The birth of Cincinnati’s Jewish community started with a death.
“It’s part of the tradition of Judaism,” explains David Harris, executive director of Jewish Cemeteries of Greater Cincinnati. “The first thing you do when you establish a new community is to establish a cemetery, before you put up a building for a congregation or a school for kids. It shows the primacy of the commandment to honor the dead. That if you can’t do that, you don’t have the makings of the community.”
It was 1821 and you could count the number of Jews in Cincinnati on two hands.
Benjamin Lieb – or maybe Laib or Lape, no one’s quite sure – was one of them. But he had lived his life as a Baptist, his wife’s religion. She had preceded him in death, and as he neared the end of his life, he called together the other members of the small Jewish community to tell them he wanted to be buried as a Jew.
Problem was: There was no Jewish cemetery.
So the six other Jewish men in town went to the area’s richest landowner, Nicholas Longworth, and bought a 25-by-50 plot of land on Chestnut Street near what we now know as Central Avenue.
It was that tiny cemetery that began Cincinnati’s Jewish community, now celebrating its bicentennial.
“We started celebrating this to note that the cemetery was the oldest Jewish cemetery west of Alleghenies,” says Ed Marks, JCGC founding president. “Then we realized it’s the oldest Jewish institution west of Alleghenies.”
The first synagogue in Cincinnati — K.K. Bene Israel, now Rockdale Temple — wasn’t founded for three more years.
Marks happened upon the cemetery for the first time coming home from a party in 1994. “There’s something touching about the place,” he said. “It’s a lovely little corner of the world.”
Many graves are unmarked, including Lieb’s. But estimates are about 100 burials happened at Chestnut Street between 1821 and 1849.
The Jewish community that started with six families and one cemetery has grown to more than 30,000 members and 26 cemeteries in Hamilton and Butler counties.
“It’s an amazing history. A lot of it is the result of the determination of the Jewish community. But we have to think about this as something that didn’t happen in a vacuum,” Harris said. “Cincinnati had an ethos for the Jewish community to thrive and grow here.”
And contribute. The first Jewish hospital in the country was founded here. Six Cincinnati mayors have been Jewish. It’s the home to the beginning of the Reform Jewish movement.
Frank’s RedHot, Kahn’s meats, Fleischmann’s Yeast, and Manischewitz matzo all have their roots in the Cincinnati Jewish community.
“They were amazing examples of industry,” Harris said. “We’re not just proud for ourselves, but we think they’re examples of how immigrant communities, minority communities, have contributed to the city.”
And so the celebration begins. The rededication of Chestnut Street Cemetery is Sunday, with plans to construct a plaza where members of any faith can learn more about the history of the land and the early settlers in the West End.
In death, a new life begins for the birthplace of Cincinnati’s Jewish community.
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