This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on Thursday, October 14, 2010, as a part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project. The interview is being recorded at Temple Emanu-El in Long Beach, Long Island. My name is Rose Luttinger and I am interviewing Rabbi Bennett Hermann, the first rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah (Manfred) at Temple Emanu-El in Long Beach where Rabbi Hermann is the full-time rabbi today. (Rabbi: The correct title is Temple Emanu-El of Long Beach, in Long Beach, if you want accuracy). Manfred Luttinger served as a second interviewer.
Interviewer: Rabbi Hermann, how long did you live in Columbus? Do you remember?
Rabbi: About 4 years. First we lived in Beechwold, Clintonville, I think it was called. Then we moved to Bexley. We bought the Yenkin house, if you know the Yenkins, the paint people, I don’t know if they’re still there. We lived in Bexley all the years that I was with the congregation. As a student, of course, I lived in Cincinnati.
Interviewer: Where were you born? And, where did you live before coming (to Columbus)? Where did you grow up?
Rabbi: I was born in Albany, NY, June the 13th, 1935. Lived in Albany through high school then went to college. Should I continue on in that venue?
Rabbi: I went to Union College in Schenectady, NY, one year. What had happened is that I met a group of people my junior year in high school who asked me if I would be interested in going to a youth group, a Jewish youth group. I knew them and I went. Then they asked me if I wanted to join the youth group. I said “Yeah.” They said, “But there’s one proviso. You have to go back to Hebrew School.” I said “What? What do you mean go back to Hebrew School?” “Yes you have to but we’ll put you in adult education.” Mr. Chasen, I think was the name of the teacher. That’s it, so I did that. So I went to Union and I missed this crowd of people, so I transferred to New York. and moved to New York City and went to Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, a Conservative institution and lived there. Continue with that biography part?
Rabbi: Met Hayuta one day in front of the, on the steps of the Seminary, going into a class with Rabbi Joshua Heschel, famous theologian, and I asked her if she wanted to go to a movie. She told me she had a date to go roller skating with a guy named Fred and I said, “You don’t want to go roller skating.”
She said, “What do you mean I don’t want to go roller skating? I am going roller skating.” So we went to the movies and from there one thing led to another. And we went to summer camp, Willow Way, one of these Jewish summer camps, and got engaged that summer, eventually married, lived in Freeport, NY, right up the road from here, not far, Freeport, NY. I became a Hebrew teacher and a youth director. She became a Hebrew teacher. From there we went to Buffalo, NY with Rabbi Isaac Klein, a very prominent Conservative rabbi. And we lived there and I think that’s when we decided to have a family, if I remember. Then after that we went to, another consideration was that I wanted to be principal of the religious school and Mrs. Klein said “It’s the wrong move for you. “What do you mean?” You know you have to go to rabbinical school. So, you have to learn something. You know but you know you gotta know!” So, I went to Cincinnati and had our children there. Then we came to Beth Tikvah, I guess. And then I was a student rabbi, for two years at least, I think, used to come up and stay at the Stouffers University Inn on Olentangy River Road, which was a big thrill because, when I used to come, the Ohio State football games were in session. It was like, you know, bedlam there, but very nice. I always remember that motel, very nice. From there I went to Rochester, NY, I think, and stayed there for about four years. Then I became director of a day school in Shaker Heights, the Cleveland area. And then, from there, went to, I think, a congregation back on Long Island and then I went to a congregation in Brooklyn. I had a Russian congregation and had a lot of Russian families, new immigrants. And the Americans there didn’t like the Russians. What else is new? So, I left there and came here and here I am. They say everybody in America moves at least seven times. I think you ‘re exceptions obviously.
Interviewer: We are the exceptions. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, who were your parents or grandparents and where did they came from, presumably from Europe?
Rabbi: My mother, Esther, died when I was only three. She was born in Sheepshead Bay, I believe, right here in Brooklyn. My father came to America with his mother, Anna Makovi when he was three. They came from a province in Poland called Brody and they lived in Albany, NY.
Interviewer: Do you know, how did she spell Makovi?
Rabbi: Makovi. So my name is Hermann, so there was, she was married twice, I guess. So that’s how it evolved, my father (indistinct).
Interviewer: And Brody, Brody
Rabbi: Brody, yes, still there I think, on the map.
Interviewer: How does Hayuta spell her name?
Rabbi: Hayuta, pronounced “Hi Utah” but written Hayuta. And so her parents were really basically Ashkenazi in background. My father being a new immigrant and then my mother being born here, that’s it.
Interviewer: Well, you told us where you lived growing up. Describe the Jewish world you knew growing up and in what ways it influenced you. We heard some of it already.
