Cincinnati Jewish History
Nancy Klein

(Learn about aspects of Cincinnati's rich Jewish history in Nancy Klein's summary of various aspects of Jewish life in the article below.  To learn more about Cincinnati's Jewish history read The Jews of Cincinnati by Jonathan D. Sarna and Nancy H. Klein.)

Cincinnati, S.W. Ohio metropolis. Cincinnati shelters the oldest American Jewish community west of the Alleghenies. It was mid-19th century America’s third largest Jewish community.

The first Jew to settle in Cincinnati was Joseph Jonas who arrived from Plymouth, England, in 1817. Additional Jews from England joined him in ensuing years, and in 1824, the small community met at the home of Morris Moses, and drafted a constitution for the first congregation west of the Alleghenies, K.K. Bene Israel (Rockdale Temple).  Toward the end of the 1830s, Jews from Holland, Alsace and Germany arrived, and in 1840, organized K.K. Bene Yeshurun (Isaac M. Wise Temple). Subsequently, numerous other congregations were founded - especially with the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe after 1880. Some 21 synagogues have left a significant history in the city - some established on the basis of geography (Ahabeth Achim, desiring a location in the “upper part of the city,” 1848); some of ethnic origin (Adath Israel, the “Polische shul,” 1847; Ohav Shalom, the “Russische shul,”1882; Ansche Sholom, the “Rumanian Harmony” congregation, 1884); and some on the basis of ideology (Sherith Israel, a breakaway from Bene Israel in 1855). The Balkan Wars and World War I brought a new population of Sephardic Jews to Cincinnati, and Sephardic Beth Shalom was founded in 1913. In 1939, New Hope Congregation was founded to meet the needs and sensitivities of refugees and later survivors from Hitler’s Europe. Later additions include Humanist, Reconstructionist and Chabad expressions. As of 2004, there were 17 congregations in Cincinnati: four Reform, four Conservative, four Orthodox, three Chabad, one Humanist and one Reconstructionist congregation in nearby Hamilton.

In 1854, Isaac Mayer Wise was invited to serve as Rabbi of Bene Yeshurun. A friend of “bold plans and grand schemes,” he proceeded to establish a series of institutions that became the basis of American Reform Judaism: The Israelite (a weekly newspaper, now The American Israelite) in 1854, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism) in 1873 and the Hebrew Union College in 1875 (of which an earlier prototype, Zion College, opened and closed in 1855). The alumni of the latter institution became the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889.

Wise and his friend and colleague Max Lilienthal, who came to K.K. Bene Israel in 1855, greatly advanced the cause of American Reform. All the pre-Civil-War congregations joined Wise’s UAHC in 1873, but Adath Israel withdrew in 1886 when its program became specifically Reform and the Conservative movement began to take shape in America. The debate over the nature of Reform continued for a number of years. David Philipson’s election to K.K. Bene Israel in 1888 strengthened the radical tendencies of the movement, but more moderate Reform continued at K.K. Bene Yeshurun after Wise’s death with the appointment of Louis Grossman and the pro-Zionist James G. Heller.

The dominance of the Reform influence in Cincinnati was tempered by the influx of East European immigrants. Shachne Isaacs arrived from Lithuania as early as 1856 and founded Bet Tefillah, a synagogue, thereafter known a Shachne’s Shul, that exercised a critical posture toward Reform. Louis Feinberg, who occupied the pulpit of Adath Israel from 1918 to 1949, espoused and greatly advanced Conservative Judaism in the city, being the first graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary to hold that position. Strict Eastern European Orthodoxy found a powerful advocate in Eliezer Silver, head of Agudath Israel (the Union of Orthodox Rabbis), who was brought to Keneseth Israel in 1931. Silver greatly strengthened the institutional structures of Orthodoxy, organizing a Va’ad Hoier (an Orthodox City Council) to revamp the city’s Kashrut and improve its educational initiatives, built a new and sanitary modern mikveh, established a Kosher kitchen at Jewish Hospital, organized a Jewish Day School, was active in the founding of Sephardic Beth Shalom and New Hope Congregations and helped organize the Va’ad Hatzalah, the worldwide rescue effort coordinated by Orthodox Jewry during the Holocaust.

