Interview with David Stavsky of Congregation Beth Jacob on this 1st
day of May, 1993 for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.

Sally Ann Jeffrey: Good afternoon, Rabbi, it’s nice to see you.

Stavsky: Good afternoon, Shirley Ann. It’s my pleasure to spend a few
moments with you and talk a little bit about myself and my relationship to
Columbus, Ohio. I was born in New York City in 1930 and was educated in the day
school known as the Yeshiva of the lower east side of New York, Rabbi Jacob
Joseph’s School. I graduated from the elementary school in 1943, which was at
the height of the war and then went on to the high school of Yeshiva University,
the high school division and graduated from the high school and then went on to
graduate from Yeshiva University with a BA in Psychology in 1952, simultaneously
continuing all of these years in my Judaic studies. Subsequently I was ordained
at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Seminary, which is the rabbinical seminary of the
Yeshiva University. In February of 1955, having had the special privilege of
studying with three of the most eminent prominent rabbis of that generation,
including Rabbi Joseph V. Soloveichik, who passed away just two weeks ago. The
other great rabbis at the time were Rabbi Moshe Schatskis and Rabbi Doctor
Dalton, who is the president of Yeshiva University. At any rate, after
graduating from Yeshiva, I went on my first overseas trip to Israel and that was
in 1952. I always had a special love and feeling for Israel, which was obviously
reinforced with that trip.

I was introduced to the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand by seeing things
which were on display in Israel, remnants, artifacts and other materials
depicting the Holocaust and the Holocaust, therefore, became a very important
part of my own life and my own research and studies. Subsequently, after I was
ordained I enlisted in the United States Army and served as a chaplain at
Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, Colorado and, while there, I met my wife,
Ruth, who was a Denverite. She came from a very orthodox home in Denver,
Colorado and after a short courtship we were married. I was discharged in June
of 1957, the second year of my stay, and I was elected as the rabbi of the Beth
Jacob Congregation in August of 1957.

If I could go back for just a moment to my Army days – they were very
interesting and exciting days with numerous experiences that every Jewish
chaplain has. It may be worthwhile for this particular record, to read that the
President of the United States at the time was President Eisenhower who suffered
that famous coronary while he was in Denver and I was the Jewish chaplain at the
hospital at the time. So I was the first chaplain to conduct a religious service
in behalf of the President when he was first admitted into the Fitzsimmons Army
Hospital; and that service, which was the day before Yom Kippur, by coincidence,
received national attention by the Associated Press that a Jewish chaplain was
conducting services on behalf of the President This seemed to be significant.

Subsequently, I presented the president with a mazuzza while he was
recuperating at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital and of course, both he and Mame, his
wife, communicated with me, expressing their thanks for both the services as
well as for the mazuzza.

At any rate, I came to Columbus, Ohio and Beth Jacob Synagogue. Beth Jacob at
the time was a very, very small congregation. One of the reasons I was elected
was because I was one of the few candidates who spoke a fluent Yiddish and, even
though being American born, Yiddish was like a native tongue to me and I spoke
in Yiddish and that was very important to the board of trustees at the time
because the people in the synagogue, mainly were elderly people and here I was
27 years old speaking to people who were in their late 60s and early 70s,
retirees, and I saw that the synagogue did not have a physical separation
between men and women. Nevertheless, I took the pulpit.

I really did not have any intention of staying on. I was a newlywed and I had
already an infant son, Joel, and thought that I would take this pulpit for maybe
a year or so. I didn’t realize, of course, that 36 years later, I would still
be in Columbus under other kinds of conditions and, hopefully, that the years
were of achievement and accomplishment. I realized that, speaking Yiddish every
Saturday would not be the goal for any rabbi if he is to develop the synagogue
or the congregation. Therefore, I asked permission from the board of trustees
that I would be speaking in Yiddish maybe only once a month in order to perhaps
involve a younger group into the Synagogue by preaching in English, which of
course was exactly what we were able to do. And subsequently the synagogue
started to grow but we realized that we were in the “neighborhood.”

At that time our synagogue was on Bulen Avenue in Driving Park but most of
the members were living over in Bexley. At one time Driving Park was the Jewish
neighborhood and we had to make plans for leaving the neighborhood, even though
we were only there four or five years. It’s kind of a traumatic experience for
these people to know that they would have to start making plans for a new
synagogue. And we were fortunate enough to have a man by the name of Julius
Cohen who at that time was a young energetic builder in the community, a builder
of homes, and he became involved in the synagogue and, under his leadership and
the leadership of other people, Dr. Charles Young, and some of the others, Al
Szames, the Goldmeier family, the Weinstocks, we made plans to move and to build
on College Avenue.

My conditions for being a participant in that effort was that it would be
strictly an orthodox synagogue with physical separation of men and women and
there would be no microphone in the synagogue on the Sabbath as well as on the
Festivals, in accordance with Jewish halachic rulings. After three years,
we built this very beautiful edifice on College Avenue and people came from all
over to visit our synagogue for its artistic beauty. It is considered one of the
most beautiful of synagogues. In fact, Abba Eban, in his book, The History of
My People
, has a picture of our synagogue, and he calls it the Beth Jacob
Temple of Columbus, Ohio, and the synagogue has grown.

We have made numerous contributions and achievements. We started the first
orthodox youth group in the area called National Conference of Synagogue Youth,
which is the first orthodox youth movement for this area, which was referred to
as the central east area. I recall the very first regional convention when we
had as many as 500 teenagers from the entire area, from cities like Detroit,
Cleveland, Dayton, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, and we grew to having
as many as 3,000 young people of the central east region become affiliated and
that was as a result of our finding, being the founding father, so to speak, of
the central east region here in Columbus, Ohio.