Rabbi: (inaudible phrase) When I was in Albany, a typical high school, Jewish student, I belonged to a fraternity called Alpha Beta Gamma, a Jewish fraternity, met at the community center. And I was the president. Then like I told you I got influenced by this other group of people who, people who eventually became quite big scholars. You’ve heard of Robert Alter, just did a new translation of the Bible and did a new translation of the book of Ecclesiastes and Job. I just picked it up. Robert Chazan who became a professor of Jewish history, he’s at NYU. Then we have another guy who’s Marvin Axelrod who became a cantor and Perry Rudolph, who made aliyah to Israel and went into the travel business. But they influenced me, very much so. So, when I came to my fraternity I said to my, we had a meeting. “You know there’s something else in life besides running big dances.” That’s what we used to do at the hotel. High school kids, big dances, amazing. So, they said “What do you mean there’s something else?” I said, “Well, there’s something like Judaism.” They looked at me. They were all typical Bar Mitzvah drop outs, everybody’s a Bar Mitzvah dropout. So, I had this discussion with them and I joined that other group called Leader’s Training Fellowship, LTF, no longer in existence in the Conservative movement. And that’s how Albany was. They’re no different than any other town in terms of Jewish identification, community center, lots of synagogues: Reform, Conservative, Orthodox. Now there I went with my father to an Orthodox synagogue, B’nai Avraham, when I was a child. And Rabbi Blonder was the rabbi. He spoke with a European accent. A couple of amusing things happened there. One day we were at Yom Kippur and there was a break. So we’re walking uptown and I see all the Jews are leaving the synagogue, not all the Jews, but a lot of Jews. And they’re all walking up Pearl Street, if you know Albany, New York. And we’re walking and we take a right on Featherbed Lane, I think it was called Featherbed Lane or something to that effect. And we’re all going to the Morrison Diner. Now I’m a seven-year-old and I’m thinking “This is supposed to be a fast day, why are they all going to the diner?” So then I heard for the first time, “Give me a BLT on toast!” I said “What’s a BLT on toast?”, a bacon, lettuce and tomato. So now my mind is working again. This is an Orthodox synagogue. And my father walked to the synagogue. Only once a year he would walk to the synagogue.
And my grandmother was upstairs. They had the women upstairs. Why are they having the bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich? I knew enough to know that’s it’s not Kosher, so that was that. Then the other thing I remember about that synagogue. Well, there were like a lot of synagogues. There was one here, one across the street and during the break with all the kids we’d walk into all the shuls and hear all the chasonim, you know all the cantors singing. Rabbi Blonder did a couple of things. Usually the High Holidays came out very near the World Series. So Walgreens (phone interruption).
Rabbi: So, where was I?
Interviewer: You were talking about the many different synagogues.
Rabbi: Okay, the World Series. So Walgreens would up chairs and then you’d go and you’d watch the big screen, watch the game. And then we’d come back to the shul and Rabbi Blonder, I’ll never forget. “?” with his accent, “I want you to know the score is 2 to 1 in favor of the Yankees and I hope we can continue the service now.” (Laughter). How did he know, I don’t know, but that’s another thing. Another thing in that synagogue, good memories. I noticed that during the course of the service, I think it was Rosh Hashanah, the rabbi and the cantor went downstairs to the vestry. They’re going, and I’m curious where are you going? I look in the window. They take a bottle of whiskey, Scotch, and he pours him a drink and he pours him and they go “L’chaim,” Then they go back upstairs. I never forgot that. And then the other thing I remember about Rabbi Blonder, he made an appeal for the synagogue, we all make appeals, and he said, “Alright, I vant you to give money for the Talmud-Torah. Jewish education is the most important thing in the world.” And that was his appeal. “Go sing.” The other thing I remember about our synagogue. I sat downstairs with my father and all the other men. I took all their tallises and I tied them together. So then they got up to go out, all the tallises fell off. And I left, I ran into the street because I knew that the jig was up. That was my background, Ferry Street and Herkimer Street in Albany, New York, a very old Jewish community.
Interviewer: What streets did you say?
Rabbi: Ferry Street and Herkimer, three orthodox synagogues, one across the street and one up the block and that was the old section of Albany.
Interviewer: And you went to an Orthodox synagogue.
Rabbi: Only for the holidays. Then my father moved. We lived with my grandmother for a while, with Anna, and then my father remarried. (I mentioned my mother died, she had leukemia at my age three) We lived with my grandmother, then he remarried and then we moved to a place called New Scotland Avenue and lived there for a number of years. All the years until my father died, mother died, stepmother died.
Interviewer: Tell us about, well, how long were you married to Hayuta?
Rabbi: 40 years I believe.
Interviewer: Tell us about your children and their experiences?
Rabbi: Okay. We had four children, have four children. We had two girls and then twins, a boy and a girl and they just turned forty. So my son calls me up, “You know, I can’t believe it.” I said “What can’t you believe?” He said, “Forty.” I said, “Well, you’re catching up to me. We’re almost the same age now.” I said, “Don’t worry.” In fact, he’s supposed to come back tomorrow and help with (indistinct). Alright, who are the children? One girl, Deborah the oldest, she has six children. (ed.) So that’s Deborah. Sivan, the wandering child, always missing, always disappearing, this type of person, her own person. She’s the middle child. They’re all married. Deborah is married now, I think for the (ed: second) time. Sivan, one marriage, and then Barry (Barak) and Lori (Leorah), the twins, are married, Barry having met his wife at Eisner Camp where Hayuta and I went for at least 25 years in residency. I was on the teaching staff there, very great experience. I recommend it for everybody. And let’s see the kids. Barak eventually went into the Jewish Center field. He’s now the Jewish Center Director in Scotch Plains, NJ. And Leora is a singer. Hayuta was a singer. In fact, her favorite song was Kaloniyot which is an Israeli song.