Cincinnati has offered an active and variegated educational and cultural scene. In the 1840s, Bene Israel established the first religious school, and in 1848, Bene Yeshurun opened an all-day school, supplemented by a bequest from Judah Touro, which enabled it to survive as an independent organization, the Talmud Yelodim Institute, until 1868. It then became a Sabbath and finally a Sunday school. In 1914, it became a supplementary school of the congregation. Bene Israel’s Noyoth, founded in 1855, merged with it briefly in the 1860s.

In later years, all the major synagogues maintained religious schools. With increasing Eastern European immigration in the 1880s, Moses Isaacs and Dov Behr Manischewitz established a Talmud Torah, which expanded by the early 1900s, until 600 pupils sought to attend the school when only 300 could be accommodated. In 1914, Manischewitz died and left a bequest of $3,000, which provided the incentive the community needed.  $15,000 was raised in just three weeks, and a new and modern building was erected, which served the community until 1927. At that time, changed conditions called for the creation of a whole new structure, and a Bureau of Jewish Education was created, which coordinated a variety of educational efforts until 1990.

The day school movement did not resume until 1947, when the Orthodox Chofetz Chaim (now Cincinnati Hebrew Day School) was created. In 1952, a non-Orthodox day school, Yavneh, was founded, and in 1988, a Hebrew high school for girls (RITSS: the Regional Institute for Torah and Secular Studies).

In 1972, a Judaic Studies program was launched at the University of Cincinnati, becoming a full department through the efforts of Professor Benny Kraut. An active Hillel association at the University of Cincinnati, established in 1948 by a group of students and agency sponsors, has been directed since the 1970s by Rabbi Abie Ingber, who has brought Hillel into the larger community through innovative programming. The Cincinnati Kollel was inaugurated in 1995 and has attracted learners from every branch of the community. Adult Jewish education was strengthened in 1991 with the opening of a branch of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, partially funded by the Jewish Federation and taking advantage of the curriculum developed for the program at Hebrew University. In its 10 years of existence, the school offered more than 1,000 adults a significant experience of Jewish literacy. Similar ventures followed, and during the 1990s and early 2000s, most congregations offered programs for adult learners, from the Orthodox Neshama to the Reform Eitz Chaim, and the Institute for Interfaith Studies offered by HUC-JIR.

The Hebrew Union College continues to be an important centerpiece for the city’s Jewish community. In 1948, a merger with Stephen S. Wise’s Jewish Institute of Religion created a New York presence for the combined institution, and the dedication of campuses in Los Angeles and Jerusalem elevated the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to international stature. In 1948, Professor of History Jacob Rader Marcus proposed the establishment of the American Jewish Archives on the Cincinnati campus, acknowledging that the American Jewish community had inherited the mantle of leadership borne by European Jewry before the Holocaust. At his death in 1998, Marcus left a legacy of $4 million to the institution, on condition that the Cincinnati campus be maintained as its permanent location. Rabbi Dr. Gary P. Zola became its Director. Marcus’s funds allowed for the renovation and expansion of the Archives. It currently offers a series of international fellowships that attract scholars of American Judaism from all over the world, while HUC-JIR itself sponsors a Christian Fellows program that has enhanced its pluralism and ecumenicity.

In addition to the Rabbinical School, the Archives, the Graduate School and the Academy for Adult Interfaith Study, the Cincinnati campus includes an Archaeology Center; a Center for the Study of Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems; The Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education; the Skirball Museum Cincinnati, presenting 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and culture through art and artifacts; the Klau Library, containing one of the world’s largest collections of printed Judaica; and the Dalsheimer Rare Book Room, which exhibits treasured illuminated manuscripts, communal records and Biblical codices. In 2005, grants from the Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation and the Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati inaugurated an expansion and renovation program for the Cincinnati campus.

Philanthropy was for many years the hallmark of Cincinnati Jewish life. A benevolent society was founded in 1838, followed by the multiplication of charitable and social service organizations. By the middle 1890s, particularly with the influx of Eastern European immigrants, a score of organizations, each addressed to a different need, each trying to survive on its own, suggested to leaders Max Senior and Bernhard Bettmann, the idea of creating a United Jewish Charities. Within a year, a headquarters was dedicated in the downtown area and the funds available to Cincinnati Jewish charities increased from $20,000 to $32,000. In 1910, over $117,000 was raised, the highest per capita contribution of any Jewish community in the U.S.

In 1904, Moscow-born Boris Bogen came to Cincinnati to serve as its director of the United Jewish Charities. Described by Max Senior as “the greatest social agency find that had ever been made in America,” Bogen was responsible for the professionalization of social work, not only in Cincinnati but throughout the United States, establishing the Jewish Social Service Bureau, the School of Jewish Social Service and the National Conference of Jewish Charities before leaving the city in 1917 to become a field director for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. By then the integrated institution was well-established.

