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That Was Then

The Park Synagogue is a 138 year old congregation with a fabled history.  It is a major Conservative synagogue in this community and nationally.

The Synagogue and its Orthodox congregation was founded in 1869 as Anshe Emeth Synagogue somewhere in the downtown area of Cleveland.  In 1888, the first of several major fights within the congregation developed -- this one involved an effort to move the congregation from Orthodox to Reform.  The majority voted to remain Orthodox, and the Reform-inclined members left.

Early in the 20th century, the congregation moved to the Woodland Road--East 55th Street area and built a lovely edifice in 1903.  At the time, the congregation engaged its first real rabbi, Samuel Margolies, a brilliant and eloquent orator who was heavily involved not only in congregational matters but in general civic issues as well.  Unfortunately, he died in an auto accident in 1917.  In the same year, because congregants had begun moving eastward, the Anshe Emeth congregation merged with the Beth Tefilo congregation and bought land on E. 105th Street.  That site would become the Cleveland Jewish Center.  At that time, the merged congregation--Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo, which remains our Hebrew name, had a membership of about 300 families.

In 1919, having been without a rabbi for close to two years, the congregation hired Rabbi Samuel Benjamin, another fiery orator both in English and Yiddish.  Rabbi Benjamin galvanized the congregation with his dream of a new structure, which would house not only prayer and education facilities but extensive recreational facilities as well, and the Cleveland Jewish Center began to rise in early 1920.  Rabbi Benjamin resigned abruptly in 1922 amid a stormy clash of wills and temperaments, and left for Palestine.

In 1922, the Cleveland Jewish Center was dedicated.  Along with its great sanctuary and modern education wing, it included a beautiful ballroom, a fully equipped athletic department, and an impressive indoor swimming pool.  It was said to be in every way Cleveland's major center of Jewish life for Jews who considered themselves "traditional" by virtue of lifestyle or nostalgia.  The 1922 dedication also marked the installation of Rabbi Solomon Goldman as the new spiritual leader, and who also led the congregation into the ranks of Conservative Jewry.  Philosophically, Dr. Goldman was a follower of Mordechai Kaplan who taught that Judaism was not merely a religion, but an evolving religious civilization.

Goldman was very controversial.  He made many changes, such as integrating the seating of men and women, and forbidding the auctioning of Aliyot.  The reactions were so strongly felt within the congregation that it even led to physical violence against Dr. Goldman on the pulpit.  When it appeared that the pro-Goldman faction was going to prevail, the anti-Goldman faction instituted legal action which went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, though the Supreme Court refused to intervene.

Goldman left the Synagogue and Cleveland in 1929 -- partly for financial reasons and partly because he was unwilling to share the leadership of Cleveland Jewry with Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.  Goldman was followed by Harry Davidowitz for a five-year period.  Davidowitz was the exact opposite of Goldman -- a gentle, scholarly, even poetic, man, but he left for Palestine in 1934.  He in turn, was followed that same year by Rabbi Armond Cohen who was then only 26 years old.

In 1934 Rabbi Cohen faced many Synagogue problems.  One was severe debt which he helped to alleviate over the next few years with personal fundraising efforts.  The other major challenge was the fact that much of the Jewish population had moved to the eastern suburbs, especially Cleveland Heights.  In 1942, after convincing the Catholic Diocese not to bid on it, the Synagogue bought the 12 acre property of the defunct Park School in Cleveland Heights.  The Park property immediately became the eastern branch of the Cleveland Jewish Center.  The summer of 1943 saw the founding of the Park Nursery School and the Park Day Camp.  Shortly after, Leonard Ratner, a synagogue member, became convinced that the Synagogue should acquire the additional 21 acres of land adjacent to the Park property which fronted on Mayfield Road.  Through the services of a gentile go-between, Ratner was instrumental in the purchase of the land from John D. Rockefeller.

A serious fire in the Winter of 1945 destroyed several of the old Park School buildings, including the library and all the Torah Scrolls.  This accelerated the desire to build a new building, and Rabbi Cohen turned to the world famous Eric Mendelsohn to design the new Park Synagogue.  When completed and dedicated in 1950, what is now called Park Main was regarded as a major work of 20th century architecture and became a registered landmark of Cleveland Heights.  At that time the congregation numbered about 1,000 families.  In 1986 the congregation acquired another building which became Park Synagogue East.  It was located in Pepper Pike, Ohio an eastern suburb of Cleveland.

An extension, Kangesser Hall and the Bridge to it, was added in 1967.  Today, Kangesser Hall encompasses Stein Auditorium and Goldberg Assembly. In 1988, Rabbi Cohen after serving the congregation as Senior Rabbi for 54 years was named Distinguished Service Rabbi and Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins was hired as Senior Rabbi until he left the congregation in 1992.  Rabbi Joshua Hoffer Skoff succeeded Rabbi Elkins as Senior Rabbi.



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