And many of the young people were going through interesting searches for
their own identity at the time of the days of Haight-Ashbury, 1969-70. People
had to choose between being a flower child or trying to find some kind of
identity in contemporary society as a relevant society, reaching out to Jewish
people. So, therefore, we were able to successfully attract the young people
with Jewish rock music, people like Shlomo Carlebach and others- internationally
known- came to Columbus very frequently and they helped us in these programs.

In 1957, when I arrived, one of the first things that was uppermost in my
mind was, as I told the then-president of the congregation, Mr. Lou Levine, if I
was to remain in Columbus, we would have to have a day school. And he
subsequently introduced me to two people, one whom was Jerome Schottenstein of
blessed memory; the other one was Harry Gilbert of blessed memory, both of the
Agudas Achim congregation, and we introduced the idea of starting a day school.

And, after working very, very hard for a number of months, we were fortunate
to start the Columbus Torah Academy. We started with 12 students. We gave them
all free scholarships that first year and we were housed at the Agudas Achim
Synagogue and the rest of that is history. The Columbus Torah Academy, of
course, a very important, fine and excellent institution, has grown and
continues to grow. In fact, my son-in-law was first president of the high
school, which began about two years ago.

Another important thing was that I realized that we needed a mikva
ritual place for the women of the community. The old mikva was in a very
dilapidated neighborhood, on Livingston near Ohio Avenue. After much work and
the cooperation of numerous people I should mention that a person like Dr.
Jerome Folkman, the Reform rabbi was very supportive of the new community mikva
and he helped us achieve that very first contribution from Jack Resler,
which is all very interesting because these were people who were not aligned
with the philosophy or the ideology of ritual baths.

At any rate, we built the mikva and the community mikva was
dedicated in 1970. It’s located at the Ssuth end of the Beth Jacob synagogue,
with a separate entrance from the parking lot, shared today by, for sure over
100 families. The mikva which existed in 1957, I don’t think served
more than five families, maybe seven. As a young rabbi coming to Columbus, I was
obviously the youngest rabbi; my other colleagues were Nathan Zelizer who was
the rabbi at Temple Tifereth Israel at the time. He was the dean of the
rabbinate, so to speak, and there were Rabbi Samuel Rubenstein and Dr. Jerome
Folkman. Those were the three major synagogues. There was a Rabbi Valinsky, of
the other Orthodox synagogue, Congregation of Ahavas Sholom.

As the years went by I realized that we must set out to capture the
intellectual understanding of the Jew and, to make orthodox Judaism very
relevant to the non-observant Jew. Over the years, more modestly, we would have
to say that we have achieved some measure of success. As of today, in 1993, over
53 of our youngsters from our congregation and from our N.C.S.Y chapter, went on
to study in yeshivas and in schools in Israel and New York and in Baltimore and
in Chicago, and from our synagogue we have numerous rabbis from these kinds and
they all came from non-observant homes, most of them anyway, maybe just a
handful of orthodox homes, at the time, and these young people today are in the
professions of either attorneys, physicians, psychiatrists, successful business
people, or rabbis – both male and female scientists and they are all alumni of
our Beth Jacob youth group NCSY chapter. And, needless to say, we’re very,
very proud of all of them. Married today, their children are now young
practicing orthodox Jews, living in contemporary society and making important
contributions to whichever community they live in, be it in Israel, Jerusalem,
or be it New Jersey.

It’s very difficult and possibly foolish to try to predict what the future
may hold for Columbus Jewry now that it’s 1993. Remember that the Columbus
Jewish community now is one of the wealthiest communities in the country in
terms of Federation; the per capita funds which are raised by Federation for the
community of 15,000 Jews- but I think that our demographics are disappointing in
the sense that we are reading of the constant high rate of interfaith marriages
in the community, which all sociologists predict will create serious crises in
terms of the future of the Jewish community. I think, therefore, that what we
may witness and what we see is a strengthening of orthodox Judaism with a
smaller group of people on the one hand, a self-contained group of people doing
their thing, strengthening their own orthodox ideologies and households, and on
the other hand, there will be a larger assimilated group in the community.

This may or may not be an accurate prediction of years to come. I also feel
that more and more people, younger people, will opt to go to Israel, make aliyah
as they find that, I’m speaking of young married couples, that they’ll find
that the United States may not be the best place to raise in terms of everything
being equal, the problems of assimilation, acculturation, and no matter how hard
we try, no matter how many successes we may find about the Zionist movement and
the returning Jew, in the long haul, these figures may not be strong enough to
withstand the pressures of the larger numbers of assimilation and acculturation,
so there may be more and more people who come from liberal homes, who will opt
to go to Israel to find the greatest sense of stability for their own Jewishness
and for their own homes and, hopefully, those of us who remain and work and
those who follow will know that the work is cut out for them in places like
Columbus, Ohio and the hinterlands of America. Even though we may not have large
numbers, the work is here and there’s a great sense of satisfaction with each
soul who turns to God for we always believe kol hamekayem nefesh achas b’yisroel…
if you save even one Jewish soul, it’s as if you’ve saved the entire world
and every soul is precious and every Jew is precious, so no matter what his
level of religiosity of observance is, we all have to, in spite of it all, we
have to keep some sense of optimism and hope for a greater future.

Interviewer: Thank you, Rabbi, for sharing your personal life experiences and
views with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.

The end