Unwilling Retirement: Gary Zola Talks Career, Legacy, Amid HUC Changes

Rabbi Dr. Gary Zola is crystal clear: He did not want to retire in July from a 40-plus year career at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“I didn’t retire because I’m ready for green acres, and I’m not interested in more leisure time, meaning, to play golf,” he said. “My retirement was a response to the changes that have occurred [at HUC-JIR].”

In spring 2022, the HUC-JIR board voted to sunset the Cincinnati campus’ rabbinical program over concerns about low enrollment and the institution’s financial struggles. Just last month, citing the same reasons, HUC-JIR cut several graduate programs, including in Cincinnati, effectively marking an end to the graduate school here.

It’s a painful series of events for Zola, who was the institution’s national director of admissions, student affairs, and alumni relations from 1982 – when he was ordained at the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR – until 1998, when he became executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives.

Zola spent his career in and on Cincinnati. He helped generations of rabbis enter the Rabbinate and find a home at HUC-JIR, sustained its academic reputation with a passion for teaching American Jewish history, and brought in millions of dollars in investment, including with a renovation of the American Jewish Archives.

Now, with the campus in decline, the prolific scholar struggles with whether his efforts mattered at all.

“When I see what’s going on [at the Cincinnati campus], and the ramifications of the decisions that have been made, I tell myself every day that…what I have worked on and what I’ve devoted my life to has meaning and significance,” he said. “It’s difficult, though.”

In a wide-ranging retirement interview with Cincy Jewfolk, Zola talked about how he ended up in Cincinnati, why he wears his signature suits, the influence of his mentor Jacob Rader Marcus, and the highs and lows of his time at HUC-JIR.

But Zola isn’t only focused on reflection – with a full calendar of speaking engagements and several projects, including books, in the pipeline, he’s not slowing down anytime soon. While he holds the title of AJA executive director emeritus, at the end of an 18-month sabbatical he will take on the mantle of the Edward M. Ackerman Family Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the American Jewish Experience and Reform Jewish History.

“I feel my career has been very unique, and I’m very grateful for it,” he said. “I’m looking toward the future right now.”

Father vs. Rabbinate

Zola’s path to Cincinnati was defined by a generational tug-of-war. While friends and mentors told Zola he would be great as a rabbi, his father was adamantly opposed to rabbinical school.

“My father wanted for me to be financially secure and successful,” Zola said. “He thought I would be a great lawyer – he wasn’t just suggesting that I’d be a lawyer, he was, if you will, demanding it. The idea of my becoming a rabbi appalled him. And so I was struggling emotionally.”

For Zola’s father, the Rabbinate held the specter of his father, a Jewish immigrant from Poland. A poor tailor who spoke broken English with a heavy Yiddish accent, he held on to the traditions of the old world.

Zola’s father didn’t finish high school and never went to college, instead working his way through the ranks to become an executive at the Jewish-founded Continental Coffee Company in Chicago.

Until Zola was nearly in middle school, there was little to do with Judaism in the home. Zola’s father only had the family join a Reform synagogue after his boss (himself a member at the synagogue) asked if Zola was studying for a bar mitzvah.

For Zola, after going to the University of Michigan for his undergraduate degree and Northwestern University for his master’s, his future was still uncertain. So he applied to several law schools and to HUC-JIR for rabbinical school – then deferred enrollment while working for the Jewish community in Chicago to avoid making a decision in the early 1970s.

Decades later, Zola is a little bemused that HUC-JIR accepted his application. During the interview, “I was asked all sorts of funny questions,” Zola said. “One person said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m not sure how I feel about God.’ Then I was asked, as a follow up question…’When you go to the synagogue, what are you doing when you pray?’ As a 21-year-old, I said, ‘Well, I pretend like there is a God.’”

By the late ‘70s, all but one of the law schools and HUC-JIR still had Zola on soon-to-expire deferred enrollment. Now, his wife coached him on what to do – go to HUC-JIR, as the first year was in Israel, and who wouldn’t take a trip to Israel. In Israel, if he didn’t like the program, Zola could then re-apply to law school.

