Meeting our Jewish neighbors

PHOTO BY ERIK AULT

Friday, November 4, 2022; Beth Israel – The West Temple in West Park: Rabbi Enid C. Lader reading from the Sefer Torah. The Sefer Torah is a handwritten scroll of the first five books of the Bible in Hebrew and is used during worship services. She is using a yad to follow the text.

PHOTO BY ERIK AULT

Friday, November 4, 2022; Beth Israel – The West Temple in West Park: Rabbi Enid C. Lader opening the curtain to the Torah ark, which houses the Sefer Torahs when not in use. Adorning the ark is the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. When facing the Torah ark, worshippers are also facing the same direction as Jerusalem.

(Plain Press, December 2022) In recent days, the specter of antisemitism – prejudice against the Jewish people – has again reared its ugly head. In uncertain economic times, it is easy to become fearful and look cynically at those we deem too different than ourselves.

     But the Jewish community has been a part of western Cleveland from the beginning. They continue to serve the community from their temple in West Park: Beth Israel – the West Temple. We sat down with its leaders, Rabbi Enid Lader and Walter Wright, who is president of the temple’s board, to learn more about this small yet significant group of people.

Plain Press: Who are the Jewish people and what is a rabbi?

Rabbi Lader: The Jewish people are a people connected through religion, culture, and stories.  We introduced the idea of belief in one God, contrary to the multiple gods that were worshiped at the time.  Also, the Jews gifted the world with the idea of taking a day for rest and renewal – the Sabbath.  The Jewish people make their way through the year with festivals and observances, and through our lifetimes marking life cycle events with celebration and reverence. The Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is read each year; offering the opportunities for new insights and a renewed sense of what it means to be connected to God and to our fellow human beings.

     Traditionally, the term Rabbi means “My teacher,” and indeed a Rabbi is a teacher and has become so much more. The Rabbi is the spiritual leader of the congregation, leading services, officiating life cycle events, visiting the sick, striving to help the members of a congregation feel connected, and so much more.

Plain Press: What values do Jews hold?

Rabbi Lader: The value of Tikkun Olam, repair of the world, is a very important Jewish value. Our world is in such need of repair; if each of us can help in our own way to make a positive difference, then we are engaging in helping to make our communities, our world, the best they can be. We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our people but, we also have a responsibility to others. We should not put it off but see the immediacy of their need.

Plain Press: What is the Jewish view of the Bible?

Rabbi Lader: Traditionally, the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, is seen as God given. And traditional Jews see the Torah, the Bible and the Jewish texts after the Talmud as coming directly from God. The more liberal way of understanding (there are actually different ways of understanding the divine nature of the text) is that it’s a received text from different traditions, from different story-telling, and it comes together in a way that informs us and serves as a blueprint of how to act and how not to act. It’s also a snapshot of life at a certain point in time.

     With that in mind, we come to the text with the ability to make interpretations, to be able to read between the lines, which is called midrash, and to think about who these people are that are being spoken about and written about and how they behave and how that can inform our lives. There are many things in the Bible that reflect, as I mentioned, a certain point in time. And as time has gone on, how we’ve come to understand the role of women, and the role of the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) community has taken on new understandings in light of Biblical and rabbinic teachings in a way that is tremendously accepting. That is certainly at the liberal end of Jewish practice, but that is still Jewish practice.

Plain Press: Tell us about Jewish holidays. I’m sure there’s a lot.

Rabbi Lader: So, we have a Jewish calendar. In the fall is when we celebrate our new year. And this year we celebrated 5,783. Traditionally, that is from the first day of creation. We certainly understand that creation happened many, many millions of years before that. But it gives us a beginning to think about. So, the new year is Rosh Hashanah and then ten days later, Yom Kippur is a time for introspection, self-reflection on our behavior and the things that we did, the things that we could have done better, the things that we didn’t do over the past year- to really come to create a clean slate for ourselves so that we can step forward into the new year, and to be as good as we can be, knowing that we are human beings and that we do make mistakes.

     We celebrate Sukkot which is a fall harvest festival and, then, Hanukkah which celebrates light in the middle of winter, usually. It’s the festival of bringing light into dark times into the world and celebrating the victory of a small band of people over a very large army. It comes to be translated as celebrating the power of a few people who are committed to make change in the world. Celebrating the new year of trees in the middle of winter, which for us is the middle of winter, in Israel it’s like the springtime.

