It’s becoming all-too-familiar: A synagogue, located in a smallish Jewish community, closing because of a lack of congregants to support it. Add Temple B’nai Sholom Temple in the Illinois river town of Quincy, along the banks of the Mississippi, to the growing list, as it prepares to shutter its doors forever on May 18.
“We know from history that Quincy once had 500 Jewish people living here,” said Carla Gordon, explaining that B’nai Sholom was started in the early 1850s, with a groundbreaking for the temple held in 1869 and the building finished a year later.
“Today, we have fewer than 30 congregants who attend,” Gordon added.
A retired teacher, Gordon moved to Quincy roughly 30 years ago from St. Louis, where she belonged to United Hebrew. She said Quincy was a great place to raise a family, which she did there. All three of her children had their b’nai mitzvah celebrations at B’nai Sholom, where Gordon has served on its board of trustees for many years.
As to factors contributing to the shrinking congregation, Gordon notes, “Many of the older congregants have passed away. Some have retired and moved away. Families who had children that went away to college stayed away and didn’t return here. My own three kids live elsewhere in the United States.
“We never had enough families move in to replace those that left.”
Gordon says that for many years, B’nai Sholom, a Reform congregation located at 427 N. Ninth Street, depended on student rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. For the past two years, congregants have been served by Rabbi Justin Kerber of St. Louis, who made the 2½-hour drive each way to lead Shabbat services once a month.
In anticipating its closing, B’nai Sholom has worked since 2015 with the Jewish Community Legacy Project, a nonprofit based in Atlanta that helps small Jewish congregations sort out their finances and determine what to do with the synagogue’s property and possessions. Gordon says she will take one of B’nai Sholom’s four Torah scrolls to a Reform synagogue in Unna, Germany; her parents were originally from Germany.
“We will keep one of the other Torahs, but I don’t know if a decision has been made about the other two,” said Gordon, adding that a group of congregants will continue to meet over the summer to decide the fate of the remaining Torahs and other synagogue property. Any Jewish religious texts that are no longer useful will be buried according to Jewish law in a grave at Valley of Peace cemetery, which the temple owns and continues to use. The cemetery, which is the only Jewish one within 100 miles, dates back to 1851.
In fact, says Gordon, B’nai Sholom is the oldest temple in the state of Illinois in continuous existence and the second oldest west of the Allegheny Mountains.
St. Louisan Mont Levy’s great-grandparents, clothing merchant J.D Levy and the former Matilda Steinau, were a prominent Quincy family and members of the temple. Levy said he and his wife Karen, who belong to Temple Israel, are considering attending the temple’s deconsecration ceremony, slated for 1 p.m. Saturday, May 18. The public is invited to attend the ceremony, which is designed to remove the “sacredness” of the building, which may eventually be sold. The last Shabbat service will be held at 7:30 p.m. the night before, though only current and past congregants are being asked to attend. That said, Gordon is hoping anyone from the St. Louis area who once belonged to B’nai Sholom will come.
“All of this is so very sad but at this point, we are resigned to what is happening,” said Gordon, 66. “I have always been affiliated and never expected this to happen in my life. It leaves some of our members wondering what to do.” Gordon added that congregants are considering renting space in the city’s Unitarian church or one of its storefronts. She also said they are looking into creating an endowment fund or foundation to pay for care and maintenance at the temple’s cemetery.
For more information about the May 17-18 closing weekend activities at Temple B’nai Sholom, call 217-222-8537.
Walking for Retts
Rettsyndrome.org will host its 12th annual St. Louis Strollathon on Saturday, May 4 with registration starting at 9 a.m. and the walk beginning at 10 a.m. The one-mile family-friendly stroll, which will be held at the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur, includes a visit from Fredbird, entertainment and food. All proceeds will benefit Rett Syndrome research.
Co-chair Joyce Opinsky, whose 19-year-old daughter, Lilly, has Rett syndrome, said it is a genetic neurological disorder that occurs predominantly in females and becomes apparent after 6 to 18 months of early normal development. It occurs in approximately one in 10,000 girls under age 12.
“Lilly is a beautiful, happy teenager. Her biggest challenges are that she cannot walk and is in a wheelchair, and she cannot speak or purposely use her hands,” said Opinsky, who belongs to Congregation B’nai Amoona. Since technology keeps improving, Opinsky says her daughter now uses a computer that allows her to control it through eye movement, much like patients with ALS do. Lilly “understands everything being said to her, though she is non-verbal,” Opinsky added, explaining that many people with the disorder also have seizures as well as scoliosis and irregular breathing patterns. The hallmark sign of Rett syndrome is near constant repetitive hand movements while awake.
The Strollathon program, Rettsyndrome.org’s national signature fundraising event, has brought families together to fundraise and to strengthen the local Rett community since 2004. Strollathons have raised a grand total of nearly $12 million nationwide for research treatments and a cure in the last 14 years.
Opinsky says St. Louis, thankfully, has a specialty clinic to care for and support children with Rett syndrome and Rett-related disorders. The clinic, which is a collaboration between Washington University School of Medicine and St. Louis Children’s Hospital, was named one of 14 Rett syndrome clinical research centers of excellence.
Donations, at www.st-louis.strollathon.org, are appreciated to the Strollathon, which is free and open to the public. For more information, call Opinsky at 314-346-1323, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.rettsyndrome.org.
CRC cemetery cleanup project
Central Reform Congregation needs volunteers to clean up and beautify the historic Greenwood cemetery in north St. Louis County on Sunday, April 28. The cemetery is listed on the National Register of Historic places and more than 50,000 African Americans are buried within Greenwood’s 30 acres, including Harriet Scott, wife of Dred Scott.
Lawn bags, rakes and mowers will be available; however, volunteers are encouraged to bring shovels, rakes, garden gloves/garden supplies. Teens are welcome.
The group will meet from 1 to 4 p.m. (in case of rain, the volunteer day will be moved to May 5).
The cemetery is located at 6571 St. Louis Ave. To RSVP, contact Lisa Levine at email@example.com or 314-651-2379.