As his wife was from Long Island, Zola asked HUC-JIR to be assigned to the New York campus for rabbinical school. But in Israel, a visiting vice president of the college had other ideas, inviting Zola to get his ordination in Cincinnati while also working on the college’s leadership development program for high school and college students.

“We’ve got no one to run this,” Zola remembers being told. “You’re the person who could do this as a student and organize this. So I want you to transfer to Cincinnati.”

By happy accident, Zola’s wife, a speech pathologist already accepted to attend Columbia University in New York, had also applied to the University of Cincinnati as a backup. UC gave her a generous scholarship – so after the year in Israel, the couple came to Cincinnati.

In time, Zola’s father quietly came around to his being a rabbi. Disabled by a stroke, he only visited his son twice. The second time, Zola had been invited to fill in for a local rabbi going on vacation, and his parents came to see him lead services.

“It was the only time my father ever heard me do anything like that,” Zola said. “He sat in the back because he was in a wheelchair. And after services, my mother, of course was gushing – she thought I was the Messiah with red hair. My father said nothing, didn’t say a word. So I just assumed, well, he’s not in favor of this.”

Zola was helping his parents through the airport to get on their return flight when his father finally opened up.

“We’re getting ready to say goodbye, he looks up at me, and he says – this was clear out of the blue sky – ‘You know what the best part of this visit was?’ I said, ‘no, what.’ He said, ‘That I got to hear you speak,’” Zola recalled.

Zola’s father said that when he came to visit again the next year, he would buy Zola a suit for ordination. It was no small gesture.

“My father was American through and through, that was his religion,” Zola said. He “believed that the way you present yourself is crucial to how you communicate with other people…he could give me a gift for becoming a rabbi that, you know, I should look like a rabbi.”

But a few months after that visit, his father died. So as a tribute, Zola bought himself a suit for ordination – and since then, wearing suits has been a signature part of Zola’s life and presentation.

Grief and memory also come mixed with humor, however, especially given that he is still keeping plenty busy after retirement from HUC-JIR.

“My wife was saying just the other day, ‘Gee, I was hoping our dry cleaning bill would go down after you retired, but I see it’s not going to,’” Zola said.

Marcus and the American Jewish Archives

In his senior year, Zola was offered a job by HUC-JIR as the national director of admissions, student affairs, and alumni relations, based in Cincinnati. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay in Cincinnati or at the college, but again his wife convinced him to give it a try. If Zola still liked it after a few years on the job, they’d stay. If not, they’d leave.

Though Zola decided to stick around, something still didn’t feel right.

“I decided, if I’m going to stay here, there’s no future for me here as an administrator,” Zola said. His path was as faculty – so he got to work on a doctorate in American Jewish history under one of the foremost (and for a long time, technically, only) scholars of the field: Beloved HUC-JIR professor Rabbi Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, who founded the preeminent American Jewish historical archive with the aptly named American Jewish Archives.

Zola first met Marcus in a mandatory American Jewish history class for second year rabbinical students, where he would take Zola’s love of history and give it even more passion. But at first, the then-83-year-old Marcus did not make a great impression.

On the first day of class, “He looked like a throwback to the 1920s because he wore a vested three-piece suit – black, everyday black – with a beautiful tie,” Zola said. “I was 25 years old, I looked at him, and I thought to myself, ‘This is going to be deadly.’”

But Marcus did not turn out to be a boring, slow-paced droning dinosaur. Instead, Zola was blown away by his electrifying knowledge and energy.

“He had like a computer for a brain, he knew names and dates and stories,” Zola said. “The way he would teach, he had an ability just to suck me into the story of the American Jew…Marcus was like catnip for me, I adored him.”

It took Zola 11 years to complete his doctorate. Just a few years later, in 1995, Marcus passed away, and the seminal institution he founded – the American Jewish Archives, also located on HUC-JIR’s Cincinnati campus – was left without a director. The college offered the job to Zola, who was unsure if it was the right fit for him.

He talked to a friend in Chicago, the son of a rabbi. “When I told him what was offered to me, he said, ‘My God, Gary, why didn’t you accept it immediately…this is the jackpot,’” Zola said.

