This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on July 31, 2011 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project and for inclusion in the archive collection of Congregation Beth Tikvah. The interview is being recorded at my home, 4770 Stonehaven Drive in Columbus, Ohio. My name is Nancy Pawliger and I am interviewing Greg Russell.
Interviewer: Let’s start with some background information.
Interviewer: What is your full name?
Russell: Gregory Drew Russell.
Interviewer: And when and where were you born?
Russell: I was born in Albany, New York, January 16, 1966.
Interviewer: What’s your Hebrew name and do you know who you’re name for?
Russell: Gershon ben Zalman and I’m not sure that I…I don’t know who I was named for. That’s a good question.
Interviewer: That might be an interesting question to ask your family and find out, you know.
Russell: They’re going to be here on Thursday. I think now I’m going to ask (both laugh).
Interviewer: Oh perfect.
Interviewer: And what was your Dad’s first name and where was he born?
Russell: Sanford Russell and he was born in Brooklyn, New York, 1930.
Interviewer: Ok, and your mother’s maiden name?
Interviewer: Sussman, and where was she born.
Russell: She was born…I think she was also born in Brooklyn in 1933.
Interviewer: All right and what about your grandparents? Do you know what country they came from?
Interviewer: Oh really? Mine did too.
Russell: Oh really?
Interviewer: Yes, my father came from Lithuania. When did they come here? Or did they come here?
Russell: I think they came here, well I don’t know about my mother’s side. My father’s side I know came here right, late 1800’s, I believe. But when they were kids and just the kids came. The kids were sent over to meet other family and the parents stayed back and they sent one kid at a time as they could afford to get them out of Lithuania and out of the, you know, Russia (Laughter) essentially.
Interviewer: Terrible times then too. When and where were your parents married?
Russell: They were married in New York City in 1960, I think.
Interviewer: OK, and where did your family live when you were growing up? In Albany?
Russell: Well actually, we lived in Albany. I was born in Albany, moved down to New York City and lived in the Bronx for a year or two, moved back up to Albany and then moved up to Saratoga Springs, New York, which is where I spent most of my elementary school and then through high school.
Interviewer: Ah, so always New York based?
Russell: Always New York, yeah.
Interviewer: OK. How did your parents earn their living? Did both of them work or just your father?
Russell: They both worked. My father worked for state government for a long time, actually I think his entire career, mostly in New York State, in the Budget Department. And then he, when I was in high school, he moved down and headed up the Mass Transit Authority in New York City. So he ended up moving down there on his own and commuting back on weekends. He came home but he had an apartment down there and then, after I graduated, my mom moved down also. My mom, she worked both for New York State and also as a teacher. So she was a public school teacher, high school teacher, for the time period that I think I was in middle school. And then she ended up leaving that job going to work for New York State in some other, I think historical preservation is where she ended up moving to. So it was pretty interesting.
Interviewer: Yeah, definitely. Do you have any brothers or sisters and where are you in that?
Russell: I have a twin brother who is five minutes older. We are fraternal. He never lets me forget that I am the middle child. He lives in New York City now with his wife and, actually, I think he really lives, he has a houseboat. It’s a small houseboat, but it’s a houseboat, and he lives on the Hudson on the Jersey side. His wife works in Manhattan and he works doing computer work in Jersey and New York. And then I have a younger sister who is 2 1/2 years younger and she lives here in Columbus.
Interviewer: Oh, how nice. Now I have to ask you if they live on the houseboat how do they get to work?
Russell: They live right near where the bus stops that takes them to either a subway station or they also actually live, it’s really a very convenient place. They live right next to a Sheraton Hotel so when we go to visit them we stay at the Sheraton and the Sheraton actually has its own dock so you can take the ferry across to Manhattan if you want. So when we visit, we take the ferry because we’re impatient, but it costs more (Laughter). So they have bus passes and they take the buses.
Interviewer: That sounds great. So for elementary school and high school were you in Saratoga Springs then?
Russell: Primarily, yeah. In earlier years I think I might have been down in the Albany area, but, then we moved pretty soon and I started school up in Saratoga, so I was there all the way through.
Interviewer: So was being Jewish important to you when you were there and what was the Jewish community like, were you involved in that?
Russell: Well when we were in Saratoga, my parents were involved in the Jewish community. It’s interesting I had a very different varied background, not very different from a lot of people, just my mom’s mother was Buddhist; my mom was Presbyterian, my father’s Jewish and so we joined a Reform temple. Actually, they gave me, when we were about ten, up to about the time we were ten, I think we went to church and then my father asked me, “Well, you know, do you want to learn about of some of your Jewish heritage?” “Yes, I do,” and so I started going to shul and to religious school and then at some point, when we were about 12, I think, he asked whether we wanted to, my brother and I, wanted to make a commitment and be Bar Mitzvahs and so we decided we did. And so, we got involved up to that point and then, it was a very small Jewish community in Saratoga.
Interviewer: I would imagine so.
Russell: So we actually had our rabbi, the rabbi that I remember was a student down in New York City, but he had his own, he was an older student. I think it was a second career and he had his own very small plane and so he used to fly up, you know, like a prop plane. And he used to fly up and spend time with us two weekends, I think, out of the month. And so it was a small place, but really kind of neat. In fact Last year, or the year before, I had my 25th year high school reunion and so I went back. I still have a lot of friends in the area but I don’t usually go back to Saratoga. And we went to visit the shul and it expanded in the back. And it was, it was the same front, but a very different building and very interesting.
So it ended up meaning a lot to me; but, of course, after Bar Mitzvah then did I participate a lot, you know, the High Holidays I went. My parents always went but I never went. So, in fact, what we decided, when Anne and I got married I told her that when the kids got old enough to take them to school that we decided we would take them every Friday night to Services, which is what we did And the reason was I felt like my own background wasn’t very good. It wasn’t as good as I really wanted it to be and I wanted my kids background to be much better.