Rabbi: Kalonyot are flowers.
Interviewer: No, transliteration.
Rabbi: Oh, K a l o n I y o t. They’re lilies, sort of lilies. In fact, on the tombstone, her grave, the kids put “Always singing Kaloniyot. Will always be remembered.” She was known for that song. It’s a very pretty song. And Leora now is singing. What she does is she sings in cafes in New York. She takes a course at the 92 Street Y in NY and they go out and they make shows. And now what she’s done. And I have some great news, I’ll tell you in a minute. She organizes the same type of thing for Broadway children, children who are on Broadway, and they put on shows. And now she’s the organizer. Now she becomes a business lady. Then one child, Ethan, one of the grandchildren. She has two. Barry has three. Deborah I mentioned, and Sivan has two. One child, Ethan Haberfield, has a starring role in Mary Poppins on Broadway.
So now we’re on Broadway, in fact we have to go. My second wife, we’re married already ten years. She gave us tickets. We saw it already opening night. It’s an unbelievable experience to have one of your grandchildren or anybody that you really know well, it’s unreal, I can tell you, like going to a Bar Mitzvah or to a wedding. And he’s there. He just got an extension for another six months, so he’ll be there through May. The way it works is he has a lead costar and there’s another couple, boy and a girl, he’s eleven years old, costars and when they’re on, he’s backup. When he’s on, they’re backup. He’s a member of Equity now. So, I hope he makes enough money to pay for his college education. But that’s what, where we are right now. Thank G-d they all married Jews.
Interviewer: They all live , they live in New York?
Rabbi: They live in NJ, three live in NJ and one lives out here in Huntington. They’re all growing up. I’ve got one girl who’s about to go to college soon, the oldest grandchild, and the youngest is maybe six, so we span the horizon. And there are thirteen of those little guys, big guys, all kinds of guys.
Interviewer: What year did you marry Hayuta and when did she die?
Rabbi: She’s gone a couple of years, about two years. Buried in Beth Moses Cemetery up in Farmingdale where we have a lot of Jewish cemeteries. We married in, let’s see. Well, we were married when I went to rabbinical school so she was very important because she agreed that I should go to rabbinical school. And I told the HebrewUnionCollege that I have enough money for three years but that’s about it, then I’ll run out. So Dean Sandmel, a very famous scholar, you know Samuel Sandmel, said “Okay it’s up to you. You pass all the courses, I’ll get you out of here in three years.” So, I knew Hebrew and that was ? because Hayuta and I spoke Hebrew in our house and Israel was a big part of my life. I’ll get back to that, that’s an interesting caveat. I was called in to the seminary by Mrs. Ettenberg, the Dean. She said, “Bennett, or Benzion as I am known in Hebrew, It’s not working.” Oy gevalt. They’re going to throw me out. So I said, “What’s not working?” “I’m going to send you to Israel. You must learn Hebrew. So if you learn Hebrew you’ll be able to do all the Hebrew course work and you’ll be able to read Torah in Hebrew. You know. “I’ll be glad to go.” It’s was unfortunate that was the year when my father lost his job. They let him go because they wanted him to reduce his, what he did, that’s interesting too. He started working very young to support his mother. He dropped out of school. He worked to support her, Union News Company. Now Union News Company is the same company as the Hudson News Company if you see it in stations, magazines, soda fountains, restaurants. And they said “We want you to move to Boston and take over the Boston area.” He didn’t want to leave Albany, so they let him go. And that was the year that I was offered to go to Israel, full scholarship, a year in Israel. So we talked and they said “Go, go! We’ll manage here, go.” So I went and that really had a profound effect upon me. In fact I’m in a book. My group, it’s called the Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz. I’ll tell you in English, Youth Institute for Leaders from Abroad. MACHON, the Youth Institute for Leaders from Abroad. We had kids from all the Zionist movements from all over the world, Australia, France. My group has kids from Morocco, from England, from Australia. We were there five months in Jerusalem. Then I spent a month on a kibbutz, a month and a half. Then a new immigrant settlement, I spent another teaching with some soldiers, soldiers who were in the army to be teachers and it was like a unit, Nachan it’s called, Nacham, and that had a profound effect. So, why did I tell you all this about Israel? Well, Hayuta is an Israeli. She was born in Israel in a place called Nesher. Her parents were founders of the settlement in Nesher, for the Portland Cement Company, if you’re familiar with Portland Cement this is a big affiliate. And she grew up there and spent a lot of time. Her mother, Yonah, a very beautiful woman, multi-linguistic person, who has since died, and also a singer. And her father Dov, a real he-man pioneer, and then her brother Amnon became a captain of the Zim Line, the very famous Zim Line. He was in charge of the far east operation. He was killed in Greece. We don’t know why. Could have been just petty, on the other hand, there was suspicion he may have been a Mossad agent carrying secret material. And then Elijahu a self-trained engineer who rose very high in the country, he taught himself engineering, a very smart family. So that’s the background. And then we lived there. Then Hayuta got sick and I took care of her for just about twelve years. And I had an aide who then lived with us. And then it became impossible because, between the aide and myself, we carried Hayuta and we would fall downstairs (indistinct). I was here already and then she would come. It’s a very funny (indistinct), it’s not funny, it’s very sad, but a lot of funny things. She came here, and one thing I will say about this congregation, they didn’t say anything. You know, she would sit in my office, people would come in for counseling or something and she would be there. They didn’t say anything. Another congregation would say, “Rabbi we’re very sorry but da, da, da da.” So then she, I had her in a nursing home, two nursing homes in Long Beach and continued to have an aide to be with her all the time. And, then “schlepsich, schlepsich ” and eventually pneumonia took her away from other people. And that was that. Here we are. Now you got me talking I remember. I would take her, for example, and go to a restaurant. So we were in denial for a while. So actually, my kids would call her up and say “Let’s go to lunch, Ma.” “Alright.” You know there are stages of Alzheimer’s, there’s stages. Then they’d go. She’d go to eat her lunch, she’d walk by a table. People are eating and she’d take a piece of bread off the table. It’s funny, but it’s tragic. Then one night we were in a Chinese restaurant. She goes behind the Chinese restaurant, into the guy’s kitchen and takes food. I had to explain to the guy. You know my knowledge of Chinese is very limited. And we had a lot of funny things like that. But it was sad and we did the best we could in this. The only problem with that thing, you shouldn’t know from it, is that really Debbie and I were the primary care givers of Hayuta. The other kids, in New Jersey, very limited. So you never know what your children’s reactions. I mean they found it hard to deal with, I understand. But, on the other hand, honor your father and your mother for better or for worse, you know like the marriage. So that was a little tough, but I remember, but I don’t say anything. “Azoy.”
