Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Covington / Newport, Kentucky
Located just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Covington and Newport, Kentucky have long existed in the Queen City’s shadow. But after both cities were linked to Cincinnati by bridges in the late 19th century, they developed as urban industrial centers, with tobacco processing plants, breweries and distilleries, and even a large steel mill in Newport. It was for this reason that a number of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in Covington and Newport, establishing their own independent congregations. By the 1920s, over 1,000 Jews lived in these adjacent cities. But these northern Kentucky Jewish communities were always closely tied to the much larger Cincinnati Jewish community, and mid-20th century demographic changes north of the Ohio River eventually led to the demise of the Jewish communities in Newport and Covington.
United Hebrew Congregation,
dedicated in 1905.
Photo courtesy of American Jewish Archives.By the late 19th century, a growing number of Jewish immigrants were settling in Newport and Covington. Most came from Poland and Russia. Some were retail merchants, while others were artisans, namely tailors, cobblers, and wallpaper hangers. In 1897, a group of Newport Jews announced their intention to form a congregation. According to the local newspaper, the purpose of the Orthodox group, which had been meeting for services at the home of H. Roth, was “the acquiring and maintaining of a place of worship for preaching and teaching the Jewish religion.” The group, which became known as the United Hebrew Congregation, soon reached 31 members and began to raise money for a synagogue. A Ladies Aid Society was also founded in 1897. It took the congregation several years to raise the money, but in 1904 they purchased a former church which they remade into a synagogue. That same year, they hired Samuel Levinson as their rabbi, although he was unable to support his family on the small salary. Levinson worked as a cigar maker before later opening his own kosher butcher shop in town. When the congregation dedicated their new house of worship in January of 1905, Newport Mayor August Helmbold and two county judges spoke during the ceremony.
Despite this official support, Jews faced anti-Semitism in Newport at the time. Most Newport Jews settled in the city’s west end, where they sometimes faced violent attacks by criminals and anti-Semitic thugs. In 1906, Newport Jews created the Jewish Protection League, which quickly amassed 200 members. Its purpose was to pressure the police to offer protection from hoodlums who targeted Jews. Isaac Hauer, who was running for city alderman at the time, was the president of the group. The Jewish Protection League hired a local non-Jewish attorney to help the city prosecute criminals charged with assaulting Jews. The city attorney at the time welcomed the help. The league’s first case involved two men who, motivated by anti-Semitic prejudice, had beaten Samuel Bein and his wife. The two assailants were found guilty. After one attacker wrote a letter of apology, several members of the League signed a petition asking that his three-month jail sentence be reduced. The Jewish Protection League seems to have been short-lived, but reflected the willingness of Jewish immigrants to band together for self-defense in the face of a crisis.
Newport Jews also organized to pass down their religious traditions. In 1906, they established the Free Hebrew School, which met in a building on Patterson Street. This Talmud Torah school taught students Hebrew and also offered citizenship and English classes for adults at night. While the school was affiliated with the United Hebrew Congregation, it was incorporated separately. In 1911, the school moved to a new, larger building on Chestnut Street. At the dedication ceremony, participants sang Zionist songs, though the event ended with everyone singing “America.”
Indeed, Zionism flourished in Newport. In 1907, there was a local chapter of Poale Zion, the labor Zionist organization. That same year, a group of teenaged boys organized a social club, but after hearing a Zionist speaker, decided to convert it into the Newport Zionist Society. The small group soon grew to 25 members and affiliated with the national Federation of American Zionists. Henry Rosin was the first president and longtime leader of the society. In 1914, a group of women established the Daughters of Zion, but soon dissolved and joined the now co-ed Newport Zionist Society. By this point, the group was no longer a club for teenagers. They would bring in national speakers and raised money for the Jewish National Fund by holding dances and picnics. By 1918, the Newport Zionist Society had over fifty members. The group was also affiliated with the United Hebrew Congregation, using the synagogue as its address and meeting place. The congregation sent representatives to the national Zionist convention in 1919.
The Newport congregation was Orthodox, holding daily prayer services. Women sat in the balcony of the sanctuary, separate from male worshippers. They had a series of rabbis during these early years. Rabbi H. Finkenstein served the congregation in the mid-1920s. He reached out to the larger community, giving public lectures and writing articles for the local newspaper about such topics as evolution and technology. Although the United Hebrew Congregation was Orthodox, Reform rabbis from across the river in Cincinnati occasionally visited. In 1917, Rabbi Jacob Kaplan of a Reform congregation in Cincinnati spoke to the Newport group. The United Hebrew Congregation was not without its disputes. In 1931, an argument over what time services should start and other synagogue policies escalated into a fistfight that resulted in the police being called. For a brief time after World War I, there was a second congregation in Newport called Ohave Sholom (Lovers of Peace), established by more recent immigrants. The small congregation met in a small house on 6th Street, though it had dissolved by the mid-1920s.
