Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights celebrated by Jews around the world for millennia, begins Sunday evening. Ohio has a rich Jewish history, and though on a smaller scale, mid-Ohio does too.
The nearest temple to Galion is Mansfield’s Emanuel Jacob Congregation, just 15 miles east of Uptowne.
They serve members in Galion, as well as Ashland, Bucyrus, Crestline, Gambier, Jeromesville, Ontario, Shelby, and other areas in mid-Ohio.
In 1999, the American Jewish Yearbook estimated 150 Jews were living in Mansfield. Emanuel Jacob Congregation currently counts approximately 50 members.
The first-known Jewish congregation in Mansfield was founded nearly 120 years ago and originally called the Mansfield Reformed Jewish Congregation, later Temple Emanuel. In 1927, another group of families organized B’nai Jacob, and built their own facility three decades later.
Nancy Shimer, the current spiritual leader of Emanuel Jacob, believes the Jewish community probably attained its largest size — approximately 525 — in the early 1960s.
By 1979, all members moved into B’nai Jacob’s building, and in 1987, the two congregations decided to merge, taking the name Emanuel Jacob.
This August, the Emanuel Jacob Congregation board sold the building. Religious services have since been held at members’ homes. High Holy Day services this fall were very well-attended and held in a 200-year-old barn on a member family’s property.
The overall history of Jews in Ohio dates back over two centuries to the first Jewish congregation, Bene Israel, in Cincinnati. It’s also the oldest Jewish congregation west of the Alleghenies.
After the Civil War, congregations sprang up throughout the Buckeye State.
Today, 90% of Ohio’s roughly 150,000 Jews live in the Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus areas.
These three cities are also the seats of prominent Jewish federations, community centers, medical facilities, and heritage museums. Established nearly 150 years ago, Hebrew Union College, the oldest Jewish seminary in the Americas, is on Cincinnati’s north side.
In 1839, Cleveland became the second Ohio city to welcome Jews and it became the largest center for Jewish activities in the state by the early 20th century, due to massive immigration from Eastern Europe. It’s now home to nearly 50 synagogues and half of Jewish Ohioans.
By the end of the 20th century, Columbus emerged as a center of Judaism, driven by Jewish population growth of 60%, many arriving after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, Emanuel Jacob hosted an annual Chanukah party that drew attendees from across the area. It included a luncheon, candle-lighting, music, games, crafts, and sometimes theatrical productions. This year the party will be Dec. 18, the first night of candle lighting, at the home of a congregant.
“While Chanukah is traditionally a holiday that is home-based, with each household lighting the candles of the menorah in their own homes each evening, we are certainly hoping that this year, especially after a few years of enforced separation due to COVID, we’ll be able to come together as a community and celebrate,” Shimer explained. “It’s especially appropriate that on Chanukah…we as a congregation are rededicating ourselves to finding a new space in which to worship, learn, and celebrate together for years to come.”
Hanukkah’s dates each year vary due to the Hebrew calendar, but it’s usually near Christmas. The holiday commemorates the Jews’ successful rebellion against the ruling Greeks in 200 BCE. The re-dedication of the second temple occurred after the victory.
The menorah candles are lit each of the eight nights to commemorate that a one-day supply of oil miraculously lasted eight.
It’s not the most religious Jewish holiday, but perhaps due to its proximity to Christmas, Hanukkah is widely celebrated and remains among the most popular Jewish observances.