This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on Oct. 20, 2008 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project and for inclusion in the archives collection of Congregation Beth Tikvah. The interview is being recorded at the home of Rhoda Gelles, Upper Arlington, Ohio. Our names are Rhoda Gelles and Jacki Chizever and we are interviewing Robert Fisher.
Interviewer: What is your full name?
Fisher: My full name is actually Robert Samuel Fisher, but no one’s called
me Robert since the first grade, I think. So Bob will be fine.
Interviewer: Do you have a Jewish name?
Fisher: Reuven, Reuven Schmuel.
Interviewer: Who were you named for?
Fisher: I was named for a…actually, it was my grandmother on my
father’s side, my father’s mother, Rosa who died just before I was born.
Interviewer: What was your mother’s full name?
Fisher: My mother’s name is Leatrice Mackrauer. It’s sort of a strange name, Leatrice.
It’s sort of funny. There probably aren’t too many in the world, but she has a
cousin who married a woman named Leatrice also, in Michigan. So it’s sort of a
strange family name I guess.
Interviewer: Where was she born?
Fisher: My family is from Pittsburgh. My parents were born in Pittsburgh.
I’m from Pittsburgh. I lived there most of my life until I moved to Columbus in l987.
Interviewer: What was your father’s full name?
Fisher: My father’s full name is David Fisher. My father passed
away about l0 years ago, in l997. My mother’s still living and she lives
in Philadelphia, in the Philadelphia equivalent of the Wexner Center, the
Abramson Center for Jewish Life. It’s a senior citizens building.
Interviewer: Is that in Elkins Park?
Fisher: Not too far, no, its in Montgomery County. It’s the new Jewish community there.
It was built…it’s only several, 4 or 5 years old. It’s a beautiful building and
they moved from the Center City where they were for many, many years.
Interviewer: Where were your grandparents and/or great grandparents countries of origin?
Fisher: Pretty much in Russia, Poland; the various combinations.
Two of my grand parents were born in the United States; the other two were born in Russia.
Interviewer: When did they come here?
Fisher: Oh, I think it was in the early l900’s, and I’m really not sure of the year.
Interviewer: When and where were your parents married?
Fisher: My parents were married in Pittsburgh. They were both from
Pittsburgh and spent all of their lives in Pittsburgh. Let’s see, my sister’s
a couple years older than me. They were married in about l948.
Interviewer: Where did your family live when you were growing up?
Fisher: We lived in Pittsburgh, in the Stanton Heights section of Pittsburgh. It was a pretty new inner-city suburb area, you…I would call it. And quite a few Jewish families moved in there, a lot of families where the husband came back from the War, or they just got married. So it was sort of a secondary Jewish community. The traditional Jewish community in Pittsburgh is called Squirrel Hill, if you’re familiar with it. A lot of people came back and wanted to buy a new home, and it was a growing, like I said, city-suburban community at that time.
Interviewer: Was it adjacent to Squirrel Hill?
Fisher: No, it wasn’t. But everything is pretty close. It was l5 minutes away. There were several communities in between, in the East end area, Shadyside, on the way to Squirrel Hill. But it sort of set a second Jewish community. I believe, in Pittsburgh, it’s similar to Columbus now, in that Jews are disbursed quite a bit. There were some pockets, but they are disbursed quite a bit.
Interviewer: How did your parents earn their living?
Fisher: They both worked. My father was a salesman and he started with his father and did something that really, probably, isn’t done any more. Not quite a door to door, but he had a route where he sold home furnishings and home goods. My mother didn’t work when my sister and I were young but she went to work to sub in a woman’s clothing store owned by a friend whose sister was my mother’s best friend worked there. And she went to sub, and stayed for about 25, 26 years before she quit. She worked in the office, as an office administrator.
Interviewer: You mentioned a sister. Do you have other brothers or sisters?
Fisher: No, I don’t. I have one sister who’s about a year and a half older than me.
And she lives in Bensalem Township, just outside of Philadelphia, northern Philadelphia,
with her husband. She has two sons that are adults, and they have three grandchildren, three young boys.
Interviewer: She’s not too far from your mother, then?