     We celebrate Purim from the book of Esther in the Bible. Again, the power of an individual to speak up on behalf of her people to make positive change. And the Festival of Freedom and the Festival of Matzot in Passover in the spring. And then 50 days later, standing at Sinai for Shavuot and celebrating the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the receiving of Torah, and becoming a people with a covenant with God to be the best that we can be and to be supported as we are making our way through our lives.

     And in the summertime, in the heat of the summer in August, we recall the destruction of the temple at Tisha B’Av. The first temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. The second temple was destroyed in 80 CE. As time has gone on, the date of the ninth of Tisha B’Av in Hebrew has been connected with the very awful things that have happened in Jewish history: the expulsion from Spain, the pogroms, the Crusades- very difficult times. Our rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Lettofsky, said you could look at the calendar and commemorate each day something awful happening. And yet we put it all together on this one day of the year.

     As well, in the spring after Passover, we have come to celebrate Israel’s Independence Day, as well as commemorate the Shoah (the Holocaust). It’s a very full year with Shabbat every week.

Plain Press: How did the Jewish people come to Cleveland?

Rabbi Lader: In the late 1800s, there was a group of Jews from Bavaria that made their way to Cleveland. Basically, the first Jewish place of settlement was west of the Cuyahoga River. The west side was the first. There are Jewish cemeteries on this side of town with dates that go back quite far. As time went on, the Jews moved to the east side, but there were some Jews that still stayed west. Cleveland, at one point in time, was a center of fabric making and clothing production. So, there were many factories that were actually owned by Jewish owners on this side of town. More Jews went east, but there were still some Jews on the west side.

     Our congregation began in 1954 with the head of the NASA Lewis research center at the time, Abe Silverstein- who was Jewish- got together his Jewish engineers and scientists who lived on this side of town and said, “We need to form a congregation so that we don’t have to schlep our kids over to the east side for bar mitzvah lessons.” And they did. Before that time, there was a Conservative congregation on this side of town, but Silverstein wanted a Reform – a more liberal- congregation. They created Beth Israel- the West Temple. In the next couple of years, the west side Jewish center that was building this building, the Conservative congregation, had built the building, but they didn’t have enough money to continue. It was going to be sold. Meanwhile, we were looking for a building. So, the two congregations came together and became Beth Israel, the West Temple, as a Reform congregation. And, continued on from there.

Plain Press: That basically addresses my next question- Why is the West Temple the only one on the west side?

Rabbi Lader: It does explain that, but I’ve often wondered that myself. There have been attempts to start other congregations on the west side, but they didn’t last very long. There is a Chabad presence in Westlake and a community center in Lakewood on Madison, but they are separate from us. For people who are not Jewish or are interested in Judaism, people who are on a journey, we welcome them. They are not members of our congregation at the time, but as they go through conversion, they are welcomed as members.

Plain Press: Why do you think you are the only temple left in Cleveland, including even the east side?

Rabbi Lader: Well, we made for ourselves the opportunity to build a bigger building, all on one floor, it was air conditioned. It was going to be in North Olmsted. We had community partners who were going to help us make that happen. One by one, the community partners stepped back. So, we’re left holding the property. It was property that needed to be developed from scratch. It was just land, which is very expensive to develop. We couldn’t do it by ourselves. We made the decision to take the monies that we had and make the improvements to our own building that would be necessary in order to make it as accessible and comfortable as possible.

Plain Press: So, you tried leaving Cleveland?

Rabbi Lader: We tried!

President Wright: It’s kind of interesting because the settlement pattern of the east side as Jews went from near downtown, like Liberty Hill Baptist Church was a Jewish congregation and many others.  As they moved farther east and south to Solon and other areas, like Pepper Pike and Lyndhurst,  the settlement patterns on the west side kind of ends here. Or you can move to Lorain or Sandusky or Elyria. But that’s not a typical pattern. People tend to stay in the west side area, which is more of a hub rather than a spoke. It’s an accident of history in a lot of ways that we’re here.

     Now that we’re the last temple in Cleveland we feel that having a presence within the city is kind of special. There’s kind of a Jewish joke – There are three types of Jewish temples: one I belong to, and two I would never step foot into. Because there’s no central authority in Judaism, people dialog about who is Jewish, and how to be Jewish is a very rich conversation.

