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Downsizing the Community

In the face of a slow demise, the Jews of Youngstown, Ohio, struggle for survival—and prepare for the worst

Dorie Chevlen
July 31, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

On a warm day in July, the Knox Street Cemetery in Youngstown, Ohio, showed no signs of life except for the few birds building nests in the old trees surrounding the graveyard. A barbed wire fence lines the perimeter, and a rusty lock holds the iron gate tightly closed against would-be visitors or vandals. Generations of the city’s Jewish community lie beneath the grass in this lot, with weather-worn dates reaching back to the mid-1800s. Today, though, there are no little rocks left on the headstones by visitors, and no flowers. One day soon, perhaps, there will be no Jews left in town to visit.

For the small Jewish community of Youngstown, this cemetery and others like it represent a problem of growing urgency. The city’s Jewish population has been shrinking drastically for decades, as its aging members die or move to sunnier climes. With few young people staying, and few moving in, Jewish Youngstown has been forced to answer how—if at all—it will survive.

An ad hoc cemetery association formed by three community members seeks to prepare for a future in which it won’t. “With the Jewish community getting smaller and smaller in this area, we made the decision that at some point in time there’s not going to be too many people left, and we’ll need to provide for the future of their cemeteries,” explained Sam Roth, one of the organizers. Youngstown has seven Jewish cemeteries, the majority of which are owned and operated by the remaining synagogues. But there are concerns that with the shrinking population, many of the synagogues will be forced to consolidate or close. “Some will last longer than others, but some are going to just go away,” said Paul Schwebel, another organizer. “And someone is going to have to take over these cemeteries.”

The association is still in the early stages of planning; organizers have met with a lawyer to obtain nonprofit status, and a consultant to crunch the numbers concerning economic requirements of providing the necessary maintenance on the lots. Representatives from the city’s synagogues have shown interest in preliminary meetings but, said the third organizer, Bill Benedick, “We’re moving like a tortoise, not like a hare, because every temple has its own needs, and there’s different criteria for each cemetery.” Some of the less-traditional cemeteries have started accepting cremains and non-Jews into their plots, for example, whereas others adamantly refuse to do so. “Everyone has different ideas,” Schwebel explained, “and somehow you have to put all that together into something that works for everyone.”

To many of the Jews in this Rust Belt city, the community’s demographic collapse would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago. Jews had felt welcome in the area since the earliest days of its settlement, starting with the first trickle of European migrants in the 1830s. As Youngstown’s steel and manufacturing industry grew, more and more Jews were drawn to the Mahoning Valley to make their fortunes or escape the woes of anti-Semitism abroad. In the mid-20th century, Youngstown’s Jewish population peaked at 8,000, filling six teeming synagogues in the city, plus several more in its immediate suburbs.

The course of Youngstown’s Jewish population decline largely paralleled that of the community at large. In the late 1970s steel mill closures spelled the end of the industry that had been the economic backbone of the city. In the 1970s, Youngstown’s population dropped 20 percent, to 112,000 from around 140,500. In subsequent years, Youngstown’s numbers continued to drop; the current population is only around 65,000. The Jewish community fared even worse. “When we went through that bad period—when the steel mills closed and the auto plants vacated—most of the Jewish population moved out, especially the young ones,” explained Neil Yutkin, co-president of Ohev Tzedek, a non-affiliated synagogue that now serves 31 families and 63 individuals.

Today, only about 1,400 Jews remain in the city, very few of them young people or new families. The numbers appear bleak, but Youngstown is not a community that gives up easily. “You know, Jewish life is a miracle,” said Rabbi Joseph Schonberger of El Emeth, a Conservative synagogue that maintains a congregation of about 177 families. “If Jewish existence depended on logic, no Jew would exist today.” Schonberger’s optimism is one shared across the Jewish community. Even as some prepare for a day when there are no Jews left, others strive to keep the remaining community surviving as long as possible.

For Akiva Academy, survival has meant turning to the larger community. Opened in the 1980s as the city’s first Jewish parochial school, Akiva was a boon, or at least a respite, for the community, which had previously relied on Sunday school programming and after-school Judaica classes for the area’s youth. When I attended the school as a child many years ago, it was already ominously small, but still majority-Jewish; in my sixth-grade graduating class, nine out of 10 of us were Jews. A few years later, when Kathy Mioni took over as principal in 2011, there were only 40 students enrolled in the entire school. “There was a really dismal forecast that the time for an education at Akiva had passed,” said Mioni, herself not Jewish. Thanks to the growing school choice program in Ohio, however, as well as energetic outreach, Mioni was able to open enrollment to a larger swath of the city—most of them non-Jews. Today, the school has expanded to 145 students, only 22 of whom are Jewish. “I know it’s odd for a Jewish day school to have more non-Jews,” Mioni conceded. But without the voucher program, she said, “we would not be able to survive.”

