Every time I go to Mitchell’s Ice Cream in Cleveland, I make a bet with my sister. How many people are we going to know? As we step into the epicenter of Jewish culture and community, we are greeted with hellos. From our grandparents’ friends to people we did Jewish theater with years ago to the girl behind the counter scooping up our cookies and cream, it seems we know just about everyone. While not an official Jewish institution, it’s the default place our bustling Jewish community comes to for celebrations or at the end of a long week. The door never closes as there is a never-ending stream of people.
But for many American Jews, the idea that Jews even live in the Midwest at all is a hard concept to grasp.
In the U.S. we have come to associate being Jewish with living on the East or West Coasts. Though it is indeed difficult to compete with NYC’s 1.8 million Jews (and nearly as many bagel shops), it’s important not to discount the rest of us. There are 750,000 Jews who call the Midwest home, and our culture is vibrant and thriving as well.
Jews have lived in the Midwest for over a century. From the late 1800s to mid-1900s, Jews of mostly Ashkenazi heritage headed by boat to the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada. They continued on to cities like Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis to meet up with other relatives, for job opportunities, or as their chosen destination. They settled and formed communities, finding jobs as peddlers and small business owners. As war raged through Europe, and later, when Soviet Jews fled discrimination in the USSR, many more Jews landed in the middle of our country. Jews became integral parts of the cities, building strong communities with businesses, hospitals, charities and schools.
Today, I am one of the 87,000 Jews that lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Our community consists of over 40 synagogues of all denominations, day schools and a rabbinical college, a Jewish Community Center, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, delis, kosher restaurants, a kosher food bank, kosher grocery store, a Jewish newspaper, an eruv and many Jewish organizations. There are streets almost exclusively full of Jewish businesses and synagogues, and secular schools that offer Hebrew classes. We have a strong partnership with the Israeli city of Beit She’an. Cleveland’s suburb Beachwood has the second-highest concentration of Jewish people in the U.S. — 90% of the residents are Jewish. We are the 10th most Jewish city in the United States, and 27th in the world. Our Jewish community perfectly balances being both large and tight-knit, having all the resources of cities associated with being Jewish while maintaining feeling like we all know each other. Many families, such as mine, have lived here for generations. Being here, you might be surprised at the idea there are cities more Jewish.
Cleveland is not the only vibrant Jewish city in the Midwest. In greater Kansas City, Missouri, 23,000 Jews have formed a beautiful community. A slightly smaller population allows the closeness and collective involvement of residents in all aspects of Jewish life. They have 12 synagogues spanning every denomination, a kosher co-op that provides food to the community, a JCC deeply ingrained in their city’s culture, a Holocaust education center, a Jewish newspaper, and Jewish-affiliated nursing homes and hospitals. One friend who lives there, Ben, says people who come to Kansas City are surprised to “discover just how vibrant and full of opportunity the Jewish community” is, and though there are times it may be frustrating to go to a few stores before finding Hanukkah wrapping paper, there is no place he would rather be.
Another friend, Rebecca, grew up in Kansas City, but has recently relocated to the East Coast. Though she can now find Israeli food in most grocery stores and Hanukkah decor on the first attempt, Rebecca finds that being part of a community of multiple synagogues of thousands of people can feel more isolating rather than communal. There might be Jewish people everywhere, but the impact she felt in Kansas City — the togetherness of actively working to create this community and deliberately choosing to be a part of Jewish organizations — is lost.
Minneapolis, Minnesota has a Jewish population of nearly 43,000. Yet another friend, Naomi, says that even though the strong Protestant Nordic culture does not always allow space for practicing Jews, the deliberate action of “affirming and cementing yourself as Jewish” is what makes her small but lively community exceptional. She describes her upbringing as one with a vibrant Jewish education and day camp experience surrounded by brilliant spiritual leaders who have worked to create a holy community with a deep love of being Jewish. Until Naomi moved to New York for school, she never felt she would be defending her home and cultural legitimacy as both a Midwesterner and a Jew. But she feels the Midwestern value of humility speaks true to the cultural and spiritual values of Judaism. Though Naomi recognizes the cultural access in New York makes being Jewish easier with its many synagogues and kosher options, she knows this does not delegitimize Midwestern Judaism. Being Jewish in Minneapolis requires real effort and is an intentional act, which is part of what makes the community she loves so special.
There is no doubt that New York City is the epicenter of American Jewish culture, and quite frankly, it is remarkable there exists a city outside of Israel so universally synonymous with Jewish culture. But New York is not the exception and the rest of us are not to be excluded. I am not one of a few, but one of 750,000 Jews who call the Midwest home, and these stories are just snapshots of many communities throughout the region. Midwestern Jewish communities are created with the intention and hope to have a space to cherish their culture when the surrounding world looks different. Beautiful, thriving, vibrant and lively Jewish culture is all throughout our country, and it deserves to be recognized and celebrated.