I studied and she did a lot of different kinds of work, mostly in archeology. She also worked in a Super Clean, a laundromat and it was a wonderful experience for both of us. I wanted to stay in Israel. I felt no need to come back but she missed her family very much and was desperate to get home and see the family so we came back.
I continued at Hebrew Union College and finished and Barbara did a variety of jobs, a number of jobs, mostly in the personal consulting area. While at Hebrew Union College, we both were studying and learning and we were growing as Jews. By the time we were coming to the end of our years there, we both began to realize that we did not fit very comfortably into a Reform community.
When it came time for placement, I took a position in a Conservative congregation and even there, found it to be too liberal and from my perspective, too distant from the tradition for me to be comfortable. So while I was in that first position, I went to the Yeshiva everyday. The way that we structured my job, since I ran the religious school, was that in the morning from about eight until about 2:30, each day, I went to Yeshiva and I sat and learned. In the afternoons, Id come and run the school and do my other kinds of responsibilities. By the end of that first year, I decided it was untenable for me to remain there.
I left and took another congregation, a traditional conservative congregation in Newington, Connecticut which is part of the Hartford community. And that was a very good shidach in terms of personalities. I really liked the people and they really liked me but again, religiously, I felt very uncomfortable. Particularly in that my goal of being there was to teach and encourage people to make Judaism more central in their lives. One of the things that I realized very early, was that this was not what the congregation wanted. They wanted someone who could preach an exciting sermon for which they gave me high marks. And they wanted a pastor and I never felt real comfortable with a pastoral role. There was nothing more important to them than hospital visits. While to me, that was important, that was not nearly the most important thing. As I recognized that the values and concerns between me and the congregation were very divergent, I decided that it was untenable for me to remain in that kind of setting, simply because I wanted to be true and honest to myself. It was one moment that convinced me of that. My wife and I were coming back from a meeting of the Connecticut Valley Rabbinical Assembly which is the Organization of Conservative Rabbis and we went out to eat with a group of Rabbis who turned out to be the Rabbis of the largest congregations in the area. We sat and we listened to their concerns and their issues and I remember my wife and I driving home and saying, I never want to be like these people.
So we decided to leave congregational life and I took a job with the Jewish Federation in Florida which was very nice. I really enjoyed it. My wife was working at the Jewish Vocational Service in Miami. She didnt enjoy it as much but we were comfortable. I liked the job but I wasnt so impressed with the community. Barbaras job was ok but she really disliked the community. We felt it was pretty shallow. It had all of the worst of New York values without the wonderful Midwest values that we both hold by and love.
When I was approached by the then director of Ohio State University Hillel, Howie Alpert, I hesitated but my wife was very interested in this move to Columbus. Howie knew how to pull it off. He approached me and I said no that I wasnt interested. We spent our summer vacations in Columbus because Barbaras parents live here. Her parents live right across the street from Rabbi Stavskys synagogue, Beth Jacob, where Howie Alpert also went. So one Shabbat, when I was there for vacation, after saying no to him several times over the phone, he plopped down next to me and said, Do I have a job for you! And again, I told him no but we talked about it and again, I said no. He spoke to Rabbi Stavsky and Rabbi Stavskys wife mysteriously ran into my mother in law on my mothers in law driveway across the street and said, Isnt it wonderful? Your kids have a chance to come back to Columbus! Four days later, I applied. There was no chance in the world, at that point, that I wasnt going to apply.
I came to Columbus and to Ohio State University. Immediately, I loved what I was doing. I love working with the students and the teaching. I love trying to build a community in a very challenging environment. I came to Columbus in 1986. I arrived after school began on Shabbat afternoon. On that Shabbos evening, I came to campus for my first Shabbos at Ohio State University. My wife and I loved it and we always look forward to Shabbos on campus and come as often as possible which was an overwhelming majority of Shabbosim on campus over the seven years I was here.
We loved the whole environment, we loved the students and we loved being a part of the campus community. Over the years, the job has changed a lot. Its become much more administrative oriented: fund raising, the new building campaign thats been very successful but a real challenge. There is recognition that The Hillel at Ohio State University and other places is not reaching students to the depth thats necessary. We need to find new ways to function in order to do that. All these were exciting and challenging but theyve also changed the nature of the job. So in 1993, we decided to look for something else in terms of a position that would allow us, my wife and me, to be more education involved and thats something that were in the process of doing now.
