Temple Israel at 150

By Robert Thum, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer

May 2000

The early years: Dayton’s first Jewish settlers

Temple Israel
The Hebrew Society incorporated as K.K. B’nai Yeshurun. Shown here is the congregation’s first temple, used from 1863 to 1892, at the corner of Fourth and Jefferson Streets

Joseph Lebensburger, chairman of the Synagogue Building Committee, thanked Mr. Peters for his fine carpentry, congratulated Mr. Odell for his neat wallpapering, and praised Mr. Thomas for his detailed painting of walls and ceiling. The remodeling of the former Baptist Church on Fourth and Jefferson, begun seven months ago, was nearing completion.

Dayton’s first synagogue was to be dedicated at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 7, 1863. The synagogue’s 40 members would now have a permanent place of worship.

Joseph Lebensburger

In his 20 years as a Dayton resident, Joseph Lebensburger, a strong-willed, Jewish-German immigrant, could look back on how his commitment to Judaism became the driving force behind establishing Congregation Kehillah Kodesh B’nai Yeshurun.

Just 13 years ago he and 11 other Jews living in Dayton saw the need for a place of worship and organized the local Hebrew Society. The worshippers rented rooms from the Dayton Bank Building at Main and Monument, but as more Jews moved to Dayton the space provided by the bank soon proved inadequate. The growing congregation did find larger quarters in a building adjacent to the Cooper Building, but there was no choice; a move had to be made.

More so than any other congregant, Joseph Lebensburger had been involved in all the business transactions of the Hebrew Society. Therefore, when the building committee was established it was only natural that Lebensburger would be chairman.

Nine years prior to KKBY trustees signing the deed to the property on Fourth and Jefferson, Lebensburger, along with his wife Rose paid $100 to Jacob Dietrich for an acre of his land. That transaction, which took place May 5, 1854, assured the newly incorporated KKBY that its congregants would have a cemetery.

Once the congregation had its own cemetery, Lebensburger and others in the Jewish community were ready to direct their energies toward securing a permanent place for worship.

The Baptist congregation that was moving to Main Street, but now located at Fourth and Jefferson, was looking to sell its building. Seeing the location as ideal, members of KKBY investigated the possibility of purchasing the property and even though the trustees knew extensive remodeling would be needed they nevertheless agreed to enter into negotiations with the trustees of the Baptist Church.

On Feb. 26, 1863, KKBY trustees Benjamin Wittkowsky and Jacob Ach signed the deed and in an exchange of $1,500 the former Baptist Church at Fourth and Jefferson became the property of KKBY.

Never before had Dayton’s Jewish community undertaken a massive fund-raising drive, but Joseph Lebensburger, building chairman, was determined to raise the needed $9,000 for the remodeling project.

Because he, along with other Jewish men, were respected citizens and active members in a number of societies, including the Masons and the Odd Fellows, Lebensburger discovered that out of friendship many gentiles were willing to donate money to KKBY.

Such support attested to the warm relationship the Jewish community had with its gentile neighbors.

Planning the dedication ceremony was a labor of love, for the Jews of Dayton were determined to make Oct. 7, 1863 a memorable date not only for themselves, but also for their Gentile friends and neighbors as well. Invitations were sent out to the mayor, city councilman, the clergy, and prominent businessmen.

On this first Wednesday in October, Jewish men donned their finest Sabbath attire and accompanied their fashionably dressed wives and children (the boys in dark suits, the girls in exquisite white dresses) to the procession that formed at Main St. opposite the new Baptist church. At 2 p.m. the procession was ready to march to the new synagogue.

Heading the procession was a band, followed by city officials and prominent citizens invited by the Jewish community.

Children lined up behind the guests. Right behind the children, and under a canopy held high by four congregants, were the trustees of the synagogue bearing the Torah scrolls. The remaining congregants stood behind the trustees.

Walking in couples, the procession began down Main to Fourth, then turned left on Fourth to Jefferson. The doors to the synagogue were opened and the overflow crowd entered the sanctuary.

Eyes looked up at the magnificent crystal chandelier hanging in the center of the building above the Torah reading table. Heads turned in every direction to see the beautifully painted glass windows.

The Rev. Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise of Cincinnati, founder of Reform Judaism in America, was in Dayton to address the congregants and open the ark for the placement of the Torah scrolls.

Wise’s participation in the dedication ceremony marked another glorious moment for him, for with every dedication ceremony he was invited to, he could prove to his critics that Reform Judaism was a growing movement and in time, he believed, would dominate American Jewry.

The Rev. Delbanco, rabbi of KKBY, delivered an uplifting sermon. Wise gave a poignant reading of Psalm 84: “How pleasant are thy tabernacles, Oh Lord of Hosts!”