Interviewer: And your present wife?
Rabbi: She was married. She was a secretary in our building. She is a graduate lawyer who did not like the law. I said, “So why did you go to law school?” “Well, my husband was a lawyer; my father was a lawyer, so I went to law, what else could I do?” But she never liked it. So she tried to do mediation law, you know people divorcing and so on. Then she stopped that. Then she did cases, case work. Lawyers all over the country would write to her. She would do the case work and set up their briefs for them. Then she doesn’t do that. All of a sudden she was doing the office. She’s a secretary, very good one, and she really likes that kind of stuff. She’s multi-talented.
Interviewer: So you met her here in the congregation?
Rabbi: She’s sitting in there. So one day, I say, “Would you like to go to lunch?” She looks at me, I’m the Rabbi, go to lunch, what kind of talk? So, her daughter walks in. She had been married previously and her husband walked out on her when the baby was only two years old. The daughter said, “Why not? Go to lunch. We’ll all go to lunch!” The daughter invited herself. So we dated and after awhile we got married.
Interviewer: Very nice. Okay, now we get to Beth Tikvah. Can you tell us about your time at Beth Tikvah?
Rabbi: Well, as a student rabbi assigned to Beth Tikvah, I came, I think it was what, twice a month, I don’t remember.
Rabbi: It was a bimonthly, so I cam twice a month. I usually stayed on Olentangy River Road, at the Stouffer’s University Inn. The shul was then on High Street. And then the funny thing there was I’m there for the first time, it was during the day and I got a phone call. I always forget the name of the movement, the people who wear those orange robes.
Interviewer: Oh yes, Hare Krishna.
Rabbi: So on the phone I said “Who’s speaking?” (first day at Beth Tikvah) and he says “Hare Krishna.” I said, “Well hold the line.” I ran upstairs. Remember, there was an office at the top of the stairs, I ran up and pull out the membership list and there’s no Harry Krishna. So I run back down and I say, “Can I help you?” Then he started to explain to me who he is. I don’t know why he called there at all. So, there was that. So then from there, you know, we had the services in that little room. Then we said, “Well, we thought that we might want to move.” So then I told the temple about this church on Indianola which was available. So we looked at it and we decided, as you remember, to buy that building. So then I remember this day we’re were going to move there. So Milt and all the people said, “What are you going to do? How do you move to another building?” And I said, “We take our Torahs and we walk in the street.” “In the street? You can’t walk in the street!” I said, “why not?” “Gentiles.” “What are you talking Gentiles, you’ve got the minister across the street, he’s going to march with us. This is a big moment.” And it was. It was a big thing. And we went and we spent those four years that I was still there. (Rabbi) Raynor had been there a little before. And those were good years, very good years. The only thing I encountered was we were living in Beechwold, in Clintonville up there, renting an apartment, and there was a little bit of, I don’t know, I found anti-Semitism. At that time, they told me when we came into Columbus that now there’s a synagogue. When we had the High Street, we wouldn’t have had that ten years ago, we wouldn’t have allowed it. But now things are changing, Arlington too. Arlington was not an area that generally Jews moved into. Bexley, as you remember, that was the Jewish community. So then I joined the Beechwold/Clintonville Interfaith Council of churches, it’s like a subgroup. So one day they made me the delegate to the Council of Churches. I said, “How can you make me, a rabbi, a delegate to the council?” They said, “You’re our delegate.” I think they were trying to rub their noses in the council. So I go to a meeting and they introduced me as Rabbi Herrman and they didn’t say anything. But, I have a vote. I can vote on Jesus, I can vote on all kinds of things. So, that was funny. I had a good time there, very good. Probably I say to myself in retrospect, because then in the rabbinate, we always thought, the rabbis, we had to go to the next place, make more money, incorrect, incorrect. I should have stayed there and I would have been down there fifty years, (Indistinct phrase), all things being equal you know.
