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Toby Brief, executive director and curator for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, speaks of the importance of viewing sources with a critical eye. 

Things are seldom as they initially seem for Toby Brief, the executive director and curator for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society.

For example, the first Jew to settle in Ohio is commonly believed to be Joseph Jonas, an English-born Jew who arrived in Cincinnati in 1817.

“We’re not so sure about that,” Brief said, flashing a slide of silver spoon on a screen. “What we have is this lovely spoon. The spoon is made by a man by the name of Thomas Cohen. He was born in Virginia to a Jacob Cohen and became a silversmith. He was in Chillicothe (Ohio) by 1815. He was advertising in the local paper. He then left and became the mayor of St. Louis. There is a lot of discussion about whether he was Jewish. It’s pretty clear that his paternal line was Jewish.”

As Brief spoke, she discussed the careful attention she paid to each piece of information – or misinformation – she’s found in her research. She presented on Jewish Central Ohio with Liz Plummer, deputy state coordinator and outreach reference archivist for the Ohio History Connection in Columbus, at the 39th International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies International Conference on Jewish Genealogy at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown in Cleveland.

The July 28 to Aug. 2 conference drew close to 1,000 people researching, translating, interpreting and sharing their findings.

Brief and Plummer’s presentation traced the first presence of Jews in Ohio and described the waves of immigration that flowed to the region. With an audience of amateur historians before them, the two spoke of the wealth of primary resources available for mining at their organizations and organizations like theirs.

History of Jews in Central Ohio

The first Jews to settle in Columbus came from Mittelsin, Germany, Brief said. Judah Nusbaum was first in 1838.

“He liked (Columbus),” she said. “He sent word back and his best friend Nathan Gundersheimer arrived very quickly after that.”

Plummer discussed why early Jewish families chose Central Ohio as a place to settle.

“There are a couple reasons,” Plummer said. “The national road had just started coming through from Cumberland, Md. to Vandalia, Ill. You had a road now that you could come through. The Ohio and Erie Canal had come up from Portsmouth to Cleveland, so you had shipping for goods, and also there are a lot of Jewish settlements now on the western part of the Ohio (River).”

Brief showed photos of ads in German from the first German businesses in Columbus.

“The first Jews were all peddlers when they came in,” Brief said. “Again, we know that for a fact.”

And their lives in the new world did not require they learn English immediately.

“Adjusting to Columbus was not difficult for early Jews,” Brief said. “It was very much a German population in Columbus and in Central Ohio at that point. Many of them were from the same area.”

Minyans began to form in the Columbus area in the 1840s and the earliest synagogue in the Columbus area was established in 1846. Brief described B’nai Jeshurun as a traditional synagogue – contrasting that with the earliest Reform synagogue in 1858. B’nai Jeshurun eventually dissolved and more traditional members later formed Congregation Agudas Achim in Bexley in 1881, according to its website.

“By the 1860s, Columbus closes their traditional synagogue,” Brief said. “A few people remain traditional Orthodox. The majority of them then become Reform. And we open a completely different synagogue which became Temple Israel in Columbus.”

Between 1890 and 1910, Central Ohio contained 13 synagogues, Brief said, as Jews began to create institutions.

Unusual research sources

City directories can help establish what businesses were in a location, but they also hold sketches of businesses. Trade cards may be of interest to those researching family history as well, she said.

Brief showed a photo of S. Lazarus & Sons in Columbus, which appeared to show many people inside the store as well as outside on the front step.

“Interestingly when you look at this early one, If you look really closely, those are mostly mannequins,” she said. The audience chuckled at the false impression.

Brief and Plummer also spoke about historical items of interest collected by their organizations, such as a mohel’s book, a tablecloth containing a family tree and a garter belt that contained the names and wedding dates of a couple.

B’nai Brith membership ledgers, like one obtained by the Columbus Jewish Historical Society, also contain useful information about members and family members.

Museums also contain portraits of Jews, sometimes out of interest for the artist, rather than the subjects.

“We’re always looking for the women, and those of you who are looking for women know how incredibly difficult it is,” Brief said.

Brief showed a photo of Fannie Biltmore, supposedly the first Jewish worshiper in Lancaster, and supposedly dating to 1842. However, Lancaster’s first synagogue was not established until 1917.

She also showed a photo of Civil War widow Josephine Hart. There were just five Jewish Civil War soldiers from Central Ohio, Brief said.

Speaking of the turn of the 20th century, Brief discussed the Russian waves of immigration, along with the immigration wave surrounding World War II and the popularity of bowling in the Jewish community.

“Don’t forget bowling,” she said. “Bowling is big.”

A fourth wave of immigration occurred in the 1950s to 1970s, including immigrants from Morocco, Hungary, Romania and the Middle East.

The fifth wave of immigration involved Soviet Jews in the 1980s.

Brief reminded the audience the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is interested in expanding its collection.

“When your kids don’t want it, think about us,” Brief said.

Finally, she offered a bit of advice to researchers.

“Remember, every story has a bit of truth to it.”

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