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World’s Jews discover Columbus and find it very rich in Jewish life

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Aug. 17 (JTA) — In a matter of days, the Jewish population here grew by almost 20 percent. Then, as quickly as they had arrived, the 3,000 visiting athletes and educators who filled the Jewish community center, Ohio State University and quite a few houses packed up and returned to their homes around the world. They left the Jewish residents of this university town and state capital tired but energized. At first glance, Columbus — with 17,000 Jews and an annual federation campaign of $6.1 million — looks like a relatively small player in the American Jewish world. However, it offers a Jewish life that is unusually rich for a community of its size. It is home to major national Jewish philanthropists and recently demonstrated its ability to host two major national Jewish gatherings at once: the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education’s annual conference and the Maccabi Games, an international athletic competition for Jewish teens. The Games — involving a total of 5,000 teens — were also held in Cherry Hill, N.J., Rochester, N.Y. and Houston. More famous members of Columbus’ Jewish community include: * Leslie Wexner, owner of The Limited chain of retail clothing stores. Wexner, described with reverence by a local cab driver as “the prince of Columbus,” funds Jewish leadership development initiatives and is one of the funders of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a foundation supporting the growth of new day schools around the country. * Florence Melton, founder of a popular international Jewish adult learning program. The growing community supports eight synagogues, two kosher bakeries and two day schools — an Orthodox-run school that runs through 12th grade and a year-old elementary school that is modeled on New York’s pluralistic Abraham Joshua Heschel School. Its federation recently announced “Birthright Jewish Education,” an initiative to ensure that day schools, congregational schools and Jewish camps are financially accessible to all local Jews. It is also undergoing an extensive re-structuring, which it calls “Reinventing the Federation.” With an influx of visitors and events, the community suddenly felt much larger. And with swarms of vendors selling all kinds of Judaic books, ritual objects and art at the CAJE conference, Columbus briefly enjoyed the shopping amenities of more heavily Jewish enclaves. “We’re the center of the Jewish world this week,” said Hal Lewis, president and chief executive officer of the Columbus Jewish Federation, as he mingled with volunteers and participants at the Maccabi Games. He spent much of the week at the CAJE conference as well, delivering a keynote session on encouraging Jewish leadership to participate in regular Jewish education programs and moderating a panel discussion on advocacy in Jewish education. Columbus enlisted several hundred volunteers to ensure the events ran smoothly. Among their services: hosting teen athletes, directing traffic and driving go-carts around Ohio State University for CAJE participants unable to walk around campus easily. “Somehow Columbus is surviving the storm,” said one Maccabi volunteer, Laura Natis, as she helped visitors navigate the Jewish Community Center. Natis said she had dropped in on the CAJE conference the previous evening and noticed a friend volunteering there. “Around here there are so many volunteers looking for work,” she said. Added Sam Horowitz, director of community relations for the Columbus Jewish federation: “Columbus has that right mix of size, staff and organizational expertise and volunteers — all the things that make for a solid conference.”