The history of Jewish life
in Cleveland, Ohio, began, not in Cleveland,
but in the small town of Unsleben, Bavaria,
on May 5, 1839. On that day, a group of 19
emigrants led by Moses Alsbacher departed for
America, seeking escape from political unrest
and economic and personal discrimination. They
chose Cleveland as their final destination
because a fellow townsman, Simson Thorman,
had two years earlier made this thriving village
on Lake Erie the base for his fur trading business.
Arriving in late 1839, they found their first
homes in the Terminal Tower-Central Market
A Torah scroll was among the belongings of this group of settlers, and soon
after they arrived, they formed the Israelitic Society for worship.
By 1850, the society had split permanently into two congregations,
Anshe Chesed, today Fairmount Temple, and Tifereth Israel, now The
Temple. Over the next 20 years, both congregations gradually adopted
the Reform mode of worship under the leadership of Rabbi Isadore
Kalisch, Cleveland's first rabbi.
Anshe Chesed dedicated its Eagle Street Synagogue
in 1846, and 10 years later Tifereth Israel opened its synagogue on
what is now East 6th and Huron. Because the public schools of the
1840s were poor, the congregations sponsored secular as well as
religious education for this first generation of Cleveland Jewish
Many of the settlers earned their livelihoods as
peddlers. Some came with skills like cigar rolling, while others
established dry goods stores, butcher shops, and bakeries. Clothing
manufacturing, wholesaling, and retailing were also popular
Out of deep-rooted Jewish tradition, establishing
charitable societies came naturally to the Jewish settlers of
Cleveland. In 1868, the Order of B'nai B'rith converted a health
sanitarium at East 51st and Woodland to an asylum to care for Jewish
orphans of the Civil War. This first regional Jewish charitable
institution in the United States eventually evolved into Bellefaire
and Jewish Children's Bureau.
Shortly afterward came the Hebrew Relief Society,
in 1875, the forerunner of Jewish Family Service Association, and
then Montefiore Home for Aged and Infirm Israelites, in 1882, a
signal that the pioneer generation was entering its golden years. In
1892, the Young Women's Hospital Society began to raise funds for a
Jewish hospital, to be called Mt. Sinai, and opened its doors in a
remodeled home on East 37th in 1903.
By 1880, this first phase of the immigrant era had
ended. Cleveland Jews, numbering 3,500 and primarily of German
origin, were highly Americanized and very much part of the general
The second phase of the immigration was prompted
by Eastern European Jews fleeing the harsh persecution and economic
deprivation of the shtetls of Russia and Poland.
Though the Jews of Cleveland may have felt uncomfortable with their
strangely dressed, Yiddish-speaking brethren, they did not fail to
help them make their way in a new city and a new land. Additional
outgrowths of the desire to respond to social needs were the
establishment of the Cleveland Section of National Council of Jewish
Women and the Council Educational Alliance (CEA) -- both formed just
before the turn of the century.
Then, in 1903, the recognition that local social
problems required a more organized approach to the solicitation and
distribution of funds led to the creation of a Federation of Jewish
Charities. Under its first president, Charles Eisenman, the
Federation unified fund-raising for eight beneficiary agencies.
During this time, the dominating institution of
the Woodland neighborhood was the CEA, which decades later merged
with several other agencies to become the Jewish Community Center.
For the new immigrants this was the principal Americanizing agency.
It was here that they came for recreation, to socialize, to learn
English, or to learn job skills.
The immigrants who came after the turn of the
century found a bustling, crowded Jewish neighborhood. Single homes
now housed three and four families, frequently with boarders. Almost
every block had its mom-and-pop stores -- a grocery, a confectionery,
a butcher shop, a tailor shop. Newly established Orthodox institutions abounded: small synagogues,
the Jewish Orthodox Home for the Aged (forerunner of Menorah Park),
and the print shop of the Yiddishe Velt, the Yiddish language
newspaper published by Samuel Rocker.
Many immigrants found work in Cleveland's thriving
garment industry, then second only to New York's. Other newcomers
entered the building trades, becoming members of the Jewish
Carpenters Local 1750. Those with an inclination to entrepreneurial
pursuits were not without role models. It was during the Woodland
period that Henry Spira went from saloon-keeping to banking, Harry
Blonder started his hardware and paint business, and Adolph
Weinberger opened his first drug store.
