Recent violence in Israel has reminded me of the vibrant Jewish community of Youngstown, for whom these events must be of deep concern. That community can trace its beginnings at least back to 1833 when Jacob Spiegle, who came from Alsace, settled in Ohltown and opened a store. By 1867, the first congregation, Rodef Sholom, was established. It exists to this day. In future years the names Strouss, Hirshberg, Hartzell, Lustig, Haber, and many more would be associated with downtown retail establishments. In later years Fred Friedman would serve as an editor at the Vindicator and his wife Vera headed up advertising at McKelvey’s and gave significant leadership to efforts at the Youngstown Playhouse. We still buy Schwebel’s bread even in Columbus. I’m only scratching the surface of the many physicians, attorneys, educators, and many others who gave civic leadership not only in the Jewish community but wider city.
One of the most important civic organizations formed by leaders of the Jewish community was the Jewish Federation of Youngstown, which later became the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation. It was organized on November 7, 1935 under the leadership of Clarence J. Strouss, Sr. Remember that this was the time when the rise of Nazism under Hitler threatened the existence of the Jewish people throughout Europe. Howard C. Aley highlights the Federation’s commitment to “the social, cultural, educational and recreational needs of the Youngstown Jewish community” (Aley, p. 348).
Over the years, the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation has served as a center uniting the Jewish community in greater Youngstown, provided vital education in Jewish history and heritage and advocated for the rights of Jewish people. It has also created an umbrella of agencies serving not only the Jewish but the wider community. Jewish Family Services provides every thing from home delivered meals, services to the aging and various forms of individual and family therapy. The banner on their webpage says “everyone is welcome.” That is also the case for the Jewish Community Center, which, while committed to Jewish values, welcomes all into membership. They have two locations on Gypsy Lane and the Logan Center offering fitness facilities, pools, wellness classes, arts and culture, a summer camp and much more. Levy Gardens offers assisted living services and Heritage Manor is a rehabilitation and retirement facility. Akiva Academy is a K-8 school open to all with a project based curriculum.
In addition to these extensive community services, the Federation also supports various regional and national efforts. Key to all of this is the Youngstown Area Jewish Foundation, a vehicle for charitable giving within the Jewish community. They handle everything from annual pledge giving to donor advised funds and retirement asset giving to bequests. They manage a number of endowments for everything from emergency needs to college scholarships. One of the impressive things is that on Charity Navigator, one of the best places to go to check out the integrity of non-profits, they score 100 out of 100 on finance and accountability. Their program expense ratio is 92.51% which means over 92 cents of every dollar given goes to actual programs, which means they are a very efficient organization in use of funds with little “overhead.” They are independently audited and 26 of 29 board members are “independent,” that is, not employees of the organization.
I only had one contact with the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation. In college, I minored in social work. One of our assignments was to learn about various social agencies in the city by making site visits. That was a long time ago but the things that come to mind were spotless facilities, a compassionate concern for all the members of their community, and gracious courtesy to me, who was an interruption, and probably somewhat reticent on this unfamiliar ground. I was impressed, and as I read about its history, and its present day efforts, I continue to be glad for this organization with a long heritage and deep roots in Youngstown and for the work they are doing. Their website says, “We are guided by the values of Tzedakah (righteousness), Klal Yisrael (the responsibility of each Jew for another), Dor l’dor (the continuity of the Jewish people), and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world).” Everything I see about them exemplifies those values.
To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!