     Because Judaism was an oral tradition originally, things weren’t written down – the idea of repeating things and hearing things, like reciting the Torah over the calendar year in a prescribed way. It’s a lunar calendar which can be confusing and dates change. But because of this oral tradition the idea of interpreting and understanding makes for a very rich environment. There are people who just don’t agree because they have a different interpretation. We feel that by being a Reform or very open congregation within the city of Cleveland, we’re very welcoming to a very broad spectrum of Jews. We’ve had leadership from various backgrounds. We had six years of having rabbinical students as our rabbis, we’ve had a Conservative rabbi lead us, then Rabbi Lader who went to a pluralistic environment for her training. So, we occupy a really unique position in Cleveland.

     It’s also interesting because Jews are very much a minority on the west side, but Jews who move here from New Jersey for instance, they look at Ohio City or Solon or Lakewood. They don’t necessarily say, “Well I have to live in Beachwood because more Jews live there.” It’s a different experience for younger Jews, and we have a presence for them there, which is great that we can offer that to them on the west side.

     The other thing that is special is that, in many congregations, when Jews go through their bar or bat mitzvah when they’re 12 or 13, sometimes for them and their families, they say, “Well we’ve done the Jewish thing now. Off you go to college.”

     Because it takes work to be Jewish on the west side, our youth group is very rich and vital. I have two high school age daughters- 15 and 17- and they’re in the youth group with many of their friends who went through their bar and bat mitzvahs who are still affiliating and still active, doing all kinds of cool things. It’s a really cool feature that you may not see in other congregations, who are asking, “Please come back, youth!” Ours say that they want to be a part of it. Not everybody, but a majority of kids, who go through all of the training and become bar and bat mitzvah, choose to stay involved or come back when they’re in college and come and visit.

     So, we occupy a unique space which we take advantage of. We enjoy being a part of this unique culture on the west side of Cleveland. And the spectrum of Jews on the west side are people who grew up pretty secular or people who grew up pretty Orthodox. And here they are worshiping together which is pretty cool.

Plain Press: And you’re still making bar and bat mitzvahs, which sounds encouraging.

Pres. Wright: Yes, I think so. We’re pretty small but very vibrant. But we’re small – a more traditional congregation has an executive director, various paid staff at various levels, Chief Rabbi, Assistant Rabbi. We have just the rabbi. We have a board. But we have a lot of volunteers who teach in religious school – they’re all volunteer except the woman who leads religious education. Volunteers around ritual, volunteers maintaining the building, for security – those are volunteer positions. When people join, not everyone gets involved on that level, but we have a core of committed volunteers who are really close to the temple, and have to learn about the operations, because they are sustaining it. I think that’s a unique culture that we have.

Plain Press: Any thoughts on the current state of affairs?

Rabbi Lader: Well. Yesterday, there was a credible threat that came through the FBI for the congregations in New Jersey. So, when we hear about it in one place, it affects all of us around the country. The rise in anti-Semitic remarks and statements and actions is really disconcerting. On the one hand, it’s difficult to talk about. On one hand you think if you just stick your head in the ground, it’ll all go away.

     But you know very well when I pick my head back up, it’s not all just going to go away. We have to continue to be vocal, to call out people or organizations when things are not being done the right way, when they’re not speaking in positive ways, when they’re not acting in positive ways. Our own congregation has increased security so that we have a paid security guard that is here every Sunday morning when we have religious school and at other times when there are a large number of people in the building. It’s hard – we’ve had to spend tens of thousands of dollars on new security windows for the lower floor. Every single window was replaced with shatterproof glass. It has been helpful for energy efficiency, but they weren’t put in for that. They were installed for security. We used to have just a single-entry door in the back, and now we have this double door – it’s called a “man trap.” If someone comes in and we realize they shouldn’t be there, they can’t get in. They can’t get past that second opportunity to come into the building. We have cameras now all over the outside of the building to show what’s going on in the parking lot, in front of the building, the sides of the building. It all takes money. There are lots of grants from the state to upgrade congregational security. It’s so sad that that money has to be used for security purposes as opposed to being used to improve people’s lives. In this case, it’s being used, God forbid, for saving people’s lives. It’s awful.

     So, we’re glad to have the opportunity to talk with people and to show people that Jews are just like everyone else: We’re mothers, we’re fathers, we have children, we have hopes & dreams. We have needs. To dispel the ridiculous anti-Semitic remarks that we’re running the country. We want to help, and we want to join hands with people to make this world, our place, our community as good as it can be.

