“At the beginning it was at least nominally orthodox,” said Jonathan Glixon, Ohavay Zion’s president and a professor of musicology at the University of Kentucky. “Then for a long time it had broken away from formal orthodoxy and it was somewhere in between, it wasn’t officially for awhile… a member of the conservative movement.”
Despite the strong ties to the traditional practice of Judaism through the founding members –– many of which that could be traced back to the same village in Lithuania –– the complexities of operating a congregation in a small Jewish community led to compromise in the synagogue’s orthodoxy.
“We try to meet the needs of a broader cross-section or group than would be the case if we were one of a number of synagogues in a large city where we could say, ‘We’re going to be the ones who do this. If you want something else, you go over there,’” Glixon said.
As a result, the congregation had difficulty keeping clergy in town for its first 50 years. It wasn’t until 1919 Ohavay Zion even had a full time rabbi. Once they did, they’d tend to leave within three to four years.
As is often the case in a synagogue straddling the line between conservative and orthodox, Ohavay Zion wrestled with the separation of genders within the sanctuary. Where Orthodox congregations would build a physical barrier, called a mechitza, to separate men from women during prayer, the sensibilities of the Lexington Jewish community passed on such an idea in favor of a three-section seating alignment that would allow for the more orthodox men and women to sit separately on the wings with a mixed section in the middle.
In the early 1960s, after undergoing a major addition 20-years earlier to allow for large gatherings to be held at the synagogue, the congregation hired Rabbi Schwab, who would serve until his death in the mid 1980s. Schwab emphasized childhood education to a point that led to another addition to the facility for classrooms that had been housed in an Upper Street home, as well as an expanded lobby, office and library.
While Rabbi Schwab’s 23 years of service provided some of the first stability in the congregation’s history, the hiring of his replacement presented an opportunity to progress Ohavay Zion once more and the members brought in a transformational rabbi to move them firmly into the conservative movement and into a new facility designed from the ground up just for them on Alumni Drive near New Circle Road.
“One of the reasons (Rabbi Smith) was brought in was because he had experience in another place making a congregation egalitarian and calling women to the Torah and having a Bat Mitzvah in which they actually read from the Torah,” Glixion said.
“We can be, on the one hand, quite conservative in terms of our services, yet we’ve had a woman rabbi. We can be open to couples who are mixed; at the same time our services are almost completely in Hebrew… it’s a balancing act all the time,” said Glixon, who moved from the East Coast to Lexington in the ‘80s, but didn’t join Ohavay Zion, or have any other local religious membership, until nine years ago.
“One of the things (about Lexington) that is unlike some other places, I’m not from Lexington, I only joined the synagogue in 2003, but I’m president. In many places if you’re not third generation, you’re not going to be president,” he said, adding, “third generation and rich.”
Rabbi Moshe Smolkin joined Ohavay Zion in 2009 and has concentrated on connecting with the young Jewish community in Lexington, to help assure another 100 years of the synagogue.