But, you know, things happen. But anyway, I enjoy the rabbinate and the work that I do. A lot of sad things in the rabbinate, of course. I do as best I can, and that’s it. Oh, I remember the first thing at Beth Tikvah. The first thing I had was a suicide. “Oy, gevalt.” In fact, the person worked at Battelle. I don’t know if you remember, she had a daughter, she married this guy and he had worked on the atomic bomb, this guy. Ursula, Ursula was her first name.
Interviewer: Right. I can’t remember her last name.
Rabbi: Ursula and she had a child. And she started calling me and Hayuta (asking) “Is there an afterlife”? She married late in life, she and this man. And, he died. They all said he was guilt ridden about his role in having created the bomb. I don’t know what part of the bomb. And he died. I think he died of natural causes, but I’m not sure. But, she, driving up there on the Olentangy River or something, went off a bridge and she died. Then I had the little girl left. An aunt comes in to do something with the little girl, take over the little girl, that was my break. Then I said to myself, I went three years to the seminary, a five year program and I told you I got out in three. They never gave me courses in how you deal with this kind of stuff. So, the practical in rabbinics, on the job, you’ve got to deal with all these things on the job. But that was sad. I remember her very well.
Interviewer: I had forgotten about her, I don’t remember her name but I can picture her.
Rabbi: Ursula, Ursula. I don’t remember her last name, but Ursula.
Interviewer: She lived in Arlington.
Rabbi: Exactly, with the little girl. And, once the aunt took her over, I never heard from them again. I don’t know what happened. The girl now would have to be fifty years old, maybe more, zei gezunt.
Interviewer: What were some of the main issues that you remember at the time?
Rabbi: Beth Tikvah? I don’t recall any. We had a Sunday school, we had the sisterhood. I don’t recall us having, I don’t know if you remember having any terrible conflicts or stuff. I don’t think issues. We had then, I don’t remember, about 95 maybe 100 families. We got along plus a lot of Ohio State faculty people. I remember, we started the retreat. Remember? Maybe you went on it to Lake Hope. And I did a subject, Sartre’s book on Jewish anti, self-hating Jews. A lot of these assimilated Jews are so afraid of their shadow. By reading Sartre, and Sartre talks about that. I don’t know if Sartre was Jewish. He could have been, but I’m not sure. So, I remember that. Remember that? Such a beautiful thing. They had these houses there, about three bedrooms with a GE kitchen, with a deck. And we had the retreat. And I remember, when I got there that day, going out, the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen anywhere was, I walked through; you came to like a valley somewhere in the park, gorgeous. I always remember that. I just have a lot of positive things that I remember.
Interviewer: You organized a service when we were on this retreat at Lake Hope. You organized a service outdoors, beautiful site.
Rabbi: Maybe I took you to that valley. (Indistinct – several people talking at once) I think we went more than one year. We used to go again.
Interviewer: Well those retreats lasted for 25 years, through three or four other rabbis. And then they were discontinued.
Rabbi: We do it here now. We’re going on now, I think, our 15th retreat. We go to Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. We’re going again June 2nd. We have a theme. I have a lady, she was just here. She used to be president, and she’s adult ed, very active, she and her husband. And we go every year. We’re into now, it’s interesting a lot of, Well, I’m interested very much now in Kabbalah. And she’s interested in meditation. The Kabbalists meditated. So that’s become a big thing. So now we do meditation here on a Friday night. Say service is at 8:00, 7:30, she, I and one other woman who goes into meditation, also a belly dancer. She gave a course to the sisterhood on belly dancing. So, we have meditation in preparation for the service. The idea being, someone says, “Rabbi, why do you spend an hour before services meditating?” I say, “I meditate in order when I go into the service, I’ll be able to pray,” you know that type of thing. Now we’re getting New Agey a little bit. Now we’re thinking about here introducing, this Friday night I am introducing, where are you going to be, how long are you going to be in town?
Interviewer: We have something Friday night.
Rabbi: So we’re going to introduce the new reform prayer book. I borrowed about 200 copies of the Camp edition, which is a paperback. And we’re going to experiment with it, to see what the congregation thinks. Have you seen it? Use it?
Interviewer: We use it.
Rabbi: You know, you’ve got translit and you’ve got commentary. To be honest with you, if I had my druthers, I’d come back with Union Prayer Book, Book One. Did you ever use that?
Interviewer: I don’t think we did.
Rabbi: As long as I’m in the rabbinate, when I first came, I used to have an attitude, these Jews, in general, Rochester, wherever, there’s gotta be a longer service cause they never come. So when they do come, at least they should, you know. Now I have a different opinion. And my different opinion, I say “Why does my service on Yom Kippur take a whole day? My G-d, I could finish it within an hour. But if I did that, I’d have to change.” So, I asked Rabbi Brown from Merrick (NY), “So how long’s your Yom Kippur?” “An hour and a quarter.” “An hour and a quarter,” mine is three hours, because I used our Gates of Prayer. Even if I skip, and the cantor’s singing, you know. But that’s a better idea, but I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. But, that’s what we’re entertaining. This rabbinate here, that’s part of your question, has been my best rabbinate because I’ve been here so long and very much involved with the community, been honored all over the place.
