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Local History

Uncovering the Unknown History of the Ozarks: The Springfield Jewish Community


Springfield’s Jewish community played a crucial part in shaping our region…but the community’s role is largely unknown to the public.  A new book aims to change that, and give that religious community the recognition it deserves. As part of our ongoing Sense of Place series on local history, KSMU’s Julie Greene has more.

Mara Cohen Ioannides, English professor at Missouri State University, has a long history with the Jewish community in the Ozarks. In 1999, she wrote the article that became the first published history of Jews in the Ozarks. And now, with the help of co-author Rachel Gholson, she’s the primary author of the book “Jews of Springfield in the Ozarks.”

Cohen Ioannides says the book details the impact and importance of the Jewish community here—from Victor Sommers, who opened one of the first stores, to the Rosen family, who owned the Busy Bee department store.  

“The Jews of Springfield were an important part of what made Springfield Springfield. I mean, these were the foundations of the community, and people don’t know that,” Cohen Ioannides said.

She says one of the main reasons the public isn’t aware of the impact smaller Jewish communities had is because, until recently, researchers mainly focused on larger Jewish communities.

The early Jews of Springfield also played a part in shaping world history:  they were responsible for saving two rabbis from the Holocaust.  Again, Mara Cohen Ioannides.

“By creating the need for a rabbi, they could petition that these people, who were going to be sent to slaughter, basically, would be employed and were given visas to come into the United States,” Cohen Ioannides stated.

The son of one of those rabbis is prominent Reform Rabbi Dr. Walter Jacob.

“Growing up in Springfield, Missouri was really wonderful in every way. First of all, for my family to be so far from the scene of war, and the whole atmosphere as far as we were concerned, my brother and I, was extremely friendly. That really was almost idyllic. Not only Springfield, but also the lovely surrounding countryside of the Ozarks,” Jacob said.

Jacob, now a retired and knighted rabbi in Pittsburgh, currently works to spread Reform Judaism in Germany.

For more information about the Springfield Jewish community, authors Cohen Ioannides and Gholson will hold a free presentation in Myers Hall at South Street Christian Church on Sunday, September 22 at 2:30 p.m. That location is symbolic:  it’s the site of the first known Jewish services in Springfield.

For KSMU News, I’m Julie Greene.