Though life was hard, the immigrants also had
opportunities for recreation -- a picnic in Luna Park, a concert by
the Cleveland Jewish Band, or a Yiddish play at Czar Harry
Bernstein's People's Theater. So that children could escape the
overcrowded city at least for a week, Samuel D. Wise donated land
along the lake near Euclid, Ohio, for a fresh air camp in 1907.
By the early 1900s, the Jewish community was
anything but cohesive. The established German Jewish pioneer
families, followers of Reform Judaism, were well-to-do leaders in
civic organizations. By contrast, the Eastern Europeans were Orthodox
in their faith, Zionist and liberal in their politics, and Yiddish in
their culture. Two rabbis, Moses Gries of Tifereth Israel, and Samuel
Margolies of Anshe Emeth, were noted spokesmen, respectively, for the
two groups. By the 1920s, Cleveland's Jewish population had climbed
to an all-time high of approximately 90,000 and had basically vacated
Woodland for Glenville and Mount Pleasant-Kinsman.
The Glenville area, adjacent to the academic and
cultural institutions of University Circle, was anchored by the
Euclid Avenue Temple, The Temple, and Mt. Sinai Hospital. Its social
and communal heart was the Jewish Center at 105th Street and
Grantwood, which not only was home to a Conservative congregation,
but also housed branches of the CEA and Cleveland Hebrew Schools. At
the center, community meetings were held and people crowded to hear
leading Jewish orators of the day. The last Yiddish theater (the
Manhattan), the Yiddishe Velt, and the Hebrew Cultural Garden were
also located in the Glenville area.
Orthodox culture flourished in Glenville as well,
evidenced by the presence of numerous congregations, the Jewish
Orthodox Home for the Aged, and Orthodox schools like Yeshivath Adath
and later the Hebrew Academy and Telshe Yeshiva. As for public
school, the community was immensely proud of the predominantly Jewish
student body of Glenville High School, known for unmatched academic
The Kinsman-Mt. Pleasant neighborhood was a more
ethnically mixed area, newer, and more working-class. It had nothing
to compare in size or architecture to the institutions of Glenville,
but its focal points -- the Kinsman Jewish Center and other Orthodox
synagogues, the Jewish Carpenter's Hall, the main branch of the
Workmen's Circle, Socialist Farband Center, and the CEA's central
facility -- gave it a uniquely Jewish flavor.
After World War I, distinctions within the
community began to blur, and new leaders emerged with the vision of
unifying Jewish community life under the guidance of the Federation.
Four men of particular influence rose from the religious community.
A brilliant orator and scholar, Rabbi
Abba Hillel Silver had assumed the pulpit of The Temple in 1917.
In addition to his Zionist work,
which has won him an honored place in modern Jewish history, Rabbi
Silver played a distinguished role in civic affairs, devoting himself
to causes such as inter-religious understanding and problems in
Barnett R. Brickner became the rabbi of the Euclid
Avenue Temple in 1925, where he served for 33 years. He was a strong
orator and educator with a personal warmth that attracted many to his
congregation. Committed to bolstering Reform
Judaism, he sought to bring it in "consonance with modern
life," while restoring some of the significant customs that had
been previously abandoned.
During his years in Cleveland at B'nai Jeshurun
and later Anshe Emeth, Rabbi Solomon Goldman was the leading
supporter of modern Hebrew education. He had stormy years with the
two congregations, as they struggled over their shift from Orthodox to Conservative Judaism.
A poet, essayist, lecturer, and teacher, Abraham
H. Friedland came to Cleveland to head the Cleveland Talmud Torah and
the Bureau of Jewish Education. He became the focal personality of
all Hebraic and Zionist cultural life in the city.
The economic disaster of the Depression and
threats overseas shifted the focus of Jewish concerns. The sheer
struggle for survival occupied thousands of Jews who might otherwise
have contributed more energy and money to Jewish purposes, while the
growing peril to Jews in Europe and Palestine tended to divert
interest from the local social welfare agenda.
But at this time of potential slackening in
concerted action, the Jewish Federation created two new catalysts to
galvanize the community. One, in 1931, was a reshaped, dramatically
expanded annual campaign -- the
Jewish Welfare Fund Appeal -- addressing overseas needs and local
needs in Jewish education in much greater measure. The other, in
1935, was the Jewish Community Council, an independent agency born
out of the menace of anti-Semitism and charged with working with all community groups to combat
prejudice and discrimination in every phase of American life.
