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Cleveland’s Jewish Community Punches Above Its Weight Class

At November’s March for Israel in Washington, D.C., Clevelanders made a big impression. But the city’s Jews have been well-organized for more than a century.

Samantha Baskind
February 20, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

At midnight on Nov. 14, 2023, over 1,700 Clevelanders gathered in the parking lot of a local shopping mall to board chartered buses headed to the U.S. Capitol. The group traveled six hours through the night to march at the National Mall in solidarity with Israel in the wake of Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 terrorist attack, and to demand the release of the hostages abducted to Gaza.

Exhausted but galvanized, as Cleveland’s Jews often are, the participants trekked a mile from the Kennedy Center to the rally, carrying posters declaring “Cleveland Stands With Israel.” Amid a sea of an estimated 290,000 people, Clevelanders brandishing their signs were unexpectedly prominent in photos published in nearly all major news outlets.

Nearby Detroit and Pittsburgh, with their similarly sized Jewish communities, sent hundreds to the march, while Cleveland broke records. With a modest population of 80,600, the city’s Jewish community is filled with overachievers. Without much more than a week’s lead time, their well-oiled social infrastructure was primed for just such an event. At the helm, the 120-year-old Jewish Community Federation—the city’s umbrella organization—recruited participants, organized them into cohorts, centralized communication, designed and produced swag, and provided three catered kosher meals for participants. Most important, the organization secured round-trip transportation for anyone who wanted to make the journey. When Federation President Erika B. Rudin-Luria learned about the march, she was in transit, headed back home to Cleveland from a brief trip to Israel. “I sent a text message to a few people in the office and said, ‘just start finding buses.’” And they did. Twenty-five buses traveled caravan-style, their passengers flush with a sense of resolve and solidarity. It would never have been otherwise.

Those gathered in Washington, D.C., from across the country may have been surprised by the mass of Cleveland signs and support. But for Jewish Clevelanders, the strength of their turnout came as no surprise.

Cleveland’s first group of Jewish immigrants arrived in 1839 from Bavaria with the explicit intention to build a community in the growing city. They were sent off with a letter from their ancestral community offering blessings for the journey and an exhortation to never forget their Jewish values: “The promise to remain good Jews may never and should never be broken during the trip, nor in your home life, nor when you go to sleep, nor when you rise again, nor in the raising of your children.”

You can have everything Jewish and everything American in Cleveland without sacrificing anything—except the sun.

By the beginning of the Civil War, Cleveland’s Jews numbered 850; they had organized a Jewish German-language newspaper, burial society, Benevolent Society, and B’nai B’rith, as well as culture clubs including the Young Men’s Literary Society and Zion Singing Society. The city’s first two congregations, both Reform, are still in operation today: Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and The Temple-Tifereth Israel, each with around 1,000 families, are among the city’s largest.

Scholar, activist, and renowned Zionist pioneer Abba Hillel Silver arrived in Cleveland in 1917 to serve as Tifereth Israel’s rabbi, a position he occupied for 46 years. Silver, along with other influential Cleveland rabbis––among them his son Daniel Silver and prominent civil rights activist Arthur Lelyveld––engaged young people from their pulpits and through their actions to become politically and socially involved in the fight for workers’ rights, and in the Civil Rights Movement. The elder Silver boldly broke with the Reform movement’s official anti-Zionist stance, working to form and lead the American Zionist Emergency Council, mobilizing political support for the creation of a Jewish homeland. Within hours after the United Nations General Assembly voted to approve Resolution 181, paving the way for the establishment of the State of Israel, the Cleveland rabbi spoke to a crowd of nearly 100,000 gathered in Madison Square Garden and outside on the streets. “World Jewry will not put up with gas chambers anymore,” he roared, “determined [now] to defend the state which after so much struggle ... has finally, by the grace of God, been reconstituted.” Reverberation of Silver’s energetic leadership, activism, and support for Israel can still be felt in Cleveland today.

The city’s Jewish population swelled to an all-time high of 86,540 in the years following WWII, when economic prosperity and a baby boom, combined with ethnic and racial tensions, lured Jews to the eastern suburbs. As families moved, so did the congregations and institutions they had long nurtured. Today, the community is home to over 40 synagogues, nine Jewish schools of all denominations, seven youth groups, four kosher groceries, and at least three kosher pizzerias. Perhaps most remarkable is the compact nature of the demographic structure, with the overwhelming majority residing in just a few square miles.

The consensus among Clevelanders is that this geographical closeness contributes to the success of its institutions. “Cleveland Jews work so well together because we chat,” said nonagenarian Albert Ratner, a former board chair of Federation whose family has lived in Cleveland for over 100 years.

Stephen H. Hoffman, immediate past president of Federation, concurs that physical proximity is a chief factor defining Jewish success. He remembers carpooling to work in the 1970s and regularly stopping for breakfast at Sands Deli, a onetime Cleveland institution. There he would bump into colleagues and friends, where he could solicit annual donations over a cup of coffee and a blintz.