Now they’re going to be, you know, when they get older and they make their own decisions, they’ll be able to make their own decisions about what they’re going to do. But I wanted them to know that having a Jewish background was important to me and I wanted it to be important to them and I want them to feel comfortable going to shul and knowing a little bit of Hebrew, getting their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, going through Confirmation, which I am making them do (Laughter), despite the fact that they push back because it ruins their Sundays (Laughter). Yeah, that’s too bad, you know.
Interviewer: But that was a significant decision that you made and you were only ten.
Interviewer: Was your father observant at all or…?
Russell: He was a little observant, my grandfather was more observant, and my great grandfather, we understand, in Lithuania, was a rabbi. So I kind of always had that picture of, you know, if I looked back into the family I saw this rabbi sticking out there and I thought I want to try this. This was important. So my father, but my father, you know, if you stand in shul and different, I guess, different Jewish backgrounds prayed differently, you know, like the words they used when they recite Hebrew.
Interviewer: Right, right.
Russell: My father, I could always tell, was a little bit different then the person standing on the other side. Yeah, it was very interesting and so, for whatever reason, it became important to me, I’m not sure.
Interviewer: And your mother was supportive with what you were doing or was it difficult for her?
Russell: She was very supportive in fact she ended up, I don’t know how they do this in other places, I don’t think it works that way in our temple, but in other places, she became the head of the Sisterhood, despite the fact that she never converted. They still go to temple and she’s never converted. She was always very active and very supportive about it.
Interviewer: Well I think that, you know, there’s never the expectations that someone should convert, I mean…
Interviewer: Service is service no matter what your background is, right? It’s a wonderful commitment.
Russell: It is, and in fact, Anne was a non-practicing Catholic, my wife,. And she converted two years ago and, actually, she didn’t even tell me that she was going to until about a month before the actual conversion, just, she had been meeting Gary, you know, at other times and sort of doing the work to do it, because, you know, I never wanted to put any pressure on her. She understood that so she just told me well next week what are you doing on, or next month what are you doing on this date? Ah nothing. Well we’re going to the Mikvah. Really (both laugh) Okay. You know, so it was, yeah there is never any pressure, at least there hasn’t been in my family to convert.
Interviewer: Well what a wonderful commitment to herself and to you and to the family also.
Russell: It really is and it is wonderful. It was very moving, very nice. You know, the kids loved it. They got to participate and my daughter was the witness at the Mikvah…
Interviewer: How wonderful.
Russell: It was something…
Interviewer: I’m sure it made it much more significant to them now because of their mother’s choice.
Russell: I think it does. I mean, you know it’s interesting because Gary was one of the big reasons. She had never, she didn’t know anything about Judaism beforehand and Gary was her first introduction. And so when she thinks of a rabbi, she thinks of Gary. She loves Gary and he really made it special for her and made Judaism special for her.
Interviewer: How marvelous was it that she had that experience in her life, you know?
Russell: Oh yeah.
Russell: Been terrific, just terrific.
Interviewer: Well good, good. Let’s talk a little more about you.
Interviewer: So I assume you went to college.
Russell: I did, I went to, let’s see, I went to Washington Lee University. I majored in mathematics. Had there been, they didn’t have minors, but had they had minors, I probably would have minored in physics. It’s interesting when I first went there it was an all male school. But the year I was going to go in it was supposed to change and become coed. We got there and they said, you know, we’re really sorry we haven’t finished the facilities (both laugh) so we’re going to be all male for your freshman year and then we’re going to go coed your sophomore year.
So I was in the last all male entering class of the school which was very interesting because, at the time, I think, there were only four all male schools left in the country. And now I think there may be two and, you know, they were very apprehensive to tell us because the reason I said it was okay was because it was going coed. I’m sorry if you’re going coed, that’s okay but I don’t really want to go to an all male school. I had a great time there. It was a great school. I got a scholarship to go, which was very nice.
And then after that I went to, let’s see, when I was a senior I was on the college wrestling team and all of my roommates were wrestlers and one of them, Larry Anker, who is also Jewish, (laugh) it was interesting, he got me a little bit involved in the Jewish community, and it’s very small because it’s in Lexington, Virginia. Washington Lee is in Lexington so there weren’t a lot of Jews then, a handful. There are now a lot more, in fact, they built their own Hillel…
Interviewer: Oh impressive.
Russell: So there’s a much bigger presence, which is very nice. But Larry got me involved in that a little bit. And then he was two years ahead of me and he was a physics major and got a Fulbright grant to go study in Germany. So when he came back, he convinced me I should apply for it because it was a great experience for him and he thought I would really enjoy it. So I did and it was very interesting, I applied for it. I got the Fulbright. I went to Germany for a year and studied math and that convinced me that I wasn’t smart enough to continue getting my PhD in math (both laugh). You know this is, these people are really bright. So I ended up going to law school instead (laugh), but in Germany it was a great time.
Interviewer: Where were you in Germany?
Russell: I was in Kiel for three months learning German. I had to take a year of German my senior year in college in order to qualify for the language and then you still had to take a test to matriculate into the university. So my German wasn’t that good so they gave me three months, if you wanted it, in Kiel at the language institute up there. So I did that and after that I was scheduled to attend at Darmstadt Universitat, Hochschule Darmstadt. And so I went down there and I had to spend another two months studying the language and I ended up passing the test which was interesting. Their testing is very different. They had a written test and then you also had an oral exam because they wanted to make sure that if you sat in class you would be able to understand what was going on…
Interviewer: Typically the classes were in German.
Russell: Yes. All the courses were in German. So that was very good. The Darmstadt temple was destroyed during Kristallnacht and it reopened the year I was there. It was terrific and I ended up meeting, one of the fellows in my language course was the son of the Israeli ambassador. And so we got to know each other well and he invited me to attend the reopening of the synagogue, which was terrific. They invited all the, any family member that they could find that was still living. Any member of the temple, wherever they were in world, they invited back. They flew them back in, you know, it was sort of four days on the German government and the city of Darmstadt to come back in and celebrate the reopening of the temple.
Interviewer: Do you remember when that was?
Russell: That was in, let’s see, I was there in, that was probably 1989.
Interviewer: So that was recently?