In 1924, its name was changed to the United Jewish Social Agencies, its board having decided that the term “charities” did not convey the preventative and rehabilitative nature of its work.

Over the years, the fundraising and social service functions diverged but in 1967, the Jewish Welfare Fund and the Associated Jewish Agencies merged again to form the inclusive Jewish Federation. In 2004, this agency raised and allocated $6 million dollars for education, elderly services, family and children and national and overseas needs, including Israel. Budgetary constraints and bureaucratic requirements have resulted in the integration of formerly independent agencies like the Jewish Community Relations Council into the Federation structure.

Cincinnati Jews have also been deeply involved in non-Jewish charities, recognizing their contribution to the quality of life in the community. The Reverend Charles Goss’s history describes Charles Fleischmann and Millard Mack as contributors to “every charitable institution in the city.” Jews played particularly active roles in the work of the Associated Charities of Cincinnati (founded in 1879) and the Community Chest (founded in 1915). The latter was actually modeled on the Federation concept introduced some 20 years before by Cincinnati Jews. The Chest’s documents list Boris Bogen and Rabbi David Philipson as among those whose service was particularly noteworthy, and in 1920, the organization contributed some $200,000 to Jewish Foreign Relief, an expression of appreciation for Jewish leadership that is also evidence of Jewish stature in the general community.

In the 20th century, both Jewish and general charities subscribed to social work principles of “scientific charity.” The Social Agencies Bakeshop was informed by the idea of  “work, not charity," as were the Jewish Vocational Service and the Hebrew Free Loan Society.

Private philanthropy has also played an important role in realizing the lofty vision of the founders. The Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson Foundation, established in 1986, has made significant contributions to the city in the areas of the arts, education, children’s services, inclusion of the disabled, medicine and the vibrancy and continuity of Jewish culture. Other important contributors to the city’s institutions include Samuel and Rachel Boymel, the Paul Heiman Family and Claire and Charles Philips.

Cincinnati holds the distinction of establishing the first Jewish Hospital in the United States, in 1850. In 1996, the institution merged with the Greater Cincinnati Health Alliance, but unlike its counterpart in other cities, has kept its original name and its association with the Jewish community. In the course of this merger, the reserves of the hospital, largely accumulated during the previous two decades under President Warren Falberg, became the basis of a new agency, The Jewish Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, with a board of trustees that deliberates over the capital proposals presented to it by community institutions. As of 2005, it had distributed $33 million to the community and to Israel, funding the creation of the Judaic Studies Department of the University of Cincinnati, extensive expansion and renovation projects of the two Jewish Day Schools and major reconstruction projects of the American Jewish Archives and the Hebrew Union College. In addition, it has created a scholarship fund that enables every child who reaches Bar/Bat Mitzvah age to enjoy an experience in Israel.

In the 1880s, a Jewish Home for the Aged and Infirm (later Glen Manor) was created on the grounds of the Jewish Hospital. In 1914, an Orthodox Jewish Home for the Aged was established, but despite numerous proposals to unite the two, they remained separate for 80 years. In the 1990s, the migration of the Jewish community to the northern suburbs necessitated the removal of both homes to a new location, and the merger was finally accomplished with the creation of Cedar Village, in which Reform and Orthodox senior citizens live together more or less amicably. The institution is staffed by both an Orthodox and a Reform rabbi, and an Orthodox synagogue and a Reform temple offer worship services side by side.

Cincinnati Jewish newpapers have included the weekly English-language Israelite (now The American Israelite) and the German-language Die Deborah (1885-1900), both founded by Isaac M. Wise; The Sabbath Visitor (1874-1893); and the weekly Every Friday (1927-1965), also in English and founded by Samuel Schmidt. A glossy bimonthly magazine, Jewish Living, edited by Karen Chriqui, was launched in 2004 and has sought, like Every Friday, to mirror the range of Jewish Life in the city. A Jewish Community Center was founded in 1932 as a product of many mergers and reorganizations dating back to the establishment of the YMHA in the 1860s and incorporating the functions of the Jewish Settlement (1896) and the Jewish Community House. In 1935, the “Center” opened its own doors, then followed the migration of the community northward, occupying a single post-war location for almost 40 years. After 2000, its programs were conducted in rented quarters, while a new location was sought in the suburbs, the decision being complicated by the dispersal of the Jewish community. The JCC has sponsored a full range of Jewish cultural events, from a forum series to a chorus to dramatic series for various ages. It also coordinates a series of summer camps and nursery schools, congregate meals and programs for the elderly, in addition to the usual athletic and fitness activities.