Plain Press: Have you experienced any direct antisemitism?

Rabbi Lader: I can’t say that I have, thank goodness. Years ago – 25 years ago – someone either across the street or a drive by, someone shot into the building, into the sanctuary. The rabbi at the time came in, realized that there were holes in the windows and looked up and saw holes in the walls. The police were called, the FBI was called. Everything was taken down, but we never found out how it was done.

     But what did happen was that the community came together, Jews & non-Jews, with a service for our congregation to show community support. That was tremendously helpful at the time.

     Last week, we commemorated the fourth anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Four years ago, the week after that, on that Sunday morning, after religious school, I came up to make sure everything was OK. There was smoke in the children’s library. There was a fire in the building. Thank God, no one was here, no one was hurt. The educator & I had called the fire department and like seven fire trucks came. The building was filled with this noxious black smoke because it was an electrical fire. We brought out the Torah scrolls. We kept them in my home until it was safe to return. Everything had to be cleaned.

     But the following week, that Friday, we were having a special service for Kristalnacht, which recalls the “Night of broken glass” in Germany, which was basically a state-sanctioned pogrom on Jews in Germany: Storefronts were shattered, synagogues were burned, books were burned. It was awful. And with that, we couldn’t be at our own building because there had been a fire.

     I had called the West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church, and they opened their doors for us. Members of their congregation, members of our congregation had come along with other people, and we had this amazing service with members of the community around us.  And actually, the Friday before the fire, we had an Erev Shabbat (Friday night service) with people from the community who came to show solidarity with us. So, we’ve gotten wonderful support. It’s tremendously appreciated.

Plain Press: So, you still feel welcome in west Cleveland?

Rabbi Lader: Yes, for sure. For sure. People have been great. Here in West Park, there’s a church walk which they had a couple summers ago, and we were on their list. We’re at the edge of West Park in this section, and they made it here. People were disappointed that they couldn’t come inside- this was during Covid- but we had a presentation outside. We’re part of things here and appreciate that tremendously.

Pres. Wright: The Rabbi and our educator, Debbie Chessin, have done a lot of work too with interfaith efforts. The youth group from the Turkish cultural center pre-Covid were very active with our congregation. The youth groups were active in volunteer projects. We have great relationships with the Catholic church, who is our neighbor right up the street (St. Mel). So, we do feel welcome.

Rabbi Lader: And right before Covid, Fr. Doug Koesel, who is the priest at Blessed Trinity on Puritas at W. 140th, he & I offered a program called, “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar.” We met at PJ McIntyre’s. We thought maybe 15 people would come and we would have a conversation. There were close to 80 or 100 people that packed the bar that night. This was right before Covid. Couldn’t fit into the restaurant area so we had to go downstairs into the party room. Thank God everyone stayed healthy that night because this was Wednesday, and that Friday was when Covid struck. It was an amazing evening that the two of us stood there, and people asked us questions, and we responded from a Catholic and Jewish perspective. People wanted to know and were interested. It was a great evening.

Plain Press: What can Jews do to combat prejudice?

Rabbi Lader: Education, education, education. We try to help people on the one hand so there’s education, telling people who we are and about Judaism and Jewish practice. To speak up when there are words or actions that are prejudicial or anti-Semitic. And to contact organizations like the Anti-Defamation League to let them know that this is going on and to seek their help on addressing on a larger or more systematic way.

     It’s important to know that we’re not only here for ourselves. There’s a Jewish teaching that Rabbi Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” It’s one thing to look out for your own community. That’s important. But it’s not just for ourselves. We’re here to speak out for other people and to address prejudice in all areas of our community to know that we’re in this together.

Pres. Wright: Behind prejudice is fear and uncertainty. Jews are two percent of the world or less. So, at times in uncertainty, it’s easy to whip up people over their fear. Unfortunately, that’s a factor in the world today. Combating prejudice, combating fear by being open and being a friend and speaking about ourselves and being open to others. The diversity of belief in the world is inspiring. We have a lot of dialogs with people about what it means to have faith or struggle with faith.