Interviewer: That’s the next question. What are your involvements?
Rabbi: I am a member of the Lions and the Arthritis Foundation honored me and priests. There’s a group here, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them, the G-d Squad. I don’t know if they publish.
Interviewer: G-d Squad?
Rabbi: G-d Squad. That’s a priest, a monsignor and a rabbi Young, he’s a Reform rabbi out in the Huntington area. So, here, all of a sudden, the president of the Lions group says “We want to honor you, and Father Tom, G-d Squad II, Long Beach Council. So I had a big affair. But, I’m very much involved with the community as a whole and the congregation, probably more involved with the community than the Jewish community, because in the Jewish community we have Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. The Conservative is going out of business. They are moving into our place, renting from us this week. They’re going to rent. We didn’t merge, we couldn’t pull it off. We tried but it didn’t work, at least for the time being. So they’re going to rent from us and they’ll have their own services and stuff like that. The Orthodox look down, as you probably know, upon the Reform. They can’t go into my sanctuary. I say, “My Torahs are Kosher. What are you talking about you can’t go into my sanctuary?” Now I am friends with a Hassidic rabbi in Highland Park across the bridge. A certain branch of Hassidism, Rabbi Nachman, if you’ve ever heard of him, was a member of this sect. Right now I’ve introduced a new course on a Thursday night on Kabbala.h And we did the Kabbalah on the holidays, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we did Kabala. Now we’re going to do a new course and that is going to be more on the Tales of Rabbi Nachman, if you’ve never read it, it’s worth looking at.
Interviewer: Rabbi Nachman of ?
Interviewer: Yes, of course, I know him well. I don’t know much him but I know a great deal about it.
Rabbi: That’s great, are you of that ilk? Are you into that?
Rabbi: Alright. A lot of my people are not. Kabbalah, they think is mysticism and stuff like that. But, by the way, if you want to harmonize the scientific understanding of Kabbalah, read a book by Matt, The Big Bang, where he talks about the theory of the Big Bang which is fairly acceptable in scientific circles, and shows you it’s exactly what the Kabbalah says happened when G-d created the universe. In other words, there was a big bang and, I don’t want to get into the physics of the thing, but you know….
Interviewer: The sparks, the sparks got lost.
Rabbi: Oh yeah, you should collect the sparks (indistinct).
Interviewer: Getting back to Beth Tikvah. What do you, well, we remember “marginal members” was an issue.
Rabbi: What’s that mean? I don’t remember. I know what a marginal member is. Do you mean that they weren’t active?
Interviewer: Right, right. That was a term that you coined.
Rabbi: Oh, a marginal member.
Interviewer: Yes, and some people were upset. They didn’t like to be called…
Rabbi: Oh, I had that last night at my Board, exactly what happened. The president and the new president, I don’t want to get into the politics here, every shul has its politics.
Rabbi: No but I just wanted to tell you about this marginal member. So he says now that he’s president, he has to come to the synagogue. He says, “What’s the matter with you people? You don’t (indistinct), you don’t do fund raising, you don’t volunteer, and you don’t come to the synagogue. Always, he said number one. He never came before, a member here forty years what are you talking. One woman raised her hand, “You can’t tell me when I should go to the synagogue or not go to the synagogue.” A lot people, still an issue, still a very big issue. In fact I’d love, my Board composition is changing now, I’d love to institute it’s one of my (indistinct), put it in the constitution. He says you can’t put it in the constitution. Minimum requirements for Board membership: One service per month (2) you have to participate in all fund raising events. Either go, take a ticket, benefactors, or make a contribution, minimal. Like for example, the JNF Board here on Long Island, the North Shore. We have North Shore, this is South Shore. Upper class is North Shore. To join JNF Board is $5,000, to start plus ongoing support of Jewish National Fund.
He said we would have to do it in by-laws. I said, “All right. Do it in by-laws.” Why? I don’t know if you have read a book. But if you haven’t read it, it’s very important. A Purpose Driven Church., have you read that? He was the man who did the inauguration of Obama, he gave the prayer. He starts a church in California. Goes like this. The person comes, he starts up a Sunday School. Now all these people are coming and he says to them like this, “Why are you coming to my church?” “I heard you are a very good pastor, a good speaker.” He says, “It’s not a reason.” They say, “What do you mean it’s not a reason.” He says, “I want to ask, do you believe in Christ?” “Well, you know, I’m not too religious.” “Do you believe in tithing, ten percent of your income?” “Pastor, you’ve got to be kidding!” “This is not the church for you. I would recommend twelve other churches up in the valley. You go there. You’ll be very happy.” He’s got 12,000 members, believers. I would like to have a synagogue of 12,000 Jews who really go to services, study Torah, but do it, maybe when the Messiah comes. But that’s my direction. (Laughs) It should only happen.
Interviewer: Well, I guess we’ve talked a lot about Beth Tikvah. Is there anything else that you would consider significant for the history of Beth Tikvah?