Russell: Yeah, that was very recent and so and that was terrific. I ended up speaking, it was the first time I spoke English in a long time with a bunch of people from New Jersey, New York City who came in. So that was really nice. And then I ended up going to law school when I got back. Had I thought about it I might have majored in languages instead of math when I was in college because I really enjoyed learning German and language, you know, it was kind of fun. It was a very good experience. Then I went to law school.
Interviewer: Where did you go to law school?
Russell: Harvard Law School, which was a very good experience, actually. Anne and I moved to Arlington, Massachusetts, which is a little bit outside of Cambridge. And we had an apartment off campus which was nice, because we had already, you know, having been out of school for a year it’s a different environment getting…
Russell: It was good to be off the campus. Law school was good. It was very interesting. You know, they have all these pictures of how law school professors terrorize their students. Some of my professors were mildly like that, most of them were not. But even those that were, I had already spent a year in Germany when I didn’t speak the language. So in terms of embarrassment that was a nonissue (laugh). You can make me stand up and if I don’t know the answer I’ll tell you I don’t know the answer and you can berate all you want. But, I’ve already been yelled at by older, you know, grandmothers in Germany for setting a bad example for their kids, where I really did feel bad. This is not going to make me feel bad. So I enjoyed law school. You know, it was one of those things that I liked a lot.
And then, after law school, or near the end of law school we, Anne and I, had to make a choice where we were going to live. And I told her we could live anywhere in the county except for, I didn’t want to live in New York City because my, I would watch my father get up early in the morning to get to work, and he left the house by 4:30 to get to work and miss all the traffic. I didn’t want to do that and it was very expensive to live there. And I didn’t want to live in D.C. because the only thing I would want to do is work for the Department of Justice. But they can’t pay me enough to pay off my student loans (both laugh). So we would never be able to afford to live in D.C. So anywhere else in the country is fine.
And so she ended up saying well why don’t we move back to Columbus. She’s from Newark, Ohio. And if we do that we could spend a couple of years here and we could decide where we want to live and we could just move if we want. So I had a friend who worked at the firm that I’m at now.
Interviewer: And the name of that firm is?
Russell: Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease and he really liked it and convinced me to apply. And I applied and I was kind of a walk-on because it was after the traditional interview season. But they were very kind and I’ve really loved, I loved the place. I liked the interview process and they actually really sold me not only because they were so good, but they treated Anne really well. They invited Anne to come back with me during the interview process and they gave her a tour
of Columbus and showed her different places where we might live and, you know, they treated her very well and it just convinced me that it was the right place to come and work for. And frankly, I’ve never looked back, it really is. It’s a great firm, Columbus is a great city. You can really raise your family here well. And if you want to travel, which I always like to do, you can afford to travel and live and visit those places that if you lived at you couldn’t afford to do anything. So it’s, you know, Columbus is a very…
Interviewer: So when did you start working at Vorys?
Russell: 1992, so it’s been almost 19 years. In September it will be 19 years. And Anne and I got married right after I started working there.
Interviewer: I was going to ask you. How did you meet her?
Russell: College actually. She went to one of the all women’s colleges, Mary Baldwin, which is a little bit north in Staunton, Virginia, little bit north of Lexington. And I met her through one of my roommates. One of her friends was dating a fellow at the military institute which is right next door to Washington Lee, Virginia Military Institute. And she ended up breaking it off with this guy and dating one of my roommates. And that roommate roomed with another one of my roommates, they shared a room. And so Steven would go out with both of them and just sort of act as the second person. That way Anne had company (laugh). So I ended up meeting Anne through Steven and that was in 1986. So then we dated for two years. And she’s a year ahead of me so she graduated and moved to Baltimore. And then we continued to date while I was a senior. Then I ended up going to Germany for a year. And then when I came back, she came to visit. But when I came back that’s when we moved to Massachusetts and I went to law school. So that was kind of how that worked out, very well from my view, very well (both laugh).
Interviewer: And you have children.
Russell: Yes. I have two children, a daughter and a son. My daughter is 16, well almost 16, she’s learning how to drive now. Yes, my hair is getting whiter (Laughter). My son is 12 going on 13 and his Bar Mitzvah is in two weeks.
Interviewer: An exciting time.
Russell: It is. It’s getting me to, you know, really work on the house and we have lots of family coming in and friends. I have some very good friends that I knew growing up. My oldest friend I’ve known for 43 years, 44 years. So he’s coming in. I have some, also some very good friends from when I was in middle school that I’ve known my entire, basically my entire life as well. They’re coming in. Some college friends are coming in and it’s going to be, it will be really be quite a bit of fun. And family, of course, is coming in.
Interviewer: So when you think about the time growing up with them, was being Jewish a minor, major part of your life? Were you involved in many Jewish activities at the time? Because some people are and some people aren’t, you know.
Russell: t was kind of a minor part of my life, but it was a part of my identity although I’m not sure that I realized it then because there weren’t that many Jewish kids in my school either. There were the Aronson twins. We were the Russell twins. And Adrian and Alise and we kind of hung out because we also went to the same synagogue. But there weren’t that many Jewish kids and there weren’t that many Jewish activities. But still it ends up, I was sort of, my friends, only Jewish friends because I didn’t know anyone else.
So it was kind of interesting because I have one good friend who’s coming for my son’s Bar Mitzvah, Jerry. He’s a practicing Catholic and his family is very Catholic and so I would go to the namings, the baby namings and other things at the church with them and they would ask me questions. Greg how is this different and I would try to explain in my limited knowledge. They were always very curious and I was always very curious about what they were doing, but that’s kind of, really the extent. It played a part in my, who I thought myself as. But there weren’t that many activities I have to say, unfortunately. Now there are a lot more here for our kids, which is very nice and so my daughter, in fact, is really taking advantage of it now with the youth group, so that’s good.
Interviewer: So now you play a major role in Jewish community here. Were you involved when you and Anne were first married and when you were in Massachusetts and before being here?
Russell: No. It really started here. I’ll tell you my involvement started, we joined the temple after we got back from Germany. I’d taken, I’d made some very good friends in Germany and the kids were two and four and Anne and I took them on a vacation to go to Germany and visit my friends. One of my friends was getting married and so we wanted to go to the wedding. We had a very good time and we did some sightseeing. And when we were doing the sightseeing my daughter, what do you do, I mean you go to a lot of churches, that’s what they have. Now we did go to some temples. When we went to Prague and, you know, we saw the oldest still remaining temple in Europe and we did that. But those temples aren’t very ornate. The churches are very ornate…
Russell: So my daughter started asking all these questions that we didn’t have any real answers to. And before Anne and I got married I told her that I wanted to raise the kids, our kids, Jewish at least in the beginning because it was very important to me that they have some kind of background and they kind of shared, you know, our, my family’s tradition.
Russell: Anne had no issues with that. But we never did anything about it until we got back from Germany realizing that they’re now old enough to be asking all sorts of questions that we weren’t sure we had all of the answers. So we looked around and we had been married by Rabbi Apothaker. But that temple was all the way on the other side of town and we knew about Beth Tikvah on our side of town. We thought, well let’s just go there for a couple of Services and see it. So we went and Gary had some really good Services and we just felt very comfortable. People were, this was at a time where Beth Tikvah had the blue cup syndrome.
And so if you were new, they invited you to take a blue cup and people would come and greet you. So Anne and I did that a couple of times. It felt a little odd, you know, being singled out, but we did it and…
Interviewer: And did you get responses to your blue cupness?
Russell: We did. People were very nice about coming up to us and very welcoming and we really felt at home. We really liked Gary’s style. So we decided that that’s where we’d join. And when we joined, we weren’t very active. We started, but, we put the kids right away, well with our daughter anyway, right away into religious school. She’s always been very bright. She was the one asking all the questions at four so we decided to let, you know (Laughter) we need to start now.
Interviewer: So you gave her a much more involved and appropriate education than you had yourself so when she was going to make the choice she would do it more knowingly then you did.
Russell: Yes, that was entirely the goal.
Russell: Which I think has turned out well because she’s very proud of being Jewish, knows a lot more then I do, (Laughter) which is also okay. I’m glad that she does. And she will be much more capable, so will my son, at being able to make those types of decisions. I’m, actually I don’t even think about whether they would change. I don’t think that they will. I think that they are both very proud to be Jewish.
Interviewer: It was a gift of Judaica that you gave them really.
Russell: I hope so. I mean, I’m glad that you think so…
Interviewer: I do. I do.
Russell: I’m very glad about it and very happy about it.
Interviewer: And how did you decide to take a leadership role at Beth Tikvah?
Russell: I kind of got sucked into it I have to admit.
Russell: Barb Mindel asked me to join the Ritual Committee. She asked whether I wanted to get more involved and I thought yes I do because I wanted to be a role model for the kids and show them that being involved is a good thing. And Barb suggested the Ritual Committee because Gary had suggested to her to ask me about it as a very easy way to get involved regardless of your depth of knowledge. So I did and it was, actually eye opening. You know I hadn’t ever been involved in sort of a leadership level, certainly at a synagogue, and it was very interesting. You know, very committed people who really knew what they were doing.
I remember well Gary and Stu Zweben talking about different ritual aspects of Services and I remember thinking, wow, I certainly joined the right place. I’m afraid I can’t really contribute to anything but I can…
Interviewer: But I’m sure you learned by just the osmosis of hearing the discussions.
Russell: Absolutely. I looked at it that way and it was. You know, I was very happy to be asked and to get more involved which was nice and then I, at some point, I think they asked me to chair the Ritual Committee, which I was very hesitant to do because of my background. But both Gary and Barb, and even Stu, were very supportive and they said, “Look, what we need is someone who can help manage and run the committee regardless of their lack of knowledge. And so you’ll have a lot of support.” And they did, they were very supportive during the year, I think it was only a year, maybe it was two, that I chaired that committee. But they were very supportive in helping me do that and also that was an eye opener because not only are you participating at the committee level but you are now making sure that things are running smoothly the way they need to run for that aspect of the temple to run smoothly. So you’re constantly involved and you get to learn even more which was good because, again, I wanted to learn more. So that was a very good way to actually start being more involved, getting involved in one of the committees.
Interviewer: And then did you, I just have a personal question. Did you find that what you were learning on the committee was affecting your work at all?
Russell: Work as in what I get paid for?
Interviewer: Yeah, I personally have found that if you volunteer for something and in the safety of volunteering you try out different skills and learn different things about yourself that it can also transfer to the world of work.
Russell: That’s absolutely the case. Yes, absolutely. Although I will tell you that I really noticed it after I became President. I think there was a little bit of that sort of transference and my ability to use what I was sort of learning at the temple actually in the work world. But, managing issues and people and sort of the different dynamics that are involved with people and really, at the temple is a great microcosm of sort of the wider community, and try to make sure that you can interact well with all sorts of people with a lot of different views. You know, that really helped in the end, my negotiating skills actually (Laughter), because it gave me much better opportunity. You know, a law firm is very hierarchal and, when you’re on a project typically you’re working with at least one other partner. And a lot of the times that other senior partner will take over a lot of the more demanding negotiating roles. And being President actually allowed me to sort of assert myself and do that as well, even when the partner or senior partner was there, and to do it in a way where I wasn’t offending the senior partner. So that actually was very helpful. I learned an awful lot being President.
Interviewer: It’s like a chemical equation of you do service and you get back.
Interviewer: You know, everybody benefits.
Russell: That’s absolutely the case.
Interviewer: How many congregants did Beth Tikvah have when you joined, do you remember about how many? And then when you became President was it about the same, different?
Russell: I think it was about 550 when I joined, somewhere in that area and I think it was about maybe 500 or 490 when I became President. And there had been a slow attrition over that decade and it’s unclear precisely why. We’ve looked at it a couple of times. The northwest side is a transient community just generally and so from doing exit interviews I think we believe that at least half of the number are just because of the people who are leaving the community to work in other places. And then there are, that other half of the people who are leaving, leaving for a host of, variety of different reasons. One, it just wasn’t a good fit. But also they were traveling, they might be living, for example, on the eastside and traveling to the northwest, so they wanted to be in a place that was closer. Sometimes it was economics and, in fact, when it was economics, at least when I was President, I tried to emphasize to our community, our congregation, that they’re doing us a mitzvah if they stay with us, even if they are on reduced dues, or no dues. I think they do our membership a mitzvah by staying with us and, I want them to know that they are doing us a favor. They shouldn’t feel bad about going to reduced dues and let pride get in the way of their involvement in the community. They should…
Interviewer: That’s a nice way to put it.
