Inside Plum Street Temple

By Lisa Stephenson Powell in Sophisticated Living Magazine (2016)

On a sun dappled afternoon that held the final chill of winter Rabbi Lewis H. Kamrass, the Senior Rabbi of the Isaac M. Wise Temple, ushered this guest into the Wise Center, which was as warm and welcoming as its host. Elegantly dressed in a dark suit, a crisp white shirt and sporting a dignified bow tie, Rabbi Kamrass reflected on the historic association that Cincinnati has had with the Plum Street Temple and its suburban counterpart in Amberley Village.

Rabbi Kamrass grew up in Atlanta and came to Cincinnati to attend the graduate seminary program at Hebrew Union College; he was ordained in the spring of 1985 at the Plum Street Temple. His affiliation with the iconic structure developed quickly; at the age of twenty-five he was the assistant rabbi for the congregation and four years later he became the Senior Rabbi. He decision to embrace a religious life evolved when he was a teenager.

“There were many influences,” he said. “The books that I read, my immersion with the youth program, my interest in history and, eventually, in Jewish history and what Judaism teaches. It felt very much like a fit, but it was an expansive fit. The responsibilities of a rabbi–and of any clergy–are wide ranging, and involve teaching, studying, leading an organization, fostering the community and doing pastoral care and counseling. And what intrigued me most about the rabbinate is that I knew it would always keep my interest, and that there would never be a boring day. Thirty-one years later that has proven to be the case.”

The Wise congregation has two campuses. The Plum Street Temple was built in 1866 and the second location, the Wise Center, was erected in 1976. As demographics shifted from an urban core so, too, did places of worship, and many congregations practiced in newly built structures that dotted the suburban landscape. But those at the Plum Street Temple, valuing its architectural grandeur and sense of tradition, did not follow that trend, and even when a second location was constructed the downtown Temple remained an active house of worship.

There’s a folk wisdom saying, “If your mind can conceive it, and your heart can believe it, then you can achieve it,” which personifies the history of the Plum Street Temple. It reflects the perspicacious vision of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who lived in Germany during the early 1800s, surrounded by a flourishing Jewish society. Many expected that it would be the site of the next golden age of Jewish life. Rabbi Wise disavowed that perception and believed, instead, that America would succeed Germany as the next important venue for the Jewish community. “Although Jews had been in the United States since 1654 there weren’t more than twenty rabbis, congregations were spread out and a thriving and self-supporting Jewish populace did not exist,” he said. “It was quite remarkable that Rabbi Wise was so astute about a place that he didn’t know, and about a country that represented, at that time, a very small infrastructure of Jewish life.”

As Rabbi Wise traveled throughout Germany two compelling factors influenced his future: Reform Judaism and the splendor of synagogues that evoked the Byzantine-Moorish design. He immigrated to New York in 1846 and was appointed to a congregation in Albany where he implemented the tenets of Reform. In doing so, however, a conflict with the synagogue’s president ensued, prompting a split in the community and his eventual departure.

“Rabbi Wise was known as an extraordinary orator and the local congregation was also interested in the Reform Movement. At the time things fell apart in Albany he was asked to come to Cincinnati for an interview, which he promptly refused,” Rabbi Kamrass said with a smile. “Obviously, he was a very self-confident gentleman and he gave them an all or-nothing kind of deal: he would only travel to the Midwest if he was appointed Rabbi and only if the position was deemed for life. They accepted, he arrived in 1854 and remained until his death in 1900.”

Rabbi Wise had an incredible, intuitive perception about the potential of his congregation and about the design of their future synagogue. He met with James Keys Wilson, a prominent architect, and shared his memory of vivid images in the Byzantine-Moorish design. Most of the German synagogues that duplicated the genre were destroyed by the Nazis, and today only two remain in Europe–one in Prague and the other in Budapest, which is also the largest Jewish sanctuary in the world. The comparison of their architecture with that of the Plum Street Temple is strikingly similar, akin to siblings standing side by side.

When the Plum Street Temple opened there were only two hundred members in the congregation but Rabbi Wise foresaw its expansion and seating was designed to accommodate over eleven hundred; its growth has been dynamic, and today the Isaac M Wise Temple serves twelve hundred families. The construction of the edifice took less than a year to complete and all of the work–from bricklaying to painting to the organ–was executed and supplied by local artisans. The Temple is one of only a dozen designated National Historic Landmarks in the region and, nationally, is one of only two that were built in its grand architectural design; the other is in New York City. The Wise Center houses one of the largest synagogue libraries in the world, with over twenty-two thousand volumes that specialize in Judaic history.

