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Ohio’s forgotten small town Jewish history

Four black and white photos are stitched together. One is of a building with men idling on its porch. Another is a portrait of a man with a beard. The two bottom photos are group pictures of community members.
Columbus Jewish Historical Society
From top left: Chillicothe's Jewish Welfare Board Center at Camp Sherman circa 1918; Max Segal, founder of Segal and Sons circa 1918; a Passover seder held at the VA Hospital in 1954; the staff of M. Schachne & Sons circa 1888

Growing up in Lancaster, Austin Reid noticed the remnants of a Jewish community that had once lived there, but disbanded before he was born.

“I always wondered who the members of this community were, what their story was, and what factors that ultimately led to the community's formal dissolution,” Reid said.

He decided to research them as part of his scholarship at Capital University in 2018. While doing so, he discovered that Lancaster wasn’t the only town who had lost its Jewish population – there were more than a dozen others whose histories were in jeopardy of being lost. The Jewish convert decided to expand his research across the state.

He’s working to unearth the Jewish past of small town Ohio. To date, he’s written records of 16 of those communities – from Massillon to Piqua to Chillicothe.

“I saw this as a small piece of Ohio history that I could make a contribution to,” he said.

Jewish communities’ arrival

Two waves of immigration created Ohio’s Jewish communities, Reid said.

The first was in the mid-1800s, when political instability in Central Europe led many Jewish residents to emigrate to the United States, in hopes of providing better lives for their families. They were almost always German-speaking and they formed the earliest Jewish communities in both large cities and small towns across Ohio and the US, Reid said.

A grainy black and white photo shows four women looking at one another.
Columbus Jewish Historical Society
Leaders of the Massillon Jewish Sisterhood in 1947.

The second wave of immigration came from Eastern Europe. Jewish immigrants were the largest group to arrive in Ohio between 1880 and 1924.

Although this was a national and global trend – more than 2 million Jewish people came to the U.S. in that period – Reid said Ohio’s industrial presence was a unique draw for immigrant communities of all kinds.

“We don't see small town Jewish life being as common everywhere in the U.S.,” Reid said. “I think it was especially common at one time in the Midwest.”

Populations dwindle

But few of those Jewish communities have survived.

For example, in his research of Steubenville, Reid found that in the 1930s and '40s the city had a vibrant Jewish community. More than a thousand Jewish residents called the eastern Ohio city home. But, that population has been declining ever since.

A black and white photo of a synagogue with trees in front of it.
Columbus Jewish Historical Society
Steubenville's B’nai Israel as it looked from 1903 to 1949.

In 2013, its last synagogue closed down. Reid said the disappearance of the Jewish community was a symptom of the larger issue of population loss.

“Young people moving away for work and not returning, or the loss of critical jobs in some of these cities,” he said. “They weren't necessarily always replaced with other opportunities and that economic shift in the town created larger demographic changes.”

Keeping histories alive

Now, the state’s more than 100,000 Jewish people are clustered in its major metropolitan areas.

But, Reid said it’s important that people don’t forget about the rich history of smaller towns.

He said his research is more than just a passion project: it’s a way for Jewish Ohioans to connect with their families’ roots.

“Sometimes these were the very first places families settled after coming over from Europe, and those stories might get dimmed over the years,” he said. “This is a way to recover some of that, and remember that Jewish life has existed beyond larger cities.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.