Beth Abraham Synagogue has a rich 125 year history in Dayton, Ohio that has largely been defined by external events and core Jewish values.
The history (so far) of Beth Abraham is largely defined by external events.
Our Founders were typically Orthodox Eastern European Jews who immigrated to America to escape the Pogroms. Beginning in the late 1800’s, they usually arrived at Ellis Island and eventually made their way to Dayton, Ohio to join other family and friends and to seek economic opportunity.
Some identified as Litvaks, hailing from Greater Russia and, particularly, the Pale of the Settlement area. They considered themselves culturally and religiously different from Jews living in Russia proper. For this reason, they wanted to pray together in their own Synagogue. In Dayton, this desire became a reality in 1894. While there already was an Orthodox Congregation, K.K. House of Jacob, its members were largely from Russia proper. Because our Founders were largely Litvaks, they wanted their own Synagogue. As a result, they established K.K. House of Abraham. That same year, the Founders purchased 1/9 acre of land on Schantz Avenue in what is now known as Kettering, Ohio for cemetery purposes for this fledgling congregation. (Over the years, as the congregation grew in membership, the synagogue purchased additional adjacent land. This cemetery site, in current use, is now a little over 10 acres.)
The 1913 Dayton Flood
In those early years, K.K. House of Abraham moved from space to space. In 1913, that space was a small, wood-frame house on Wayne Avenue. In that year, a torrential flood destroyed many homes and businesses in East Dayton, including that wood-frame house.
Needing a new spiritual home, the synagogue leadership decided to remain in East Dayton. They raised and borrowed $75,000 to purchase land adjacent to the wood-frame house site and to build a “flood-proof” structure that was intended to be the permanent spiritual home for generations into the future. This structure was completed in 1917 and was commonly known as The Wayne Avenue Shul. The Wayne Avenue Shul was then the home for House of Abraham until 1947.
The movement of Jews from East Dayton to Lower Dayton View in North Dayton
After the 1913 Flood, many members of K.K. House of Abraham continued to live in East Dayton within walking distance of the Shul. On a gradual basis, however, others decided to leave East Dayton and relocate to higher ground miles from the Shul in the Lower Dayton View area of North Dayton.
The formation of The Dayton View Synagogue Center
Where Jews reside, a synagogue is typically nearby. This is also true in Dayton. As more and more Jews moved from East Dayton to Lower Dayton View, in 1922, a new congregation was formed. This congregation, known as the Dayton View Synagogue Center, was located on Cambridge Avenue, where many of the Jews then lived. In 1924, this congregation affiliated with the Conservative Movement, which, at that time, continued to follow traditional practices, except there was no mehitza (no separation of men and women at services).
The 1943 merger of K.K. House of Abraham and The Dayton View Synagogue Center
By the early 1940’s, K.K. House of Abraham, still based in East Dayton, continued to affiliate with the Orthodox Movement. K.K. House of Jacob was also located in East Dayton. At the same time, most Jews now had their residences in Lower Dayton View. Because of this, a group of men from K.K. House of Abraham, K.K. House of Jacob and The Dayton View Synagogue Center began discussions to explore possible merger of these three congregations into one unified group that would build a synagogue on the Lower Dayton View area that would be the spiritual home for congregants of the merged congregation.
House of Jacob soon dropped out of these discussions and instead built its own synagogue on Kumler Avenue in the Lower Dayton View area. The merger discussions continued, however, between House of Abraham, led by its then President, Phillip Kravitz, and The Dayton View Synagogue Center, led by its then President, Phillip Sokol. These discussions led to the 1943 merger of these two congregations into what became known as Beth Abraham Synagogue Center (now simply Beth Abraham Synagogue) which affiliated with the Conservative Movement.
The new spiritual home for Beth Abraham Synagogue Center
The leaders of Beth Abraham Synagogue Center soon initiated a fundraising campaign to purchase land in the Lower Dayton View area and eventually to build a synagogue at that location. This led to the 1944 purchase of the property located at Salem Avenue and Cornell Drive and the construction of a synagogue facility at that location. The synagogue construction was completed in 1947 and remained the spiritual home for Beth Abraham until 2008.