Fisher: No, she’s not. And that’s how my mother ended up there. My mother was in Pittsburgh and we all made a decision that she needed to live near one of us because we weren’t there anymore. We looked there and here and a great opportunity developed up there, so she’s there.
Interviewer:Can you tell us about your education?
Fisher: I went to public schools in the city, graduated from Peabody High School, if anyone is familiar with the city, and then went directly to college at the University of Pittsburgh. A lot of people in Pittsburgh, just like in Ohio where Columbus people many kids go to Ohio State; many went to Pitt in those days. I went to Pitt right after high school. Then, after graduating with a degree in Economics, I went directly into graduate school and earned an MBA in finance in l974.
Interviewer: After you graduated, then what kind of work did you do? Did you work in finance?
Fisher: Yes, I was looking for a position in the business world. And my first job was, my first “real job” was for a school district, as a business manager. It was out in Saxonburg, about 45 miles outside of Pittsburgh. And I worked there, actually, for four years, before moving on into other areas. Then, I got into the telecommunications business. I worked for cable television companies. Folks in Columbus remember Time Warner, when it started here, and Qube, the first Qube systems. Time Warner started in Pittsburgh at that time; it was l980. I was business manager and started in the cable television business for about l7 years. And that’s what brought me to Ohio, for a job in cable television.
Interviewer: Switching gears a little bit, when did you get married to Bobbie?
Fisher: It’s an interesting story. Bobbie and I got married, let’s see, I’d better get this right, about l5 years ago, it was l993. We actually met at Beth Tikvah. I had been getting active on the Board. I was on the Membership Committee. My friend, Rhonda Moskowitz, was the Chair of the committee, and I was assisting.
Interviewer: We had a new member event, and I remember chatting with Bobbie for a while.
Fisher: And then, afterwards, I looked at the list of who was there, and found her name and phone number, called her. We had a lot in common. We both were recently divorced, and both had young sons. Our kids are one year apart. She was looking to join a congregation, and get more involved, and I guess that’s how it started. We started seeing each other and, about a year or so later, we got married. And it has been history since then.
Interviewer: We heard a rumor that you had met at Beth Tikvah?
Fisher: Yes, we did. Gary Huber loves to hear that story. Plus, any Jewish mother, I guess, likes to hear that.
Interviewer: Where did you and Bobbie live after you got married?
Fisher: I had a house from when I first moved to Columbus. And we decided to build a house. We bought a home and built up near the new Polaris mall, which wasn’t in existence at that point. There was nothing up in that area, believe it or not. We built a house and we moved in in July, right after we got married, in l993. Before that, I lived in a house in Westerville and moved there when I came from Pittsburgh.
Interviewer: When you said you built a house, was that Pelham?
Fisher: That was on Pelham Drive. It was a new development. We were looking for something different. That was way out there, then. But now it’s not. And now it’s very developed with the Mall and all the activities around there. So we lived there for l5 years until, we always thought that, once the kids got out of school, finished their college or got close to that, we’d probably look for something a little closer, where more of our friends were, or different areas into the city , a little bit smaller place. And that’s how we ended up in Upper Arlington, just recently.
Interviewer: How old are the boys now and what are their names?
Fisher: Our kids are 23 and 22. Matthew is 23. He’s a graduate of the University of Cincinnati, with a marketing degree. And he’s living and working in Chicago. He works for a large marketing company and really enjoys it. Steven, finishing up at Ohio University. He’s in his last quarter. He has about 6 more weeks to go. He’ll graduate with a degree in…what is his degree (laughs). That’s a good question, Recreation Management. He’s worked for many years as a lifeguard at the Dublin Community Center. And last year, he started within the management program. And he’s looking for a job in that field when he graduates.
Interviewer: You said you moved in 1987 and you moved for a job, is that correct?
Interviewer: When you first moved to Columbus you chose the Westerville area?
