Friday, July 2, 2004

Showers of pure treasures

Historic Hebrew Union tablets discovered in bathroom walls

By Ari Bloomekatz
Enquirer staff writer

Rabbi Abie Ingbar with the two marble tablets that where found in Linda Towles' shower.
The Enquirer/TONY JONES
The 7-foot marble tablets had been put to a humble use - as vapor barriers in the bathroom shower of a Wyoming home.

But Jewish names etched on the tablets, which were uncovered during a remodeling project more than a year ago, gave homeowner Linda Towles pause.

What neither Towles nor the construction workers who were about to destroy the tablets knew was that those names included many of the people who gave money to start Hebrew Union College - America's first Jewish theological school - in 1875.

After her discovery, Towles called Rabbi Abie Ingber, executive director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center at the University of Cincinnati, and told him she thought the tablets may belong to the Jewish community.

Ingber said he almost didn't take them because donor boards from bankrupt or closed congregations are common. But for some reason, Ingber, who collects historical Jewish artifacts from all over the nation and world, decided to take them.

"If God decided that people in this city should shower for 90 years with these plaques, we'll take them," Ingber said.

July 8, 1873: Members of the American Jewish community meet in Cincinnati to form the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. The union's purpose was to establish an American theological institution.
June 5, 1874: $33,000 had been pledged to establish Hebrew Union College, toward a goal of $60,000.
1875: Hebrew Union College opens with nine students ranging in age from 13 to 17. Their first classroom is in the basement of Mount Street Temple.
1877: Hebrew Union's classrooms move to Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati.
1881: Hebrew Union College moves to a private mansion in the West End.
1883: Four rabbis are the first students ordained in America.
1912: Hebrew Union College sells the private mansion and moves to its current 18-acre location on Clifton Avenue
Source: Rabbi Abie Ingber
With a van and several burly fraternity boys, Ingber drove to Towles' house in March and picked up the plaques, which weigh several hundred pounds apiece.

Each was engraved with the names and city of the benefactors and the amount pledged.

Donations were likely made in the late 1800s.

They were from $100 to $1,000, which would be between $5,000 and $50,000 today, Ingber said.

Nearly 30 of the 78 donors were from Cincinnati, but others lived in Louisville; Battle Creek, Mich.; Chicago; and Germany.

Ingber saw the plaques and immediately knew their origins.

"Anybody who has studied Jewish history knows there is only one event that would bring Jews together from across the country," Ingber said.

That event was the creation of Hebrew Union College.

Rabbis in America in the 19th century were ordained in Europe. Rather than continue to travel half a world away to be educated in Jewish teachings and culture, it was imperative for American Jews to create their own theological college, Ingber said.

Hebrew Union College had the tablets before the school moved to its current location on Clifton Avenue in 1912. The tablets, Ingber said, were likely sold to plumbers for 50 cents each.

Two holes are drilled through the name of Fanny Rice, a $250 donor from New York. Presumably, they were the holes for the hot and cold water pipes.

Ingber verified the tablets listed original donors by matching them with records kept at the American Jewish Archives based at UC. Ingber thinks the two plaques list just a fraction of the institution's original donors.

Lawrence Hoffheimer, 66, of Virginia, is a descendant of Solomon Hoffheimer, an original $200 donor from Cincinnati.

"It makes us very proud that one of our ancestors was involved in the foundation of American Jewish life," Hoffheimer said, adding that he was not aware of his great-grandfather's hand in the institution.

Rabbi Kenneth Ehrlich, dean of Hebrew Union College, said the discovery confirms what he's always believed - that Jews in America have worked together to pay for and build institutions that ensure their growth and future.

Beshert - which is the Yiddish word for destiny - is Ingber's favorite word, and the reason he says the tablets are now in his possession:

A woman had to notice the tablets hidden in her shower and save them from destruction, and a guy crazy enough to take them had to be on the other end of her phone call, he said.

Students at the Hillel center now will trace the genealogy of the donors listed on the tablets in hopes of connecting relatives with their past.

There are many Jewish artifacts and similar marble tablets hidden in places just as unlikely as shower stalls, Ingber said.

"It cannot be that the only two pieces of marble in America today that tell a historic story are in my possession,'' Ingber said. "There are thousands more."


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