Courtesy of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati. Photo credit: Karen Zanger

Submitted by Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati

When telling congregational histories, the tendency is to focus on the earliest beginnings and quickly get to present-day glories. The middle stage is often glossed over, its heroes lost from the storytelling. In this second story in a series about Jewish Cincinnati plaques saved from oblivion, creators of Adath Israel’s first Avondale synagogue occupy a very well-travelled plaque indeed. All featured plaques in this series have been collected into Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati’s “Foundations of Our Future” installation, to be publicly dedicated September 10.

Adath Israel Congregation, founded by Polish Jewish immigrants around 1850, first worshipped on Lodge Street and then at Ninth and Cutter Streets in bustling early downtown Cincinnati. When many in the Jewish population began migrating out to the suburb of Avondale, Adath Israel purchased a modest, formerly Presbyterian, then Christian Science church building located at 658 Rockdale Avenue. After extensive remodeling planned and overseen by dedicated congregants, Adath Israel moved into their first suburban synagogue in 1917. It still had a steeple/tower and church-like window frames, but the then-Orthodox congregation made it their home.

When they moved into the building, the congregation installed an impressive marble plaque listing the Officers and Trustees, in appreciation of all of their efforts in guiding Adath Israel to its new home. How could they know that Adath Israel would only occupy this building until 1927? 

There is no rabbi listed on the plaque because in 1917 Adath Israel did not have a rabbinic leader. The next year, however, Rabbi Dr. Louis Feinberg from Philadelphia was appointed Rabbi of the congregation for a three-year term. He stayed with Adath Israel for close to 31 years, until his untimely death in 1949. He was so beloved that after his death, Adath Israel synagogue was often referred to as the “Feinberg Shul,” even in its official correspondence. 

But let’s not get ahead of the story. As the Roaring Twenties approached, Adath Israel was quickly outgrowing that 658 Rockdale Avenue building, so in 1919 the decision was made to commission and build a new, larger building. Because of the financial success of many of its members, an ambitious plan was undertaken, and by 1927 a magnificent new synagogue building had been constructed in the Greco-Roman style, at the intersection of Reading and Lexington Avenues, Avondale.

When Adath Israel moved into that new building, the marble plaque that had honored the leaders who helped secure 658 Rockdale landed in a storage room. It stayed there for many years until it was eventually thrown in the new synagogue’s trash. However, one of the children of the congregation, Rockell Dombar (now Meese) saw the plaque in the trash and asked her father to save it. 

With the added help of a friend, Rockell’s father, famed Cincinnati architect Benjamin Dombar, did just that. Mr. Dombar had started his career as a Frank Lloyd Wright intern and had already collaborated on many iconic Wright projects, but he removed the plaque from the synagogue’s trash and put it in the family’s backyard garden in North Avondale. When he later designed and built a new home in the hilly neighborhood of Wyoming, the plaque moved to that home’s wooded garden above a creek. And when grown-up Rockell’s parents sold that house, the plaque was moved again to her own garden in Delhi. Somewhere along the journey, the plaque broke in two pieces. 

In 2014, Ms. Meese donated the plaque to the Cincinnati Judaica Fund to ensure that it was preserved for the future. That goal has been achieved in the collaborative creation of “Foundations of Our Future” at Jewish Cemeteries’ newest Loveland Cemetery. There the heralded names of our Cincinnati Jewish ancestors may once again be rediscovered, so that their achievements and generosity may be kvelled over well into the future.