Ohev Sholom Synagogue History: Part III

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Synagogue's History Many thanks to Michael Muderick, CongOhev@ICDC.Com, Executive Director of Congregation Ohev Shalom for making the following history available to us from the Ohev Sholom Synagogue Dedication Book prepared in 1965.  The history was written by Enid Mark & Evelyn Epstein

Introduction
Beginnings
Period of Growth
Consolidation, Problems and Progress
New Directions

 

Consolidation, Problems and Progress

The new building began to serve the community - a service which was to last 35 years. Influenced by the growth of the Conservative movement in the United States, and facing the demands of younger congregants who insisted upon a more liberal religious attitude, the sanctuary was designed with three separate aisles. The right and left sections were raised balconies where women might pray separately from the men, but the middle area was for men and women. It was this middle section which grew more and more crowded, while the side areas became more and more empty. Also, in deference to the desires of the younger congregants, most of the sermons were delivered in English rather than Yiddish.

The sanctuary was on the uppermost, the third, floor. The building also housed classrooms, offices, two kitchens, as well as facilities for athletics, swimming, social affairs, and meetings.

Despite the fact that the building was officially completed in September, there were many areas still in need of attention. Therefore, in the Spring of 1928, the first Ohev Sholom Bazaar was held on the grounds adjoining the Synagogue, where the Delaware County Times Building now stands. The affair was sponsored by the newly-formed Sisterhood, which was under the presidency of Mrs. Albert Gurvitz. Mrs. Raphael (Sadie) Kaplan was chairman of the Bazaar. It ran three days and profited $2,000. These funds paid for painting the building and installing flooring. The bazaar remained an annual event until the ground on which it was held was no longer available.

The spiritual leader of the young synagogue was Rabbi Herman Eisenberg, who was called to Chester on September 1, 1927. During the congregation's formative years, Rabbi Eisenberg was responsible for many innovations. He began to use the Union Prayer Book throughout the year and instituted a late Sabbath evening service.

The first anniversary was celebrated October 3, 1928; the first Congregational Ball was held January 9, 1929; and on February 5, 1930, the first joint Congregation and Charity Ball took place.

Sisterhood, now under the presidency of Mrs. Charles (Tillie) Shapero, was particularly active. "Goodies" were served after the children's services on Saturday mornings; rummage sales were conducted; a cultural group, which met to discuss "fine books, periodicals, and current events," was well attended. Successful monthly dances were held "to create a feeling of community spirit among the young."

The Synagogue Center was a comprehensive arena of manifold activities. With Isaac Sapovits as president and Archie Levy as vice-president, the institution had a Sunday School, Hebrew School, high school class, Confirmation class, advanced Hebrew study groups, Bar Mitzvah classes, and a library. There were Friday evening services (which included a sermon), Home Night services, and varied programs of organizational and athletic events. A Synagogue News was published through which all items of interest were publicized. A feeling of zeal and constructive co-operation seemed to emanate from Ohev Sholom at that time.

A. W. Wolson, as president of the Federation of Hebrew Charities, reported in 1930 that his organization, with the help of the Council of Jewish Women and The Ladies' Aid Society, was providing a family in the community with a weekly subsidy. This very active group had given $100 to deserving strangers and about $500 to needy members of the Chester Jewish community.

But the financial and spiritual needs were to increase drastically as the decade progressed, for the calendar pages were black with the days of 1929. The entire world felt reverberations from the dreadful crash which ushered in years of economic chaos - the years of the great depression.

A. W. Wolson's cryptic comment in his message in the 1930 Joint Charity and Congregational Ball Book, referring to an increase in demands on the Federation of Hebrew Charities, reveals the onset of this difficult period of time. It was perhaps inevitable that Obev Sholom should falter at this critical moment.

As a result of the shortage of funds, all activities were curtailed. The pool was now closed. In order to meet even the current expenses of the building, door to door solicitation of Ohev Sholom membership was required, but many were unable to pay any dues at all. It was during these terrible years that Mrs. Philip (Anna) Schwartz, Mrs. Harry (Reba) Greenstein, Mrs. Harry (Fanny) Baron, and Mrs. Max (Bessie) Mailman fed and housed needy transients in the small Sheltering Home on Mary Street, which was still managed by The Ladies' Aid Society. Distribution of coal to those in need was handled by the active members of the Federation of Hebrew Charities: Louis Schwartz, Maurice Swimmer, and Mrs. Raphael (Sadie) Kaplan. The Council of Jewish Women provided needy persons of the community with loans for emergency purposes.

The country, as well as our community, emerged from these years sobered and serious. Ohev Sholom members, as countless others throughout our nation, lost money, real estate, businesses, and jobs. But the Synagogue was still ours.

