Following a thorough search process, Harry H. Mayer was elected B’nai Jehudah’s Rabbi in March 1899. His tenure lasted 29 years, the longest of any rabbi at that point in the Congregation’s history.
Mayer was the son of a rabbi who served a Reform congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for over three decades. Harry entered Hebrew Union College at the age of sixteen, completed its eight-year course in six years and graduated with honors in 1896. He spent a year of post-graduate study in Germany and served as rabbi in Little Rock Arkansas 1897 through early 1899.
Harry Mayer arrived in Kansas City as a 25 year-old bachelor with youthful high spirits and physical vigor. Alex Sachs, a congregant who passed away in 1970, recalled a memory from age ten when the newly arrived Rabbi Mayer taught him how to use boxing gloves.
Mayer boarded for some time here with the Ney family and married Cornelia Ney in 1905. Her parents were German immigrants who arrived in Kansas City in 1879 and joined B’nai Jehudah. Cornelia was active in the Congregation prior to Harry’s arrival. She founded Sisterhood, was a Sunday school teacher and was involved in charity work. At the time of their marriage, she was 38 years old and he was 31. They had a son, William, in 1906. The couple’s principal common interest was B’nai Jehudah. Rabbi and Mrs. Mayer resided with her immediate family throughout their 42 years of married life.
Rabbi Mayer’s outlook was typical of early twentieth century mainstream Reform rabbis. During his tenure, B’nai Jehudah became firmly identified with “Classical” Reform Judaism. Its emphasis on ethical principles and righteous conduct, almost to the exclusion of formal ritual observance, was a response to the materialism and religious indifference of the age. The classical Reform approach also represented a strenuous effort to achieve an American form of Judaism, divorced from old-county customs.
B’nai Jehudah became known as “The Temple” during these years to differentiate it from Kansas City’s synagogues. This moniker continued for decades until 1963 when our current organizational name, The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, was officially adopted.
And like other Reform rabbis of the era, Mayer was not a supporter of Zionism. This perspective continued throughout his career here. At a local Zionist rally in 1918, Henrietta Szold, the founder and leader of Hadassah, spoke out against his “utterances.”
Attendance at Friday night services was strong during Mayer’s early rabbinate but tapered off over time as more families moved to new neighborhoods south of the Oak Street Temple in downtown. Saturday morning services enjoyed a growing attendance during these same years, mostly by the ladies of the Congregation. The Congregation’s new temple at Linwood Boulevard and Flora Avenue was completed in 1908 and reinvigorated attendance and membership growth.
Rabbi Mayer led humanitarian efforts here, both in the Jewish and general communities. In 1907, he founded the Kansas City Pure Milk Commission which operated under his presidency from its founding until World War I. Its mission was to assure the city an adequate supply of pasteurized milk.
Sunday School was another of Rabbi Mayer’s priorities. He worked to enrich the curriculum and raise academic standards. He started a school library and a children’s choir in 1901. The age for confirmation was gradually raised from 13 to 16 in the hope that students would gain more lasting value from it. Sunday morning services for children and their parents included lectures by the rabbi and continued from 1910-1925.
The congregation grew under Rabbi Mayer and reached about 450 members in 1924.
Mayer inspired several B’nai Jehudah confirmands to enter the rabbinate. Charles Latz, Albert Minda and Ira Sanders all entered Hebrew Union College with Rabbi Mayer’s encouragement.
In May 1925, Rabbi Mayer developed a throat ailment that prevented him from occupying the pulpit for almost one year. The Congregation hired Henry Berkowitz as assistant rabbi, the first in our history. Rabbi Berkowitz assumed full charge of the pulpit from the ailing Rabbi Mayer with the 1925 High Holy Days. Rabbi Mayer resumed his congregational work in spring 1926, his speaking voice restored. By December 1927, Rabbi Berkowitz left to assume the pulpit of Temple Beth Israel in Portland.
The same month that Rabbi Berkowitz left, B’nai Jehudah elected Harry Mayer to the position of rabbi emeritus, effective May 1, 1928. He was in his mid 50s at this time and the congregation paid him a pension for another 37 years.
Rabbi Mayer performed a life-saving mitzvah that continues to touch our Congregation to this day. He had a cousin still living in Germany during the Nazi rise to power. The German Mayers decided to send their 15 year-old-son, Ernst, to America for his own safety but he needed a sponsor. Rabbi Mayer was contacted and agreed to sponsor the teenager who arrived in Kansas City in 1937. The boy’s parents perished at Auschwitz. Ernie Mayer became a successful CPA in Kansas City and a B’nai Jehudah officer and trustee. His wife, Golda, and children Marcia Soltz, Howard Mayer and Diane Azorsky are B’nai Jehudah members. Marcia served as Sisterhood President and Howard served the Congregation as President.
Cornelia Mayer passed away in 1947 and Rabbi Mayer left Kansas City in 1950. He remarried, passed away in 1965 at the age of 91 and was buried in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.
(Adapted from Roots In A Moving Stream by Frank Adler, z”l)
December 18, 2020