     Rabbi has done over the years, “A taste of Judaism” which is for people who want to explore Judaism for themselves and others who are just curious about the faith. Especially in west Cleveland which has many Irish Catholics, they may not have been exposed to many Jewish folks. This is an opportunity to learn about the faith. There are lots of things that people believe out of fear that are just not true or inaccurate or distortions. The light of dialog is something that we value.

Rabbi Lader: Yes. Hatred has no home here as the sign out front says, which I picked up at a meeting with Fr. Doug and other ministers in the West Park area.

Plain Press: You’re about to retire. What have been your greatest joys during your service?

Rabbi Lader: Being present with people. I’ve been here for quite some time, and we’re not planning on leaving after my retirement. But I got to serve in various roles. We’ve been members here for 40 years, so I’ve known people for 40 years.

     Some of my greatest joys have been the children of my religious school grow up into adults and get married and to officiate not only their bar mitzvah but their wedding and to name their children. And sadly, to officiate at funerals for very long-time friends. But I’ve been able to be part of the life of the congregation, which has been wonderful.

     Also, being able to reach out to the larger community, to be a Jewish voice and Jewish teacher has been wonderful. I’ve made a number of friends. It’s been great to be a part of this larger community and be honored to speak about what it means to be Jewish at various aspects of Judaism. And the social action work of the congregation. There’s always the need to do more, but what I have been able to do over these past years has been to work with a committee to apply for and receive an Ohio Historical marker on the earlier work of the congregation to help free Jews from the Soviet Union at a time of very difficult persecution. The marker is called “A modern day Exodus.” So, I got to help make that happen. I’m very happy and proud about that, and God willing, we’ll be able to dedicate that marker. It was delivered during Covid. We decided to do a brick plaza to put around it. We’re waiting for those to be delivered so we can set and finally have a community commemoration for it.

Pres. Wright: In addition to repatriation of the Soviet Jewry to the US, a young woman who grew up in our temple went on to become the first female rabbi in America: Rabbi Sally Priesand. Many generations of women who have come to see her picture on the wall have been inspired, including our rabbi. As the father of two daughters, that’s inspiring to me as well to know that, for a small congregation, we have punched above our weight in terms of history.

Rabbi Lader: Sally was ordained in 1972. When she celebrated her 40th anniversary, she was invited to come to Cleveland by one of the larger Reform congregations to speak. For the Saturday Shabbat service, she came here, and was my installing  rabbi in 2012, to install me as the rabbi here. So, there was a homecoming for her. It was a tremendous honor. She’s retired, but she’ll still serve at High Holy Days at congregations who are in need of a rabbi. She still speaks. 2022 was the 50th anniversary of her ordination, so she went around the country speaking and celebrating. Another rabbi, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who was the first woman to be ordained by the Reconstructionist movement is also a writer, especially of children’s books. So, in honor of Sally’s 50th anniversary, Sandy wrote a book called “Sally Opened Doors.”

Plain Press: Any thoughts about the future?

Rabbi Lader: For our congregation, we are in a wonderful place. We continue to grow, continue to bring in young people and families with young children as well as older adults who continue to seek and fill their lives with Jewish spirituality and wisdom and hope. We have a very strong board. As we change leadership, I know that it will continue to be as supportive as possible. I have four grandchildren. I see a bright future as I see their bright smiles and intellect and their love of being Jewish. Our oldest granddaughter will become a bat mitzvah out in California. Our youngest granddaughter who is 23 months old came to work with me here yesterday, and as she left, she said, “Bye, temple!” She knows the temple! Her older brother does as well. He stood on the bimah with his mom during the High Holy Days as she was lighting candles for the beginning of our Rosh Hashanah service. It was just so precious to see him. Our granddaughter’s younger sister is next in line. They’re continually involved in their congregation and see their Jewish lives as something that is very much a part of them.

     I look at our students, and I see their energy and hope for the future. I look at our past students and see how they’ve made their way into the world. Some of them have become leaders in the country. One of them has worked for the State department for 30 years and was just sworn in as ambassador to Kazakhstan. Another person served the Obama administration with keeping track of anti-Semitism in the world. He has retired but continues to speak and works for Moment Magazine, which is a Jewish magazine where he continues to track antisemitism. He keeps us focused and sober about how things are. But that doesn’t stop us from continuing to be hopeful.

Editor’s Note: Plain Press reporter Erik Ault interviewed Rabbi Enid C. Lader and Beth Israel – The West Temple Board President Walter Wright for this article.

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