Inside JCPRD: Johnson County’s historic Jewish community

B’nai Jehudah: The synagogue entry and gathering hall at Temple B’nai Jehudah, built in 2000, with the Klein Collection display in the background on the left and right. Image courtesy of Temple B’nai Jehudah.

By the Johnson County Museum

This spring, the Johnson County Museum is doing something new with its largest artifact, the 1950s All-Electric House. Starting March 26 through May 1, the table in the dining room will be set for the Jewish Passover Seder (“order” in Hebrew), which is centered around food, rituals, singing, and storytelling.

This temporary display builds on a long-standing tradition of rotating objects displayed inside and outside the house on a seasonal basis, including a retro Christmas display that thousands enjoy each year. This is the first time that Passover – or any other Jewish holiday – has been incorporated into the All-Electric House.

The museum partnered with Johnson County’s Congregation B’nai Jehudah and the Klein Collection for the display. This includes the Seder table setting inside as well as a special exhibit of three pieces from the Klein Collection featured just outside the All-Electric House. The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah is one of the oldest Reform Jewish Congregations in the nation. Founded in Kansas City in 1870, it is the oldest synagogue in the Kansas City Metro area.

Ohev Sholom: Congregation Ohev Sholom built its first synagogue in Johnson County—a modernist, tent-like structure – at 75th Street and Nall Avenue in 1963. It still stands today. Johnson County Museum

Visitors to the Johnson County Museum often ask who could and could not live in a house like the All-Electric House. The answer is complicated. Built in 1954 in the Indian Fields subdivision of J.C. Nichols’ Prairie Village development, the neighborhood likely included racial restrictive covenants. While there are stories in the community about Nichols prohibiting Jewish families from living in his developments, deed records suggest that this was only true on the Missouri side and fairly early in Nichols’ real estate development career – at least on paper.

While all of Prairie Village was governed by racial restrictive covenants that banned Black families from purchasing property there, Jewish families were not expressly prohibited as they were in the Kroh Brothers’ Leawood development. This did not mean, however, that Jewish families were always welcomed by their neighbors. Experiences varied over time and place, but some Jewish families found a cold reception once they relocated to the postwar suburban neighborhoods in northeastern Johnson County.

Finkelstons: Sol and Dora Finkelston relocated to Overland Park in 1921 and owned a dry goods store at 80th Street and Santa Fe Drive. Photo circa 1939. Johnson County Museum.

Of course, Jewish people resided in Kansas long before the postwar era. As early as 1877, Temple Ohev Sholom held services on the Missouri side in the West Bottoms that served congregants from both sides of the state line. Following the 1903 Flood, that congregation moved to Kansas City, Kan. In the 1920s, Johnson County saw the first recorded Jewish residents arrive in the Overland Park area, including the Finkelstons, who operated a store there, and the Ashners in present-day Mission, who owned Greenwood Dairy at 49th Street and Lamar Avenue. The Finkelstons reported some intimidation from residents who did not want to have Jewish neighbors.

Although the majority of Jewish residents in the region lived in Kansas City, Mo. throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish families like their non-Jewish counterparts flocked to Johnson County after World War II. In 1953, Paul Berman along with 100 other Jewish businessmen started the Meadowbrook Country Club at 91st Street and Nall Avenue (Meadowbrook Park today, part of Johnson County Park and Recreation District). At the time, only Oakwood Country Club in Kansas City, Mo. permitted Jewish membership. Meadowbrook was an important center for Jewish life, drawing hundreds of members across the state line, many of whom purchased homes nearby in Prairie Village.

As Johnson County’s suburbs grew, so did the number of Jewish residents. Whole congregations began to move across the state line starting in the 1960s, followed by the Jewish Community Center and Menorah Medical Center in the 1980s, and social and philanthropic organizations. The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah moved to a new facility at 12320 Nall Avenue in Overland Park in 2000. A report in 2007 estimated that of the Kansas City Metro’s Jewish population of some 20,000, nearly 80 percent lived in Kansas, with the heaviest concentrations in Overland Park as well as neighboring Leawood and Prairie Village. The Jewish community in Johnson County today is historic, vibrant, and active.

Passover Traditions program graphic: Join the Johnson County Museum and Temple B’nai Jehudah on March 31 for a free virtual program! Register here.

The display in the All-Electric House will be open to the public from March 26 through May 1, 2021. On March 31, the museum is offering a program called “Passover Traditions” with Klein Collection curator Abby Magariel and Congregation B’nai Jehudah’s Rabbi. This is a free virtual program, but participants must pre-register to receive the program link. Call (913) 831-3359 or register here.

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