For all its religious solemnity the memorable occasion concluded in Beckel Hall where guests danced and shared a huge banquet cake.

For the Jews of Dayton the events of Oct. 7, 1863 showed how this minority community had assimilated into Dayton society, but also — and more importantly — that they were determined to keep their Jewish identity.

1890-1946: Adopting and developing Reform Judaism

The temple located at the corner of Fourth and Jefferson would be home to Dayton’s Reform Jewish congregation for 29 years. But with membership at 150 and growing, the congregants understood that the modest building dedicated in 1863 could no longer accommodate the growing number of Temple Israel’s worshippers.

By the late 1880s, plans were made for a new synagogue and in 1892 the new building located at Jefferson between First and Second streets was dedicated.

The remodeled former Baptist church on Fourth and Jefferson had served its purpose as a place of worship, but as 1890 approached a larger congregation sought something more than just a place of worship.

While worship still remained central to the membership, a growing number of members were showing a great interest in expanding the role the temple could play in Jewish community social life.

A new building built from the ground up with an auditorium, class and meeting rooms included in the plans would meet the needs of a changing congregation. For its size, the edifice was an architectural showpiece. The twin staircases on either side of the stone and brick building led to two doorways of deep stained-oak. Three stained glass windows were firmly fastened with ornamental wrought iron. Spiritually and architecturally, the building dedicated in 1892 was a wonderful addition to the entire Dayton community.

The founder of America’s Reform Judaism, the Rev. Dr. Isaac Mayer Wise, who had participated in the consecration ceremony of Dayton’s first temple in 1863, was elated to observe how the movement he founded had taken hold in the United States, and Dayton’s new temple was a testament to that.

But even though Wise could publicly declare Reform Judaism an overwhelming success, he nevertheless understood the open conflict his movement had with Orthodox Judaism.

Orthodox Jews feared that Reform would erode traditional Judaism, and Wise, although hopeful that the movement he led would eventually dominate American Jewish religious life, was aware that what he had hoped for might not become a reality.

In 1875 when The House of Jacob was founded in Dayton, Wise was openly disappointed. While he wished the new congregation well, he did suggest that there was no need for another synagogue. For him it was difficult to accept that Jews would prefer to walk up three flights of stairs, into a small room, and conduct a religious service when within five minutes’ walking distance stood a beautiful, spacious synagogue.

Even as Temple Israel’s congregation grew, so did the House of Jacob (later to become Beth Jacob). By 1892, the same year the temple moved its location, Beth Jacob built a house of worship on Wyoming Street. Just three years later a growing Jewish community would establish a third place of worship, the Orthodox Beth Abraham, with its location on Wayne Ave.

Temple Israel’s home at the corner of First and Jefferson, 1892 to 1927

While both Beth Jacob and Beth Abraham were finding their way into Dayton’s Jewish community by focusing on traditional Judaism, the older, established, and wealthier temple now had a strong social focus. That focus was illustrated in an 1892 article, which appeared in Reform Judaism’s publication, The American Israelite.

Offering words of praise for the temple-affiliated Standard Club, the article stated: The Purim Ball of the Standard Club as usual was a grand success and will always be so, if conditions remain the same. That continued success, in the opinion of the Israelite, was dependent “on Dayton having more over ripe bachelors to the square inch than any other city in the United States!”

As the turn of the century approached, Temple Israel members, to a large degree, assimilated into Dayton life. That assimilation was most apparent under the rabbinical leadership of the temple’s Rabbi Max Wertheimer.

A German born Jew of Orthodox parents and a graduate of Wise’s Hebrew Union College, Wertheimer served Temple Israel from 1889 to 1898. He was extremely popular with congregants and highly respected in the Christian community.

Wertheimer’s Friday evening services drew a number of non-Jews who were interested in hearing his sermons on social, industrial and economic concerns. Invited as a guest speaker to many Dayton churches, Wertheimer was seen as both a spiritual and secular leader.

Tragically, Wertheimer’s wife died at a young age leaving him the sole parent of two small children. Despondent after his loss, Wertheimer found it difficult to reconcile that loss, and began questioning his religious beliefs. In 1898 Wertheimer resigned from Temple Israel and became a Christian; first as a Christian Scientist and later as a Baptist minister.

There is little doubt that Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism, was greatly shaken by his former student’s actions.

But just a few years after Wertheimer’s resignation, Temple Israel congregants would welcome their new rabbi, David Lefkowitz, who would serve the temple with distinction for 20 years. When Temple Israel would relocate to Emerson and Salem Ave., it was Lefkowitz, as the congregation’s former rabbi, who was honored with an invitation to address the congregation at the dedication ceremony, held Jan. 13, 1927.