"The Synagogue is the Jews' wealth," said Isaac Sapovits in 1934. Stirred by these words, the congregation began to re-evaluate itself. The congregants turned toward their synagogue for inspiration and fulfillment. Better days started for many when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration revitalized the economy. All Ohev Sholom's activities resumed and soon the synagogue once again became the true "center" of the Chester Jewish community.

In 1934 educational activities were increasing. Rabbi Eisenberg was now superintendent of the school, and Albert Berman was chairman of the Religious School Committee. A staff of eight teachers and two assistant teachers was employed.

On weekday evenings there was usually a meeting or social affair at the "Center." On many nights there were 30 or 40 men playing shuffleboard in the basement. This was an era of intense interest in basketball, and every Sunday evening Ohev Sholom was the scene of a hotly contested basketball game between our "Center" and the team of another community. Large crowds were drawn to these contests and to the dances which followed. The highlight of the basketball season came when our team vied with the SPHAS, at that time one of the best professional basketball teams in Philadelphia. The Synagogue Center was enjoying a glorious age. It had truly become a "second home" for many of its members.

The congregation was also expanding its cultural activities. It was during these years that a children's choir was instituted, and the Junior Congregation re-organized. A volunteer library was begun under the direction of Rabbi Eisenberg and the volunteer management of Mrs. Samuel (Rae) Feinberg. Our women's organizations were actively participating in the affairs of the congregation. A Jewish Community Council, through which groups could clear dates for programs, was organized.

A significant event occurred in the late 1930's, when Ohev Sholom joined the United Synagogue of America. Now we were officially identified as a Conservative group. This meant, among other things, that our religious and educational work became more standardized and that our Sisterhood joined the National Women's League.

On March 15, 1935, the Chester Post #134 of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States was organized in the home of Joseph Baer. The 28 charter members elected Dr. Albert G. Federman the first Commander of the Post. The JWV serviced (and still services) all Veteran's hospitals in this area. In 1949, it established a Memorial Circle at Brookhaven Cemetery in memory of those who died in the World Wars.

Content and busy with communal and private lives, most of Chester Jewry tried to ignore the war clouds gathering over Europe. Isolationism was preferable to involvement in foreign problems. However, it is noted in the minutes of the Board of Directors of May 1938, that a letter from the Jewish War Veterans invited all synagogue members to attend a memorial service, the first in the city of Chester. The letter of invitation stated that ". . . the occasion will be used as a plea for peace." In November 1938, a letter was received from Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, regarding refugees from Germany to Poland, and expressing the urgent need for funds. Chester responded by organizing a formal appeal. In 1939, Frank Berman became the first chairman of the annual Chester United Jewish Appeal drive. (The U.J.A. had been organized on a national basis that very same year.) It was truly impossible to remain aloof from the European catastrophe.

In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland. The Second World War had begun. There was still no immediate change in our daily life, but the impact of the war was certainly felt. In June 1940, Dr. Federman spoke at a congregational meeting. He read a resolution to the effect that all members of Ohev Sholom should attempt to counteract any "fifth column" and un-American activities in the community. The congregation voted to go on record favoring this. In addition, it offered financial aid to the "Home Defenders Division" of the Council.

When war did come, Chester Jewry responded. Sons, brothers, husbands - and some women, too - wore uniforms of the armed forces. The annual Congregational Ball was cancelled because of the national emergency and the Eighth Street Synagogue was used as the local United Service Organization (U.S.O.) headquarters. A large sign advertised that its doors were open to all men in uniform. Many individual congregants entertained servicemen at parties and dinners. Joint Distribution Committe funds were collected to help alleviate the suffering of Jews in Europe. Our congregation participated in scrap drives, paper collections, and bond rallies. 42 women joined in a First Aid group, and the Synagogue donated two pianos to the defense home projects in McCaffery Village.

Minutes of a Board of Directors meeting on September 14, 1942, record that Hyman Stein made a motion, which was passed, giving honorary membership in the congregation to all local Jewish boys in the Armed Forces, and that all current dues be remitted on behalf of all present members in the Service. In August 1943, Frank Berman and Meyer J. Freed were appointed co-chairmen of a Synagogue bond drive.

Through restless years of anti-Semitism, depression, and the start of World War II, Rabbi Eisenberg led his congregation. Then, in 1942, after 15 years, he resigned from his pulpit at Ohev Sholom. Upon his retirement, the congregation bestowed upon him a life-time honorary membership.

Rabbi Max Forman was welcomed at a congregational meeting in September 1942. After a few months, he reported a new interest in the education of our youth and in the revival of the morning service. One of the outstanding affairs of his tenure was a communal Seder on March 25, 1943, in which 243 persons participated.