And regardless of disagreements around the board table, “you have to maintain a level of civility and camaraderie,” Rudin-Luria added, because “you will inevitably run into at least someone from that meeting at the grocery store or wherever you’re going for dinner.”

In that sense, Cleveland is like a shtetl. But it is located in a vibrant, affordable city with three professional sports teams, a world-class art museum and orchestra, and the largest performing arts district in the country outside of New York City. You can have everything Jewish and everything American in Cleveland without sacrificing anything—except the sun.

Founded in 1903 in response to an influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who faced language barriers, poverty, and social isolation, Jewish Federation has served as an organizational linchpin ever since, centralizing fundraising and coordinating communal efforts. This year, Federation’s annual campaign raised a record $36,355,013, representing 11,881 donors. Added to this figure is the $33,349,261 raised for an Israel Emergency Campaign initiated soon after Oct. 7. No wonder the organization had the capacity to galvanize the community for December’s march in Washington, D.C., and fully fund the $401,000 trip.

In addition to supporting Israel, and its own local agencies and other diaspora communities, fostering future leadership is key to the organization’s mission. The biennial, six-month Mandel Symposium, founded in 1983, nurtures emerging visionaries by building peer relationships and offering hands-on philanthropic experiences. Unique to Cleveland, the program has trained about 600 participants since it launched. “I owe much of my own success to what I learned through participating in the program and then later going on to chair the initiative, which is that leaders take risks,” remarked Scott Simon, author of Scare Your Soul, and founder of the attendant movement inspiring change through small acts of courage. Even teenage Clevelanders are not too young to learn core values of community engagement. Every year the Maurice Saltzman Youth Grant Program brings together fledgling philanthropists from all denominations, challenging them to research and then allocate tzedakah to what they deem as worthy Jewish causes.

Jewish Cleveland’s entrepreneurial spirit combined with its powerful sense of solidarity lies at the core of its communal success. There is also something to be said for gritty Midwesterners living in an often-denigrated Rust Belt town, wrongly dubbed the “mistake on the lake” although rightly known for brutal lake-effect snow. The case of Beit Shean, Cleveland’s sister city in Israel’s northern Galilee region, exemplifies this spirited determination. When Los Angeles walked away from its relationship with Beit Shean because they found it too hard to forge a relationship, Cleveland’s Jewish citizens felt themselves up to the task.

“Over the years, we’ve worked very hard at bridging the city and the valley divide, and we successfully helped close that,” remembered Hoffman, who went on the initial 1995 visit to Beit Shean with other Clevelanders. Hoffman and his crew had the vision to build stronger resident activism to replace their reliance on governmental structures. Also hoping to stimulate tourism to the town’s early-Bronze Age archeological site, Cleveland worked with residents to promote small businesses by, to name one instance, providing training for women chefs to cater for tourists. Of late, significant headway has been made to bring STEM education more intensely into the school systems. Beit Shean has thrived under the care of its sister. In turn, Cleveland has welcomed Beit Shean youth into its schools and summer camps, thus benefiting from the peer-to-peer relationships formed with their own children.

Leadership across geographical borders has a long history. Alanna Cooper, Abba Hillel Silver chair in Jewish studies at Case Western Reserve University, explained, “Despite their distance from major Jewish cultural centers like New York, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, Cleveland’s Jews have been forerunners in promoting worldwide Jewish movements.” Cleveland was home to the first organization in the United States formed specifically to advocate for Jews in the Soviet Union. Founded in 1963, the work of Cleveland Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism soon ignited similar activism in other North American cities, eventually leading to the formation of Union of Councils for Soviet Jews to coordinate the local groups. Until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Clevelanders remained at the forefront of the worldwide human rights campaign for the freedom of Soviet Jews to live as Jews wherever they desired. “We’ve kept this history alive,” noted Sean Martin, curator for Jewish history at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society, “not only through preserving and organizing documentation related to this important work, but through providing the Soviet immigrants themselves a platform to continue telling their stories.” Some 12,000 Jews emigrated from the former USSR to Cleveland.

No surprise that when the massive Washington, D.C., rally was organized on behalf of Soviet Jews in 1987, Clevelanders came out in droves. Indeed, some who attended the march this past December remembered being in that same spot 37 years ago—supporting and speaking out, and coming together to bring about change. As Rudin-Luria observed, “Cleveland Jews stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Cleveland today is not without its challenges. Leaders navigate increased security needs, how best to support an aging boomer population and their caregivers, and how to shape Jewish identity through education. Since Ohio is a battleground state in presidential elections, political division within the Jewish community can sometimes seem a threat to the long-held sense of unity. And now a very new concern has arisen since the Oct. 7 pogrom, although one not endemic to Cleveland: Is the violence of that day in Israel, and the subsequent antisemitism in America, going to frighten young Jews away from Jewish life? Federation is quickly accumulating data to position the philanthropy to best meet these most pressing needs.

“We think we’re good, but we can always be better,” said Ratner. “We’re all about raising the bar and serving our community better and making it stronger. Every time we hit a goal, we’re already running toward the next one.”

Samantha Baskind, Distinguished Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University, is the author of six books, including The Warsaw Ghetto in American Art and Culture and Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America.