The movement of Jews from North Dayton to South Dayton
With momentum beginning in the 1970-1980’s and picking up speed thereafter, many Jews left North Dayton and moved to the Southern suburbs of Greater Dayton. This movement ultimately resulted in the relocation by Temple Israel, a Reform Congregation, to a site close to downtown Dayton and the formation of a second reform Congregation, Beth Or, located in South Dayton in Kettering, Ohio.
Beth Abraham followed suit. After conducting a thorough investigation, after receiving congregation go-ahead and after raising the money, the Board purchased a building that is part of what was known as Sugar Camp on Schantz Avenue just blocks from its cemetery. After rehabilitating this property, in 2008, Beth Abraham began its current chapter.
Over the years, the values that Beth Abraham cherishes have been defined by its clergy and lay leadership.
Beth Abraham cherishes Jewish practices whether, from time to time, the perspective of Orthodox, Traditional Conservative or Egalitarian Conservative.
In its beginnings, consistent with Old World ways, Beth Abraham was an Orthodox Congregation (using a mehitza and employing other traditional practices). This gradually changed over the years as subsequent more assimilated generations were influenced by changing American values.
This culminated in 1943, when, as a result of the merger, Beth Abraham shed its orthodox mantle and instead affiliated with the Conservative Movement, gradually adopting the practice of honoring both tradition and change.
For example, during the tenure of Rabbi Jacob Agus, the mehitza became history; young girls could have a bat mitzvah, albeit on a Friday evening during the then popular Kabbalat Shabbat Service, and women were allowed board positions. Then, in response to the feminist movement, the demands of female congregants, the urgings of lay leaders and the foresight of Rabbi Samuel Press and the creativity of Rabbi Ernest Adler, Ritual Director, Beth Abraham took the egalitarian plunge, allowing women to be counted in a minyan, young girls to have a bat mitzvah on Shabbat Morning and to have a Torah Aliyah first with their father and then solo and adult women to have a Torah Aliyah, first with their husbands and then solo. Now women are fully engaged. Indeed, in 2019, the congregation elected a woman to be Vice President of Ritual.
At the same time, Beth Abraham continues to convene a Daily Minyan, morning and evening, and to continue practices that not only recognize change but also acknowledge the importance of tradition.
From its beginnings, Beth Abraham has always been a caring, welcoming spiritual community.
Particularly under the guidance of Rabbi Samuel Burick, spiritual leader for 43 years (1906-1949), Beth Abraham congregants celebrated simchas and shared tragedies with each other, reached out and assisted new immigrants to enable them to resettle smoothly, cared for its poor and worked closely with other congregations through its involvement with the city-wide Jewish Community Council, now Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton. In the 1950’s, Rabbi Joseph Sternstein extended this caring value by encouraging congregants to embrace our connection with Israel.
Being a caring, welcoming, inclusive community continues to the present day. Congregants passionately welcome new members with open arms and open hearts, regardless of background, race or sexual orientation. They engage in social action projects year round to assist persons in need in the Dayton community. And many have been and continue to be leaders of the Jewish Federation.
Over the years, Beth Abraham Cantors have enhanced the liturgy at Beth Abraham with beautiful melody. In addition, on the 1950-1960’s, Cantors, such as Henry Wahrman and Abraham Lubin, organized adult choirs to participate in Services. Then, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Cantor Jerome Kopmar organized a Youth Chorale which, over a 10 year period, sang locally, nationally and internationally, receiving national awards and enjoying an international reputation. Today, with the urging of Cantor Andrea Raizen, congregants join with her to sing melodies during Services and musical instruments are part of special Kabbalat Shabbat Services.
This short history is just a chapter in a yet developing book. Seeds have been planted; some trees have grown; but those trees must be constantly fertilized. More is yet to be written as Beth Abraham and the rest of the Conservative Movement continue the ongoing quest to find the right balance of tradition and change that will ensure our survival for generations to come.