Park Synagogue

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The dome of Park Synagogue's Cleveland Heights building, designed by Erich Mendelsohn

The Park Synagogue Anshe Emeth Beth Tefilo congregation, is a Cleveland area Conservative synagogue with campuses in Cleveland Heights and Pepper Pike. It is one of the oldest Jewish congregations in Ohio. Rabbi Joshua Skoff is in his 27th year as spiritual leader.



The Park Synagogue has its origins in two Orthodox Jewish congregations: Anshe Emet and Beth Tefilo congregations. Anshe Emeth was founded in 1869 by Polish Jews who lived originally in downtown Cleveland. By 1888, disagreements among congregants over the synagogue's direction led some members to leave and form a Reform congregation. In 1903, the remaining members built a new synagogue at Woodland and 55th Street. Yet by 1917, Cleveland's Jews began relocating eastward, which led Anshe Emeth's leadership to merge with Beth Tefilo, and under the leadership of Rabbi Samuel Benjamin the combined congregation bought land at the southeast corner of East 105th Street and Drexel Avenue for the new Cleveland Jewish Center which began construction in 1920, relocating from E 37th St and Woodland Ave. to a newly constructed building. Until its shift in affiliation from Orthodox to Conservative Judaism in the mid 1920s, Anshe Emeth was the largest Orthodox Jewish congregation in Cleveland.

Upon completion in 1922, with its extensive facilities, was named the Cleveland Jewish Center and the synagogue quickly became a focal point of Jewish life. In addition to a synagogue, the Center had a ballroom, a recreation center, and an indoor swimming pool. At this time, under the leadership of Rabbi Solomon Goldman, the congregation transitioned from an Orthodox to a Conservative Jewish orientation.

The change of orientation proved highly controversial for many members. Among the changes, women and men were allowed to sit together and the selling of Aliyot was forbidden. Threats were made against the rabbi; legal action was mounted, which was appealed all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, that refused to hear the case. The rabbi who championed the changes, Rabbi Goldman, left the Cleveland Jewish Center in 1929 to assume another pulpit, that of the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Lakeview, Illinois where he established himself as a well-respected leader. To replace Rabbi Goldman the congregation called upon a gentle and scholarly man as their spiritual leader to heal the divisions. Rabbi Harry S Dawidowitz led the Jewish Center for 5 years, until he decided to move his family to Palestine in 1934.

Rabbi Solomon Goldman had taken a young boy, Armond Cohen, under his wing when he came to the congregation in 1922. Cohen had lost both parents to the influenza pandemic in 1918 in Canton, Ohio. He came to live with his grandparents in Cleveland and the Jewish Center became his second home. When Armond graduated from Glenville High School with no certain direction and after winning an oratory contest, Goldman made arrangements for Armond to attend New York University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America to become a rabbi. Goldman would pay for the first year and procured promises of loans from the Sisterhood of the congregation to cover the rest.

In 1934, Rabbi Armond Cohen was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary and at age 25, was named Rabbi of the Cleveland Jewish Center (later known as the Park Synagogue), a position he would hold until 1986, when he became Distinguished Service Rabbi. He remained with the congregation and functioned as a rabbi until his death in 2007 just after his wife, Anne, died. With the synagogue burdened by debt, together with lay leaders, Cohen raised funds to alleviate the financial crisis. Then less than a decade later, with Cleveland Jewry continuing to move eastward, Cohen and the synagogue's leadership recognized, though reluctantly, the need to set the stage for a new facility further east. Thus, the congregation purchased in Cleveland Heights, the property of the defunct Park School.

The following summer, in 1943, a day care and nursery school began functioning there, and an adjacent lot of twenty-one acres was purchased from John D. Rockefeller. In 1945, a fire broke out, destroying most of the old Park School buildings, as well as the synagogue's library and Torah scrolls. Erich Mendelsohn was hired to design the new synagogue. Completed in 1950, Park Synagogue is considered a significant example of modern synagogue design; one writer comments that its "adventurous use of space is masterly; there are surprises round every corner and unexpected vistas at every turn."[1] During this same period, Rabbi Cohen led in the establishing of the Park Hebrew School, Park Day Camp, and the Lillian Ratner Montessori School. Into the 1970s, Park Synagogue was among the largest Conservative Jewish congregations in the United States.

In 1986, to meet the needs of a Jewish population that continued to move eastward into outlying suburbs, Park Synagogue East opened in Pepper Pike. The building had been formerly occupied by the Brith Emeth congregation, which had merged into Park Synagogue. In 2005 the synagogue completed a new Park East facility.[2]

Modern Park Synagogue[edit]

Rabbi Skoff joined Park Synagogue in 1990, and was subsequently elected Senior Rabbi. He demonstrated ability as an orator, statesman and spiritual leader, and in 1996 was granted life tenure by the congregation. He created interactive services, empowered congregants, and made Judaism accessible to young and old. He emphasized inclusivity, and personalized Judaism to his congregants. Rabbi Skoff has refashioned Friday evening worship into a music-filled, fast-paced participatory service, and introduced questions and answers into Saturday morning worship, along with topical dialogues and congregational shared learning. He introduced and encouraged different programming for congregants who come from Conservative, but also Reform and Orthodox backgrounds. All have found a comfort level at Park for their own individual spiritual journeys. In 2008, Rabbi Skoff was honored with the newly endowed Leighton Rosenthal Chair in Rabbinics. In 2016, he was named one of "America's Most Inspiring Rabbis" by Forward magazine.