Other active community agencies include a chapter of the American Jewish Committee, chapters of Hadassah, Women’s American Ort, and Na’amat (Pioneer Women). Chapters of the National Council of Jewish Women and the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee were forced to close in the 1990s due to a lack of volunteer resources in a situation of increasing female employment. The Poale Zion Chapter and its successor, the Labor Zionists of Cincinnati, enjoyed a 52-year life before concluding activities in 1980.  Chapters of Young Judea and Habonim have also closed, partly through the decline of the parent organizations.

As in other communities, Jews have become active in support of local, non-Jewish institutions of culture. Several such institutions, such as Pike’s Opera House, Fleischmann Gardens, the Krohn Conservatory, the Robert Marx Playhouse in the Park, the Seasongood Pavilion and the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Contemporary Arts Center, display the Jewish commitment to local culture in their very names. Others reflect the leadership of Jews in various aspects of public life, such as the Aronoff Center for the Arts and the Aronoff Center for Design, Art and Architecture at the University of Cincinnati - named for Stanley Aronoff, a President of the Ohio Senate, where he served as legislator for 36 years - or the Albert Sabin Convention Center, named for the physician who developed the oral polio vaccine. Beyond this, the Art Museum, the Symphony Orchestra, the Opera, the Ballet, the Public Library, the May Festival and numerous other cultural programs and institutions have for years depended heavily on Jews for much of their support and patronage. The names of Dr. Stanley and Mickey Kaplan and of Manuel D. and Rhoda Mayerson, are associated with cultural institutions across the board. There have been two Jewish presidents of the University of Cincinnati, Warren Bennis and Henry Winkler, and attorney Stanley Chesley serves as Chairman of its Board. An Institute for Learning in Retirement, founded the 1980s by Aaron Levine, a former executive of Federated Department Stores, and coordinated by the University, offers dozens of courses conducted by lay facilitators to hundreds of Cincinnatians every year.

Two Jewish country clubs, Losantiville and Crest Hills, which succeeded the downtown social clubs of an earlier era (the Harmonie, the Phoenix, the Allemania) merged in 2004 to form the Ridge Club. The Phoenix, which was founded in 1856 as “a German organization of Jewish men,” erected a three-story building in downtown Cincinnati in 1895, which was restored and reopened 100 years later as a restaurant and catering establishment.

Jews have been represented in nearly every sector of the Cincinnati economy. The peddlers of the early years gave way to dry goods merchants who became the founders of the city’s major department stores: Rollman’s, the Paris, Giddings and Jenny’s, which merged to become Gidding-Jenny’s, the city’s high-fashion women’s store. The progress from peddler or country merchant to wholesaler or manufacturer especially characterized the careers of those who came in the 1820s, '30s and '40s. Those who came in the 1850s and '60s followed a somewhat different pattern, sometimes expanding one or another aspect of the local business or opening branch operations in areas nearby. In the 1820s, Cincinnati business writers described the potential of the city for manufacturing and marketing. Jews were soon to take advantage of these opportunities, so that, in 1860, the ready-made clothing industry provided the livelihood of well over half of Cincinnati Jews.  The Cincinnati Directory for that year lists 70 wholesale clothing firms, 65 of them Jewish-owned. One author called Cincinnati “a sort of paradise for the Hebrews,” and this economic achievement became the basis of its religious, educational, philanthropic and cultural life.

In 1928, the Lazarus Family of Columbus, Ohio, bought into the retail business of John Shillito, a department store established in the 1830s, and made it one of the leading stores of the area. A year later, Fred Lazarus, Jr., became a prime mover in the formation of Federated Department Stores, one of American’s leading mercantile empires.  Fechheimer Uniform was, for many years, a leading manufacturer of specialized clothing. In 2004, Standard Textile, a business established by the Heiman Family coming out of Hitler’s Germany, was one of the largest privately owned corporations in the city.

