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Changing Times Mean Changes for Northeast Ohio's Ethnic and Religious Communities

Canton Jewish Center
Canton Jewish Center

Immigrants from around the world brought ethnic and religious diversity to northeast Ohio.  They helped build what for a time were some of the most vibrant towns and cities in America. But, that has been changing, as is happening with Canton and the evolving Jewish community here.

Rabbi Jon Adland, Canton Temple Israel
Credit Courtesy of the Canton Rotary Club
Rabbi Jon Adland, Canton Temple Israel

The vacant and often overgrown field used to be a busy playground and tennis courts. They, the  pool and the rest of the Canton Jewish Community Center have been closed now for five years. But, like the Jewish community itself, it once had an outsized effect.

“It was really the center where the athletic leagues took place for so many people. I still hear that wherever I go:  ‘I learned to play softball there, or basketball, or swim.”

Rabbi Jon Adland is in his office at Canton’s Temple Israel a block north. He says the Jewish community, though never more than 5,000, built the businesses that comprised much of the city’s downtown in its heyday.

Frank Fleischer and his family owned one of the most successful of those for generations. Now 87, he saw downtown shrink almost entirely away and the Jewish population with it.

"So if these young people want to make a living -- and want to be in an area where socially there are enough of their people or their friends -- they're  going to leave Canton."

Rabbi John Spitzer
Credit Canton Temple Israel
Rabbi John Spitzer

Bill Smuckler, has become something of a historian of Canton’s Jewish community and is an at-large city councilman. He says the social bonds among ethnic groups were a strong factor in Canton’s growth. Immigrants who came here for all sorts of jobs comingled based on their ethnicity.

"There were places known as the CORN center for the Spanish; there  were places where the Jewish population came together, the Italians, the Greeks, the whatever.  Now things have become a lot more assimilated."

Rabbi Adland and Rabbi John Spitzer—their Conservative and Reform congregations actually share the building that houses the Temple—say a lack of jobs is driving the Jewish population loss.

“It’s not people running away from the synagogue because they became faithless individuals or whatever.  So it’s not about faith," Adland says. "Becoming part of a congregation I would say is more about joining the Jewish people.”

Spitzer agrees: "He’s absolutely right.  The three congregations in town provide enough theological, religious and cultural differences that anyone who wants to be a part of the community should find a place.  And the vast majority of our people do.”

Friends and relative gather for Amanda Wells' Bat Mitzvah
Credit Tim Rudell / WKSU
Friends and relative gather for Amanda Wells' Bat Mitzvah

The rabbis also agree that loss of numbers in the community is making high-Jewish population areas like Chicago and New York a draw for young people. 

Bill Smuckler’s daughter, Hillary, now in New York, is an example.

"My identity and who I am is small-town Canton, Ohio. And I want that for my future children. I definitely would like them to grow up like I grew up how I grew up.  But it’s also true that half my heart is in Canton, but half my heart, now that I’ve been exposed to it, is New York City.

Rabbi Spitzer says the home community remains vibrant, nonetheless.

"While our numbers are smaller and while our people do leave, especially our young people as they go off to college and acquire careers for themselves, the dynamic of the community still has the capacity, and often times the actuality to excite and inform our people. “

That  clearly seemed to be the case for the more than a hundred people gathered at Temple Israel for Amada Wells Bat Mitzvah.

Retired business owner Frank Fleischer say it will remain dynamic in the greater community, too.

“When you go to most of the socially active boards, there are always  one or two Jewish people sitting on them.  ... I was brought up that this community has been good to us and now its up to us to be good to the community.  It was engrained into us.”

And, Hillary Smuckler says, young people moving back isn’t out of the question, though it may be down the road.

"My younger sister is very set on moving back.  But, I do see the joys of living in New York City. I can’t say that I would never return to Canton. But currently it is very hard to do that.

Her father, Bill Smuckler thinks that can happen if Canton, the Jewish and non-Jewish populations alike, looks to the future. 

“It can’t be Canton, Ohio in 1964.  It’s got to be Canton, Ohio, all the way up for the next 30 years, at least.  It doesn’t matter if it’s the Jewish community, the Italian community, or whether it’s the community in general.  We all have to learn that we have to reinvent ourselves here.”

Correction:  Typos and grammatical errors originally published in this story have been corrected.

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