Newport Jews also established a Hebrew Mutual Aid Society and a Hebrew Emergency Association, which raised money to help local Jews in need. In the early 1910s, a short-lived Young Men’s Hebrew Association was founded. They maintained a clubhouse on the third floor of the Knights of Columbus Hall which had pool tables, a gym, a lecture hall, and meeting rooms. The YMHA dissolved around 1915 and merged with the Newport Zionist Society. In 1914, Newport Jews created a Hebrew burial association with hopes of acquiring land for a cemetery. The group never achieved its goal, and eventually disbanded, as most northern Kentucky Jews were buried in neighboring Cincinnati. By 1927, an estimated 600 Jews lived in Newport, which had many of the institutions of a much larger Jewish community.
The Jewish community of Covington was never as developed as the one in Newport. In Covington, organized Jewish life centered around the congregation, Temple Israel, which was established in 1906. In February of 1907, the group held a dedication ceremony for their newly acquired Torah. Rabbi Gotthard Deutsch, a professor at the Reform Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, gave the keynote address during the event. Nevertheless, the congregation was Orthodox as most of its members were immigrants from Eastern Europe. During its early years, the congregation met in various places, including the Kentucky Post Hall. Starting in 1911, Rabbi Samuel Levinson of Newport’s United Hebrew Congregation would periodically lead services for Temple Israel. In 1913, the Covington congregation formed a committee to find a site for a synagogue. In 1914, they officially incorporated, bought a vacant lot, and started a drive to raise $10,000 to build a synagogue.
Based on the ten listed incorporators in 1914, Temple Israel’s membership was made up of immigrants who had been in the United States for several decades. While eight of the ten founders were foreign born, mostly from Russia and Poland, their average year of immigration was 1885, meaning most had lived in the U.S. for three decades by the time they incorporated Temple Israel. The founders were generally middle-aged, with an average age of 39. Most, 80%, were merchants, with the majority owning clothing stores. Although most of them owned businesses, 2/3rds of the founders rented their homes, showing that they were not yet firmly established economically.
Temple Israel's first synagogue.
Photo courtesy of American Jewish Archives.Not surprisingly, it took the small congregation a few years to raise the money to construct a permanent home. The Ladies Auxiliary held a fundraising dance at the Odd Fellows Hall which brought in $300. The group later held a series of entertainment programs that raised money for the building fund. One challenge was that the congregation did not have deep pocketed members; the two largest contributors each gave only $100. Most of the 95 contributors to the building fund gave between $5 and $25. Several of the donors were non-Jews, including the mayor, other government officials, and local businesses. By the summer of 1915, the congregation broke ground on the synagogue, which was completed by the end of the year. The dedication ceremony, which featured Covington Mayor George Phillips, drew 500 people. Reform Rabbi Jacob Kaplan of Cincinnati gave the opening prayer during the dedication. The new synagogue had a small classroom on the first floor and a sanctuary on the second. Although the congregation sometimes brought in Reform rabbis and Hebrew Union College students from Cincinnati, it was Orthodox, with a curtain separating the men and women’s sections in the sanctuary.
Temple Israel was relatively small, with only 31 members in 1919 and an annual income of $500. The congregation had a Sunday school with 20 students in 1919, and a smaller cheder that prepared boys for their bar mitzvah on weekday afternoons. In 1918, a temple sisterhood was founded. Around 1923, Rabbi Samuel Levinson left the United Hebrew Congregation in Newport to become Temple Israel’s full-time rabbi. After Levinson left in 1929, he was replaced by Rabbi Jacob Jacobs.
In 1937, the congregation was shocked to learn that the government was planning to condemn the entire block where their synagogue was located through eminent domain in order to build a new courthouse and post office. The government took possession of the synagogue in the summer of 1937 and boarded it up. Some members were upset about not being able to use the building for the high holidays and decided to break in and hold services there anyway. They were arrested and charged with contempt of court, but got the charges dropped when they noted to the judge that they had not yet received any payment from the government for the building. While the congregation was homeless, they met in the Odd Fellows Temple. In 1939, they built a new, modest synagogue at 1040 Scott Street. The new synagogue had a slightly smaller sanctuary than the old one, though it remained Orthodox in orientation with separate sections for men and women. At the dedication ceremony, an Orthodox rabbi from Cincinnati, Eliezar Silver, was the featured speaker. Temple Israel had fifty members at the time of the new synagogue’s dedication. An estimated 350 Jews lived in Covington in 1937.
The members of Temple Israel in 1939 were much more diverse occupationally than they had been when the congregation was first incorporated 25 years earlier. Of the forty members listed in the Covington City Directory, 25% were skilled artisans, primarily tailors and shoe repairers. Ten percent were professionals. Only 30% owned a retail business, most of which were grocery stores. Only three of the forty members owned a clothing store. The Covington Jewish community was in transition by the late 1930s, and would soon begin to decline.
