Believe-land? A look inside Cleveland’s Jewish community

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I am something of a reformed nomad. Born and raised in New Jersey, I went to school in Chicago (Go Wildcats!), interned for a while in New York City, then spent a year in Florida.

In 2004, I moved to Cleveland, clad with a winter coat that more resembled a sleeping bag than any sort of shapely outerwear, nostalgic memories of a sun tan, and the phone number of some distant relatives. I knew no one else.

But I wasn’t worried. I had the phone number of a local synagogue. When I introduced myself to the secretary –New! Young! Jewish! Single! Excited to be in Cleveland! -you could almost hear the sound of red carpets unrolling. And then the phone calls began. Would you like to come to dinner? Breakfast? coffee? Are you married? Do you want children? How many? Do you know Yossi/Ben/Aaron/Kevin/Joseph?

Cleveland, you see, is a great place to be Jewish … or even just Jew…ish.

Group of Northeast Ohioans Travel to Israel

Group of Northeast Ohioans Travel to Israel

With 80,000 “members of the tribe” living in the Cuyahoga County area, Cleveland could have its own small “Tribe Nation” (fun note 1:  Al Rosen “aka The Hebrew Hammer,” was the last Indians player to win the American League Most Valuable Player Award. Fun note 2: Mitchell Schwartz, an offensive linesman for the Browns, brought a frying pan and taught his teammates the fine art of latke frying at last season’s Christmas party).

Single and Jewish? Cleveland has hundreds of grandmothers who are happy to introduce you to their grandsons … but failing that, there is also a free matchmaking service, called Cleveland Yenta (http://www.cleyentas.com), whose sole mission is to match up single Jewish Clevelanders with other Jewish Clevelanders –or those looking to move back to Cleveland. Moishe House (http://www.moishehouse.org/)- an organization that provides a spacious Cleveland Heights home – and subsidized rent –for young Jewish professionals, puts on dozens of fun social events – murder mystery Shabbat anyone? — for Jews looking to mix and mingle. The Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Young Leadership Division hosts a “big event” (kind of like prom –only with legal drinking!) at a downtown hot spot each year and ClevelandGives hosts quarterly volunteer events, with a social twist, for young professionals looking to give back (their next event is at an urban winery, that gives jobs and second chances to the formerly incarcerated).

Cleveland Gives Board Giving Back

Cleveland Gives Board Giving Back

For those who believe that if you pray together, you stay together, the ClevelandPlus region has more than twenty different synagogue options, serving every denomination from Reform to Orthodox to Reconstructionist to Secular/Humanist. And for those who prefer to “pray with their feet,” the Cleveland Jewish community has lots of volunteer opportunities. Every year, for instance, the National Council of Jewish Women/Cleveland, whose mission is to help improve the lives of women, children, and families in the region, heads up a community-wide clothing donation, collecting thousands of blankets, coats, and hats to benefit the homeless in Greater Cleveland, as part of the city’s Homeless Stand Down event. The community is also very philanthropic: each year The Jewish Federation of Cleveland raises more than $28 million annually to support Jewish families in the community and around the world.

And I wouldn’t really be Jewish, if I didn’t mention food. Cleveland has a ton of delicious kosher and kosher-style restaurants to choose from (more fun notes: Cleveland was the first city in the world to open a Kosher Subway!!!) And when you want to work off that pastrami and rye from Corky and Lenny’s, there’s the Mandel Jewish Community Center – which offers classes in everything from barre to spinning.

My son, Max!

My son, Max!

Now, that I am married, with a child (Isn’t Max the cutest?), there are the same Jewish grandmothers eager to offer their baby-sitting services … as well as dozens of support systems from Jewish day care nurseries to PJ Library that provides free Jewish books and music to families with children.

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Today, as the Director of Volunteers for NCJW/Cleveland, I joke that my real role is that of a concierge. Every day, as I work to connect people to volunteer opportunities and to each other, I’m pointing out the fabulous things Cleveland’s Jewish community offers; but it’s a pretty easy conversation these days. It seems people already know.