For the Jewish community in Athens County the end of September is not about the beginning of fall, but rather two Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah, celebrated Sept. 18-20, is the celebration of Jewish New Year. It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days. One week later, on Sept. 27-28, Yom Kippur will be observed to celebrate the day of atonement. Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year in Judaism and is marked by fasting and prayer.
While looking around modern-day Athens County, you may not see too many people observing these traditions, but there is a long history of Jewish culture in Southeast Ohio.
Austin Reid, a master's candidate at Cornell University, recently published a piece detailing Jewish history in the area. “Jews along the Hocking: A history of Jewish life in Athens County,” is currently available on the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s website. Hardcopies will also be available at the Southeast Ohio History Center.
Reid grew up in Lancaster, but he had family connections in Nelsonville and The Plains and has fond memories of visiting Athens County as a child.
In 2017, when he was living in Columbus as a student at Capital University, Reid began researching Jewish history in Lancaster as part of his capstone project. While conducting the research he noticed stories about Jewish people living in Athens.
This piqued Reid’s interest, but given his work load at the time he could not delve further.
In spring of 2020, Reid’s free time opened up with the onset of nationwide COVID-19 quarantine.
“I took up the opportunity to research these families’ stories again and it kinda of took off,” Reid said. “My hope is – especially in these small towns outside of Athens where people may not remember that Jewish families were part of their communities and contributed to their communities – for people to rediscover these stories.”
Reid also hopes that his writing will benefit the descendants of the Jewish people who lived in Athens County.
“For them to rediscover where their ancestors, oftentimes immigrants, first settled when they came to the United States,” Reid said.
One of the research methods that Reid employed when working on this project was by searching back through old issues of the Athens Messenger on newspaperarchives.com.
“That was really helpful to me as I was researching through these stories, I was able to search through these records and get first-hand sources.”
When Reid first began his project on Athens County he started with the names he first found in 2017, he explored records with those names. Reid also utilized the connections he made while living in Columbus.
“I’m Jewish myself, and I was pretty active in the Columbus Jewish community,” Reid said. “I knew there were some families in Columbus that had ties to Athens County that I associated with...I would really just start searching names.”
Wedding announcements, birth announcements and obituaries were the three sources that Reid got most of the detailed information from while doing his research. By doing this, Reid was able to record the history of not just prominent community members, but also people who lived simple lives out of the public eye.
“They might not have been leaders in an organization, but they still played a role in their communities in other ways,” Reid said.
Through doing his research, Reid found a few stories that stuck with him. One being Sarah Wilson who moved to Chauncey with her husband in the 1900s. Wilson lost her husband and a son in 1919, she would then go on to outlive three other sons.
“I just remember thinking, ‘wow, Sarah must have had such strength.’ As a mother, she carried on the family business,” Reid said.
Reid also discovered stories of two Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Athens County after WWII.
One of those survivors was Lola Cudzynowska, who changed her name to Laura after she immigrated to the United States, was liberated from the Rentzmuhler Camp in Germany on June 8, 1945. Neither of her parents survived the Holocaust.
Laura Cudzynowska because Laura Rosenberg when married Sol Rosenberg, a prominent Athens businessman in the 60s and 70s. Prior to marrying Sol, Laura worked with the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which helped to meet the needs of Jewish refugees in Europe. Sol helped her secure her immigration and the two began a life together in Athens County.
Reid also found statements said by a Revered Wilcox at the 1920 funeral of Sam Sommers. Wilcox stated that though he and Sommers did not share the same religion, he had no doubt of the rewards waiting for Sommers in the afterlife.
“It was a very progressive message. I think it speaks to the deep roots of religious tolerance and partnership that exists in Athens County,” Reid said. “I was very happy to read stories like that.”
These stories and others have gone mostly unrecorded in Athens County history. Particularly as the Jewish population has dwindled over the years.
“I think small-town American Jewish life is on the decline, especially in the midwest and the south,” Reid said, who attributes the decline to the decline of different industries. “I think when we saw the decline of manufacturing the decline of resource industries, I think the Jewish community followed these trends.”
It is difficult to find accurate statistics on how many Jewish people live in Athens County, as many students may be Jewish at Ohio University or Hocking College, but the schools do not make this information available based on privacy laws.
Ohio University Hillel is a Jewish student center that is active on campus. They serve to educate students and the community on Jewish culture, education, history and more. Reid worked with Hillel when researching his project.
In addition to the Jewish student population, there is a small, but vibrant, Jewish community in Athens County.
Reid hopes that through his project, people will not forget the history of Jewish people in Athens County.
“It’s a personal hobby that I have, and I just would like to know that these people are remembered."