This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on May 11, 2010 as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project and for inclusion in the Archives Collection of Congregation Beth Tikvah. These will be questions for an interview with Marty Seltzer by Rhoda Gelles and Myra Sarkadi. This is May 11, 2010.
Interviewer: Welcome, Marty.
Seltzer: Thank you.
Interviewer: We have a few questions for you and we appreciate you taking the time out to be with us. How long have you lived in Columbus?
Seltzer: Well, Micki and I have been here since 1963, so forty-seven years.
Interviewer: And where were you born and where did you live before moving to Columbus?
Seltzer: Well, I was born in New York City, but just before we moved to Columbus we lived in Eindhoven in the Netherlands for a year. I was doing post-doctoral work at the Phillips Laboratories in Eindhoven.
Interviewer: And what brought you to Columbus?
Seltzer: Well, I came to work at Battelle Institute as a research scientist.
Interviewer: And if you could tell us about your family and your Jewish experience while growing up. This is the first part of the question and…
Interviewer: Go ahead.
Seltzer: Well, I grew up in the lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City in a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly Jewish and my parents did not practice in an organized way… we were not members of a synagogue but I was Bar Mitzvahed. I was sent down into the basement of an old tenement building to study with an old man who was kind of like a rabbi and he trained me for my Bar Mitzvah. And the Bar Mitzvah was at an Orthodox shul which was the only kind there were in the lower East Side. And after that there really wasn’t very much formal Jewish education or training until we were married.
Interviewer: Thank you. Actually the next question you kind of answered but if you want to add anything to it, describe the Jewish world you knew growing up and in what ways did it influence you.
Seltzer: Well, all my friends were Jewish, almost all my friends were Jewish; most of our neighbors were Jewish, the neighborhood, as I say, was overwhelmingly Jewish. So, although there was not a formal Jewish education by osmosis one, you know, felt very Jewish, no doubt about that. We would celebrate Passover at my grandparents’ at Coney Island -my father’s parents – and we didn’t go to school, of course, on the holidays. We would kind of mill around the Bialystok shul, which was the major shul near where I lived. And my mother’s family was actually from Bialystok in Poland and so I would spend time in the shul on the holidays but really didn’t participate actively. So, I think, you know, it was a very liberal community — everyone I knew were Democrats and you know, so things like social action were important to us but there was a minimum of formal Jewish education at the same time.
Interviewer: And where did you attend college and was being Jewish important to you in those years?
Interviewer: And in what way?
Seltzer: Right. Well, I got my bachelor’s degree at New York University in University Heights in the Bronx, which was the College of Engineering and Arts and Sciences at NYU at that time. And I was a member of a Jewish fraternity, an overwhelmingly Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon, but aside from that I don’t think there was much by way of Jewish influence on my life. I don’t know if we had Hillel, but if we did, I did not participate in it and so, the focus was on studying and my social life revolved around my fraternity as an undergraduate. And then I did my masters and Ph.D. at Yale University in New Haven and there was really no Jewish participation outside of my work that I can recall. Perhaps after we were married – Micki and I were married in 1960, when I was half-way through my studies at Yale – and I think we did go to services maybe the last year or two when Micki came to live in New Haven. And I think we did go to Reform services, for the holidays at least.
Interviewer: Yes. And my question, the next question is, how did you meet your wife and how long have you been married. You said you and your wife got married in ’61…
Seltzer: 1960. Well, I met Micki in 1956 in July of 1956. I was working here in Columbus. As an undergraduate, I had a summer job at the Battelle Institute that’s why I came here. But that was my first summer in Columbus, 1956, and I was between my sophomore and junior year in college. I was working at Battelle as a metallurgist. I was a metallurgist engineer trainee or intern and I had a friend from NYU who had met a woman – a young woman from Cleveland who was here, probably studying that summer, and Micki was her friend. Micki came down to visit with this young woman from Cleveland and we were fixed up on a blind date. And we had a date, we actually went to the Hillel that Sunday after our date which maybe was Friday night or Saturday and so that was the beginning and I saw Micki on and off that year. And the next year I came back to Columbus to work again and then we wrote back and forth. She was at the University of Michigan, I was at NYU. She graduated in 1958 when I did and after I guess she had been in Columbus… had you been in Columbus for a year, honey, I mean in Cleveland for a year and then you came to New York
Seltzer’s Wife: [unintelligible]
Seltzer: Right, yeah, I was in New Haven then and then we started dating seriously and then in 1960 we were married.
Interviewer: Wonderful. And could you tell us about your children and their Jewish experiences in Columbus and Jewishness in their lives.
Seltzer: Yeah, yeah, this may take a while. We have three children. As they say on some of these Sunday programs that you watch at seven o’clock — three wonderful…[Laughs] three lovely children, they are lovely children. We are very proud of them. So we have…our oldest is Deborah, who was born in 1962; and then Rina, who was born in 1964 and Joel was born in 1967. So, Deborah was born when we were in New Haven and Rina and Joel here in Columbus. And their Jewish upbringing and training revolved both around the home and…Micki had a very, very fine Jewish education background at Fairmount Temple in Cleveland, a far better Hebrew background than mine -and when we came to Columbus we did go, I think to Temple Israel when we.. we lived on the East side for a couple of years but then we moved to the North side in 1965 or ’66.
And then Beth Tikvah, which was recently organized and our kids went through religious school and had their bar and bat mitzvahs at Beth Tikvah. We started out as a little house on High Street, which was the first permanent home of Beth Tikvah and Deborah went to, I think kindergarten, which was in the basement of the little private house, and so the kids had their religious training – religious school and Hebrew school – totally at Beth Tikvah. As I said they were all bar and bat mitzvah here and I am pleased to say that they are still pretty actively involved, the girls particularly. Joel’s son is still a little young, so we don’t know exactly what is going to be happening, they have a young five-year-old. And Tovah, who is Deborah’s daughter, has been bat mitzvahed. There is now a small congregation in addition to Beth Tikvah that Micki and I are members of called The Little Minyan. And Deborah had joined that.
It is a Reconstructionist-affiliated congregation and Tovah was bat mitzvahed at The Little Minyan this past August. Our grandson Isaac will be bar mitzvahed in Ann Arbor where Rina lives, this August, and he has a brother Elijah who is ten years old and both Isaac and Elijah have gone to the Jewish Day School in Ann Arbor. Elijah is not there anymore. Isaac graduated from the day school so they’ve had a pretty good – much better Jewish background and education than I ever had.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful. Now can you tell us about your term as president of Beth Tikvah? What were the main issues at that time and what do you remember that you would consider significant for the history of Beth Tikvah?
Seltzer: Right. You may not know this, but I have been president of Beth Tikvah on two separate occasions. So I’ll tell you about both of them if I can. The first time I was president was from 1970 to 1972 so this was when Beth Tikvah was in its relative infancy. We had been around for only nine years when I became president so we celebrated our tenth anniversary during that term. And the first thing that happened in 1970, I think I was elected president in May or June, and our rabbi, Rabbi Herman decided to leave the congregation just before I became president, so there was a bit of crisis very quickly. And so, we spent a good part of certainly that summer, trying to find a new rabbi.
And we did find a rabbi, his name was Allan Ponn and Rabbi Ponn’s term was for just one year, it turned out not to have worked very well. And so after that somewhat stormy year we had to search again in 1971 for a rabbi and we were at that time very fortunate to find Marc Raphael, who was coming to Ohio State as a history professor, was ordained as a rabbi at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Marc agreed to become our rabbi on a somewhat of a part-time basis. But that was I would say a very important year in the life of the congregation. Marc was a very creative person and he brought with him, he asked us to hire and we did, a cantor Timmy Kaufman who became a rabbi later and is now retired. They were a terrific pair. Marc was very creative; all our services were creative services, he wrote them. We essentially didn’t use a prayer book, and Micki would type the services and we had a mimeograph machine and we ran off the services and would hand them out and…
Interviewer: [repeats comment]
Seltzer: (repeats Interviewer’s comment and laughs) [Indistinct] …and Tim Kaufman played guitar. You never had a guitar-playing cantor…I mean probably very few congregations had that time and so that turned out to be a very exciting time for us., So going through the rabbinic search and settling in with Rabbi was sort of a major activity during that time. Finances were always a problem. Our annual budget was $30,000 a year and our income was $27,000 a year so there was always somewhat of a deficit and people were always chipping in to take care of the deficit during those years. But we managed very well.
So those were.. that was always on the mind of a president. What were the activities? I mean, even way back then we were heavily involved in social action activities; adult education was a very vital part of the congregation. I was looking over some notes and I noticed that in 1971 for some adult education meeting we had there were 26 people present and we now have 500 members or something like that and I don’t think we get very many more than that in our adult education activities so we had a very large fraction of… I think there were 85 members in those days, a very large fraction would be involved in our activities and that was, you know, just wonderful. It was very much a do-it-yourself congregation. You know, we cut the grass and we shoveled the snow and members did the onegs and, you know, there was very little hired help in those days, very little hired help.
Interviewer: And have you had other involvements with the Columbus Jewish Community besides Beth Tikvah?
Seltzer: Yes. There have been involvements. Very early on, there was something called the Columbus Hebrew School and so most kids in Columbus at the local congregations, the Reform congregations and Tiffereth Israel were all under an umbrella organization called the Columbus Hebrew School for some time and I was involved in the Hebrew School, I was the vice-president, I think the years after being president at Beth Tikvah. And then I was involved with the Federation… the Columbus Jewish Federation for a few years as a member of the board. And, well, these days I volunteer at the Jewish hospice, Zusman Hospice at Wexner Heritage Village, so we keep that involvement.
Interviewer: And how did being Jewish come into play during your career?
Seltzer: How did it come into play? As far as my work life, you know, I started out as a scientist-engineer and I, then in 1977, got a law degree and have been a lawyer for the past thirty-three years. And I suppose that whatever, you know, values of Judaism in terms of social action and social justice and trying to do the right thing are concerned, they have undoubtedly had some effect on how I’ve dealt with my legal work. I am sure that there has been an influence of what is it now? forty-seven years of Jewish study and Jewish learning on life in general.
Interviewer: And in your experience how has the Columbus Jewish community changed?
Seltzer: Hmm. Well, it certainly has spread out. You know, in 1963, to live on the north side of Columbus as a Jew you were generally viewed by the majority of the Jewish community on the east side as somewhat of an unusual person. And it wasn’t always clear to people who lived on the east side why anyone who is Jewish would want to live outside of the – generally the Bexley area. And over the years, of course, that has changed. I think the Jewish community in Franklin County, Columbus, even outside of Franklin County, has spread considerably. So it’s not that unusual. I am sure there are many, many more Jewish families living northwest and further out in areas than were then. So that changed. I don’t know if there have been other significant changes that I can think of. Unfortunately we no longer have a kosher market, and that’s, I guess, that’s certainly not a positive feature. But we have many more options for Jews in terms of congregations than we did. When we first moved here I guess there were maybe half a dozen congregations – three Orthodox, one Conservative and we were the second Reform and that was it. Now there are more Reform, there is a Reconstructionist synagogue, there is the Chabad, and all kinds of options for people. I think there is a Humanist Jewish organization in Columbus now, so…
Interviewer: And we have one more question, which is: What do you consider to be your most valuable contribution to the Columbus Jewish community?
Seltzer: I don’t know [laughs]. What is my most valuable contribution? I don’t know, I’ve enjoyed whatever contributions and work I have been able to do, I certainly have enjoyed, especially I guess, being part of Jewish education and adult education here in Columbus. And I participated very actively for many, many years and I hope, you know, I suppose made contributions to other people’s thinking about all the subjects we studied over those years and I certainly learned a lot from all our wonderful friends who have participated with me.
Interviewer: Is there anything else that we have not covered that you think would be valuable to add?
Seltzer: I mean nothing comes right to mind, I should mention that there was a second term as president. So that was 1993 to 1995. And that was a vastly different experience, that was… now Beth Tikvah is very established and our building in Worthington and we have 500 members and a large staff and there is not so much do-it-yourself stuff going on and so it’s a , you know, established suburban Jewish congregation, and very different . Our main problems then were, at that time at least, it appeared that we were growing rapidly and that we might be outgrowing our facility. And there was a lot of concern about that. The religious school had 350 children the membership was over 500… 550 and going up it appeared and so there was a lot of concern and talk about expanding, It turned out we may have hit a peak just around that time and in the ensuing years the religious school enrollment has gone down, I think, into the low 200s…
Interviewer: What year was… what were the years of your second term?
Seltzer: 1993 to-1995, I think, is that right? Or was it ’95 to ’97? Oh boy, there was a lot in 1995. Yeah, the nineties. And so in the past fifteen years it seems as if there’s clearly been a leveling off and somewhat of a slowing down of growth. Maybe that’s not surprising since there are other options for Jews in Columbus and Franklin County and the… so the need does not seem to have been there as dramatically as it appeared to be then. But in those years we were working very hard to try to see how we could take care of the needs of a growing congregation.
Interviewer: We want to thank you very much for taking the time out and answering our questions. And if you think of anything else that you still would like to add…
Seltzer: Well, one thing. I have some materials here and have gone through them and back in the 1970s we had Tikvah Topics, which is our way of communicating, which was in existence then and in looking through the materials, I discovered that in those days people wrote letters to the editor in Tikvah Topics about things that they were concerned about and how they were feeling about what was going on. And I came across some letter that Micki had written, and I have a copy of it which I would be happy to give to you. It was in response to a letter that had come from Howard Fink who was a prominent member and who had written a letter asking about what we needed to do to make Beth Tikvah a better place and make our Judaism more relevant to the day and so I have that letter and perhaps you can take a copy of it.
Interviewer: Would you tell us what’s in the letter?
Seltzer: Yeah. Well, if it’s okay, you know Micki wrote it and if you don’t mind having her voice on your machine she could say something about it.
Interviewer: Not at all.
Seltzer’s Wife: Well, I think Howard’s letter has to do with having a new recognition for different ideas about the food you eat and different ideas of kosher, having to do with the environment and some more of the ideas of recent times. So mine was in response to that and I also had other suggestions about being creative, doing creative services and something along those lines. You know, I can give you a copy of the letter [unintelligible – and you can quote something from it?]
Interviewer: Okay. Why don’t you do that? So can you think of anything else you would like to add?
Seltzer: No, it’s been a wonderful experience being part of – especially the Beth Tikvah – community for all these years and we’ve made some wonderful friends and are very happy. We are also happy with the new congregation which is, you know, in a way reminds us of Beth Tikvah back in the late ’60s and early’70s and there is something special about being part of a very small group which is just sort of getting started and so that spirit is very nice. And so we have the spirit of a new upstart group and a well-established mature group at the same time.
Interviewer: [unintelligible – So you are members of both groups at the same time?]
Interviewer: Okay. We are all done.
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End of interview