Fisher: Right. When my wife (at the time) and I were looking in Columbus, actually we looked, interestingly, in the Bexley area. We had heard it’s a predominantly Jewish community. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find what we wanted for what we could afford at that time. Plus, that was one consideration. The second consideration was, my job was in Newark So I had to drive out to Newark. And we clearly decided we didn’t want to live in Newark. It’s great, if you like the small-town atmosphere. If you don’t, it’s not so great. We wanted to live in the city, east or northeast side, close to the highway, to get out to Newark So that’s how we ended up in Westerville, at that point.
Interviewer: Yeah, so you probably didn’t belong to another synagogue?
Fisher: No, I didn’t. This is the first one here. When I moved here my son was about 2 ½, and my wife and I were looking to join a congregation. We were looking for a good Reform congregation. We had heard good things about Beth Tikvah. Plus, it was the only game in town, up in the Northwest side anyway. So we started getting involved at that point.
Interviewer: Do you belong to other Jewish organizations, or have you, over the years?
Fisher: I don’t…well, officially, we’ve been active in the Federation at various times. Back in the days of the Kol Ami Hebrew School, I was on the Board of that. The Columbus Federation, I’ve been on the Board, due to my position as President of Beth Tikvah. And Bobbie has been on the Board of the Federation also, so we’ve been involved in various activities with the Jewish community.
Interviewer: We understand you were President of Congregation Beth Tikvah from 1999 to 2001.
Fisher: That sounds right. I’m glad you reminded me of the years because I was having trouble thinking of it. Yes, that’s correct.
Interviewer: What do you think were the major issues of the congregation during your Presidency?
Fisher: Well, there were several, and generally, they were very good. Beth Tikvah was very unique in the sense that we always hear, I guess we’ve heard second hand of congregations that have political problems, arguing about different factions. Some people want this, some people want that, constant turmoil in some ways. Beth Tikvah was very quiet.
Interviewer: I’ve talked to other presidents of congregations at that time.
Fisher: They met with the Rabbi every week and they had all these issues, and congregants calling them, and all kinds of problems. And it wasn’t like that at Beth Tikvah. It was very harmonious; people could participate as they want. There really weren’t any major issues. That was really nice in a way.. I used to meet with Rabbi Huber. We had a standing meeting once a month. We’d have lunch and kick around any ideas and trade off any issues, and that was plenty. That’s the general trend.
Interviewer: About how many members did Beth Tikvah have then?
Fisher: I remember we were probably at 400ish or so. I remember, a few years back, we were at 325. And we were in a state of…I don’t know if you’d call it explosive growth, but it was steady, strong growth, not just a few members a year. We were growing and growing. And that led into one of the issues that was very prominent during my term and continued on, unfortunately, for many, many years: the decision and the discussions about whether to expand the building or move into a new location. The discussions started in the term before me and, I believe, David Binkovitz was the President at that time. When he was President, the issue started really rolling, and developing, and becoming a major issue due to space issues and the need for growth and to handle our growing, wonderful congregation. Then, that’s when I took over, at that time. We started fundraising, creating plans, and really tried to plan for the future of Beth Tikvah, at that point.
Interviewer: You came in after the expansion on the sides?
Fisher: Right, the original expansion occurred several years before that and that didn’t last too long when it was totally inadequate. As we see, over the years, it’s very difficult to predict growth patterns because they ebb and they flow over the years. I’m sure the folks who were involved in that thought that they were building additions that would be great for another ten, fifteen years. After two, three, four years it wasn’t adequate due to the steady, strong growth of the congregation.
Interviewer: Rabbi Huber, of course, was the Rabbi the entire time that you were President?
Interviewer: Can you tell us something about some of the activities at Beth Tikvah, your own comments on Services and the school?
Fisher: Well, I think it was, and is a really, a welcoming congregation that is open to everyone.
In general, I think the mission of most Reform congregations is to provide for the spiritual, educational and communal needs of its members in a very broad sense. And I think we really did that. I’m sure every president is interested in all three of those things; but they take a special interest in the spiritual, educational and communal side. I think my special interest was the communal side, getting people together, helping develop and give people avenues to get to meet one another, especially in the Jewish community we have, where everyone is separate.
