Jewish immigrants first arrived in the Kansas City area in the 1850s as the Kansas Territory opened for settlement. Jobs in the expanding railroad and meat-packing industries attracted Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Many settled in the West Bottoms and established businesses in Armourdale in Kansas City, Kansas. Two synagogues, Temple B’nai Jehudah and Ohev Sholom, were organized during the 1870s to accommodate the region’s growing Jewish population.
Kansas City’s Jewish community settled in different parts of the city as their numbers increased. By the mid-1920s, over 20,000 Jewish residents lived in the Kansas City area, but almost none lived in Johnson County. There were a few exceptions, however. In 1921, Sol and Dora Finkelston relocated their family to Overland Park, where Sol operated a dry goods store on 80th and Santa Fe Drive. The Ashners, another Jewish family, moved to Johnson County in 1927 and raised eight children. The Ashner family operated the Greenwood Dairy at 49th and Lamar until the 1950s.
Post-World War II prosperity and government programs allowed millions of Americans to move to the suburbs. Jewish families in Kansas City took advantage of new opportunities and moved to Johnson County in large numbers after 1945. However, the search for idyllic suburbia was not always attainable for Jewish families in the 1940s and 1950s. Restrictive covenants prevented Jewish people (and African-Americans) from living in particular Johnson County neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Jewish families flocked to Johnson County and brought their historic institutions and traditions with them. The Temple Beth El synagogue was formed in 1958 at 95th and Nall. The Ohev Shalom congregation opened a synagogue at 75th and Lamar in 1961. Other important Jewish institutions were formed as well. In 1966, a small group of Jewish parents in Johnson County organized an independent school that would eventually be known as the Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy.
Johnson County’s Jewish population continued to grow during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. More synagogues and Jewish organizations opened in Johnson County. One of the most recognizable signs of Jewish influence in Johnson County is the Jewish Community Center (JCC) that opened in Overland Park in 1988. Today, the JCC has 8,500 members and serves as a gathering place where local families can learn, play sports and celebrate their Jewish faith and heritage.
Sixty years ago, Jewish families were barred from buying houses in certain Johnson County neighborhoods. Today, Johnson County’s Jewish community is thriving, and their influence can be seen in organizations and synagogues around the area.
– Matt Gilligan, Johnson County Museum