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Virtual Jewish World: Cleveland, Ohio

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 area.

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 children.

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 occupations.

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 community.

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 achievement.

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 industrial labor.

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.

Sources: Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, Also see: Cleveland Jewish History