I talked about growing up in Pittsburgh. Over 90% of the kids I went to school with, and the neighbors were Jewish. So we didn’t have to go to temple or synagogue or join Jewish organizations to have that connection. It was just there. But you move to Columbus, and, in our schools, our kids might have three or four kids in their school that are Jewish, or there might be a neighbor three streets away. It really wasn’t here. So that’s why I sort of took an interest in the communal side, and joining some committees, and getting to know people in the community, since I was new in town, especially.
Interviewer: How about the Sunday school and Hebrew School during those years?
Fisher: That was in a time of tremendous growth, also. Almost by default, I got on the Hebrew School committee and the Sunday School committee. I used to bring my son, every day, to pre-kindergarten. He was probably about 3 ½, 4 years old, and, instead of leaving, I’d hang around the Temple. I’d go to the library and there’d be two or three or four people, and we’d talk and sometimes volunteer, help out, and do things like that. So that was one of the things that got me interested in that and then with Kol Ami being the separate organization for the community Hebrew School. I got involved on the Board, for several years, before it was dissolved and the Hebrew schools were farmed out, so-to-speak, to the congregations.
Interviewer: Your wife (Bobbie) was active in the synagogue, I think you mentioned? In what areas?
Fisher: Well, she was on the Board as fund-raising chair, and she just acted as volunteer in many areas. This was during the time when we were in heavy-duty negotiations and work on the building project, at that point. I would say this, whether she was my wife or not my wife, but no one would put in more hours. She probably worked 50, 60 hours at her real job, her day job, and worked 40, 50 hours on Beth Tikvah stuff during the week, every night and every weekend on the various things. And, again, I’m talking about my wife, but I’d say that about anyone who I had first hand knowledge of. So, she was very involved, and very invested, in trying to move along our project and to help provide the financial resources, because this was such a new area for Beth Tikvah at the time.
Interviewer: Great contribution. Do you remember any interesting stories about your days as President of Beth Tikvah?
Fisher: Oh, I guess I sort of mentioned the calmness, other than the special projects of the congregation, when there were very few problems. Occasionally, we’d get an issue, but again, compared to the other congregations and the stories that we heard about. The problems with congregants, with money, whatever they had, they were always having issues. That was very calming. Not just a story, but another issue that I was very proud of was when I was President, that was the first time we hired a professional educator for the congregation. We hired Rabbi Lauren Cohen. There was a lot of discussion over how we were going to proceed with the growth of our religious school and taking on the Hebrew school. The folks that handled the job as head of the education department did a very fine job, before, but they were not professional educators. They didn’t have the skills and the training to take our schools and our education the steps forward as we needed them. So that was a highlight, I think, that I remember.
Interviewer: Was she there the entire time you were President?
Fisher: Yes, and she left afterwards. And then, at that point, Sally Stefano was hired, and she’s still there nine years later.
Interviewer: She (Cohen) was a Rabbi?
Fisher: Yes. She was a newly ordained Rabbi, graduate of Cincinnati UHC, and had a background in education. That’s where she wanted to focus, as opposed to being a pulpit Rabbi, at that point. So that was a highlight we were really happy with. It was a needed move for the congregation, and I think it was necessary and helped improve the educational offerings of our congregation.
Interviewer: How many years was she there?
Fisher: She was there 2 ½ or three years, I think. And then, she had a husband who was in vet school, I believe. He took a job in Atlanta, and she moved to Atlanta, shortly after leaving the congregation.
Interviewer: What ways has Beth Tikvah changed since you were President? You mentioned the size but maybe you could expand on that a little bit.
Fisher: Well, I think it’s changed. We’ve talked about the steady strong growth. The growth has stabilized in many areas. Still have a lot of good programs on both the spiritual, educational and communal side for adults and kids. While I think we’re still a fairly young congregation, I think we’re moving toward an older congregation. Yes, here we all are, trying not to become less kid-focused, but to become more family-focused and be able to focus on other generational areas of our congregation. We’ve started. There are groups such as the Over-50 group that meets. I’m really proud. This is after being President.