Morris WeintraubThe Jewish communities of Newport and Covington had long been linked with the larger community in Cincinnati. In the early 20th century, most Cincinnati Jews lived in the downtown area, just across the river from Covington and Newport. But in the mid-20th century, Jews in Cincinnati and their synagogues began to migrate north to the city’s suburbs. Many of the Jewish families in northern Kentucky followed suit, especially as the wider proliferation of automobiles and improved bridges made commuting much easier. Jews could maintain their stores and businesses in Newport and Covington, while living amidst the larger Cincinnati Jewish community, which offered far greater social and educational resources. This process was accelerated by the floods of 1936 and 1937, which damaged many homes and businesses of Jews in northern Kentucky. Rather than rebuild, many found it easier to move to Cincinnati. Also, a series of violent clashes between local workers and industry, especially during the Newport Steel Strike of 1921, convinced many Jews to move to Cincinnati. One exception was attorney Morris Weintraub, who became one of Newport’s most prominent citizens. The longtime president of the United Hebrew Congregation, Weintraub also served in the Kentucky House of Representatives as a Democrat, and was the Speaker of the House during the 1958 legislative session.
While Temple Israel and the United Hebrew Congregation were only 1.5 miles apart, the two Orthodox congregations remained separate, even as they both started to decline in the 1940s. Both congregations hired European refugees to serve as their rabbi, although none of them remained in northern Kentucky for long. In 1939, Temple Israel hired Rabbi Alfed Seelig, a German refugee, who moved into the small apartment in back of the new synagogue with his wife and son. Rabbi Seelig left in 1942. During the 1940s, the Covington congregation struggled to pay its mortgage and its rabbi, who usually had to find work to supplement his salary. Rabbi Gerson Frankel, who replaced Seelig, worked as a kosher butcher in Cincinnati during the week, while leading Shabbat services for Temple Israel on the weekends. In 1947, they hired their last rabbi, Uscher Babad, a Jewish refugee, to help him get a visa to move to the United States. A year earlier, the United Hebrew Congregation in Newport did the same thing, hiring Austrian Rabbi Albert Kohn. By 1950, the Newport congregation had 85 members, while Temple Israel had shrunk to only 35 members.
Both congregations struggled during the 1950s as the Jewish population of northern Kentucky continued to shrink. Most families with children moved to Cincinnati, while both congregations became more elderly. The Newport Hebrew School, which had been taken over by the Bureau of Jewish Education in Cincinnati, closed by the 1950s since there not enough children to keep it viable. Both congregations struggled to attract a minyan throughout the decade. Temple Israel discontinued weekly Shabbat services for this reason, meeting only for the high holidays. Soon after, the United Hebrew Congregation did the same. In 1956, the Newport congregation brought in a cantor and student rabbi from New York to lead high holiday services. In 1960, the congregation’s president, Morris Weintraub, announced that they would not be holding high holiday services that year “not because of finances, but because we cannot secure sufficient Jews to make up a minyan.” Weintraub encouraged the few remaining members of the congregation to attend services at Temple Israel in Covington. This marked the conclusion of the active phase of the congregation, which came to an official end when they sold their synagogue to a local church in 1969. Temple Israel did not last much longer. After bringing in Hebrew Union College students to lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the 1950s, Temple Israel held their last high holiday services in 1960, after which the congregation became inactive. Their synagogue soon fell into disrepair.
Temple Israel's second and final synagogue.In 1969, a recent transplant to the area, Marshall Goodman, tried to re-form Temple Israel in Covington. The group met for weekly Shabbat services at a local college, bringing in an HUC student rabbi to lead them. They looked into the possibility of using the old synagogue on Scott Street, but part of the ceiling had collapsed and the building needed too much money in repairs. This new group, which called itself Temple Israel, tried to sell the old synagogue and use the money to build a new temple in a nicer neighborhood. Abe Wander, who was a longtime leader of the old Temple Israel, had different ideas. He sold the building to a church in 1973 and donated the proceeds to a charity in Israel. Part of the dispute was over ritual. The new congregation was Reform, while Wander wanted Temple Israel to remain Orthodox. After the building was sold, the new group lost its energy and soon disbanded. The few remaining Jews in northern Kentucky joined congregations in Cincinnati.
In recent decades, there has been occasional Jewish activity in the area. In 1981, a small group of Covington Jews built a sukkah and held a holiday event that drew sixty people. Some of these were Hebrew Union College students who lived in Covington and Newport while others were old-timers who still lived in northern Kentucky. While once over 1000 Jews lived in Covington and Newport, today only about 300 do. The days of a northern Kentucky Jewish community independent of Cincinnati are long gone. Any future Jewish population in Covington and Newport will exist solely as a small offshoot of the Cincinnati Jewish community.