Rabbi Skoff achieved success in revitalizing and energizing the congregation. He increased membership and nearly doubled the school population. Adult Education programming and outreach has been emphasized. New affiliate groups for every age group were created. In 1993-96, Park's Endowment Fund was established, providing support for synagogue programs. In 2005, funding for the new Park Synagogue East building was secured, and for the first time, daily services, all administrative offices, Friday evening services, and the Park Day Camp became located in the East building. Sabbath day and evening services remain at the Park Synagogue Main facility for parts of the calendar year, and they are held at The Park East location at other times, including major Jewish holidays like Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, as well as periods of weeks at various other times of the year. Under Rabbi Skoff's leadership, Park Synagogue is an active and vibrant congregation, and is one of the largest Conservative congregations in the United States. The United Synagogue has conferred upon Park eleven Solomon Schechter "Synagogue of Excellence" Awards and Park Synagogue continues its legacy of distinguished service to the Cleveland Jewish community.

Approximately 1800 families call Park Synagogue home. In addition to awards noted above, the United Synagogue has also conferred Excellence Awards for Worship and Ceremonies, Library Computerization, Strategic Planning, Access and Concern for the Disabled, Programs and Celebrations, and Fundraising. The award for Worship and Ceremonies reflects dialogue and discussion within the services themselves, klezmer and traditional music, and congregational involvement as prayer leaders.

Park Synagogue was one of the first Conservative synagogues to build a "Mikvah" (a ritual immersion pool of water, used to mark life transitions: conversion to Judaism, marriage, overcoming serious illness, the monthly transition of the menstrual cycle). Building its own Mikvah was necessary after the newly opened Orthodox mikveh was closed for ceremonies performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. In 2000, Rabbi Skoff, Park Synagogue President Stuart Garson, and Charlotte Goldberg and her family set the stage and completed a Community Mikvah to serve all Cleveland Jews.

In 2005 Rabbi Skoff received the honor of lighting a Hanukah menorah with the First Family in the White House. Rabbi Skoff spoke words marking the occasion, recited a blessing and lit the menorah as the President and First Lady Laura Bush watched and participated. For this special occasion, Park Synagogue supplied a menorah retrieved from the Nazis after World War II that resides in the synagogue's art collection.

In April, 2008, The Park Synagogue East facility hosted an episode of The Food Network's "Dinner:Impossible" series in which the celebrity chef Michael Symon, prepared a kosher Passover Seder kosher meal for 100 people in 6 hours. The episode aired in August, 2008 and included Rabbi Skoff and caterer Marlene Leitson who ensured the kashrut of Michael Symon's Seder.

In 2010, the newly opened National Museum Of American Jewish History in Philadelphia chose Park Synagogue as a "Featured Synagogue," one of only a dozen congregations chosen to depict and illustrate Jewish life in America.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer visited The Park Synagogue in 2015. Rabbi Skoff interviewed Dr. Ruth in an unrehearsed synagogue program entitled "The Rabbi and Dr. Ruth." The provocative and informative discussion dealt with Jewish attitudes towards sexuality, intimacy, and communication in relationships, as well as Dr. Ruth's experience as a Holocaust orphan.

Park Synagogue continues devoted to Jewish culture and learning, with preschool and youth associations such as Kadima and United Synagogue Youth and Park's Hebrew School. Park's adult education includes Bible, Talmud, and Hebrew Studies as well as adult B'nai Mitzvah preparation and outreach to intermarried couples. The synagogue's Brotherhood/Men's Club and Sisterhood interface with the community. Programming includes community speakers and pre-High Holiday "Institutes" with key figures such as former Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell, Ohio Education Chancellor Eric Fingerhut, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, Governor Ted Strickland and U.S. Representative Marsha Fudge.' Park Synagogue is rooted in Cleveland's history, rearing new generations of Jews, enabling them to learn and practice Jewish living.


  1. ^ Brian de Breffny, The Synagogue (Macmillan, 1st American ed., 1978), ISBN 978-0-02-530310-2, pp. 196-197.
  2. ^ Elliott, John (November 2005). "Come Together: Tradition, innovation merge at Park Synagogue East Campus" (PDF). Properties Magazine. Retrieved 2008-08-09., Wolf blitzer, "Situation Room", Dec. 6,2005. The Park Synagogue Bulletin, September, 2009., Episode# 1E0501, "No Pork, No Pressure." Joe Crea, "Michael Symon Tackles Kosher Cooking,", Sept. 2, 2008.

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