‘Turn Your Best Thinking Toward a Solution’
Milton A. Marks, the Federation’s oldest living president, looks back on the East End, leadership, and his mentor
By Marshall Weiss, The Dayton Jewish Observer
When Milton A. Marks was a year old in 1919, his parents moved to Dayton’s East End from Kentucky; the Dayton National Bank had recruited his father, a linguist born in Slovakia, to open its foreign department. Marks, now 92, is retired from his travel agency, Marks Travel, and served as president of the Jewish Federation in 1975-76.
What do you recall of the old East End?
We were members of the Wayne Avenue Synagogue (Beth Abraham). It was all Litvaks (Lithuanians). And Beth Jacob up on Wyoming Street was all Russians. The immigration of World War I was almost all Russian. Many of the Russian Jews were illiterate, because the czars would not let them go to school. I remember them bringing letters in Russian on the weekend for my father to read to them. He didn’t have that with the Germans or Hungarians who were also very literate because they had schooling at least. You had a lot of non-Jews. We lived on Potomac Street. We were between Richard and McLain. The non-Jewish population, I would say, was probably mainly of German origin. On our street there were maybe two other Jewish families on our block.
Did the German Jews mix socially with the Eastern European Jews?
To an extent, German Jews socialized with the Russian and Litvak Jews. Part of it was economic. Although some of the worst ones in those days were the Russian Jews and Litvaks who ‘made it.’ They wished they were German. I think some people emphasized it. I had friends who were members of Beth Jacob or Temple, dated girls back and forth. It would rear its head once in awhile, particularly because we did have some families that — not because they were Russian or otherwise — just were no good.
Did you experience any antisemitism in the East End?
Nothing. I don’t think even in the Nazi days, with the heavy German population we had here. They were split among themselves. We had two German newspapers: one was pro Nazi, one was anti Nazi. And since my father was fluent in German, he had a clientele of Germans.
Did you ever go over to the JCC on Green Street?
I did. But in the first place, Green Street was a good distance from where I lived, even though it’s all East End. Jane Fisher was principally running a citizenship orientation, an English language orientation. Well, I had no need for any of that. I first got involved when I went to the Hebrew school. The Hebrew school was on Quitman Street. Our house was across the alley from the Hebrew school. For a time, the Hebrew school was actually a double house. The rabbi lived in one half of it, the other half was the Hebrew school. That was the old Dayton Hebrew Institute.
Were you ever enrolled in the JCC’s summer camp?
I never went to the summer camp. You’ve got to remember, I was born in ‘17. It wasn’t long after the time of my Bar Mitzvah that the Depression had already lowered itself. That’s the reason a lot of us went to the University of Dayton. The University of Dayton at that time had a good Jewish population. The Society of Mary was not antisemitic in any way.
How did you first get involved in community affairs?
I had a language problem: I guess I couldn’t say no. When I left for the army in 1942, I was treasurer of the B’nai B’rith lodge. They passed a resolution that when we came back from the army, we would go back into our jobs. I was gone four years. When I came back, somebody else got the job. I didn’t rejoin the B’nai B’rith. Beth Abraham picked me up as a returning soldier. I didn’t pay dues. But in about the first year, in ‘47, somebody in a peer group, a Temple Israel member, told me about the new rabbi that they had, and why don’t I come with him to Friday night services? So I reluctantly agreed to go to services at temple. And Sel (Rabbi Selwyn Russlander) delivered a sermon on the survival of Judaism, on the death camps, because he had traveled through them (as a chaplain). And he said, ‘You’re all welcome here. Whatever your background, you’re Jewish, you’re mine.’ It sort of grabbed me.
The great peacemaker in town was Rabbi Russlander. Even though he was a rabid Zionist, some of the families that opposed Israel, he kept them in the temple. He said we still need them. Next thing, I was a member of the temple. In my peer group at temple, I was a rarity. I could read Hebrew. In those days, my age group in the temple didn’t know Hebrew. So Sel Russlander found out that I knew Hebrew. My first year at temple, I get appointed head of the religious school. I held every office they had. Sel Russlander was really my mentor. He believed in harmony, peace and tranquility. And he would not allow a matter to be settled in the board. He said if you have 25 voting members and you win 13-12, you haven’t won anything. He said a split vote is no win. I used that in my travel involvements. In my professional field, I headed the American Society of Travel Agents, I headed the International Society of Travel Agents. I credit a lot of it to what Sel Russlander taught me.
What was the rationale of those anti-Zionists?
They were assimilationists. They would believe that they are Americans and that they were doing something to their American loyalty by being too loyal to another country, I think. One of our very prominent families never gave to the (United Jewish) Campaign. I remember in the early ‘50s asking Russlander, ‘Why are you bothering with them? They’re anti Zionist?’ He said, ‘They’re ours. We can’t lose them.’ I remember then very clearly about three years after my question to the rabbi, I had lunch with him. He said, ‘I want to show you something.’ He takes out a check for $10,000 to the United Jewish Campaign from one of those hotheads. He said, ‘See, it just takes time.’
What was your first project with the Federation?
We knew we had to get a site for a Jewish community center. That’s when Elmer Moyer found that property out on Denlinger. And everybody thought he was crazy buying land that far out of town. When you get to be my age, you know, you distinctly recognize the times. Things change. And if more people would accept change, which is going to occur…that’s one thing Sel Russlander taught.
Bob Fitterman is the one who sparked the Federation to have something other than just the fund-raising of the annual Campaign. I was chairman of the committee that did the transition from the Community Council to the Federation. But we had political problems. How do you take over the Hebrew school and the predecessor to Covenant House? They were running a one-horse home for the aged, always needing money…it was in a house on Grand Avenue. But those who had positions on the board of directors didn’t want to give them up. We had to fight our way into some of the stuff to replace a system that wasn’t working with something that might work. Mostly, we were flying blind. We didn’t know what we were doing. But we did it anyway.
Russlander’s saying was: In life’s procedures, don’t emphasize a problem. Don’t dwell on a problem. Turn your best thinking toward a solution. If you’ve got the solution, you’re much better than if you remember the problem. In the Federation, both with Fitterman and with (Peter) Wells, if there was an issue that might have explosive results on our board and the Federation, they would give me the problem to handle at the meeting because they knew I was trained by Russlander. You can’t just be against something. You’ve got to come up with a solution. The ‘againsters’ don’t accomplish anything.
When someone says, ‘my old friends’— I don’t have any old friends anymore. They’re all gone. The only guy left is Dick Shaman. Dick made a great contribution in his day. A more honorable, well-intentioned guy never existed. He was an insurance man. Whatever we needed (the Federation), he was someone you could count on. A 100-percent gentleman.
What are the greatest challenges facing the Federation today?
In Dayton, everybody wants what they want, but how do you provide it when we have a limited market, a limited amount of money? I think the community is over-organized. We cannot afford this with a limited-sized community. There’s only so much we can do. And I think, for a community of our size, we’re doing more than any of the similar communities, your paper included. And we do it. We have accepted the challenges.