OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Across a highway from the Hawthorne Plaza mall, the largest Jewish congregation in Kansas City’s metropolitan area has recently found a new home next to grassy fields of chirping cicadas.
After its historic synagogue in the city was demolished last September, B’nai Jehudah became the latest, and nearly the last, congregation to move from the city center in Missouri to the Kansas suburbs.
This is not the demographic trend you might pick up by reading the Kansas City newspapers, where all the talk is focused on the construction of lofts and new cultural spaces downtown. Kansas City is one of many cities across the nation experiencing a similar shift back into the city and, on the surface, the urban renewal in Kansas City is associated with Jewish names in Kansas City: The plans for the new performing arts center were drawn up by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, and one of the biggest businesses to move its headquarters back into the downtown area is H&R Block, the financial-services firm started by Jewish brothers in the 1950s.
But if Kansas City is any indication, Jews — traditionally an urban people — do not appear to be leading the charge back into the city. In fact, all signs point in the opposite direction – toward the continuing suburbanization of Jewish culture. In addition to the largest congrega-tion, B’nai Jehudah, the second largest, Beth Shalom, is in the midst of building its own new campus far south of the city.
While there are no exact numbers on the geography of the 20,000-odd Jews in Kansas City, community leaders agree that the buildings are following the continuing flow of Jews into the suburbs, which, in the Kansas City area, means out of the Missouri urban-center and into the Kansas suburbs to the south.
“You know Horace Greeley said ‘Go west, young man,’” said Marshall Margolies, the rabbi emeritus at Beth Shalom. “Now in Kansas City we say ‘Go south, young Jew.’ The Jews here are still wandering.”
“People over time are continuing to move south,” agreed Joel Levine, the president of Ohev Shalom. Levine’s congregation is currently close to the city, but a local church has the right to buy the building in two years. If that happens, Levine says they will pick up and head farther south, where the members live.
Beyond the Jewish community, it is not as though Kansas Citians have been stampeding back into the urban core. Recent census data show that the population movement out of the city limits is merely slowing down rather than reversing. But in many chic neighborhoods there has been an actual increase in numbers during the past five years, and the new loft apartments and libraries are not just cosmetic according to Robyne Turner, a professor of urban affairs at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.
“All of this is really taking off and creating a change in the location of energy in the city,” Turner said.
While the movement back into the city is still in its nascent stages, some observers worry that with the Jewish institutions leaving the city right now, it will be much harder for the community to reverse direction anytime soon.
When Beth Shalom makes its move in a few years, only one of the city’s 10 congregations will be left inside city limits: the New Reform Temple. The rabbi there, Jacques Cukierkorn, jokingly says he calls himself, “the Lord Chief Rabbi of Kansas City… I’m it, man.”
The conflicts that this new situation creates played out in a very personal way for Arthur Nemitoff, senior rabbi at B’nai Jehudah, the congregation that moved to the suburbs last year. Nemitoff, 50, grew up just four blocks from B’nai Jehudah’s old sanctuary in the city and he celebrated his bar mitzvah there. When he was named senior rabbi of the congregation last September — after eight years in Columbus, Ohio – his first sermon was the last sermon at the historic building.
In returning to the area, Nemitoff and his wife were torn over whether to return to his roots in the city or follow the congregation into Kansas. In the end they decided upon the latter because they wanted their son and daughter to attend public schools, and the Kansas City, Mo., school district was not up to their standards.
“There was a piece of us that would have liked the diversity of the city,” Nemitoff said. “It’s much less diverse out here, but it’s a much better educational system out here. It really wasn’t a choice for us.”
Nemitoff’s decision to head away from downtown is not a new one. When the Jewish community began over a century ago it was near the river in downtown Kansas City, Mo. Most congregations are now on their third move. A typical story is that of Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue that began at 34th Street, near the heart of the downtown area. During the 1970s, it moved to 95th Street. The new building is being constructed at 143rd Street — 20 miles from where it began.
One of the prime engines behind the recent exodus was the decision, 13 years ago, to locate the Jewish Community Campus at 115th Street. The ritual border, or eruv, for the Orthodox community now circumscribes suburban streets spread around 100th Street.
Establishing the community so far outside the city has not been without its opponents. One of the most vocal has been John Hoffman, who fought against the decision last year to demolish B’nai Jehuda’s 69th Street sanctuary. The old building, a landmark of religious architecture, was the site of many famous meetings between the city’s black and Jewish leaders during the civil rights era.
The day it was announced that the building would be torn down, Hoffman, 64, resigned his membership and helped form a new congregation, Kol Ami. “To me it was the death knell of Jewish life in Kansas City proper,” said Hoffman, who, since retiring from his first job in banking, is now working to develop urban loft spaces. Young people and retirees are starting to occupy the properties, and Hoffman and his wife live in the trendy River Market area, but he has been joined by few other Jews.
His major concern is that Jewish leaders will lose interest in the politics of the city, where many of the social problems of the region are still concentrated. The most daunting issue facing the city is its struggling school district, to which the Jewish community in Kansas now has little connection.
“Most of the Jewish community is only involved in Jewish issues now,” Hoffman said. “People in suburbia have no say over all that is happening in the city right now. All they have is their car and their beltway.”
As recently as 1990 Kansas City had a Jewish mayor, but Hoffman said he could not imagine that happening again soon.
The president of the Kansas City Jewish Federation, Todd Stettner, disputed Hoffman’s contention that Jewish leaders have faded in their involvement from urban affairs. He listed a number of leading Jewish philanthropists in the city, including the heads of the boards of the opera, the symphony and the chamber of commerce.
The lone rabbi left in the city, Cukierkorn at New Reform, says the change has not been drastic but he said there has been a noticeable “gap” in the services that the Jewish community used to provide to the urban community, which corresponds to a new ideological gap.
“There is a gap between the liberal message that we are all one, and we are all in this together,” Cukierkorn said, “and people choosing to live in neighborhoods that are mostly white and mostly suburbs.”
But Cukierkorn quickly pointed out that he has not bucked the trends himself. Even though he has a job in the city, when the Brazilian rabbi moved to Kansas City with his family five years ago, he chose a home in Overland Park, Kan., so that his two daughters could be near the city’s only Jewish day school and the Jewish community center. It was not a decision he made without some qualms.
“By all means I would have lived in the city if those institutions were in the city,” Cukierkorn said. “I would be happier without the commute.”