Rabbi: Well I found it phenomenal, in a sense, that a good percentage of the membership of Beth Tikvah in those days were not only people from Battelle, but a lot of professors from the university. Now these are very assimilated Jews. And I found that my experience was, my job was to really do my best to introduce them and teach them Judaism, what does a rabbi do? And it worked! Here you are fifty-five years. I don’t know what the composition now is. You say a lot of Jews are moving into the north end, not necessarily Ohio State people, but they’re living up there. So, it took off. Thank God, you know the seeds were planted. John Rayner did his thing, I did a little bit, and you got a successful synagogue.
Interviewer: I think you did more than just a little bit. You had an important part.
Interviewer: You actually set the tone for the congregation to go on for years and years and years.
Rabbi: Again, you know, I say to you in retrospect. Had I to do over again, I never would have left. You know the rabbis, we’re so stupid sometimes. One rabbi, who was the head of our movement, he once gave an address at a convention. He said, “You can be happy in your whole rabbinate. You don’t need 1,200 families, you don’t need 3,000 families, Temple Emanuel in New York. But a lot of us didn’t think like that, always thought we needed to move on. Hayuta was always, you know she was a, her brother’s a sea captain, always moving. “Okay, let’s move,” didn’t think much about it. But in hind site, it is what it is, it was what it was.
Interviewer: Okay, I guess we’ve come just about to the end of this interview. Do you have any closing remarks that you want to …..
Interviewer: There’s one other question here that we should handle. Were you involved in the non-Jewish community at Beth Tikvah, that is in the general community in any way?
Rabbi: Yeah, as I mentioned, first of all, I was friendly with the pastor across the street. I was a member of the Clintonville/Beechwold Long Island Council of Churches. I told you I was a delegate. Interfaith, I started when I came here 16 years ago, whatever. The interfaith group here, clergy. I’ve been able to do more with them than with the Orthodox. They don’t want to do things. They want to do it in a round-about way.
Interviewer: I don’t think it caught the last part of what he just said?
Rabbi: Do you want me to repeat what I just said, the involvement part?
Rabbi: Again, I was very good friends with the minister across the street on Indianola Avenue, his church was, a member of the Council of Churches, I was a delegate. So, coming here, I started the interfaith group which has been very successful. We’ve done a lot of stuff in Long Beach. An offshoot of my group is “A Peace in the Holy Land Committee.” We have a Muslim, a big Muslim. On the NorthShore they have a mosque. We have Catholics, we have Protestants, we’re going to do a peace service. We were talking about the problem and it always turned political, who’s right, who’s wrong.. And then it was my turn to speak and I said, “I don’t want to talk anymore. We have a long history with Israel, why don’t we ask G-d to intervene and help us like he did in Egypt.” We’re not going to get anywhere. Believe me, this thing with the Palestinians is an endless fight, it’s been a fight for 3,000 years. So, we’ll have a peace service in front of city hall and hopefully generate that type of a mood. But, that’s it. I was involved with the non-Jewish community.
Interviewer: There was one issue that I remember at your time at Beth Tikvah when you moved to the east side and Hayuta, I think, wanted to be closer to the Jewish Center.
Interviewer: And there were people at Beth Tikvah who said, “No, we want the rabbi to be in our community.” Do you remember that part?
Rabbi: Yeah. I remember that part. But, I think the thing that we succumbed to, was definitely, the guy, Propst, Vost, I don’t remember his name, technically the one who owned our apartment, insulted her, the anti-semitism which was maybe halevai that it’s not like that anymore, more accepting, so many families. I knew I was in exile when one Sunday morning, we lived on, I forget what drive it was.
Rabbi: Solar Drive, right, exactly. So I walked up to the corner and I walk in and I say, “Where can I buy some lox?” And the guy says to me, “Well Monday the hardware store will be open.” (Laughter) So I said, “I am in exile, gevalt! Where am I living? The guy didn’t know what lox is!” So we moved. But you know, yeah, I think that was a little bit of a flury. But I communicated every day. Not communicated, I commuted every day with no problem. It was not a big ride.
Interviewer: Do you have any closing remarks that you think would be valuable for people who listen to this to hear?
Rabbi: Well, I would say that the synagogue is in a lot of trouble today in general. As you may know, the Conservative movement is losing its direction. They’re sending out studies, “What do you think is the purpose of the Conservative movement?” Even want to change their name to Masorati, which means traditional, and that’s the word they call the conservative movement in Israel.
Rabbi: I think here in the South Shore, for example, a lot of synagogues are in trouble. The one I told you about, Beth Sholom, across the street, from 600 families they went down to 64 over a course, a period of fifty, fifty-five years. The South Shore is experiencing a lot of mergers or rentals, just like we’re doing. So, I would say, as I think I indicated before, that what the synagogues have to do, whether it’s Beth Tikvah or Temple Emanu-El of Long Beach, is go back to the basics. But the Conservatives have been a product of their movement, when talking to their rabbinical school, which I was very happy with, that things like attendance at religious services once a week. If you don’t hold Shabbos, that’s another story. Like here we have a Shabbos morning service only if there’s a Bar Mitzvah. And, then the Bar Mitzvah is the only thing going on, it’s not for the congregation and they don’t come. Got to go back to that and Jewish study. I see that as central roles in the, you tell the Conservative movement, I usually don’t communicate, but I am sending them an opinion piece, whatever. Try to restore your daily minion, you were known for that. Now you can’t get a minion! So that’s why your synagogues, we had a meeting with the reform movement here on the island. I was the only rabbi there. I asked one of the presidents. I said “Do you attend services?” “Well, Rabbi, you know, Friday night I am tired “I said, “Well, you know, you’re complaining that you are having financial problems and if the president and the Board are not there, what’s to show for? Why are you knocking yourselves out?” I don’t understand that, you know everybody wants (indistinct). But, if it’s going to be and I believe the synagogue will persevere because it’s the only thing, we’re not going to go back to the sacrificial system. I don’t think we’re going to do that. (Quiet laughter here). So, I only wish Beth Tikvah, the House of Hope, Tikvah means hope, well and another fifty years. That we say in Jewish tradition, to 120. Then we’ll start all over again. You know, like that. I have fond memories, very fond memories. I remember my office in the building on Indianola and in the other building. Good stuff, only good stuff.