Rose Ruttenberg remembers being confirmed at K.K. B’nai Yeshurun (the name would change to Temple Israel in 1925) when it was located at Jefferson between First and Second Streets.

“We lived downtown in those days, actually what is now Fifth and Wilkerson,” she says. “My family would walk to temple and attend Friday night services. On Sunday mornings, my sister and I would walk to temple and attend religious school.”

Instructing Ruttenberg’s confirmation class was Lefkowitz, who Ruttenberg remembers as being well respected by his students.

“There were 12 or 15 of us in that class”, she says. “And even after my confirmation I still attended services.”

Lefkowitz was held in high regard by the entire congregation. His suggestion, particularly after the flood of 1913, to build a larger house of worship in a new location was taken seriously by the temple’s board of trustees. Perhaps he more so than anyone was responsible for Temple Israel relocating from downtown to where the Jews of Dayton were moving, Dayton View.

While Lefkowitz was the visionary who saw the need for a new temple and social center, it was his successor, Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg, who dedicated his ministry to a successful transition from downtown to Dayton View.


Temple Israel
Rabbi Selwyn Russlander (Center) greets returning Rabbis David Lefkowitz (L) and Louis Witt on the occassion of Temple Israel’s centennial in 1950

Lifelong Daytonian Harry Green, remembers Mayerberg and recalls attending his service. But Green comments on what an impressive figure Rabbi Louis Witt was. Witt served Temple Israel from 1929 to 1947. Green says, “Rabbi Witt was tall and at times wore a swallow-tail coat when he conducted services.”

Witt followed classical Reform Judaism. Green recalls, “at that time no one in the congregation wore a skullcap and that’s what Rabbi Witt wanted. Witt was controversial because he suggested that Jewish homes should include Christmas trees during the holiday season. He saw that as a gesture of neighborliness to Christian friends.”

Leading his congregation during the war years, Witt saw a number of congregants called to active duty. Green was one such congregant, serving a short time toward the end of the war. Green had the opportunity to meet Chaplain Selwyn Ruslander in 1945.

“To my surprise”, remembers Green, “a few years Goldenberg immediately became involved with Temple Israel’s sisterhood and served on the congregation’s board for a number of years.

“I was one of five or six women congregational presidents in the country and the first in Temple Israel,” she says.

Goldenberg’s devotion to the congregation is very much a family affair. When Temple Israel’s Riverbend facility was in the planning stages, her sons, David Goldenberg and Dr. Robert Goldenberg, and daughter-in-law Deborah Goldenberg played leading roles in turning the dream into a reality.

The move to Temple Israel’s new home at One Riverbend in 1994 is the legacy of Rabbi P. Irving Bloom’s vision of a congregation centrally located for temple members who now live all over the Miami Valley.

Bloom began his service at Temple Israel in 1973. He served the congregation for the next 25 years. In 1997, the congregation chose Rabbi Marc Gruber as its spiritual leader.

As the sesquicentennial of Temple Israel approaches, Daytonians can reflect on how 150 years ago Temple Israel found a place of worship in downtown, moved from downtown, and once again returned downtown.

Geographically, its history has come full circle by location. It also has come full circle as noted by Bloom.

The building on Salem Ave. was sold to a Baptist church. That transaction completed the circle, for in 1863 Temple Israel’s first permanent house of worship was purchased from a Baptist church.

Looking to the future, the congregants of Temple Israel can draw strength from words uttered by Rabbi Ruslander almost 50 years ago: “We must continue to dream even as we worship here; dreams of free spirits and free minds; dreams of hearts turned lovingly toward God; dreams that from our faith and our people can come the inspiration for and the way of life toward a better world; yes, even dreams of the achievement of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

Letter to The American Israelite, published by Isaac Mayer Wise in Cincinnati, Aug. 16, 1854.

Rev. Dr. I.M. Wise:

Dear Sir. Complying with your request I communicate the following. There reside but few Jewish families in Dayton, O. Still we organized a congregation about four years ago under the name K.K.B.I., of Dayton, (the same name of your kahl) which was duly organized under the General Law of Incorporation of Religious Societies of Ohio.

The founders were – Philipp Cohn, Joseph Lebensberger, Henry Herman, Abraham Ach, Adam Leopold, S. Schab, M. Werthaimer, Abraham Wendler and Elias Schoensberger.

We have no synagogue of our own, but have rented a house for this purpose, and expect to have a school this fall.

We have purchased a burial ground in the south part of the city of our own.

Respectfully, Joseph Lebensberger, Parnass of KKBI

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