The Jewish population shrank during those years,
due to the cessation of mass immigration and a drop in the birthrate.
At the same time, the number of Jews entering professions rose
steadily, and a new agency, Jewish Vocational Service, was created in
1939 to help with job placement.
As the community began to move to the suburbs,
Cleveland Heights emerged by 1940 as the second largest Jewish
neighborhood, with the primary concentration around Coventry Road.
Unlike earlier migrations, institutions now seemed to be leading the
way. As early as the 1920s, Montefiore Home had moved to Mayfield and
Lee Roads, and B'nai Jeshurun across the street, calling itself
Temple-on-the-Heights. By 1929, the Jewish Orphan Home had relocated
even farther out on a new campus in University Heights, changed its
name to Bellefaire, and revised its program to become a residential
treatment center for troubled children.
Philanthropy accelerated, spurred by cataclysmic
events in Europe, and the number of Jewish Welfare Fund contributors
in 1939 nearly doubled to 22,000. By 1944, the community had achieved
its first $1 million campaign. Concurrently, 9,823 Cleveland Jews
were serving in the armed forces.
One of the most decisive developments of the
postwar period, affecting every other phase of communal growth, was
the astonishing economic progress of the community. The entry of Jews
into the business mainstream facilitated inclusion into nearly every
area of community endeavor -- civic life, education, and culture.
Increased linkage with the general community also
drew Cleveland Jewry into the civil rights movement, as Cleveland
Jews played a leading role in efforts to break down barriers of
discrimination, In 1945, the Jewish Community Council and the local
chapter of the NAACP formed a partnership resulting in two decades of
joint leadership of the civil rights movement, ending with the
turbulent change of the 1960s.
In 1948, Cleveland Jews exulted with Jews
worldwide as Israel became a
state, and they took particular pride in Rabbi Silver's pivotal role
in fulfillment of the Zionist dream.
That year's Jewish
Welfare Fund campaign -- which now took on new meaning --
attracted an all-time high of 35,000 contributors and soared to
nearly $5 million in donations.
The exodus to the suburbs continued unabated until
the mid-1950s, emptying the central city, as the vast majority of
Jews settled in an inner suburban ring formed by Cleveland Heights,
South Euclid, University Heights, and Shaker Heights. Taylor Road
became a major hub of institutional and Orthodox Jewish life, with
Taylor Road and Park
Synagogue, Jewish Family Service Association, the Jewish
Community Center, and Hebrew Academy all within walking distance.
When many Cleveland Jews moved still farther east
in the 1960s, several Jewish institutions moved with them or opened
branches, eventually leading the Jewish
Community Federation to found the Heights Area Project to help
stabilize Jewish life in the Heights. In 1965, when the Federation
erected its own building, the organization's leaders chose a site
downtown at 18th and Euclid to symbolize the Jewish
Community Federation's commitment to the greater community.
As mass communications did indeed turn the world
into a -- global village -- the ties between Cleveland and world
Jewry grew stronger. Many Cleveland Jewish leaders rose to positions
of national and even international prominence in support of various
Jewish causes. As for the Jewish community overall, it continued its
tradition of activism and generosity, responding with fervor to the Soviet
Jewry struggle and to the emergency campaigns conducted in the
wake of Israeli wars.
By the 1980s, the agencies of the Jewish community
had evolved from charity services for the underprivileged to
sophisticated institutions serving all segments of the Jewish
population, along with many non-Jews. No longer concerned with
promoting Americanization and assimilation, the organized Jewish
community found itself addressing the opposite concern: maintaining
Jewish culture and identity.
Jewish security personnel from four U.S. cities (Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit and Kansas City) joined Israeli police officers in a tour of Israel during November 2015, to examine the safety and security procedures used by Israelis. The Security Directors for Montreal's Jewish Community, a representative from the New Jersey State Police, and a senior Department of Homeland Security official also participated in the tour. This trip was organized by the Secure Community Network, affiliated with the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA).
Now numbering over 81,500, the Cleveland Jewish
community still faces numerous challenges -- an aging and diminishing
local population, sharply rising assimilation, and a commitment to
meet unrelenting human service needs in Cleveland, Israel, and around
the world. But it confronts those challenges with a strong network of
local Jewish institutions, uncommon internal unity, and a record of
remarkable leadership, generosity, and activism that has made the
Cleveland Jewish community a model for world Jewry.