In any case, the campus had its own unique challenges. One is the fact the overwhelming majority of Jewish students come to campus with almost no viable Jewish background. They have a sense of identity. They have a sense of social and cultural identity. They know very, very little even students who grew up in relatively strong Jewish families. I’ve had children of rabbis who were functionally illiterate in the basics of being Jewish. The son of a conservative rabbi, who could not make kiddush and I taught him to make kiddush. In fact, I got into trouble with his father because, eventually, that student became Orthodox and went and learned in the Yeshiva. In fact, this year or next year, he will probably be ordained as a rabbi himself. His father was very upset in the direction his son went. But I never saw that as so much an issue for me. For me, the whole issue was to help a student discover what direction he/she wanted to go in and to help the student go in that direction. I’ve had students apply to Hebrew Union College, who in one case, started out Orthodox and I’ve had other students go to Yeshiva who started out Reform. To me, whats important, is helping students find their way. I’ve had students determine that a secular approach to Judaism was the right way for them. I’ve helped and encouraged them, even if for me, that was painful since my identity is so religiously oriented. However, that kind of guidance was always very exciting. Since most students came with very little knowledge, with each one, it was almost like starting with an empty slate.
The one thing they would come with, which I continue to find interesting, is an identity of what kind of Jew they are. I’m a Reform Jew, I’m a Conservative Jew, and in rare cases, I’m an Orthodox Jew. So, the question I would get when Id be teaching, was Is that Reform, Conservative or Orthodox? Because of the way I teach, my general response was probably, Its just Jewish. Sort of generic. I do not see myself , in general, teaching Orthodox Judaism at Hillel although with certain classes and certain individuals, I would. It would really depend upon the people. I try to teach a generic kind of approach to Judaism that could be applied in any quarter. And in general, I think thats what I did.
Students would come with an identity of what kind of Jew they were and in a sense, did not want to look beyond that. And that was always a challenge, especially for Conservative students because they knew there was no difference in their observance level or their thinking about being a Jew than the Reform kids. But somehow, they knew that they were Conservative and that made a difference. So one of the issues is, I try to help Conservative students realize that theres something of substance to Conservative Judaism that they should consider and try to incorporate it in their lives.
Reform students usually used, I’m Reform, as a way of saying, I don’t have to do that or I don’t do that, or I don’t want to learn about that. So my challenge with Reform students was to help them also learn that Reform Judaism stands for something and really has concept to it. Whether I agree with it or not, its something thats real and its something, as Reform Jews, they should consider and take into account with their identities as Reform Jews.
Orthodox students tended to come even non observing Orthodox students with a much stronger sense of identity, much more knowledge, although not always with knowledge but a much stronger sense of who they are and what they wanted to be. And they tended to be a little more open, I think, because they are less threatened. One of the things that I’ve seen is the more threatened a student is, the more rigid they are in whatever base identity they hold, whether its reflected in their thinking and their actions or not, I think most of the Orthodox students, and particularly the day school kids, tended to come with a much stronger identity and much more confidence in themselves as Jews and therefore, they tend to be much more tolerant and much more open. So one of the things I always tried to do was encourage more confident interaction and helping students become in themselves as Jews so that they will become more tolerant and more a part of the general community.
Our big stress at Ohio State University Hillel throughout the years, has been part of the community as a whole. Whatever kind or flavor of Jew you are, to try to be part of the whole community, consider the whole community is the ultimate importance. I’ve had mixed success with that. Some years, weve had a lot of success and students took pride in the sense of unity and the lack of religious strife. Other times, I’ve had incredible religious strife. I remember, one year I had a group of Reform students who were trying to campaign to ban the mechitzas from the Hillel building because they were inherently sexist and against the values of Judaism. In fact, I remember one Shabbas, two of the Reform kids were giving tours of the Hillel mechitzas to other kids who came down in the middle of the Reform service to talk about how terrible this is. I remember getting a petition and it was wild.
I remember another time we had a girl who transferred out of Ohio State University in anger. Not just with Hillel but with everything. She felt she couldnt get the activism going where she wanted and her big thing was Reform Judaism should not be allowed to play the guitar in their service because their service was quote, Not Halackic. They shouldnt be allowed to do it at Hillel and the Orthodox students should not be allowed because theyre sexist so only a particular kind of egualitarian Conservative can be allowed. She caused a lot of uproar. And again, she transferred out in great frustration with Hillel and with all the other groups at Ohio State University that didn’t meet her very specific needs.
