A Birthday Celebration for the Ages: One Synagogue’s Tribute to Members Over 90 Years Young


Lots of synagogues in the United States can claim dozens of members who have been with the congregation for most of its existence. But how many of those synagogues are over 120 years old?

Congregation Beth Abraham of Dayton, Ohio has that distinction. In 2015, the synagogue paid tribute to 34 members over the age of 90 and earned a Solomon Schechter Recognition of Excellence Award for Kehilla.

Still active after all these years.

Bonnie Beaman Rice, who chaired the 90+ Shabbat committee, explains that the idea to honor these people came from another congregant, Helen Abramovitz z’’l, who was 88 at the time.

“We are an older congregation but an incredibly active one,” Bonnie says. “People are involved in the community. They come to services. They’re spry. They’re up to date.” One congregant, in fact, was at least 80 when she decided to go up a rock climbing wall.

The tribute for the members age 90+ was called “A Birthday Celebration for the Ages.” It may have been the largest recent gathering of Jewish Americans who remember when new cars cost $850 and women’s slacks emerged as a fashion sensation.

Some of the celebrants were alive when Al Jolson sang Swanee on the radio. They lived to see wax cylinders give way to vinyl records to stereo LPs to CDs to MP3s to streaming music.

More than nostalgia, history.

Along with a large turnout from the congregation, the Birthday Celebration for the Ages attracted many adult children of the honorees. Having grown up in Beth Abraham, they came back to see a congregation that was in many ways as vibrant as the one they remembered.

The event started during Shabbat services when the honorees all stood; some were given aliyahs (Torah readings). Rabbi Joshua Ginsberg delivered a D’var Torah on the humor and joy in aging.

After services, there was a gala luncheon. The centerpieces on each table featured different artifacts from the early 20th century. Walking around the room, you could see a flat iron, an original Bell Telephone, a hand-cranked sewing machine and a unicycle.

Each centerpiece also featured an old political campaign slogan. A “Re-elect Herbert Hoover” poster stood out for its irony. Many of the honorees remembered FDR as their favorite president.

Congratulatory proclamations from Ohio’s U.S. Senators were read.

Cantor Andrea Raizen led the crowd in songs from bygone eras.

But the real stars of the luncheon were the guests of honor and the lives they led.

“We put together a team of people to do either in-person or telephone interviews,” explains Bonnie. “We wanted to get a sense of their history, their recollections and their favorite memories of the synagogue.”

The extraordinary lives of everyday people.

The interviews were collected into a program and distributed at the luncheon. Many of the younger Beth Abraham members discovered that there were war heroes, business leaders and groundbreaking women in their midst.

Arthur Carne z’’l, for instance, flew 35 missions over Germany. He operated the nose turret guns. Oscar Soifer, Allen Levin and Harvey Mann z’’l all fought in Okinawa, the longest and foremost battle of World War II—the last to end. They all went on to own or manage businesses in Dayton.

Another member, David Hochstein, was one of the Jewish children brought to England during the famous Kinder Transport of 1933 – 1938. In England he learned to be a furrier, and that led to a job at Leakas Furriers in Dayton.

Many of the women honorees were ahead of their time.

Louise Berman has a PhD in biology; she taught college at a time when most women’s education didn’t go past high school. Beatrice Cowan, who lost her husband in 1960, took over the family upholstery business and ran it for many years until she retired.

Ruth Lesser Rafner graduated Bowling Green College in 1943 with a degree in Social Work. She went to work for the American Red Cross who immediately thrust her into dealing with the challenging emotional needs of a wartime population.

Though most of the guests of honor were widowed, there were still a few married couples. Harvey and Harriett Mann z’’l had been married 73 years. (High school sweethearts, they’d actually known each other for 78.)

Decades of Jewish Life and Pride.

Today, three years after the event, many of those celebrated are still alive and figure in the plans for next year’s celebration of the synagogue’s 125th Birthday. “It really is an amazing group of people,” Bonnie smiles.

Talking to the honorees, favorite synagogue memories included singing in the choir, teaching Sunday School and working the gift shop or holiday bazaars. Doris Schear recalled how her large family sat together on the high holidays, taking up three rows of seats.

Fond recollections of a Jewish life also stood out in the biographies. For some, favorite memories were as simple as lighting Shabbat candles. Others had more unique experiences. Harvey Mann z’’l remembered how his uncle used to invite hazzanim into town and after dinner they would sing at the dinner table.

David and Clara Hochstein, married for 67 years at the time of the luncheon, had carried their Jewish values forward from the last generation. Clara’s mother kept an open-door policy in her home. Visiting soldiers, or anyone in need of comfort, was welcome. To this day, Clara comforts people in the form of her ‘nationally known’ Mandel bread.

And David continues to live with the last words his father said to him before he left for England on the Kinder Transport: “Remember who you are; don’t forget you are a Jew.”

Eighty years later, he still remembers.

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