I’m really proud of the formation of the Brotherhood, about four years ago. For some reason, Beth Tikvah never had a Brotherhood. It always had a Sisterhood. The idea of the Brotherhood is really very simple; to provide an avenue for the men of the congregation to get to know each other, spend some time together so when they come in the Synagogue you see people you know. We all are so spread out. I get in trouble sometimes for saying this: men aren’t good at that, getting together with people. This isn’t a sexist remark, but, if you put four women at a table within five minutes they’ll probably be chatting and talking about their jobs, kids, home. Men will sit there for ten minutes, won’t say a word, or they’ll say “How about those Buckeyes,” or something like that (laughs). Men typically aren’t good at that. We have been really pleased with the results over the years, and the strong participation of providing an avenue for the men of the congregation that wasn’t there before. We have kids, teens, young adults, women, older couples, older singles, all these areas that need that communal connection. I think we’ve done a much better job on over the years.
Interviewer: Does that fit with the general philosophy? Has the philosophy changed, over the years, do you think?
Fisher: I think, maybe, a little bit, but I think it’s generally the same. But I think, we, the congregation realizes that these needs are out there. It’s great to be kid-focused and our kids should be our prime focus, but we need programs, activities, connections for our adult members also.
Interviewer: Anything that you feel didn’t get covered that you’d like to have recorded about your Presidency or the congregation?
Fisher: Well, we talked about a lot of the good things when I was President. Probably, the biggest disappointment was when we were in front of Worthington City Council to expand our building and we were turned down. Disappointing in many ways and one of the key ways was knowing the hard work that many, many people and the hundreds of thousands of hours that people had put into this, and the generosity of the congregation to raise funds to support this expansion, and in addition, the collaboration and cooperation with the Jewish community, with the Jewish Community Center and the participation of the Federation. That was really going to be, and planned to be, a real model and just use the synergies to help the northwest congregation grow and the northwest Jewish community grow. It was disappointing in many ways. At the time, I thought that expansion was the best case and then we moved on to trying to build a new building. And, actually, my thinking changed. I thought a new building was the best way to go, at that point. I guess that was such an important aspect and an important thing that was happening during that time. And it was very disappointing for all of us.
Interviewer: Do you have any thoughts for the future of the congregation?
Fisher: Well, I think there’s a bright future for the congregation. Every week, every time we meet a new Jewish family in the northwest side, we met several yesterday at an event here in the community; that they’re new in town with young people. Whether they’re new in town or just joined, they’re the future of the congregation, with kids and the younger families. There’s often a generational thing with congregations with people who are active for a while, especially with Beth Tikvah, it’s a little different. You go to some places; and the same dozen people are on the board for forty years. The treasurer’s been there forever, the president’s done everything. We don’t have that and I think that’s good. I was pretty much a long-term Board member. I was on ten or twelve years in various positions: as finance chair, treasurer, vice-president, president, past president, and brotherhood representative. That was pretty much a long time, but really not long, when you compare to some other congregations you hear about where the same people are on for forty years.
I think new blood is good, and it’s good to have that. And so, I think that’s one of the strengths. I’d like to get more people involved, maybe through that communal aspect that I talked about, where they can get involved to learn about the governance of the congregation, learn what’s the best way to meet people. You can go to synagogue and sit next to someone and maybe say “Hi.” And you may not meet anybody on the High Holidays, with hundreds of people. You go to a committee meeting with eight people, you’re going to come out of that meeting knowing eight people and know their names, probably, or by the next committee you will. And you will create some friendships and connections.
So that’s one of the things I would hope the younger generation, and the middle-aged generation coming through, will do and help keep that strong future alive. We’re a very mobile city and a mobile society these days. This is, sort of, in relation to your question on the future of Beth Tikvah, most of us are not from Columbus. My wife and my family have created our friendships through Beth Tikvah. We don’t have anyone here.
Interviewer: Where is Bobbie from?