Toward the end of the world conflict, attention was drawn toward Palestine. Chester Jews exhibited tremendous interest in this problem, and reacted to suggestions for positive aid with vigor.

In 1944 a communication was received from Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, wherein members of this community were urged to write letters to their congressmen and senators in support of the Palestine Resolution passed by the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee. In February of that same year, Rabbi Forman suggested that letters be sent to President Roosevelt asking him to openly express his opinion favoring the Wright-Compton Resolution for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Rabbi Forman left the congregation in August 1944, and Rabbi Naphtali Frishberg arrived in September of that year. This was a quiet time in our history. The war had usurped our energies.

The community seemed to be drifting without a goal. Of course, Hebrew School and Sunday School were maintained, but an air of futility was aptly expressed by a terse note in the Board of Directors' minutes for May 1944: "Sisterhood about to be disbanded for lack of co-operation from members." Nobody was willing to assume the responsibilities of leadership. A dismal sense of instability and unrest surrounded the community. The long war was coming to an end, but countless lives were lost, millions of Jews were killed, and a raging controversy over the Jewish homeland irritated everyone.

Finally, 1945 brought V-E Day and V-J Day. Victory at last! On April 6, 1945, at a special Servicemen's Sabbath, Louis A. Bloom, commander of the Jewish War Veterans, presented to Maurice Swimmer, president of the congregation, a permanent plaque bearing an honor roll of over 300 men and women of Ohev Sholom then serving in the armed forces. Colonel Maurice Mendelson was guest speaker on this occasion, and he recalled his meeting with the local community's hero, Sergeant Jack Sugarman of Media, who had killed 132 Japaneese in the Pacific Theater. A special prayer was recited for those members of the congregation who had died in the war: Al Cutler, Leonard Davis, Jack Gomberg, David Gordon, and Phillip Weiner. The entire weekend was dedicated to the servicemen. It concluded on Sunday with a large conference concerning the synagogue's responsibility toward returning veterans.

Once again the spiritual leadership of the congregation was changed. Rabbi Frishberg resigned in May 1946, and in September 1946, Rabbi Louis Grossman arrived.

Slowly, Obev Sholom seemed to wake from its lethargy. New vigor was instilled in the religious services. An athletic director was hired in October 1946, and a full schedule of activities began. The Hospitality Room was formally opened; it provided a place for social gatherings and small dances. It was also a place where high school students could meet after classes for talk and socializing. The Reception Room was redecorated and dedicated in memory of Joseph M. Weinberg. A youth basketball team, sponsored by the Men's Club, was city champion for several years. Nathaniel Plafker led a breakfast club for post-Bar Mitzvah boys. A day camp, which met at the synagogue during the summer months, was wel I attended by young children.

In 1948 the decision was made for children to start Hebrew School studies at age nine, at which time they would discontinue Sunday School attendance. This step more closely aligned us with other Conservative congregational schools.

All of these activities took place while Jews the world over awaited the decision of the establishment of a Jewish state. Finally, on November 29, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine. A telegram to Mrs. Martin (Mary) Huberman, president of the Chester Chapter of Hadassah, from the national office of the organization, read: "The Jewish State is born ... ours is the honor and glory of witnessing this momentous event ... and the challenge to see that it brings new dignity and worth to Jews the world over..."

The recognition of the Jewish state gave further impetus to activities in Chester, but other factors also played an important part in the continued progress of Ohev Sholom.

The second-generation of Jews in Chester was now expressing a greater intellectual awareness of their religion. A large group of war brides had returned home and settled down to raise families. Their children's attendance at Sunday School undoubtedly increased their interest in Synagogue activities and their willingness to identify with a constructive women's group. They were determined to improve the status of Sisterhood. Numerous ideas were culled from attendance at regional Women's League meetings. Thirty-seven women enrolled in a Leadership Training Course which served to orient all chairmen and insure the availability of future leaders. A Gift Shop was started. Torah Fund was extremely successful, and a Passover Institute was held in conjunction with the membership of Hadassah and B'nai B'rith.

Sisterhood membership grew rapidly - 32 women joining Sisterhood in 1949-50 and 40 women enrolling in 1950-51. During these years Sisterhood was led by Mrs. Joseph (Annabelle) Smith, Mrs. Benjamin (Ruth) Blank, and Mrs. Louis (Beatrice) Dallett. The women were responsible for refurnishing the classrooms in 1951, for redecorating the auditorium and stage in 1954, and for redecorating the sanctuary in 1955. (It was at this time that the balconies were eliminated from the sanctuary, a further indication of a more progressive attitude which pervaded synagogue life.)

The resurgence of Sisterhood culminated in 1955, when the Philadelphia Branch of the National Women's League cited Ohev Sholom's group as an exemplary Sisterhood organization.

In 1950, Rabbi Ira Sud was called to the pulpit of Ohev Sholom, and he began a ten-year period as religious leader of the congregation. Rabbi Sud was born in Czechoslovakia and was educated in the seminaries of that country and Germany. He also attended Dropsie College in Philadelphia. He will be remembered best, perhaps, for his work in community relations. His philosophy that Brotherhood Week should extend throughout the year did much to bridge the gaps between the non-Jewish community and the Jews. He was a warm and gentle person, and so dear to a group of congregants that they were moved to raise funds to fulfill a life-long dream of his - a trip to Israel. Rabbi Sud contributed much to enrich education in the community. He instituted a Mr. and Mrs. Club. His attitude toward Jewish learning can be remembered by this excerpt from his own words spoken during a Board of Directors meeting of June 1955: ". . . all must have warm hearts and open minds to the important changes taking place around us. The very concept of God cannot be assumed, but rather it must be taught, and we must teach Judaism in a beautiful way. We must continue to progress in the flexible traditional Jewish manner, giving all the opportunity to learn and ask questions."

With the arrival of Rabbi Sud, Ohev Sholom entered a time of intense activity and developed a new maturity in many aspects. Sisterhood's role has already been noted. It was also at this time that the community honored its older members. In 1953 all persons who had been members of the synagogue for more than 50 years, were given life memberships in Ohev Sholom. Honored in this manner have been: Mr. and Mrs. A. E. Lessy, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Savitsky, Mr. Solomon Hoffman, and Mr. and Mrs. Frank Berman.

Athletics continued to play a dominant part in congregational life, and Arthur Stone took charge of the youth athletic activities. Cotillions, minstrel shows, community seders, adult education, Hebrew School, religious services - all were woven into the fiber of life of Chester Jewry.

The activities of the Sisterhood reached in all directions. The women donated a new kitchen to the synagogue. They inaugurated a "Pennies From Heaven" campaign - the funds collected to be used to dispose of the synagogue mortgage.

Adult education continued to be a primary concern. Dr. Nathan V. Plafker offered a course entitled "Comparative Religions of Humanity." Rabbi Sud instructed a course in "Jewish Traditions and Customs - Their Significance and Importance." The Oneg Shabbat became a forum for discussion of many controversial ideas.

On March 2, 1954, the Junior Congregation chapel was dedicated. A cantata entitled "Our Torah" was conducted by the Principal of the religious school, David Twersky.

This year, 1954, marked the Tercentenary of Jews in America. In February 1955 a framed scroll was given to our synagogue by the United Synagogue of America in recognition of the part Ohev Sholom had played in the history of American Judaism. A suitable celebration was planned, and tremendous interest was generated in this saga. Members of the community who attempted to research this project were stymied by a lack of adequate library facilities in the synagogue building. Their frustration proved to be the motivation behind an idea which eventually developed into our present library.

As a result of the efforts of Mrs. William (Rose) Isaacson and Rabbi Sud, the Board of Directors eventually approved the idea of creating a library, and Mrs. Isaacson was made first chairman of the Library Committee. But the Board had no funds for such a project until R. Paul Lessy generously donated both a sum of money and more than 200 volumes, creating the A. E. Lessy Memorial Library in memory of his esteemed father.

In August 1958, Cantor Jonas Garfinkel assumed his duties at Ohev Sholom. Cantor Garfinkel was born in Poland. He had been a Yeshiva student and had attended the Warsaw Conservatory of Music. A survivor of the Second World War, he and his family arrived in the United States in 1951, whereupon he served as Cantor in Vineland, New Jersey. In 1952, Cantor Garfinkel became a member of the Cantor's Assembly of America. Within three or four weeks of his arrival in Chester, Cantor Garfinkel organized an adult choir which performed at the High Holy Day Services that year and has remained an integral part of the synagogue ever since. Soon after, he organized the Junior Choir. His music is a stirring part of our ritual, and his work with Bar and Bas Mitzvah students is an indication of his outstanding ability.

Any memory of the "Fifties" must include the three gala musical productions sponsored by the synagogue, and produced by members of our community. "Finian's Rainbow," "Wish You Were Here," and "Lady in the Dark" were excellent vehicles for many congregants to express themselves dramatically. These affairs, the progeny of earlier minstrel and talent shows, were important because they attracted the active participation which was to become the keystone of a future, and more important venture. For only with the interest of all congregants could synagogue life thrust itself forward into a heady and exciting task - the task of building a new synagogue which might better serve the ever-increasing needs of the Jewish population of Chester.

New Directions


2001 John A. Bullock III.

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This page last updated 02/24/07