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Encyclopedia Judaica:
Columbus, Ohio


Ohio: Virtual Jewish World |Ohio-Israel Cooperation | Cleveland


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COLUMBUS, capital of Ohio, U.S. The Jewish population of Columbus and the rest of Franklin County was estimated at 22,000 out of a total of 1,080,000 (roughly 2% of the total population) in 2001. Chosen for its central location, Columbus was founded in 1812 to serve as the state capital and was incorporated as a city in 1834. By 1840, the first Jewish families, the Nusbaums and the Gundersheimers, settled in the city. They had emigrated from the village of Mittelsinn in the northwest corner of Bavaria (Lower Franconia), and they earned their living in Columbus as peddlers and merchants. They were soon joined by a few other families from Mittelsinn and elsewhere in Germany. In 1851 the first congregation, B'nai Jeshurun, was organized. Orthodox services were held in a variety of locations and were led by educated laymen such as Simon Lazarus, who volunteered to serve as the new congregation's first religious leader. The following year, the city's first Jewish cemetery was established. By 1868, religious tensions led to a split in the small community, and 19 families organized a Reform congregation, B'nai Israel (now Temple Israel). Those supporting Reform included all of the surviving founders of B'nai Jeshurun, men who were now prosperous and well-established Columbus merchants. Within two years, B'nai Israel hired the city's first full-time ordained rabbi and dedicated the city's first synagogue building. Soon thereafter, B'nai Jeshurun folded and its members joined B'nai Israel. The growth of the congregation to over 100 families required a larger synagogue, which was completed in 1904 among the grand homes of the city's Olde Towne East neighborhood.

The arrival of Jews from Eastern Europe beginning in the 1880s brought greater diversity to religious life. In 1889, Agudas Achim was incorporated as an Orthodox congregation, formalizing a minyan that had been meeting for several years. Other Orthodox congregations developed to represent a particular ethnic group or style of worship. Those familiar with the Polish-Sephardi ritual (instead of the Ashkenazi ritual in place at Agudas Achim) organized Beth Jacob congregation in 1897. Hungarian immigrants formed Tifereth Israel in 1901. In 1913, another group desiring to use the Polish-Sephardi ritual created Ahavas Sholom. These congregations initially lacked the wealth and resources of Temple Israel. Their services took place in locations in the impoverished neighborhood where most East European Jews lived, immediately south and east of downtown. Agudas Achim dedicated its first synagogue building in 1896, moving to a larger structure in 1907. In 1908, the congregation hired its first ordained rabbi. Beth Jacob laid the cornerstone for its first synagogue in 1909. Tifereth Israel established its first permanent house of worship in 1915, while a converted stable next door to Agudas Achim served as home to Ahavas Sholom. Tifereth Israel joined the Conservative movement in 1922 and built a synagogue in 1927 in Olde Towne East. The structure, with additions and renovations in subsequent years, remains Tifereth Israel's home. It is the oldest synagogue building in continuous use in Columbus.

After World War II, most Jews moved farther east into the prosperous suburban enclave of Bexley and the surrounding Columbus neighborhoods of Berwick and Eastmoor. This area is still home to the greatest concentration of Jewish institutions: the Leo Yassenoff Jewish Center, Wexner Heritage Village (a care and housing facility for the elderly), Jewish Family Services, the Columbus Community Kollel, as well as synagogues Agudas Achim, Ahavas Sholom, and Beth Jacob. The Orthodox congregation Torat Emet was established in Bexley in 2001. Agudas Achim joined the Conservative movement in 2004. Although the East Side remained the heart of the Columbus Jewish community, in the early 21st century a majority of Jewish households lived in the suburban and fast-growing northern section of Franklin County. Temple Israel moved to the Far East Side of Columbus in 1959, and two more recent Reform congregations are located in northern Franklin County suburbs. Beth Tikvah, founded in 1961, is in Worthington. Temple Beth Shalom, founded in 1977, is in New Albany. Most of the Jews living in the northern suburbs, however, were unaffiliated and did not actively participate in Jewish communal organizations.

In the early 21st century, Columbus natives represented only a minority of the Jewish community. Most Jews had moved to the area, with steady population growth accelerating in the decades after World War II. Between 1975 and 2001, the Jewish population of Franklin County grew by an estimated 60 percent and included the resettlement of more than 1,400 Jews from the former Soviet Union. This rapid influx made the dynamics of the Columbus Jewish community more akin to those of quickly growing Southern and Western U.S. cities than to other Ohio communities. In fact, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Columbus Jewish community was on the verge of overtaking Cincinnati as the second-largest in the state after Cleveland. New Jewish institutions were emerging. A second Jewish newspaper, The New Standard, began publication in 2003, in competition with The Ohio Jewish Chronicle, which started in 1922. The Columbus Jewish Day School, an egalitarian elementary school modeled on the Heschel School in New York, opened in 1998 as an alternative to Columbus Torah Academy, an Orthodox K-12 day school in operation since 1958.

In the early years of the community, many Jews in Columbus earned their living in retail activities. Simon Lazarus' descendants developed his clothing store into a major department-store chain in the Midwest which continued to bear the Lazarus name until 2005, when the stores were merged into Macy's. In the early 21st century, retail and real-estate development continued as important businesses for Columbus Jews, though many members of the community were involved in professions such as law and medicine. As a center of government, insurance, and education, Columbus provided employment opportunities for the highly educated Jewish community. In particular, Ohio State University has attracted many Jewish faculty and students (it was estimated that more than 3,500 Jewish students were attending Ohio State in 2005), and the university has a well-respected Jewish studies program, employing distinguished Jewish scholars such as Marvin Fox. The campus area is host to student centers from both the Hillel and Chabad organizations.

The Jewish community has enjoyed friendly relations with its non-Jewish neighbors. Antisemitism was restricted primarily to social organizations and was far more prevalent at the beginning of the 20th century than at the beginning of the 21st. Jews have taken prominent roles in local government in both the Republican and Democratic parties, most notably U.S. Congressman Robert N. Shamansky (Democrat, 1981–83), Columbus City Council members Melville D. Frank (Republican, 1930–37) and Maurice D. Portman (Democrat, 1966–96), Franklin County Treasurer Philip Goldslager (Democrat, 1967–73), and state representative and senator David Goodman (Republican, from 1998). For decades, Jews have regularly served as judges in elected and administrative courts in Franklin County. The community has gained international prominence through the Jewish philanthropy of Samuel M. *Melton (1900–1993), Leslie H. Wexner (1937– ), and members of the Schottenstein family. Notable achievers who grew up in Columbus include cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folk-man (1933– ), author and columnist Bob Greene (1947– ), and cabaret performer Michael Feinstein (1956– ).

 


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

M.L. Raphael, Jews and Judaism in a Midwestern Community: Columbus, Ohio, 1840–1975 (1979).

[Michael Meckler (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

 

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