Fisher: Bobbie is from Dayton. I moved here in l997 and she moved here a few years before that to work in state government. So, we have no family here and we’ve developed our friendships through the congregation. And that’s been wonderful for our family and our kids. We call our friends “the Jewish Cousins” because we do the holidays together. The kids are friendly, boys, girls, anywhere in ages, the youngest is maybe fifteen, the oldest is twenty-five now and they’re all friendly. When we get together, the young kids play with the older kids, play cards and games, and all those things. So it has been a really nice thing for our family because of everyone being from everywhere else. Not quite everyone, but very many of the congregants are from somewhere else. This gives a focus. Beth Tikvah gives a focus to people’s Jewish lives, and their communal lives, and their educational lives, all three are here.
Interviewer: Well, we thank you. Rhoda did you have anything, you feel, we didn’t cover?
Gelles You received your Jewish education in Pittsburgh?
Fisher: Yes. Actually I went to it was an Orthodox synagogue. My grandfather was fairly observant and my father was not quite.
I don’t know if it was a matter of convenience or where it was, but, actually, there was a Conservative and several Orthodox synagogues not too far from the neighborhood so people tended to gravitate there, more toward convenience. I had my Bar Mitzvah in, probably, l965 at Congregation Adath Jeshurun on Margareta Street in Pittsburgh. And it’s no longer there.
Unfortunately, it had one of those cycling out of members in a neighborhood that wasn’t the best, and things went downhill. I believe the congregation actually moved to a different part of town. It might be in existence in a different format right now. Then, I was, I would say, moderately observant for many, many years and not really that affiliated through high school and college until I got married and had a child. Like many families and got involved again, and that’s we hear a lot of that. And hopefully we can keep people involved, and kids involved, once they reach their Bar Mitzvah age, and not drop out like some do. I think we’re doing more of that with more kids going to camp and some of the programs we talked about. Hopefully we can have impact in that way.
Interviewer: Did your children go to camp?
Fisher: Matthew went to camp two years, at Oconomowoc, the UHC camp there, and he loved it. I think it was a very good experience. Steven didn’t go to Jewish camp. He was involved in camping through Boy Scouts. He’s an Eagle Scout. So he went all the way from Cub Scouts through Eagle Scouts. So he was involved in that in the summers. But Matthew was very involved. I think it helped create a Jewish identity. And both of them continued on for their confirmation at Beth Tikvah. So I think that their Jewish identity is probably stronger, I would think, than ours was in those days. And I think it will bode well for the future, for them and kids of their age. Without getting off subject, we talked about Rabbi Huber being there for, now, 25 years. I think the stability of the rabbinate at that time, now and at that time, was very important to the growth of the congregation and stability of the congregation.
Interviewer: Was he the only Rabbi during your membership?
Fisher: Yes. I’ve been a member for twenty years. So, he was here for several years before we joined. So he’s the only Rabbi we knew here. That was an interesting aspect of being a President. I think you have to realize that it’s not like a business where the President is the Chairman of the Board and everyone reports to the President.
It’s more like a partnership between the administration. The Rabbi’s in sort of an interesting position in that he’s really not in charge of the whole congregation, but he is. He’s the head administrator there, every day. The Board isn’t there every day; the President isn’t there every day; he’s the representative. So it’s more of a partnership between the Rabbi and the President and the Executive Committee and the Board, to govern the congregation. I think we had a good relationship and shared issues, talked about problems together, came up with recommendations, when we needed him, and tried to decide when we needed to pass things on to Board members or could take care of them ourselves. So, that was an interesting dynamic of being President, forming that partnership with the Rabbi.
Interviewer: Your business background complemented his spiritual background.
Fisher: I think so. Oftentimes presidents do complement their rabbis and vice versa, in trying to look at things in different ways to provide a counterbalance opinion. It’s not that one’s right or wrong, but come up with the best answer, solution, best practice, hopefully, as they say in the business world, in helping to govern the congregation. So, I think that’s been one of the strengths of the congregation, then and now, the stability of having the history and same Rabbi in place, and the lack of turnover, I think, has been remarkable. And it’s nice to have the same Rabbi, for, it’s been a pleasure, in our case, we had him for a wedding in our family, two Bar Mitzvahs, unfortunately a funeral, all these life cycle events that you can count on your Rabbi for.
Interviewer: Well, on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and Congregation Beth Tikvah, we thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project and to Beth Tikvah’s Archives Project. This concludes our interview.
* * *