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February 08, 2021

By Austin Reid, Class of 2018

Alumnus Documents Fading Small-Town Jewish History

Battelle Hall on the corner of Pleasant Ridge Avenue and Main Street was the site of many experiences from my time as an undergraduate at Capital University. These memories include student club activities, academic presentations and my first class with Dr. Jonathan Loopstra in fall 2014.

During his time at Capital, Dr. Loopstra engaged his students as they wrestled with significant historical questions such as what factors shape a nation’s historical memory and what role does chance play in history’s development. 

In his First Year Seminar course, Dr. Loopstra primarily used the lens of Christian history in predominantly Muslim societies to challenge assumptions students had about historical and theological evolution. In his research, Dr. Loopstra uncovered experiences that risked being forgotten and conveyed them through his teaching to the wider world.

Dr. Loopstra had high standards for his students and he encouraged seminar participants to explore focused questions regarding other minority faith communities in the Islamic world that interested them. I elected to write my first research paper at Capital on Baghdad’s Jewish community during the mid-20th century. This community numbered over 100,000 people in 1940 and counts less than five individuals today. When I received the paper back, it was covered in red with notes for revisions and points to improve.  

Dr. Loopstra spoke with me after class and explained that he was critical in his analysis of my work because he saw the potential for me to develop into a full-fledged historian. This conversation and feedback continue to shape my writing style and tone. I went on to take two more classes with Dr. Loopstra before officially declaring history as my second major halfway through my junior year. It was also around this time, however, that Dr. Loopstra departed Capital for St. Paul, Minnesota, and so Dr. Alexander Pantsov was paired with me as an academic advisor. 

Like Dr. Loopstra, Dr. Pantsov is a superb storyteller and a renowned historian. Under his mentorship, I decided to focus my 2017 history capstone on the experiences of Jewish families in Ohio’s Fairfield and Hocking counties. The story of this community, which was centered around a former synagogue in Lancaster called B’nai Israel, had never been explored in-depth and its existence was fading from memory.  

My interest in this topic began because of my upbringing in Lancaster, where I noticed traces of a former Jewish community. These traces included a Star of David etched into a downtown veterans memorial alongside a Christian cross and the old B’nai Israel synagogue building, which had been converted into a private residence a few years before my birth.  

For eight months I poured through newspaper archives and pieced together the stories of families like the Altfaters who came to Lancaster as immigrants around 120 years ago and contributed to their new community’s development. I also partnered with the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, where I received valuable advice on how to organize my research as well as access B’nai Israel’s remaining congregational papers. Sadly, many of the earliest papers had been lost following a fire in 1961, so there existed several holes in the historical record. 

Ultimately, my capstone research was summarized in a 30-page paper which was published in its entirety by the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. Significant parts were also included in a Fairfield County Heritage Association publication. Another happy moment for me was presenting my paper at the 2018 induction for the Phi Alpha Theta history honor society, which was attended by Dr. Pantsov and other faculty. 

My research experience at Capital led me to explore other small-town Jewish communities across central and southern Ohio over the past two years. These communities include AthensChillicothe, and Zanesville. In many of these areas, little to no information was accessible about their historic Jewish presence. 

In these communities incredible stories have also been found. In Athens, a woman named Lola Cudzynowska rebuilt her life as Laura Rosenberg after surviving the Holocaust. Her husband, Sol Rosenberg, was a World War II veteran who received the Bronze Star due to his meritorious service. He met Laura while she was a refugee in Europe. Forty years earlier in Zanesville, a peddler named Israel Klafter eked out a living for his family around the turn of the 20th century after immigrating from Hungary. His grandson would be Howard Metzenbaum, a United States Senator from 1976 to 1995.  

There are also stories that show both interfaith partnership and humanity. Christian clergy spoke at the dedication of synagogues in both Lancaster and Zanesville over the years. Rabbis also visited churches to offer lectures and fundraise for charitable initiatives, including hospital development. In 1913, when Zanesville experienced a terrible flood, the women of Keneseth Israel synagogue fed hundreds of people who had been made homeless. 

These stories are what is rediscovered and saved when efforts are made to study history. The need for historical scholarship is especially great in Ohio, where populations are declining in many small to mid-sized towns and cities. This trend has been evident since the 1970s and with this migration historical memories can fade. 

In their place can arise harmful beliefs such as xenophobia, prejudice against immigrants, and a suspicion of those who practice minority faiths. History tells us, however, that the United States benefits from the efforts of those representing all racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. 

If I were asked to give some advice to current Capital University students, I would say get to know your professors and be bold in your scholarship. Take your professor’s feedback as a gift and don’t shy away from exploring questions no one has asked before.

While I am not a historian by profession, I have used the same skills I developed as a student of history while working in government relations and as a student affairs professional at Ithaca College. Today, as I pursue a master of public administration degree at Cornell University, I continue to ask myself how does historical memory shape contemporary policy debates and what factors influence how perspectives are understood. 

During this challenging year globally, reflecting and writing about the experiences of those who endured struggles in the past with fortitude has also been a comfort and an inspiration.  

Now more than ever, Capital University’s values of free inquiry and challenging boundaries are needed to understand complex challenges and their solutions. Be bold #CapFam and know that your learning will not stop on graduation day.