A conversation with then-college president Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman went similarly.

“I’m not an archivist, I’m a very public person, I like to be with people,” Zola told Zimmerman. The president replied that he wasn’t “asking [Zola] to become an archivist. He said, ‘I’m giving you an opportunity to succeed Jacob Rader Marcus.’ Well, that’s all I needed to hear.”

(Editor’s note: Zimmerman engaged in “sexually predatory” behavior with young women at Central Synagogue in New York City, where he served as senior rabbi in the 1970s and ‘80s. An HUC-JIR report found no evidence of misconduct by Zimmerman during his tenure as president of the college.)

Zola became executive director of the American Jewish Archives in 1998, determined to further Marcus’ nigh-religious vision of the record-keeping and academic study of American Jewish history.

“He used to say that the Torah is not the only thing that’s sacred in Jewish life,” Zola said. “All of our days are scrolls, and the life of every human being is a scroll. And the story of our ancestors is almost like theology – the history of our people is intertwined with the covenant.”

Zola quickly left his mark on the AJA, embarking on a million-dollar renovation and expansion of the building housing the archives in the early 2000s.

“I used to say to the architects, the building needs to be the envelope for the most glorious content, which is the history of American Jewry,” he said. “I do think it is a beautiful building, and I’m proud of helping to raise the money for that and making that happen.”

Zola also brought the AJA wider recognition as a champion for celebrating 350 years of American Jewish life, serving as the organizer and chair of a congressionally-recognized commission that organized anniversary events in 2004-05.

That led to a variety of government appointments, such as to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which celebrated the president’s 200th birthday anniversary in 2009, and most recently to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the national Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Zola has also been deeply involved in interfaith work in Cincinnati, working with organizations like EquaSion and its Festival of Faiths.

“This one huge joy has been…[being] involved as a voice for the American Jewish experience, the history of the Jew in this nation, and a spokesman for it in the world of the government,” Zola said. “This I’ve enjoyed immensely…these very big governmental things have enabled me to meet all sorts of people I never would have dreamt would have been possible in the Rabbinate.”

Legacy and heartbreak

Zola is proud of his time at HUC-JIR, and is now busy digging into many projects, like a book about a diary that Marcus kept as a soldier in World War I.

“It’s very interesting because he’s not a chaplain, he left HUC to enlist, but he has a lot of Jewish concerns and interests, and he observes what’s going on through Jewish eyes,” he said. “I can see the goal, there’s a lot I’ve done already. So I’d like to finish that in the coming year.”

But Zola still struggles with the uncertainty of what will happen to the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR and the American Jewish Archives situated there. In a few years, with no full-time rabbinical school students or graduate students, he foresees the campus as a shell of its former self. With few people to regularly come in contact with the archives, all the work of building the AJA may have come to precious little – perhaps a waste, in the end, of Marcus’ and his legacies.

In trying to explain and reconcile the complex emotions he feels, Zola likens it to facing his father’s legacy on a trip to Chicago shortly after Zola’s daughter graduated from college and moved there.

“My daughter says she wants to go shopping, so my wife and I get in the car, we’re going to go to a Costco,” Zola said.

He noticed that they were driving toward a Continental Coffee Company plant where his father had been an executive, and where Zola had often worked during the summers and visited his father’s office.

Excitement drained to shock when the family arrived at Costco. Zola realized the sprawling warehouse store was on the same spot as the Continental plant – of which nothing remained.

“‘Oh my God,’ I said, ‘I’m so glad my dad never lived to see this,’” Zola recalled. “It would have broken his heart because he gave everything to the Continental Coffee Company. That was his whole professional career, and he was so proud of what he had achieved. I said, ‘Thank God, I’m working for a place that will be there for the ages.’ You see what I’m saying?”

Zola reminds himself that there is still meaning in all the work he’s done, the students he’s taught, and the relationships he’s built through HUC-JIR and the AJA.

“They’re not wasted,” he said. “But I’m struggling with the idea that 20 years from now, [the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR] may not be a Costco – but that which has been here for 150 years, literally, may not be.”