Russell: So that’s kind of, I tried to do that. I think I was successful for some and for others it was still a hard pill to swallow if they weren’t a full economic paying member. But a lot of people, I was very gratified, actually a lot of people stayed, even if they decided to go on reduced dues for themselves, because everyone, you can select your own dues. You know, we don’t, basically you just tell us what it is that you need to pay and if you can’t pay anymore we say okay. We don’t do anything. And even for those families that did that, it was really nice to have a lot of them stay with us because they contribute in so many other ways too.
And I just tried to convey that yes, you’re still contributing, you’re doing a lot of other things for us, please stay with us. It gives us a chance to, you know, have more vibrant community.
Interviewer: It’s such a delicate issue.
Russell: It is a very delicate issue. So there was this decline, unfortunately.
Interviewer: So aside from the change in the membership, what would you say were the challenges during your presidency?
Russell: There were a couple (Laughter) that I can recall. It started off when I was the First Vice President. I turned to Barb Mindel, who was the acting President at the time, and there were three items that I wanted her to handle before I became President if she could, because these were sort of three sort of contentious items. One, what do we do with our Snouffer Road property? Do we sell it, do we put it up, do we keep it? It was just sort of sitting out there. Two, what do we do with the pledges that we collected to do something at this Snouffer Road property because we still had quite a bit of money in the bank that was designated for that property. And there was a third and I can’t remember what the third was off the top of my head. But I know, I remember there were three and oh, the third one was try to collect the money from the JCC (Jewish Community Center) that they owed us for their share of the plans for that Snouffer Road property, even though it fell through. I think we all agreed that that was about $120,000.
And we wanted just, you know, it was just sort of sitting out there and congregants were irritated by all of those issues. One, that we’re not moving. We should have moved years ago. They said, what are you doing with my money it’s just sitting there and I’d like it back. I’d like to give it to some other charity if you’re not going to use it. And, you know, the JCC still owes us money, I’m not going to give you any more money until they pay us, why should I? There were those three big issues that were just irritants that I had asked Barb to, if we could, get through, sort of, to start fresh because I think we just need to get past that point. My own view of the world was then and still is today that we just need to get past that point because it just acts like sort of that cloud, that historical cloud on us. We would be better off if we just take a deep breath and, you know…
Interviewer: Right and it leads to a sense of inertia.
Russell: Exactly, it really does. Unfortunately, Barb didn’t get any of those done (Laughter).
Interviewer: Well you must admit those are a tall order.(both laugh).
Russell: They were a tall order and I was just hoping she’d work on one or two of them. So, unfortunately, none of that got really done at the time. And so I, what I thought I would do is try to get, at least one, but maybe all, if I could, of those issues resolved before the next President took over and just try and move us forward because I thought we were just, as a temple, we were just sitting there not doing anything, and it felt that way. Within the first month actually I got contacted by a number of our congregants who wanted their money back from the Snouffer Road property and, actually I was one of those people who felt that if we weren’t going to make use of their money we ought to give it back. And so I met with several of the more vocal ones who were also part of the leadership, actually historically, of our temple and I committed to try to resolve the issue. And what I told them the first thing I needed to do those was to figure out legally whether we could because I just wasn’t sure, I didn’t know. I don’t know enough. I don’t practice nonprofit law so I just don’t know how it works. And we did, we ended up hiring a lawyer to give us advice on that.
What we’ve learned was really actually disappointing from my own personal view and I knew there were different ways you could look at this. You know, they gave it to the temple. It’s the temple’s funds, and now the temple should be able to spend it anyway they need to as long as it’s sort of consistent with the way that they gave. That’s one view of the world. The other view of the world is they gave it to us for a specific purpose and if we can’t do that specific purpose, despite the best efforts of people to try and do it, we ought to do something else with it and give it back maybe I fell actually in that camp. I thought, if we couldn’t spend it on what they gave it to us for, we should give it back in a proportionate sense because a lot of the money had already been spent, give it back to those people you wanted it back. And a lot of people wouldn’t want it back and would say, I think, go ahead and spend it on something very similar…
Interviewer: Sure, yeah, yeah.
Russell: Some people would want it back because they would want to give it to charities that were, that could also use it, that they were involved in. It turns out the lawyer told us we couldn’t do that because it would violate, it might violate, and I’m not going to recall this specifically. But we ended up getting a memorandum on it, a written memorandum, an Opinion Letter on it essentially telling us that we couldn’t give it back for a couple of reasons. One of them, that some people found persuasive, I never found it persuasive, was that there were tax implications for the donors. I never found that persuasive because if the donor wants their money back they can take whatever taxes they want out of it that they need to pay, it’s their call.
But there are other tax implications for us that as a tax exempt organization, you know, does that hurt our tax exempt status and the answer is that it could. I think that was the answer. And the other answer, then there was something else too that if, we might be prohibited, I think we were prohibited from doing it for state law reasons. Once it became the temple’s funds, and it was a gift, and as a gift to the temple, it became the temple’s funds and; therefore, could only be spent on the purposes for the temple. And one of the purposes for the temple was not to benefit individuals by returning their gifts but to benefit the community, the entire organization. So we couldn’t give it back was ultimately, was the advice we got. And so that was a real learning experience because then I had to go back and meet with these people and explain to them what we had found out and be as apologetic, and I was very apologetic because I really wanted to try to meet their requests if we could.
Interviewer: Sure, sure. Yeah.