Ironically, these new demographics allow Akiva to retain its Jewish identity. “The Hebrew/Judaica program is actually stronger now than it was when there were more Jewish kids,” Mioni said. With the money afforded by the vouchers, Akiva was able to hire three full-time teachers from Israel. “The secular education pays for the Hebrew/Judaic piece,” Mioni explained. The number of Jewish students is paltry by any assessment, but Mioni refuses to believe that the numbers spell doom. “We’re hoping all the Jewish families have children!” she said with a laugh. “We are praying the blessing of Abraham on all of our Jewish families!”

Youngstown’s Jewish Community Center and Heritage Manor nursing home have applied a similar strategy to Akiva’s. When the nursing home first opened over 50 years ago, there was a waitlist for elder community members to move in. But due to the dwindling Jewish population, in 2005 Heritage started marketing to non-Jews as well. (By law, any facility that is certified Medicaid-eligible must be open to all individuals, but until then Heritage had not marketed their service to the general community.) The facility is now majority non-Jewish. Its kitchen remains kosher, and it still offers weekly Jewish prayer services, but Christian Bible classes have been added as well. Likewise, the membership of the JCC is about 80 percent non-Jewish. “We wouldn’t have a building without the non-Jewish population,” said Andy Lipkin, executive director of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation, whose offices take up the JCC’s top floor.

Where these groups have been able to survive through larger community engagement, the Orthodox Jews of Youngstown face perhaps the toughest odds. Children of Israel synagogue, known as COI, is already relegated to a small worship hall in the back of El Emeth’s building, and has gone several years without a full-time rabbi. While the other three synagogues have started joint services for certain holidays, COI must remain apart, since such collaboration “would be in conflict with the tenets of Orthodoxy,” its president, Alvin Weisberg, explained. With only about 20 family units making up the congregation, Weisberg wishes more young Orthodox families would move to the area, but recognizes the challenges: There are no kosher restaurants or groceries, and though Akiva still teaches Judaica, its majority non-Jewish student body would prove problematic playmates for children who can’t play video games on Shabbat or eat non-kosher snacks. “Nobody wants to be the one to create the path,” Weisberg said with a sigh, “they want to follow the path.”

Like the rest of the community, though, it carries on. COI now engages visiting rabbis for High Holidays, and what weekends they can manage. Usually those rabbis bring with them some young yeshiva students to ensure a minyan, spending the night at Weisberg’s house or in blow-up mattresses set up in El Emeth’s unused school wing. Yet another geographically distant rabbi hosts weekly Torah classes via Skype. Some Saturdays only two or three people make it to the grassroots services, but Weisberg predicts the congregation will survive “as long as there’s someone to pay for the lights.”

The other three synagogues in town boast larger numbers, but even they aren’t immune to population concerns. Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom, the oldest of the city, recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, and maintains a congregation of around 343 family units—a number shored up by the closing and subsequent absorption of nearby Sharon, Pennsylvania’s now defunct Temple Beth Israel five years ago. “Let’s face it, this community is too small to support four temples,” Ohev’s Yutkin said flatly. Already the disparate factions have started combining their congregations for holidays like Sukkot, Purim, and Hanukkah. And this year, they decided to combine, along with the Jewish Federation, in their fundraising efforts. “In the old days,” Yutkin explained, “each synagogue would do it separately … but this is not the old days. So we’re getting together to do one universal one for the Jewish community.”

In the future, many community members predict, more and more of Jewish life in this valley will be forced to consolidate. Lipkin’s Jewish Federation hopes to create recruitment incentives for young Jewish families to move to the area, but they’re “not at the point yet” to launch that mission. And even then, Lipkin concedes, it would be a challenge: “We can do all we want to try to bring Jews to this community. If we brought four or five families here … professionals with kids, that would be great for us—we’d be moving in 20, 25 people. But we can lose that much by people dying or moving in six months in our community.”

The odds may be stacked against Youngstown’s Jews, but very few are willing to predict a future entirely without them. “To continue as a Jewish community means having faith, having imagination, having vision,” Rabbi Schonberger told me one Friday afternoon as I left his office at El Emeth. “The size of the community isn’t as important as the dedication of the people there.” He walked me to the door and hurried back inside—Shabbat would fall soon, and he had a congregation to lead.


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Dorie Chevlen is a Youngstown native whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and Science, among others.

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