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B'nai Israel synagogue preserves memories with book

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    Fagie Benstein, right, talks about the significance of the ceiling beams while Cathy Sperling, left, and Sharon Stein, center, listen in the B’nai Israel synagogue. The three lifelong members compiled oral histories into a book to preserve memories.

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    Cathy Sperling surveys memorial plates of her parents and other relatives in the B’nai Israel synagogue. Her parents’ histories are included in a book in part to celebrate the Sylvania Avenue congregation's 150th anniversary.

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    The book collects the oral histories of members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Toledo.

    COURTESY OF CONGREGATION B’NAI ISRAEL

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    The book includes the recollections of Sherrie Zaft, the aunt of Cathy Sperling, who spearheaded the project to create th book.

    COURTESY OF CONGREGATION B’NAI ISRAEL

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    The book includes the recollections of Sherrie Zaft, the aunt of Cathy Sperling, who spearheaded the project to create th book.

    COURTESY OF CONGREGATION B’NAI ISRAEL

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Cathy Sperling’s aunt Sherrie Zaft was the only Jewish student in her class during elementary school.

Born in 1928, Mrs. Zaft traveled to Toledo each weekend — often in the front of a patrol wagon that carried inmates from the correctional facility in Whitehouse — to attend Sunday school at B’nai Israel, a conservative synagogue.

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Cathy Sperling surveys memorial plates of her parents and other relatives in the B’nai Israel synagogue. Her parents’ histories are included in a book in part to celebrate the Sylvania Avenue congregation's 150th anniversary.

THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
Enlarge | Buy This Image

“It wasn’t easy for them,” Mrs. Sperling said of her aunt’s family. “They had to make an effort to be a Jew.”

Mrs. Zaft’s story, along with the interviews of 43 other members of Congregation B’nai Israel, appears in a recently published book of oral histories honoring the synagogue’s 150th anniversary.

“We knew it in our gut that it was the right thing to do,” said Mrs. Sperling, who conceived the project after noticing that the synagogue had no formal archives.

In 2007, the congregation moved from its former building on Kenwood Boulevard, which it had occupied since 1955, to a new home in Sylvania. 

During the transition, the bulk of B’nai Israel’s historical records and photographs were placed in disorganized bins that some community members deemed impossible to catalog.

Mrs. Sperling, however, accepted the challenge.

In 2011, she devised Legacy Link, a project in which she digitized all of B’nai Israel’s preserved consecration and confirmation photos. Mrs. Sperling uncovered images dating back to 1916, including one of her mother, dressed in white and gripping a celebratory flower after her confirmation in 1932.

VIDEO: Fagie Benstein on B’nai Israel’s book project

At the urging of Hazzan Ivor Lichterman, the congregation’s cantor, Mrs. Sperling undertook a new task in 2015.

After spending years organizing old records, she decided to produce her own document for the archive — a collection of oral histories.

The two-year project began with interviews in March, 2015, and culminated with the book’s release in March, 2017. 

Mrs. Sperling compiled the volume with two other congregation members, Fagie Benstein and Sharon Stein.

Interviews in the newly released book vary widely, particularly in emotional intensity, but each selection aims to capture the essence of Jewish life at B’nai Israel and in northwest Ohio more broadly.

Among the 44 interviews, Cantor Lichterman’s narrative highlights the extent to which the themes of loss and migration cannot be divorced from B’nai Israel’s history.

The cantor was born in Cape Town to Polish parents. His father, who was also a trained cantor, survived the Warsaw Ghetto and four concentration camps, but lost his wife and child during the Holocaust.

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The book collects the oral histories of members of Congregation B’nai Israel in Toledo.

COURTESY OF CONGREGATION B’NAI ISRAEL Enlarge

Cantor Lichterman says his father survived the Shoah by escaping into a forest during the evacuation of Auschwitz, eventually making his way back to Warsaw. 

His parents married in Poland before moving to South Africa. Born and raised in Cape Town, Cantor Lichterman traveled to New York to continue his studies as a young adult. 

He has since held cantorial positions at synagogues across the United States, but has served as B’nai Israel’s cantor and acting rabbi since 2011.

“Maybe because of technology and the Internet, the importance of the written word is somewhat declining amongst the younger generations,” said Cantor Lichterman, expressing concern for B’nai Israel’s waning attendance.

The cantor cites websites such as Wikipedia, which he says reinforce a culture of “instant gratification” without demanding that readers understand the material, as explanations for Jewish adolescents’ changing approaches to the written word.

“Look at how dispersed our youth is today,” he said. “There’s a need for a concentration of all this history.”

This trend of dispersion can be seen through the gradual shrinking of Toledo’s Jewish population. While the city had about 7,300 Jewish residents in 1974, only 2,500 remain today.

Mrs. Benstein, Mrs. Sperling, and Mrs. Stein hope that their book will honor the individuals that worked to weave the fabric of Jewish life in northwest Ohio over the past 150 years.

“I was the benefactor, as we all were, of their legacies,” said Mrs. Benstein.

Since publishing the text in March, the women have begun to reflect on the central takeaways from the 44 interviews.

“I think the common theme through it was the sense of community,” Mrs. Stein said.

“And extended family,” Mrs. Benstein interjected.

“Or finding a family,” Mrs. Sperling added.

Standing in B’nai Israel’s wooden sanctuary last week, Mrs. Benstein pointed to the Hebrew lettering that encircles the space, which the architect, Abraham Musher-Eizenman, took from the book of Ecclesiastes, chapter three. The words translate to the famous prayer, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”

Gazing at the phrase, Mrs. Benstein was reminded of one of her favorite lessons.

“In Hebrew, there is not a word for ‘history,’ ” she said, explaining that the closest word, yizkor, actually means “remember.”

B’nai Israel’s legacy cannot simply exist in history, but must actively live on in Jewish Toledo-area  residents’ memories, Mrs. Benstein said.

“Remembering for us is almost a mandate.”

Contact Antonia Ayres-Brown at: abrown@theblade.com or 419-724-6368.

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