Echoing Through the Generations: The Story of Sylvester Marx

Inside Leadership

Echoing Through the Generations: The Story of Sylvester Marx

On Sunday, June 6, 1915, Sylvester Marx was confirmed at The Temple–Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, OH, marking the culmination of the young man’s Jewish education. A special reception followed, and the entire congregation joined in celebrating Sylvester and his fellow confirmands on that beautiful spring day.

Soon afterward, Sylvester’s parents resigned as members of The Temple and joined a local Christian Science church. Many of their friends already belonged to the church, choosing church affiliation – as Jewish families of the time often did – as a way to assimilate into American culture.

But Sylvester, having just celebrated a major milestone in his Jewish journey, considered himself a full, adult member of the Jewish community. Therefore, he requested a meeting with Moses Gries, The Temple’s rabbi, to see if he could retain membership in the congregation without his parents. Sitting together in the rabbi’s dark, book-lined study, the two of them worked out an arrangement so that Sylvester could remain a member on his own. Maybe he needed to pay a few dollars a year, maybe not.

Since Sylvester’s confirmation in 1915, Reform congregations have grown. They have added staff, purchased insurance policies, adopted by-laws, and approved policies and procedures to support the daily management of thriving houses of worship. Adding this sometimes-complicated infrastructure has been necessary to support the business of our sacred institutions. As members of our congregations pay more and more to belong, it is important that they know their money is being handled responsibly, and that their synagogue is being managed competently, legally, and according to best practices.

However, the policies and procedures our leaders worked so hard to create can prevent them from doing the right things for the right reasons.

Suppose Sylvester Marx had been confirmed in 2015 instead of 1915.

In today’s world, his request to meet with the rabbi might land him with a referral to the membership committee chair. She, in turn, adhering to a policy that individual members must be at least 18 years old, would tell Sylvester that if he wants to join the congregation, he can, but only if his parents – who clearly have no interest in synagogue life – become members.

Worried that Sylvester’s parents may be trying to get an inexpensive family membership through their son, she might refer the boy to the congregation’s president. With the High Holidays approaching, the president may have little time to deal with the matter, referring it to the executive director.

The executive director, unfamiliar with the situation, might want to meet with the boy and his parents, but because, per temple policies, he is limited in what he can do independently, he is forced to refer the matter to the rabbi and the membership vice president. With this referral, it lands on October’s board meeting agenda, but once the rabbi and president realized the cantor’s contract was up for negotiation, they tabled everything else until the November board meeting.

It’s now been six weeks since Sylvester’s first call to the rabbi, and he’s just learned that it will be another four weeks before the board will discuss his request. Needless to say, the young man feels increasingly ignored and discouraged.

Today’s synagogues’ policies are important, but back in 1915, Rabbi Gries could more easily do the right thing for the right reasons: Sylvester Marx joined The Temple and maintained his membership for nearly seven decades. During those years, he got married, raised three children in the congregation, served on the board, and was an usher on the High Holidays every year until his death at age 84.

Sylvester’s eldest son, Rabbi Robert Marx, founded the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and served as the spiritual leader of two Chicago-area congregations: Congregation Solel in Highland Park and Congregation Hakafa in Glencoe. Don Marx, Sylvester’s younger son, settled in Fort Wayne, IN, where he and his family were, for many years, active members and leaders of Congregation Achduth Vesholom.

Harriet, Sylvester’s daughter, had three sons of her own – Mark, Jim, and me, Larry. My older brother Mark is the interim rabbi of Congregation Har Hashem in Boulder, CO. My younger brother and our whole family recently celebrated the bar mitzvah of his son. As for me, I worked for a decade as an executive director, most recently at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL, and now serve the Union for Reform Judaism as director of Network Engagement and Collaboration. Many of Sylvester’s great-grandchildren are involved in temple youth groups and NFTY, and are considering their own careers as Jewish professionals.

Needless to say, my Grandpa Sylvester’s Jewish legacy is a strong one.

Maybe Rabbi Gries bent the rules to welcome my grandfather as a member of The Temple; maybe not. Either way, his actions back in 1915 reverberate through the Jewish community today.  I pray that our lay and professional leaders always have strong policies and procedures to guide their sacred work, and that they have the wisdom and freedom to set the rules aside when necessary to welcome the seeker, enrich the community, and perpetuate Reform Judaism for generations to come.

Thanks to Rabbi Mark Glickman for writing about his history several years ago, and to Bob Allenberg, executive director at The Temple, for sharing the confirmation photo of Sylvester Marx. 

Published: 1/21/2015

Categories: Leadership, Membership & Outreach

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