By the 1930s, while the clothing trade still employed a large number of Jews, many were entering the white collar occupations and professions. Jews were well represented in the medical and legal communities. Dr. Maurice Levine entered the department of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati Medical School, and through his teaching and authorship of more than 20 books, helped integrate the profession of psychiatry into mainstream medicine in America. In the 1970s, attorney Stanley Chesley pursued a class action lawsuit on behalf of victims of a devastating fire at the Beverly Hills Supper Club and went on to defend victims of the tobacco industry and of silicone breast implants, becoming one of the best known class-action lawyers in the United States. Others entered the real estate business, and in 2004, a number of areas of the city (Mt. Adams, Kenwood and the University area) were developed or rehabilitated by Jews. The firm of Heidelbach and Seasongood (later Seasongood and Mayer) were the first investment bankers in the city. In 1895, Maurice Freiberg served as president of the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. In 2001, Michael Fisher became director of the same organization, helping improve and promote the business environment of his city of residence.

It was not just in the economic realm that the Jews of Cincinnati aspired to leadership and distinction. They also believed that as good Jews and good citizens, they had a mission to work for civic betterment. Rabbi Max Lilienthal was for many years a member of the School Board of Cincinnati, of its University Board, of its Medical College, of the city Relief Board and other benevolent organizations.  His example was followed by many others.  Joseph Jonas served as a state representative, and Isaac Mayer Wise himself was nominated for the Ohio Senate (although he declined at the insistence of his congregation). A 1904 account lists 50 different Cincinnati Jews who held public office prior to that tie, a common pleas judge, county solicitor, prosecuting attorney, country clerk, state senator and representative, customs appraiser, city council member and mayor. Gilbert Bettman (1881 to 1942) served 2 terms as Ohio Attorney General, then was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court. His son, Gilbert Bettman, Jr., was elected Municipal Court Judge, then became Presiding Judge, and was elected to the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. Other Jewish judges include Robert Kraft of the Court of Common Pleas, Burton Perlman, Chief Bankruptcy Judge of the Southern District of Ohio, Marianna Brown Bettman of the First Appellate District of Ohio and Susan Dlott of the U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio - the latter occupying the Federal judicial seat vacated by S. Arthur Spiegel, also a Cincinnatian. Stanley Aronoff served as State Senator for 36 years, becoming President of the Ohio Senate in 1987. There have been six Jewish mayors of Cincinnati. In 1900, two Jews actually ran against each other for this office, Julius Fleischmann, who won, and Alfred M. Cohen, who later served as international president of B’nai B’rith. Perhaps the most important Jewish contribution to civic betterment was the Good Government Movement of the 1920s, which culminated in the passage of a new city charter in 1924 and the adoption of a city manager form of government. Murray Seasongood, the Jewish lawyer who spearheaded the anti-corruption campaign against Boss Cox, had a vision of how local government could work better and more efficiently. A good part of the funds for his campaign as well as leadership in the district and ward organizations came from the Jewish community.

Members of the Cincinnati Jewish community have become increasingly prominent on the national scene. Attorney Stanley Chesley serves on the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, is a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and in 1992, became National Vice Chairman of the United Jewish Communities. Since 1998, he has served as pro bono Counsel for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and associated institutions. He has been president of the Jewish Federation, and chairman of the bard of the University of Cincinnati, 1988 to 1992. Jerome Teller, also an attorney and past president of the Jewish Federation, serves on the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and is national chairperson of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

The Jewish Residential Movement reflects Cincinnati’s metropolitan growth. The 19th century Downtown and West End centers shifted in the early 1900s to the “hilltop suburbs” of Walnut Hills and Avondale then again, in the 1950s and 1960s, to the outlying Roselawn and Amberley Village. Beginning in the 1970s, but accelerating in the 1990s and early 2000s, another northward shift brought Jews into the northwestern areas of Wyoming, Finneytown and Springdale, and the northeastern areas of Blue Ash, Montgomery and Mason. This suburbanization is reflected in the movement of synagogues and other communal institutions, but the community faces a problem of increasing dispersion, as well as a decline from its earlier population “highs” of 20 to 25,000, to the currently estimated 17,500.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: B. Bogen, Born A Jew (1930); B. Brickner, Jewish Community of Cincinnati 1817-1933 (Ph. D., Univ. of Cincinnati, 1933); J.G. Heller, As Yesterday When it is Past (1942); Polk Laffoon IV, “Cincinnati’s Jewish Community.” Cincinnati Magazine 10 (April, 1977); David Philipson, My Life as an American Jew (1941); J. Sarna and N. Klein, The Jews of Cincinnati (1989); I.M. Wise, Reminiscences (1901)