An Untold Tale of Small Cities: Their Unique and Historic Contribution to Jewish Life in America

Kehillat Israel Cemetery, Shenandoah, Pa.

By Steven Windmueller, PH.D.

Over the course of the past 18 months, I have had the occasion to visit more than 15 small and intermediate communities. Indeed, many of these communities across the Northeast, Mid-West and South were at one time the backbone of the Jewish communal system, as they effectively organized their constituencies, delivered essential social and cultural services, and met the educational and religious needs of their communities, while adding to the historic evolution and cultural fiber of the American Jewish heartland. Yet, in some parts of this nation, the story of these communities is being rapidly lost.

In connection with the “decline” of Jewish communities around this nation, The Forward has noted:

There are 51 names on the list of the dead and the dying. They range in condition from having been diagnosed with a fatal disease, to being in the throes of death, to having already passed from this world, nothing left but a memory. They are in Niagara Falls, New York, and Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Sumter, South Carolina, and for all of them, they have exhausted all hope of survival.

There are more than 400 small Jewish communities across this nation with many continuing to thrive. Yet, some of these small-market communities are experiencing a distinctive “Rust Belt” Jewish phenomenon, defined by a loss in population, the aging of its remaining residents, and a new set of financial pressures in connection with maintaining or ultimately closing their legacy congregations and communal institutions.

These communities possess certain shared operational and cultural features. Lee Shai Weissbach’s Jewish Life in Small-Town America (Yale University, 2005) provides a valuable introduction in his coverage of these special communities and small town Jewish existence:

Historical Roots: Unlike some sunbelt and west coast communities, many of these old line cities of the Northeast, South and Mid-West possess a rich Jewish history that parallels the founding and development of these older American towns and cities, where Jews were core to the economic and social history of the nation.

One of Each: Frequently, these smaller communities have a synagogue or at best one from each religious denomination, a chapter of one or more of the major national membership organizations, and possibly a set of community-based social service institutions. Certainly, in the smallest of these communities there usually has been only a single Jewish “presence,” generally a synagogue with an historic footprint.

Traditionalist Models: Fewer of these small city communities are home to any of the “start up” organizations that tend to be present in larger Jewish communal settings. Rather, these particular markets tend to operate around an anchor mainstream institution.

Networked Communities: These communities exhibit a leadership model that is highly interconnected. The crossbreeding of organizational types is generally evident within these small city models, where individuals tend to belong to multiple institutions and the trading off of leadership positions is often a common occurrence.

Old Guard vs. Newbies: In some of these markets one finds a renaissance associated with small town living that has families and singles moving back into some of these communities as a response to life style considerations. At times, as these communities experience a new population infusion, they are also facing a form of social disconnection. “The nativists,” those who have long inhabited these old-line communities and have “owned” the organizational system, are deeply embedded in its communal culture. The new “arrivals” that have more recently relocated to these smaller cities are often being rebuffed, as these indigenous families see these outsiders as disruptive to the community’s institutional rhythm and social mores. In fact, insider Jews (the nativists) possess a shared, familiarized set of connections that tend to leave the arrivals feeling somewhat disconnected and ultimately pushed away by the old guard.

There are some instructive steps in connection with these particular community models. In most of these communities the focus now appears to be centered on four themes:

  1. How do we deal with the existing structural and operational realities that one finds in these smaller communities (growing financial challenges and the absence of an infusion of new Jewish families)?
  2. How are these communities preparing to sunset the organizations that once distinctively defined and shaped Jewish life? Often, smaller communities lack the resources and at times the expertise to manage these issues, including the preservation of cemeteries, maintaining quality services for those remaining Jews, and preparing for the financial realities of down sizing and institutional closure.
  3. How can these communities preserve their rich histories and records? If the Jewish community fails to anticipate and plan with these transitions in mind, American Jewry will miss the opportunity to memorialize the stories of these once vibrant community models.
  4. How do we cultivate and sustain connection with the grand old Jewish families that comprise many of these small communities? For decades anchor families have often maintained the existing Jewish institutions. As synagogues, schools and agencies disappear or merge within these small cities, in what ways can we maintain a connection with these old-line families who represent a treasure of historic knowledge and retain the financial capacity to be significant players beyond their home communities?

Presented below is a case example of the challenging issues facing these smaller Jewish communities:

Shenandoah, founded in 1860 in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region, is 105 miles northwest of Philadelphia. It once had approximately 100 Jewish families. Its population was 30,000 in 1920, but the town was hit hard by the decline of the anthracite coal industry after World War II. Residents, including Jews, began leaving. The 2000 census put its population at 5,624. The sale of the building and ritual items will be put into a trust for the Kehillat Israel Cemetery Association to maintain the graves of past generations.

Since the 1980’s the Jewish communities of Western Pennsylvania have begun to maintain and record the role of Jews in this region. Similarly, the ISJL (Institute for Southern Jewish Life) based in Jackson Mississippi or the Jewish Community Legacy Project operating out of Atlanta is each committed to working with small communities in the South. In Maine, Colby College’s small town Jewish life initiative represents yet another regional example of this work.

Just as ISJL has been successfully working with thirteen states in the south, what maybe needed is a national Jewish strategy for engaging these smaller communities. What also is required involves a sunset planning for those communities that are spread across the Northeast, Mid West, and South and that are experiencing a loss of population and the aging of its remaining community members, the decline in both human and financial resources, and the presence of failing legacy institutions.

One option involves the formation of regional arrangements for the delivery of services that might benefit several communities nearby as demonstrated today in the south. In some of these communities, the collaborative efforts of business and industry, the educational sector, and the nonprofit community have created an array of new initiatives designed to promote employment, secure outside investments both private and public, and to develop alternative uses of existing infrastructures.

The introduction of shared services connecting various faith communities in providing essential resources represents an interesting second alternative. The introduction of shared-use facilities, the merger of institutions, and the creation or expansion of community endowment funds dedicated to facilitate these structural changes may be required.

As the nonprofit sector is rapidly securing data in connection with this phenomenon, an inventory of institutional best practices will be particularly useful in providing case materials to such communities. The literature examining the life-cycles of organizations can be instructive here as well in understanding how institutions perform under challenging and changing economic and social conditions and where possible an assessment as how best to “revive” failing or dying structures. But equally essential is the ability of organizational leaders to prepare their personnel, members and the broader community for the impending changes that are likely to occur.

Sadly, the preservation of historic records may be lost should there not be a systematic way of assisting these communities to transfer these documents to interested archives and museums. Similarly, a coordinated effort will be required to interview “old time” leaders and activists in these small communities, lest American Jewry may lose forever these great personal and communal stories that defined small city Jewish life.

Steven Windmueller Ph. D. on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future. Dr. Windmueller’s collection of articles can be found on his website: