On Jan. 18, KK Bene Israel Rockdale Temple celebrated its 200th year in Cincinnati. The synagogue is the oldest synagogue west of the Allegheny Mountains, having been at the forefront of the evolution of Judaism in America since its founding.
Established in 1824, Rockdale Temple began as a small congregation founded by a group of Jewish immigrants. Over the years, it has evolved, reflecting the changing dynamics of Jewish religious life. In its early years, the congregation adhered to traditional Orthodox practices. But by the mid-19th century, it became a forerunner in the Reform Judaism movement, embodying progressive values that resonate with many American Jews.
“Rockdale started out as a traditional congregation because Reform Judaism wasn’t founded by Isaac Mayer wise until the 1850s,” said Rockdale President Sally Korkin.
The synagogue was founded by Joseph Jonas, who also secured land for a Jewish cemetery on Chestnut Street in the West End – the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny. In 2022, the Cincinnati Jewish community marked its bicentennial, dated to the founding of the Chestnut Street cememtary. But Jonas, one of the most important figures in Cincinnati’s Jewish history, is not buried in the cemetery.
“His wife was buried there, his children were buried there, his family was buried there….he’s buried in Mobile, Alabama,” said Korkin
Rockdale helped erect a cenotaph for its famous founder, which is now part of the cemetery that commemorates its founder and first president.
Over the years, the synagogue has called various locations throughout the city home. The first building was built in 1836 at Sixth and Broadway, where the congregation stayed until 1906 when a new building designed by architect Rudolph Tietig was built in Avondale. The new building was on Rockdale Avenue and is how K.K. Bene Israel became known as Rockdale Temple.
Following many other synagogues in the second half of the 20th century, Rockdale moved from Avondale to its current building in Amberly Village.
To commemorate its anniversary, Rockdale planned an entire year of celebrations, the pinnacle of which is its gala weekend, Jan. 26-28.
The weekend will kick off on that Friday with a Legacy Shabbat, playing music from every era of Rockdale 200 years—even selecting a special piece of music that hasn’t been played since the completion of the Rockdale building in 1906.
“A cantata was composed for the dedication of the 1906 Rockdale Avenue building,” said Rabbi Meredith Kahan. “We’re doing some excerpts from that.”
The Friday night service is open to the entire Rockdale community. The service will also honor past presidents, and descendants of past presidents, of the synagogue. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, will also give a sermon about Rockdale’s historic contribution to American Judaism.
The zenith of the weekend will be the Bicentennial Gala on the 27th. The gala, which has sold out, is being held at Rockdale Temple and will feature artifacts from its past. Abby Schwartz, curatorial consultant at the Skirball Museum, curated art and artifacts for the evening. So has photographer Miles Wolf, who updated several of his photos for the evening. Some of the original stained glass from the Rockdale Ave Temple will be on display.
“We are putting up art that hasn’t been seen in generations,” said Kahan.
Saturday evening will even include a musical parody of the history of Rockdale, which will feature music from past musicals put on at the Temple.
The weekend will wrap up with a family music service on Sunday that will feature music from the past 200 years and celebrate the future of Rockdale. The congregation has seen monuments, moments, and change over the past 200 years, and for Kahan, that is what helps to inspire her for the future.
“I really stand on the shoulders of the past rabbis and leaders in the congregation, who had to lead through major moments in American life…the civil war, the Spanish flu…to the founding of the state of Israel,” she said. “In particular, I stand on the shoulders of my mentor, Rabbi Coran, who was the first senior woman rabbi in Cincinnati, she was a trailblazer.
To Kahan, Rockdale’s history of innovating and adapting to the times are the keys to the congregation’s longevity, and the key to its future.
“I hope in 50 to 100 years from now we are staying to our core mission to be a synagogue and are still able to adapt and stay courageous enough to keep innovating,” she said.
This article is sponsored content from Rockdale Temple as part of Cincy Jewfolk’s Partnership program. For more information, check out our media kit.