Russell: And some of them were very, you know, they were all actually very nice about it because what they felt like was that they had been heard and that we had actually tried to address what their issue was, which we did. And even though it didn’t come out the way they wanted, and they were disappointed by that, I actually am very pleased with the fact that they all decided to stay with us. No one left because of that issue that I’m aware of, which was very nice and we had people who were very generous, I mean extremely generous, who wanted their money back and are still now members, I think they’re still annoyed that they couldn’t get their money back but they understood that we had really tried to work with them and they decided to retain their membership.
Interviewer: Well, you listened to them, you heard them, you tried to respond in a direction that would be favorable to them, and when you couldn’t, you had to explain logically why you had to make the decision you did.
Russell: Exactly, and now it’s terrific. But that all started the very first month I became President.
Interviewer: You jumped right in.
Russell: Yes I did (both laugh). So we addressed that immediately and then I ended up talking with people at the JCC also about the money that they owed us and we negotiated back and forth and they didn’t have any (problem),. They agreed that they owed us the $120,000 but it was an issue of payment, they couldn’t afford.(to pay us). I talked to Carol Folkreth, who was the Executive Director, I think that’s her title over there, and she’s also a member of our temple. She’s a long-standing member and really loves us, past President, and really a wonderful person. And we chatted about it on several occasions and it wasn’t that they didn’t want to pay us, it’s that they didn’t have the money to pay us. They were experiencing the same kind of economic issues that everyone around the country was. And we were very understanding about that and we just wanted to confirm that, at the time that they can afford to, we would at least be on their list.
Russell: And that worked out and then about six months later, maybe along November my first year, I got a call from Carol and said can we have breakfast and I thought it was about something totally entirely different. So we ended up having breakfast, and very pleasant, and she just handed me an envelope “Greg I just wanted to give you this” and it was a check for $50,000 from the JCC and a commitment to continue to pay us every year until their debt was paid off. And so that was very nice. She was just, you know, she had to work internally on how to figure out their budget to get that done. But the JCC really just stepped up to plate in my opinion and decided that they needed to get it behind them and we needed to get it behind us and how can we do it.
Interviewer: But you had also raised the question with them.
Russell: Yes and we did. In fact, it was all part of, it became part of the discussion because at the same time that I wanted to address that third issue which was the Snouffer Road issue and what are we going to do with the property. And maybe we can get the JCC to build something out there on their own or maybe we can build something up there for us and they can join us. You know, they can do something with us or maybe we’ll put it up for sale and we will renovate our current property and invite the JCC north to join us and have them make use of our property during the week for the school, the daycare. And so we were having these kinds of discussions with Carol and the JCC.
And so it all sort of, you know, mixed together in sort of a nice stew and she just, and they really just stepped up to the plate at the same time. Now, unfortunately, for the Snouffer Road property we didn’t, we just, we decided we couldn’t afford to move out there, certainly not without a sale of our current property. We just didn’t have the funds. The Board was, and I am this way personally so I leaned this way myself, very conservative fiscally. We saw what was going around, you know, going on in the rest of the country in the Jewish community where synagogues were letting Directors of Education go, they didn’t have anyone. They were letting cantors go. Some of them actually had to let their rabbis go, just because of finances. It was very tough. We weren’t in that position and we didn’t want to put ourselves in that position. And we were very concerned that by making a commitment to move out there and take a mortgage until we sold our property, our current property, that we would be jeopardizing our financial health.
So we decided that really, we probably were never going to be able to move out to the Snouffer Road property, not in any short term period, not in the next ten to fifteen years. And so we decided, also during my term, as a Board to put the Snouffer Road property up for sale. And there were a lot of reasons for it, one, our view we were never going to be able to move out there in the short term and that it was a reminder of a period in our congregation’s life and our history that was fairly contentious. And I wasn’t, I will admit, I was not really paying attention during that conflict part where some of our membership wanted to move and some of our membership didn’t want to move and those that didn’t want to move felt they were being railroaded into moving. And I was not paying attention during that period so I didn’t, I never realized that was going on.
But there were still very strong feelings on the part of some of our membership because we have a great membership. I mean the people, our congregants are wonderful people and I just felt like we needed to get past it and so we decided that’s what we’re going to do. We’d put it up for sale because we can’t move and that was actually the more persuasive reason to me to get, if we’re not going to do anything, not to hold onto it while it’s always a reminder to us. So we made a commitment to put it up for sale and then try to do something at our current site. And that has, we’re still moving forward on it. It’s moving slower than I think a lot of us want, but then again, in this economic time I don’t expect it to move forward very quickly.
Interviewer: What would you say is the congregation’s acceptance of this revised plan? Was it what you expected?
Russell: Actually I think it was. We tested the waters a lot. The revised plan turned out to be let’s sell our Snouffer Road property and revise, renovate our current property. And John Stefano did an excellent job, I think, in trying to determine what our current congregation might want on our new, our current site I mean, and communicate what he was doing to try and meet whatever those needs were and wants were. So I think there was a lot more acceptance and actually it was better then I expected because we had very few naysayers that didn’t want to do ultimately what the project turned out to be, so that was very good. Now we had one or, I think we only had one person, in fact, who voted against it. And I think the vote also allowed for, I don’t remember whether the vote allowed for an absentee ballot or not, I just can’t remember. But we only had one, we did have absentee ballots, just can’t remember if it was for that issue or a different issue, We only had one vote against that project, which was very nice.
So, I think there was sort of a learning experience there too that the more we get our members involved and the more we try listening to what they are saying and telling us they want and then trying to figure out how to get what they want, even when we can’t get everything that they want, they’re still very supportive. We had a number of members, in fact, who were long-standing members who had donated a lot of money already who didn’t like the project. They told us they’re not really in favor because they think we need something else. They still voted in favor of it and wouldn’t oppose it because they saw that the younger or other families, wanted something else and they were looking at…I got some very nice phone calls from people who said, “Look, it’s, my congregation still but in 20 years I might not be here anymore. And that I want to think about what our current families who are going to be here and what they wanted and I’m willing to support what they want even though it’s not what my first choice would be.”
Interviewer: Did that surprise you?
