From Ohio History Central
Rabbi Harry Kaplan leading Jewish students who were members of the B' Nai B' Rith Hillel Foundation at Ohio State University in a religious service, ca. 1940-1960.
Numerous Ohioans are descended from Jewish ancestors. Today, Jewish Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.
Jews lived in Ohio from the state's creation in 1803. Before the American Civil War, however, the number of Jews residing in Ohio remained small. During this period Cincinnati was the largest city in Ohio and the center of the Jewish community in the state. It was not until 1824 that Jews in Cincinnati established their first congregation. Illustrating the small Jewish population in Ohio during this period, only forty thousand Jews lived west of the Appalachian Mountains by 1850 and only 150,000 Jews lived in the entire United States by 1870. Most Jewish people residing in Ohio during the first half of the nineteenth century earned livings as storeowners or peddlers.
Despite these small numbers, Ohio Jews played a prominent role in the development of their faith. Most Ohio Jews followed the Reform Jewish tradition. Reform Judaism emerged by the late 1700s in Europe. Historically, Christians and other faiths around the world had persecuted Jews. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, some nations began to relax restrictions on Jews, providing them with more economic, social, and political opportunities. In some cases, to enjoy these new benefits, Jews had to abandon their Jewish beliefs. Some Jews also grew tired of the strict rules and practices of Judaism and began to turn their backs on their faith even if they did not convert to a different religion. As a result of these factors, Judaism split into Orthodox Judaism and Reform Judaism.
Reform Jews encouraged that rabbis conduct services in the language of the people rather than in Hebrew. They also introduced choral singing into services. They replaced the Bah Mitzvah with a confirmation ceremony and banned circumcision as being a barbaric practice. Reform Judaism also permitted women and men to sit together in the same pews in synagogue. Other traditional Jewish practices also came under attack. Reform Jewish rabbis concluded that their followers should choose for themselves which religious practices in which they would engage. Instead of establishing a strict religious dogma, Reform Jewish rabbis advocated freedom of choice for their parishioners. Orthodox Jews believed that Jews must follow traditions that had existed for centuries without question. Reform Jews contended that, by relaxing Judaism's rules, reluctant Jews would be more likely to remain true to Judaism. In essence, Reform Judaism created a less structured and more democratic branch of the Jewish faith. By the 1880s, approximately ninety percent of synagogues within the United States belonged to the Reform tradition. That does not mean that no Orthodox Jews resided in Ohio during this period. Cleveland had both Reform and Orthodox temples by the late 1800s.
Thousands more Jews arrived in Ohio during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like other immigrants, many of these people were fleeing economic deprivation in Europe. The Jews also were fleeing religious persecution. Unfortunately, Jews did not always experience a better life in the United States, including in Ohio. Jews commonly lived together in their own communities or sections within cities because other Americans were often intolerant of Jewish religious beliefs. The Jews, like many other immigrants, found safety living in communities with people like themselves. For example, in Cleveland, most Jews lived just south of the downtown area, in a region nicknamed "Haymarket." Glenville was another prominent Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland.
Despite the discrimination and intolerance that they faced, Ohio Jews succeeded in creating productive lives for themselves. During the late 1800s and the early 1900s, most Jewish immigrants settled in either Cincinnati or Cleveland. Other large Ohio cities also experienced an influx of Jewish migrants, but the numbers were significantly smaller than those Jews flocking to Cincinnati and Cleveland. Most Jewish immigrants found employment in various businesses, including stores, banking institutions, and factories, especially textile ones. They also created several charitable organizations to assist their fellow Jews. Cincinnati Jews established the Jewish Foster Home and a Jewish Ladies' Sewing Society. Cleveland had the Hebrew Relief Association, the Jewish Orphan Asylum, and a retirement home. Across Ohio, most Jewish temples supported schools. Jews preferred sending their children to Jewish schools rather than to Ohio's public schools. Several Jewish newspapers also existed in Ohio, including Die Yiddeshe Velt and Yiddeshe Tegliche Presse. Both of these papers began publication in Cleveland during the early twentieth century.
While Jewish people continue to immigrate to Ohio today, most Jewish Ohioans or their ancestors arrived in the state prior to 1940. During World War II, as many as eight million Jewish people in Europe perished in the Holocaust. With the creation of Israel following this conflict, many Jewish people, including many from Ohio, migrated to this new nation. Ohio's Jewish population, however, remained large and thriving at the start of the twenty-first century. Jewish synagogues and other cultural institutions continue to enhance Ohio life.
- Gartner, Lloyd P. History of the Jews of Cleveland. Cleveland, OH: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1978.
- Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.