The location of the Temple–sharing an intersection with Saint Peter in Chains Cathedral across the street and CityHall on the corner–gave Rabbi Wise a great sense of pride, as it illustrated the openness and accepting spirit of America. His ability to change, and to expand, the boundaries of Jewish life was unprecedented. “He firmly believed that our leaders and rabbis had to be trained in this country, and in 1875 he founded the Hebrew Union College; he led the Reform Movement; he created the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and he was the editor of the American Israelite, one of two national Jewish papers. As a result of his accomplishments he gained a widespread reputation and truly was a Renaissance man.”

Under the tutelage of Rabbi Wise a bevy of changes were introduced that were in stark contrast to traditional Jewish practices. Prior to the Reform Movement men and women could not sit together; women were not permitted to participate in the service, to be a rabbi or to have a leadership position within the congregation; there was solo a cappella music, but no instrumental or choral music; and the entire service was done in Hebrew, so many people read prayers by rote.

Although the Plum Street Temple has a prominent historical importance it is equally intrinsic to the gentle, personal histories of its worshipers. It is the place where rabbis are ordained, where couples are married, where young men have their bar mitzvah ceremonies and young women have their bat mitzvah ceremonies, and where teenagers are confirmed. And it was also the Temple where, in 1972, Sally Priesand was ordained the first female rabbi in the United States. Twenty years ago the building underwent a historic preservation and everything from the chandeliers to the stenciling, and from the upholstery to the electric wiring, was restored; over three thousand organ pipes were removed, sent away for restoration and retuned in a jigsaw puzzle formation. Like any older home its care and upkeep is a labor of love.

Members of the Wise Temple believe that the responsibility of any church, synagogue or mosque is to actively participate in the culture that surrounds it. While teaching theology at Xavier University Rabbi Kamrass met a priest who ran a soup kitchen in Over-The-Rhine long before gleaming condos populated the neighborhood. “He was doing terrific work,” Rabbi Kamrass said, “but on Sunday mornings the kitchen was closed because people who volunteered were attending church services; I knew that we could help because our Shabbat is on Friday night and Saturday morning. So we took over its management on Sundays and shared the opportunity with other synagogues. It has been a wonderful way for our families, and our youth, to have human contact with a social issue, to interact with others and to do something meaningful. Are we solving the problem of hunger? No. But are we helping a couple of hundred people who otherwise might not have a hot meal? Most certainly yes.”

For almost thirty years the Temple has been involved with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which aids families who are homeless. Support services are provided by churches and religious institutions and include assistance with housing, employment and GED training. Classrooms become bedrooms, meals are provided by members of the congregation and children from the Temple play with children who are guests. Family activities continue uninterrupted while parents restore their lives.

In Hebrew the word “synagogue” is a compilation of three tessellates that form its whole. It is known as a Beit Knesset (a house of assembly), as a Beit Tefillah (a house of prayer) and as a Beit Midrash (a house of study) and, together, they represent the missions of a Jewish house of worship.

“From youth to senior adults I think the role of a synagogue is to enhance, to challenge and to expand what is in the individual’s life. The facets of that definition are seen as parallel, and sometimes converging, paths to Jewish spirituality,” he said. “Some people feel that their Jewish heart comes alive in worship; some feel that it comes alive when they study; and others feel the presence of their faith when they do good deeds. All of them are equally meaningful portals to one’s spirituality, and to our personal experience with God and faith.”

Isaac M. Wise Temple will celebrate two significant milestones during the next twelve months. This year will mark the one hundred and fifty year anniversary since Plum Street Temple was opened, and in 2017 Wise Temple will observe the one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary of its congregation’s founding. Many events are planned, including the scribing of new Torah scrolls, one for each synagogue building. A Sofer (Torah scribe) will hand write the scroll with a quill, on parchment, using ink that has been ground from natural fibers, a tradition that has not changed in two thousand years. It will take five to six months to complete and members of the congregation will not only see it done, but will have the opportunity to place their hands on the quill as the Sofer fills in each letter.

The magnificence of the Plum Street Temple is unsurpassed, and Rabbi Kamrass described the universal reaction when a visitor enters its front door: the eyes go up and the jaw drops.

“The gift of religion connects us to a wellspring that is bigger and deeper than we are, and to God, who is the ultimate wellspring,” he said. “It also anchors our values, which are constantly challenged, and gives us a wider vision going forward and a longer reach looking back. True faith connects us in ways that we can’t do alone, while a faith-based community gives a richer understanding of life and history. Very often we tend to think about time as being in the ‘now,’ but religion directs us to think about our inherited wisdom. Although people before us may have lived differently, their souls were the same, and we are linked by that faith. There’s no doubt that first-time visitors to the Plum Street Temple experience awe, but I think they also have an intimate spiritual connection. Regardless of their denomination, they feel the transcendent sense of God in the universe but, at the same time, appreciate that God’s presence is near, accessible and part of our daily lives.”