So through the year I’ve had all kinds and actually, while I went through these experiences, they were very challenging and very painful. When they were over, I tended to feel that they were pretty healthy because they forced the community, as a community, to consider these issues and to struggle with what does it mean to be a pluralistic community. I always felt we came out stronger for that year. The following year would all start over again because there were all new students.
A generation of students was about five quarters and wed see a major turnover every five to seven quarters. So the same mistakes of the past would repeat themselves and then theyd resolve the same way and things would be very peaceful and wonderful for another three to four quarters and then theyd blow up again. While I dreaded the blow up, after the blow up was resolved, that quarter of discontent, I always felt we were much stronger for it. So I felt that they were valuable.
One of the things I’ve noticed through the seven years here, besides the constant decrease in strength of Jewish identity and knowledge, is that were seeing more and more students with psychological problems. My wife, who is a psychologist, and I were talking about this for several years, that were seeing more and more, especially some very serious issues like borderlines. We were saying, What is it about Hillel thats attracting this? until we saw an article in the Journal of Student Development which talked about how, on a national level, universities are seeing a great increase in the amount of students with severe or psychological problems. And borderlines were one of the things they focused on. Thats an awful thing for a person. They can never really hold onto relationships and they know something in wrong. We can see this. Borderlines have think in the last two years, I have dealt with three borderlines. They are incredibly destructive and they don’t mean to be. But weve seen other psychological problems also.
Last year, Ohio State University sent letters to psychologists throughout the Columbus area, talking about how they could not deal with the level and severity of psychological problems they are now seeing in students. They are asking psychologists to indicate if theyd be willing to take students at student insurance rates because the university itself could not handle the type and amount. Most university counseling centers are designed to deal with developmental issues. And so is Hillel. We spend a lot of time dealing with student development. Were not structured to deal with psychological issues and we see them in a large and growing percentage of our students. Were concerned about this. Were less concerned now that we realize this is a national phenomenon and not a Hillel phenomenon. But were none the less very concerned.
Now, one of the things we realized is to impact on the lives of college aged students, Jewish students, who for the most part, have only a nominal level of involvement in Jewish life, we have to go in different directions. For the last four years, we have been working very hard to develop a new Hillel facility. This Hillel is the first building in the history of the world, built to be a Hillel. Its now old and dysfunctional in many ways. So weve been raising the money to build a new facility and that will start this summer. Were planning to tear this building down the first week in June, 1993 and about fourteen or fifteen months later, well be moving into a brand new, beautifully designed facility. So far, weve raised about $4.25 million. We need to raise a little more but its on its way. Theres a tremendous sense of pride.
In addition, weve gone through a professionally managed, intense strategic planning study and developed a strategic plan for the direction that Hillel will function in the future in terms of governance, in terms of finances, fund raising, in terms of problematic, in terms of leadership development, staffing and so on.
So were going to be getting a new building with a whole new program and, in fact, were also going to have a whole new staff. The program staff, for a variety of reasons, and each person is on an independent level, have decided to leave this year. So next year, theres going to be a whole new staff a new director, a new program director. The only remaining individual will be Gilda Abramson, our administrator, who has been a fixture at this Hillel for many, many years and is part of the glue that keeps it all going. So we are now looking toward a year of temporary quarters and then moving into a beautiful, new facility thats designed to function on an ideal level.
With that, with a new staff, with increased funding that is now happening for Hillel, theres great promise that well be able to change directions and appeal to a greater number of students. For the most part, I think thats good. There are certain things that I’m not certain about and well see how they work out. But for the most part, I think that Hillel is on its way to really making a significant difference. Were very excited. The end result will, hopefully, be a greatly increased student leadership, much greater in roads into the sorority and fraternity houses where Hillel has never done particularly well. Weve always had some but never done really well. And a whole new and different kind of presence on campus. Hillel is now one of the best known student
organizations on campus. Weve been involved in many things in the forefront of the university and were well known and weve been one of the most active programming organizations on campus, by far. Weve been very well recognized for that.
I think, now were entering a new era and while there may be a couple of years of transition before it takes off, I have every bit of confidence that Hillel is entering a new period of growth, expansion and redevelopment of programatics and leadership. I think that future is looking pretty exciting.
Interviewer: Thank you, Rabbi Abrams for sharing your personal life experiences with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.