Our Towns

Impact of Jewish Community in Valley Stretches Far

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Jewish residents and organizations in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys have long been “visible and involved with the community,” says Thomas Welsh, co-author of A History of Jewish Youngstown and the Steel Valley, with an impact running deep into the roots of the region.

An example Welsh cites: In 1901, William Wilkoff, a scrap dealer from Lithuania, helped form what became one of the largest steel companies in the country.

“George D. Wick and James Campbell certainly had the motivation and experience to establish a firm that became Youngstown Sheet and Tube,” Welsh says. “But they didn’t have the money, and it so happened that Wilkoff was able to provide the funding for Youngstown Sheet and Tube.”

Welsh, who co-authored the book with Joshua Foster and Gordon Morgan, further discussed the significance of the Jewish community during the Bites and Bits of History lecture series at the Tyler Mahoning Valley Historical Center on Thursday.

The Jewish community in Youngstown is, along with the Cleveland, the oldest in Ohio, with the first resident arriving in 1837 in Ohltown, near present-day Austintown.

“Ohio’s Jewish community benefited from the fact that there was a tradition of tolerance,” Welsh says.

That tradition, along with the opening of the Pennsylvania and Ohio Canal and the growth of the local iron industry, helped drive Jewish migration. In the 1850s, immigrant David Theobald revolutionized the retail industry in Youngstown when he introduced the “one price policy” at a time when bartering dominated the local economy.

Jewish-owned businesses thrived as downtown Youngstown’s central business district began to grow. The Strouss-Hirshberg Co., Livingston’s, Lustig’s Shoes and Frankle Bros. cigar shop were among the many familiar to customers throughout the Valley. Perhaps most famously, the Warner brothers, sons of Jewish immigrants from Poland, opened the palatial Warner Theater on West Federal Street in 1931.

In the post-war era, Forrest and Leroy Raffel helped transform the fast food industry when they opened the first Arby’s in Boardman. Steel City Manufacturing, Kessler Products, International Homes, Simco and other Jewish firms also prospered – even as economic headwinds gathered strength in the Valley.

Beyond business, Jewish religious and civic institutions in the Mahoning Valley played a role in the development of the region. The first arose to meet the needs of the community as the population grew after the Civil War.

“In 1867, a group of Jewish leaders organized the congregation of Rodef Shalom, which in Hebrew means ‘pursuer of peace.’ This is one of the oldest congregations of Reform Judaism in Ohio,” Welsh says.

In 1888, the Orthodox congregation of Beth Israel began to serve the Jewish community in Sharon, Pa. Over a decade later, Eastern European immigrants started the Orthodox congregation of B’nai Zion in South Sharon, known today as Farrell, and in 1900, Warren’s Temple Israel was organized. Secular organizations also arose to meet the community’s needs. The Youngstown chapter of B’nai B’rith was organized around 1870 and a local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women formed in 1896.

“The service organizations were very much modeled on Masonic organizations,” he adds.

The Progress Club, a female organization that often featured lecturers who tackled political and social issues, formed in 1896. At least one of the speakers brought to town by the Progress Club symbolized the Jewish connection to the black freedom struggle, a tie that deepened over time.

“They featured an African American minister who was talking not only about the widespread problem of lynching,” Welsh says, “but he also talked about the sexual exploitation of African American women during slavery and into the present.”

In the face of anti-Semitism in the 1920s, the Squaw Creek Country Club was formed to serve those in the community who were denied membership in other local clubs. During the Great Depression, leaders in the community formed Youngstown’s first Jewish community center along with the Jewish Federation of Youngstown, which supervised social welfare programs in the area.

Local Jewish leaders spoke out vociferously against Nazi atrocities before and during World War II, and they attempted to aid efforts to resettle refugees fleeing fascism. In all, some 920 local Jewish men and women served during the war.

The Jewish community’s population declined along with Youngstown’s in the decades after World War II. In 1973, the temples of Emanu-El and Anshe Emeth merged due to declining attendance. In the three decades after the war, the city’s Jewish community, never large in number, shrank from 8,000 to 4,000. Less than 2,500 remained in the Youngstown-Warren Metropolitan area by the early 21st Century.

Despite their historically small and now shrinking numbers, the Jewish community of the Steel Valley continues to leave a lasting legacy, Welsh says.

“The local Jewish community’s contributions to the Mahoning Valley have been disproportionate and they remain so today,” he says.

Pictured: Thomas Welsh, co-author of A History of Jewish Youngstown and the Steel Valley, discussed the topic of his book at Bites & Bits of History.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.