Interviewer: Thank you very much for your….
Rabbi: I have one anecdote. One time I came up from Cincinnati. Gevalt! I didn’t bring my shoes. No shoes, I’ve got to go to the temple. So there was a shopping center right adjacent, pretty much to Stouffers. Is it still there, Stouffer’s?
Rabbi: So, I went over.
Interviewer: No, it’s not, it’s been replaced..
Rabbi:The inn is not there anymore?
Interviewer: No, there’s another hotel there.
Rabbi: Another one, so I go into the shoe store and they said, “Could I help you?” I said, “Yes. I’ve got a problem.” I told them who I am, that I am a rabbi. I left my shoes in Cincinnati. Nice guy, he gives me a pair of shoes, to borrow. He says “Return them tomorrow and you’ll be all set.” So, I always remember that. That was (indistinct). Another thing I remember that we did, I really enjoyed, remember I brought Schlomo Carlebach, the folk singer. He became one of my heroes. I really loved the man with his singing. He influenced me a lot. I remember doing that, his coming to the shul, we had a service. He came a couple of times, I think,
Rabbi: Twice, he was already. A lot of people criticized him. For example, he came and maybe this maybe loshen horuch, a bad light. A positive thing, he would see you, “Oh Benzion how are you, the great Rabbi of North America!” He was always building you up. Then he’d give you a big hug. Hayuta, he says and this is the tricky part. This other rabbi, I told you, from Highland Park, he says, “Don’t tell me about Carlebach. I don’t want to hear about Carlebach. I said “Why?”
Interviewer: About what?
Rabbi: Carlebach. Why, because when Carlebach would come to town, he would go like this: “Hello, Hayuta, how are you my little pigeon?” You know, Hayuta, I have to be at your temple at 8:00 o’clock but I’m in the motel by OhioState. Why don’t you come over and we’ll talk.” Of course she never went. But that was Carlebach and they talked about Him that way. I never, you know, but I knew he could be a man about town, so as to speak. The man was funny.
Interviewer: He had that reputation.
Rabbi: A reputation. But, I thought he was a great spiritual soul, a great spiritual soul.
Interviewer: I have some of his records at home.
Rabbi: Yeah. I have one too. In fact, I want to look for it again.
Interviewer: I remember “The Stones of the Tears”
Rabbi: The which?
Interviewer: The Stones of the Wall are shedding tears. It’s one of his beautiful songs.
Rabbi: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Another, I remember another night at Beth Tikvah. Meir Kahane. Do you remember that night?
Rabbi: Yeah, I’m pretty sure. I’ll tell you why I remember. Meir Kahane was head of JDF.
Interviewer: Yes, I know
Rabbi: Pretty sure, did I bring also, a guy that was the former Chief Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court? Do you remember that?
Interviewer: I don’t remember.
Rabbi: I’m pretty sure. I’m pretty sure. But, it was interesting. Meir Kahane would come and his approach with the Jews was to lay them out. “What kind of Jews are you? You don’t support the synagogue, you don’t support Israel, you don’t do this, you don’t do that?” And our congregation clapped. Amazing. Carlebach came and leading the service, again dancing and singing. And the whole world, he had them so mystified. And this other guy, maybe, I’m pretty sure it was Beth Tikvah, the Supreme Court guy. He comes, gets on the bema. It’s right before the High Holy Days, like in August. He lays out the whole congregation. He says, “Oy, what am I doing?” It’s a custom in Europe that right before the holidays that the rabbi, the rabbi would only speak twice; once before Passover and once before High Holidays. Not like we have to do like the ministers do, a sermon a week, you know, that kind of thing. So, he said, “Oh, I forgot where I am.” But again, the congregation clapped! That was Beth Tikvah, you know. And I always learned that Jews like to be chastised. I learned that, and sometimes I would preach that way, particularly during the High Holidays. I try not to go that way anymore.
Why, because I believe Jews know what’s right. They know they should go to services more and they know they should study the Torah more. They want to be told (clap), they’re being (clap) bad and then they clap (clap). I said, “Why are you clapping? Why are you clapping? You are being laid out here in front of the whole community.” But that was our people. Lesler, Lesler was dancing ecstatically, Oy gevalt!
Interviewer: Well, thank you very much. On behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, I want to thank you for contributing to the oral history project and this concludes our interview.