Jewish Business in the Pioneering Midwest

Jewish Business in the Pioneering Midwest

When immigrants flooded into the United States each arrival heralded changes to the economy, the culture and the values of America. The first wave lasted from 1609 to 1775 and was populated by those fleeing religious persecution, indentured servants and adventurers.

Immigrants in the second wave from about 1820 to 1870 were predominantly the Irish trying to survive the potato famine. The other major groups were German-speaking people from Eastern Europe, a substantial number of them Jewish.  About 17,000 Jews lived in America in 1850; by 1880 that number had increased to 270,000.

As the German Jewish settlers pushed farther inland, they displaced the Native Americans. In the wake of their trek westward they set up towns and cities along the way until they reached the Midwest.

The third wave – from 1881 to 1920 – came from the north and Western Europe and again included a number of Jewish people. An anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in hostility against Jewish, Roman Catholic and Japanese arrivals.

With the onset of the Depression and World War II, immigration slowed to a trickle until the fourth wave began after 1965.

Image courtesy of Joe+Jeanette Archie at
Image courtesy of Joe+Jeanette Archie at

Where, exactly, is the Midwest?

The Midwest is defined as the area in the north-central part of America. It roughly borders the Great Lakes to the north and the upper Mississippi to the south. It is an area of rich farmland, expansive prairies, harsh winters and blazing summers.

States belonging to the Midwest include Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansan, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North & South Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Why did Jewish people want to head inland?

The main thrust of Jewish immigration to the Midwest started in the 1850s and 1860s and by 1880, they were found throughout the entire region.

Being pioneering entrepreneurs in the Midwest was not for the faint-hearted. Whereas many of the German-speaking immigrants opted for farming – as agriculture was their background – Jewish people frequently set up businesses to provide goods and supplies for the as yet rough-and-ready pioneer areas.

Jew traders included trading furs with Native Americans, setting up stores, speculating on land and opening small manufacturing operations. With a sniff of the entrepreneurial spirit, Jewish merchants could smell the opportunities that abounded in the pioneering landscape.

Whereas the Jewish people on the East Coast gravitated to the major cities, those in the Midwest spread out and populated the entire area. The concentration of Jewish families often included only one or two per settlements such as, say, Fargo, Grand Falls or Bismarck. Larger centers – including St. Paul, Duluth and Minneapolis for example – had enough Jewish people to build synagogues.

Whereas some people drifted away from their faith, for the majority the network of religious celebrations and synagogues helped satisfy their spiritual needs.

Jewish business development

Although Jewish people were not allowed to work in some professions, the food industry was open for business. Hence, the proliferation of mom & pop grocery stores.

As Jewish business expanded it reflected the realities of the Midwest. Consequently, the major industries tend to be related to agriculture. Other businesses include the automotive industry, cyber-security and unnamed aerial vehicles.

Hi-tech industry – such as that found in the Silicon Valley – is absent in the Midwest. Developmental limitations include fewer human resources, limited budgets and a lack of awareness. But that may be changing as Jewish businesses in the Midwest increasingly embrace globalization.

Kansas, for instance, is gaining a reputation as a good place to set up business. Why? Because it is in the middle of the country and two and a half hours by plane to either coast. This is the sort of transportation link that Jewish entrepreneurs would consider when opening a new factory because convenience is an important factor.

The golden ghetto of Chicago

Chicago is ranked as the 10th largest Jewish city in the world with an estimated population of 300,000.

And it all started back in the 1840s when the immigrants saw the possibilities the city offered. From the humble beginning of being door-to-door traders, Jewish merchants moved up to clothing or small grocery stores.

Another factor that made Chicago so attractive was that it was settled by the British, Irish and Swedes. They didn’t discriminate against Jews, so the market place was more homogenous. As the windy city expanded to become a metropolis at the turn of the 20th century, the market of credit was born and Jewish people moved into the banking sector.

As Jewish business people expanded their companies and became wealthy, they moved out of the city center to the affluent south side of Chicago. Hence the nickname the “golden ghetto” to reflect their increased financial status.

An overview of Jewish business in the Midwest

As outlined, Jewish business people went from being traders and shopkeepers who first settled in the Midwest to become the contemporary corporate leaders in the 21st century. Jewish business is alive and thriving in the Midwest.

Current indications are that business will continue to grow and develop, particularly in places like Chicago which has a high concentration of Jewish people.