By Kerri Broome and Dawn Ellis
Nationally, the relationship between Jewish and African American communities is complex, nuanced and richly textured. Throughout the years, both groups have been able to find similarities in their history and to empathize with the other. When it comes to housing, both groups have faced discrimination and restriction, and have, consequently, found themselves sharing neighborhoods. The Great Migration of African Americans and the second wave of Jewish immigrants (Eastern European) partially overlapped, resulting in large numbers of these two groups locating in prescribed areas of northern American cities, such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
The first Jewish immigrants arrived in Cleveland from Germany in the 1830s, settling primarily in the Central area and gradually moving eastward towards the suburbs through the end of the 19th century and into the middle of the 20th century. The subsequent wave of Jewish Eastern Europeans to move into Cleveland in the 1870s and 1880s entered into areas already inhabited by the earlier Jewish immigrants.
Early in the 20th century, African Americans also lived in other parts of the east side, but no area was predominantly African American. As other ethnic groups dispersed and racially restrictive covenants were put in place to limit where the rising African American middle class could buy property, the area around Central Avenue slowly became exclusively African American. As Cleveland’s Jewish population followed the national trend of moving from the urban neighborhoods to the suburbs, African Americans were able to rent or buy property in these areas. Several of Cleveland’s synagogues were bought by African-American Christian congregations.
While the current congregations have made changes to adapt the original Jewish synagogue design for their contemporary Christian worship, many of these sacred landmarks still hold evidence of their origins as Jewish places of worship. For example, there is often a Star of David detail incorporated into the façade or the stained glass windows may still feature Jewish symbols. Through the legacy of a shared space, some of these congregations nurture their relationship and choose to stay connected through periodic gatherings and combined services.
As this summer marks the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, a key period of Jewish/African American partnership, and a time when this collaboration was most fruitful in accomplishing one of its main goals–the end of discrimination in housing, education and employment–this examination of the relationship between Cleveland’s immigrant and migrant communities is indeed timely.
The oldest Jewish congregation in Cleveland was a German Orthodox group established in 1841 that came to be known as Anshe Chesed. This congregation built Cleveland’s first synagogue. The congregation outgrew the now-demolished Eagle Street Synagogue and later its second home, the Scovill Avenue Synagogue (also now demolished).
In 1912, Anshe Chesed’s third synagogue was dedicated, designed by architects Lehman and Schmitt. The Neoclassical synagogue featured a symmetrical plan with a semicircular auditorium holding seating for 1,400 and stained glass windows. As many of Anshe Chesed’s members moved east, the congregation made the decision to move to Beachwood and build a new facility. A building permit was issued for the construction in the eastern suburb in 1954 and was sold to the members of Liberty Hill Baptist Church. The congregation of Liberty Hill Baptist was formed in 1917 and had moved several times before finding a home on Euclid Avenue.
Tifereth Israel, the city’s second oldest Jewish congregation, relocated its congregation in 1894 to a new synagogue, the Willson Avenue Temple. In 1924, the congregation of the Temple moved to University Circle, leaving the Willson Avenue Temple empty. From 1924 to the late 1930s, the Willson Avenue building was home to Mt. Zion Congregational Church and in 1940, the church was purchased by Friendship Baptist Church, one of the city’s largest Baptist congregations.
Cleveland’s third-oldest Jewish congregation is B’nai Jeshurun, established in 1866 by Hungarian immigrants. In 1905, B’nai Jeshurun built Temple B’nai Jeshurun, and in the early 1920s, they sold it to Shiloh Baptist Church, which is the oldest congregation of African American Baptists in the city of Cleveland. Shiloh Baptist Church has been designated a Cleveland Landmark.
Oheb Zedek Hungarian Orthodox Synagogue
Designed by Albert S. Janowitz
Built in 1905
Acquired by Triedstone Baptist Church in 1922
Hungarian Orthodox Synagogue
Designed by architects William Markowitz & Harry G. Vetter
Completed in 1922
Sold in 1949 to Integrated Faith Assembly
Cleveland Jewish Center
Designed by architect Albert S. Janowitz
Completed in 1922
Sold in 1947 to the congregation of Cory United Methodist Church
Knesseth Israel congregation Synagogue
Built in 1922
Sold in 1959 to Apostolic Faith Church
The Morison Avenue Communal Baths
Built in 1925
Designed by Meyer Altschuld
Now the home of Morison Avenue Missionary Baptist Church
Click here for more images related to this topic and more information on the survey completed by the Cleveland Restoration Society as part of its 40th Anniversary Legacy Project.
Thank you to Kathleen Crowther, President of the Cleveland Restoration Society. This article by Kerri Broome and Dawn Ellis appeared previously in the CRS Know Your History series.