Russell: It did, but it shouldn’t have. The reason it did was because I never really thought about it. But had I thought about it, I think I would have reached the same conclusion that our members are really wonderful people and the explanations I got. “Look I had the building that I needed and that I wanted and my family needed and it wanted and now these other families are going to be there that are younger, with young kids and they need something, maybe something else, and I’m happy. The families that came before me helped me get what I wanted. I now want to do the same thing for those younger families.” So I shouldn’t have been surprised, I was simply because I had never really thought it, but it was a very nice surprise.
Interviewer: So when did your term end?
Russell: The very end of May of this year (2011), just a couple months ago.
Interviewer: So during that time period you came in, you were dealing with these three issues that you were talking about and do you think there has been some movement from where you came in to now and how would you characterize that?
Russell: Well I think there has been a lot of movement actually, I mean, we’ve gotten the JCC payments almost all done. They still owe a very small amount of money…
Russell: Yes, it is and I have every confidence that we will get it next year. We made the, we sort of made movement on what we could do with the campaign funds that we already had in hand. It wasn’t exactly the outcome I wanted, but it does solve an issue that I think was a very aggravating issue for a bunch of our members and in fact, and I know in fact that that has helped because I have had some of those members who were very aggravated by it become again much more involved in the temple, which is very good.
Interviewer: So just to clarify what you’re saying, the money that was contributed before cannot be returned to the donors for a variety of reasons and it’s appropriate for it to be used for any business related to the betterment of the temple.
Russell: I think that’s correct but I might qualify a little bit to say that I think it’s probably what we would do. I don’t know whether it’s necessarily required but what we would do is try and make sure that however it is spent it’s consistent with the intent of the gift. So we would try and spend it on improving the building, on capital projects. Something that is not just maintenance, but it improves. I think that’s what the Board is going to really try and use that money for.
Interviewer: Rather than general operating expenses?
Russell: Yes, yes. I don’t think we will use it for general operating and I certainly don’t think we would unless there were very dire economic circumstances for the temple. And then even, maybe not unless we went back and asked the donors about it. I think the Board is very sensitive to the reasons those gifts were given.
They want to do everything that they can to make sure whatever we do with it is consistent with those reasons. Because there are a lot of Board members, you know, there are, probably half of the Board agreed with my view of the world that is that we want to give it back if we can. And the other half was very sensitive to well it’s now the temple’s money and we need to be sensitive to that issue, which I absolutely understand too. So overall I think we really did make a lot of movement there. We’ve moved on what we’re going to do with the Snouffer Road property.
We finally decided, now that may come up again unfortunately, because, while we put it up for sale and we got a contract for it, the contract, unfortunately, the buyer had to back out under the terms of the contract. Reasonably the problem that they had was they couldn’t, they felt like they were never going to be able to get it rezoned in order to do what it is they wanted to do. And so now we’re going to have to decide, do we want to put it back up for sale. I think most people want to, still, and move on. But the issue may be, there are two issues related to it actually. One is the price that we might have to put it up for. With this market, it may be much lower than we initially anticipated and some people may say well if it’s going to be that low why don’t we hold onto it. And then the other issue will be (that) we now have to pay taxes on it which will then cut the other way. And so, if we have to pay taxes on it, rather than lose it, you know, lose more assets related to it, why don’t we put it up for sale and just stop having to pay taxes.
So we’re working on those issues now. Again, talking about how good our congregants are, we have a, one of our congregants is a tax attorney who’s retired, and I saw him last night at our little get together and asked him if he could look into that issue for us to see if there’s anything we can do to bolster the argument that we have that our Snouffer Road property still should be tax exempt. So he’s going to look at it. So we made movement on those issues, but we didn’t finish the Snouffer Road property unfortunately. I think it, while I wanted to move on it, I understood when I first started moving on it that it was an issue that was going to be multi…
Russell: Yeah, yeah. There’s going to be many Presidents still that have to address that but I wanted us to move on it because I felt like we were in a stalling pattern and weren’t doing anything to get out of it.
Interviewer: I couldn’t agree with you more. When you think back about the Beth Tikvah community and the Columbus Jewish community, do you think it’s changed over time since you’ve been back in Columbus.
Russell: I think it has a little bit. I think that the view, at least my hope, I see inklings of it. I see Beth Tikvah as not having been very well integrated, during my 10 years or 11 years at Beth Tikvah, with the wider Jewish community. Now there are a number of us, I mean, that get involved at Federation. I mean, before I became President I got involved at Federation because I think they do very good work. I do think that there’s a need for an organization that can help combine campaigns and also to try to figure out how to most wisely spend the money that they get from those campaigns.
So I do see the need for the Federation and there are a lot of members who do the same thing and otherwise get involved but we weren’t really that integrated. We’re not that integrated in terms of doing things together or we weren’t. I see more of that now where there are these Young Adult Division aspects of the Federation that now do things at Beth Tikvah, not very frequently, but they do them now at Beth Tikvah. And I see now, too, with our new rabbi getting much more involved as well. He comes from a, I think, from a background where his family, or his wife’s family, his inlaws, were very involved and are very involved at Federation level in other places. And so he’s very familiar with that kind of role and I think he has a desire to become more integrated, also, which I think is terrific for us. You know the stronger we are as a community, the stronger we are as Beth Tikvah. So I see us getting involved as a very positive thing. So actually I’m hoping that that will continue.
Interviewer: That would be grand. It would be wonderful. So if you were going to think bout your most valuable contribution to the Columbus Jewish community or to Beth Tikvah, what would you think that might be? I know there are many to choose from.
Russell: I’m hoping that will be for Beth Tikvah, and then broader. I think my hope is that It would branch out, is getting involved in the selection of the next rabbi. I think, I’ve actually had an impact, at least I hope I’ve had an impact, and it certainly wasn’t just me. I mean it was really our members, many of our members working to do the same thing. But, I’ve hoped I had an impact of trying to sort of reintegrate Beth Tikvah itself. So I was trying to get who were involved a long time ago but sort of lapsed in their involvement, trying to get them back involved and trying to make it more of a community feeling. I hope I had some impact to do that. But I would say that my impact on that was basically encouragement from the bima when I got to talk about it and then asking different people to help in that effort. It was not as direct an involvement, I hope it was some.
