By Robert Evans
I just returned from celebrating a special American Jewish milestone: The 150th anniversary of the founding of Temple Israel of Akron, Ohio. That’s the Reform congregation where I became a Bar Mitzvah and a confirmand. This is the community that inculcated in me a strong sense of Jewish values and peoplehood. This is where I gained the Jewish background that helped set the trajectory of my adult life and a career of working with Jewish organizations.
For sure, reunions of any type can be an adventure, a walk down memory lane, an emotional and even an unsettling experience. Admittedly, returning to Akron after an absence of more than a decade was a bit disarming. It has been a decade since I last visited the onetime “Rubber Capital of the World” for the unveiling of my father’s gravestone. This time, my short visit entailed a walk down memory lane, “visiting” my deceased parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other loved ones. I also made time for the living, catching up with cousins and offspring and stopped by my elementary school as well as my grandparents’ former home. Everything felt familiar and distant, as if I were both a tourist and a local, but a local from another time.
Apparently, I am not alone in having left the Rust Belt behind. In his recent book, “The Hard Way on Purpose,” Akron author David Giffels writes how he has watched nearly everyone he grew up with leave the area, while he stayed behind.
“The population has been in steady decline my whole life, so I’ve spent my life watching people leave. Making your way is harder here – fewer jobs, rough winters, a deficiency of glamour,” he wrote in a 2014 piece in Parade Magazine. “What I love about Akron is it makes me try harder every day. It’s like a rescue dog. You love it more because it needs you. And isn’t that the truest love: the warmth of being needed?”
It’s no secret that the American Jewish establishment has long been New York/East Coast- centric. It is easy to forget that, decades before the great mass immigration of Eastern European Jews, more than 100,000 German Jews came to the United States and took to the “hinterlands,” trying their luck as merchants, peddlers, and traders. German merchants first settled in Akron shortly before the Civil War. My relatives preceded them by more than half a century. They landed in Cincinnati, where in 1791, they started the first discount barge service across the Ohio River before moving to Akron.
In 1865, a group of 20 men who wanted a place to worship organized the Akron Hebrew Association, which was the forerunner to Temple Israel. The name was changed to Temple Israel in 1911, when it moved to the building it recently abandoned.
Akron’s Jewish community grew slowly, reaching a peak of more than 7,500 during the Great Depression. Today, the number is closer to 3,500. Like other sections of the Rust Belt, Akron’s Jewish community – which today supports five synagogues – has undergone decades of retrenchment. Clearly, Jewish Akron reflects how certain communities grow and then contract as Jews move from place to place; the most exciting Jewish frontiers today may exist in growing communities such as those in expanding communities in Texas, California, or even Florida.
Temple Israel’s current rabbi, Robert Feinberg, expressed confidence that the congregation will celebrate its 200th anniversary, long after so many who marked this anniversary are gone. His optimism, and that of his congregation, is reflected in a brand new multi-million dollar contemporary facility that was dedicated on Yom Kippur. The Temple’s former building has been rented to a local charter school and will probably become a school housing 500 students in the next few years.
“People cherish our congregation’s story and feel so attached to our community,” Rabbi Feinberg told me.
Yet the real purpose of the weekend wasn’t to make predictions about the future, but to celebrate the congregation’s achievements as well as the contributions that one great community has made to the American Jewish experience.
I can’t help but notice how much the congregation has changed from my youth, changes that reflect the broader evolution of Reform Judaism. The changes that jump out at me include the fact that The Union Prayer Book (the real calling card of Classical Reform Judaism) is probably hidden away in some storage area because the new, more contemporary prayer book Mishkan Tefilah fills the pews in the sanctuary. I even spy yarmulkes and tallitot, accoutrements that would never have been acceptable in the 1950s and 1960s in a Classical Reform congregation like Temple Israel!
But what struck me throughout my short stay was a sense of real community, the continuity of generations, the fact that even as so many have left, Jewish life has marched on. I sensed a palpable, irony-free pride in being Jewish in America, a refreshing connection to the Jewish past and a fresh look toward the future.
Friday night services led by Rabbi Feinberg featured my childhood friend Rabbi Allen Bennett of Temple Israel of Alameda, California until his retirement in 2012, and four other “homegrown” rabbis who are part of the legacy of Temple Israel: Rabbi David Komerofsky, of San Antonio; Rabbi Aaron Koplin, of Sarasota; Rabbi Evette Lutman, of Denver; and Rabbi Adrienne Scott, of Houston. The fact that one congregation has produced at least four rabbis speaks to a multiplier effect that one synagogue can have on the American Jewish community.
During the service I thought that however we note a Jewish milestone – like the founding of a congregation – we have much to take pride in. Even though we worshipped this Shabbat in a building far different from the one of my youth, I felt a deep sense of continuity, going back to my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. As I closed my eyes near the end of Shabbat services and recalled earlier times of my Jewish life, I wondered how my forbearers would look at these worship services. Would they consider it a remarkable milestone? Or was their faith so strong that they never doubted they were building a community that would last? After all, challenges to Jewish continuity are nothing new.
I really tried to imagine how my own grandchildren will reflect on their formative Jewish experiences when they are well into their adulthood. Since they are being raised in an Orthodox community, their frames of reference will no doubt be different from mine. But as someone who is proud of being Jewish, I believe with all my heart that Jews are linked by an unbreakable bond that stretches through space and time.
I walked out of Temple Israel hoping – and praying – that other Jewish communities across North America will continue to mark similar milestones. With all of the hand-wringing over the current state of synagogue affiliation, intermarriage, and the zeitgeist over trying to imagine and prepare for the Jewish future, we too easily forget to take pride in our history and our accomplishments. May that pride give our people the strength to fill the future’s now blank, unknowable pages with optimism, excitement, and the desire to keep Judaism alive. Jewish communities like those in Akron have played an important part of writing American Jewish history. Let us collectively ensure that our outlook is bright. As we say repeatedly – from generation to generation. May the Jewish people live.
Robert Evans, President of the Evans Consulting Group in suburban Philadelphia, has more than 35 years of experience advising nonprofits on fundraising campaigns and strategic planning. A member of the Giving USA editorial review board and a board member of the Giving Institute, Mr. Evans is frequently quoted in media outlets such as The New York Times and is a regular contributor to www.eJewishPhilanthropy.com.