I think the place where I had the most impact was finding a good rabbi for us that fits us, both where we are today and hopefully where we’re going to go into the future. And I don’t have a very good vision of that but I wanted to find someone who I thought would have a good vision that fit us because we are different than other temples in the community. I think we are, I think more diverse then other temples and I mean that in more diverse in our religious background and more diverse in our political background. We are more transient and so I think we are a different community, a different temple than other temples, necessarily because of that. And so we’ve looked for a person who can help meet the people that we are today, help meet our needs and help meet, hopefully, the people we’re going to be in next 15 to 20 years, their needs. And I think we found that person. I feel very good about our choice. And even at that, I felt very good about it when we chose him. I feel even better today now that he’s been here a month.
Interviewer: When you’ve seen what he’s done in that time.
Russell: Yeah, so I’m very encouraged by, so I’m hoping that that’s where I’ve had the most impact and I hope that it will be a very positive impact and so far I think it’s good, you know, knocking on wood here. But I’m hoping that…
Interviewer: That’s the feedback from what I hear too from my own experience certainly.
Russell: Well that’s good, I’m glad (both laugh), I’m very glad.
Interviewer: So when you think about your life, would you say that there were some values that your family taught you to live by that you continue today with your own family.
Russell: I’d like to think, despite that I fail sometimes (laugh). I’d like to think that the primary value or part of the primary values that my family, my parents, gave us were values of integrity and character, and I’d like to, I hope that I’m passing those onto my family, my kids. I’m hoping that they will pass it onto to their family. You know, when you’re a kid you don’t think about it very much; but, as I’ve gotten older I think it’s much, much more important.
And while my parents used to say it all the time, that character counts and I’d much rather have you get a B on a test and not cheat then get an A because you cheated. And it’s that kind of thing. So, I never really thought about it much growing up. I just sort of knew that’s what my parents wanted and tried to live by. So I tried to do the same thing, it doesn’t mean I’m always very successful but I try and I’ve tried to sort of model that for the kids and I’m hoping that they get that, too, and I Think that they do. I mean, I’ve told them that a bunch of times. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to make mistakes, we all make mistakes. But as long as they have it sort of, you know, as a focus.
Interviewer: Life is a learning process.
Russell: Exactly, I’ll be successful as long as they’re focused on it.
Interviewer: So, with those values what helped you get through tough times cause we’ve all had those times that have not been as easy, anything special?
Russell: Knowing that this too shall pass (both laugh).
Interviewer: Very comforting isn’t it?
Russell: It is very comforting and, you know, we have talked about this, too, but I mentioned that I wrestled in high school and college. But I also, after that, I decided that I liked sort of that competitive, combative kind of atmosphere so I started, after college, I was taking martial arts and I ended getting a black belt in something called Akido. And Akido has a philosophy of non, I want to say its nonconfrontation. And so the picture that I have in my mind when I practice,, I will admit that I hurt my shoulder and haven’t been practicing. But it’s sort of like the leaf on the river. It’s sort of you just go, sort of you just go with the flow and try to redirect things and, you know, focus that this too shall pass.
So I’ve kind of just sort of adopted that so that even during the challenging times, you know that there’s some things you can change and some things you can’t and you need to try to recognize when you can’t change something and figure out how best to be most flexible in adapting and responding to it. So that kind of, and my parents were actually pretty good at that too. My mom was very good at that. She was, she had a very tough, challenging life and she was very good at trying to explain to us, you know, sometimes you’ve just got to, you’ve got to adapt. Don’t focus on the bad stuff. You can’t focus on it or it’ll make you, you know, really kind of change the way you view life. You should view life in a positive, you know, as joyful a way as you can and the more you focus on how bad things are, the less you’re going to be able to do that.
Interviewer: I think you do that.
Russell: Ah, thank you, I try (both laugh).
Interviewer: If you were going to give a message about life and love to your children and eventually your grandchildren, because I’m sure there will be some, what would you say?
Russell: I would try and tell them to do just what I was talking about. Try and be a good person over many other things. Do the right thing and try and live a joyful life, knowing that there’s always going to be down times when things aren’t as, you know, don’t turn out the way you want or that you expected, as a matter of fact, very challenging. Even when you experience those, remember to try and have a joyful life. I think, sometimes I think of Job (laughs).
You know, use that as a model to remember. It will be okay and remember also that you have loved ones, people who care about you greatly, and turn to them when you need them, count on them for help. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask, or embarrassed to ask for help. You know, sometimes you’re going to need help. When you do, ask for it. Your family will step up to the plate and help you. And remember when they need help they will turn to you too and you need to be generous, not just in time and money but generous in your attitude when that happens. So that way when they ask for help you don’t respond in a way that might make them feel embarrassed. You respond in a way that is very positive and comforting and…
Interviewer: From what I know about you it seems as if you live that.
Russell: I’m crossing my fingers.
Interviewer: And that’s something to be proud of.
Russell: (Both laugh) I hope, again I’m trying (Laughter), a work in progress.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that you want to add to this that we haven’t talked about?
Russell: The only thing I would want to add is that for future leaders, not only at Beth Tikvah but the community, I just want them to know it was, I found it to be an extremely positive experience. I learned a lot doing it. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about the congregation. I got to meet a lot of people in the congregation which was wonderful and it’s not just, it really is something where you give a lot because it takes a lot of work, but you get a lot in return and so you shouldn’t shy away from it just because it’s going to take a lot of time. It will, but it will have a very positive impact, I think, on your life as well as the life of, hopefully, the congregation, your fellow congregants that I think will carry through for the rest of your days. So I would encourage people to participate in leadership levels and I think they will find it very rewarding.
Interviewer: Well and we appreciate the fact that you chose to do that and we appreciate your family’s commitment too because they’re a part of it. The support, we know it couldn’t happen unless they were there, in there with you. So on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society and Congregation Beth Tikvah we want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project but more so than that, I mean, me personally is to say thank you for all you’ve done for all of us.
Russell: Well you’re all quite welcome (both laugh). You know, I’m just grateful that I could help.
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Transcribed by: Jean Lewis
Edited by: Rose Luttinger