Jewish communities in Illinois, Iowa share rabbi, synagogue

For a group of Jews from the Midwest, the Jewish New Year began this fall with an interstate walk, complete with loads of Torah.

Four days before Rosh Hashanah, members of the Beth Israel Congregation left the Tri-City Jewish Center in Rock Island, Illinois, carrying one of their Torahs. They walked nearly five miles, crossing the Arsenal Bridge over the Mississippi River, before reaching the intersection of 12th and Mound streets in Davenport, Iowa.

There, as planned, parishioners from the conservative synagogue met with members of Davenport’s Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel. They had walked half a mile carrying their own Torah.

Rabbi Linda Bertenthal, who serves both congregations, led the group by singing “Hineh Ma Tov,” the lyrics of which – “How nice and nice it is for brothers and sisters to sit together” – fit the occasion. Then several dozen men, women and children walked another 2.5 miles to the congregations’ new shared house in Davenport, the Beit Shalom Jewish community.

“It was really cool. Everyone took turns carrying the Torah. We all carry. We all did our part. Everyone was talking and having fun, ”said Greg Rothbardt, who grew up in Temple Emanuel and recently completed a three-year term as congregation president.

“It was one of the best Jewish experiences of my life,” said Lee Blumberg, president of Beth Israel.

Together, the group brought the Torah to a steakhouse and real estate office, an 11,000-square-foot structure remodeled to house congregations that now share a sanctuary, offices, a kitchen, and Bertenthal herself, while maintaining separate identities, ruling meetings and worship practices.

emanuel temple 224 (credit: courtesy)

The agreement shared between Temple Emanuel and the Jewish Center is, all parties insist, not a merger; in fact, the use of the “m” word is strictly avoided. The two congregations remain independent in their worship and governance practices, even as they share a building and a rabbi.

It is a model that recognizes the reality of a declining Jewish population, a fact of life in many towns and small towns, while respecting the diverse traditions that gave rise to the contemporary community. The area is not the first community to adopt the deal, but with financial pressures exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it may be viewed by others as a recent model.

The Tri-City Jewish Center was founded in 1936, when Davenport; Rock Island; and Moline, Illinois, were the dominant municipalities in the area. As neighboring Bettendorf, Iowa grew, the region as a whole adopted the name Quad-Cities, more geographically inclusive.

As in many regions of the US, the Quad-Cities Jewish community has fluctuated over the generations. Estimated from 100 to 150 in 1860, it grew to 1,400 in 1920 and peaked in the 1950s and 1960s at around 2,500. In the late 1970s (when this author arrived for his first job, as a reporter for a newspaper), the trend was downward; In 1990, Quad-Cities Jews numbered 1,350, according to a study commissioned by the Quad-Cities Jewish Federation.

Today, between 400 and 500 Jews live in the Quad-City area. “Our slow decline in numbers reflects that of many small Jewish communities across the country. Many of our children go to schools outside the area and find jobs in larger cities. And many of our older adults have moved to warmer climates, ”said Allan Ross, who has served as executive director of the local Jewish federation for 20 years. The federation has joined the two congregations as the third occupant of the Beth Israel Building.

Currently, Beth Israel and Temple Emanuel each have fewer than 100 households. Quad-Cities Chabad Lubavitch, which opened in Bettendorf 16 years ago, relies on unaffiliated Jews, members of long-established congregations, and a small number of local Israelis. It has its own building and does not participate in the collaboration.

Historians cite the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine for writing in 1823 that “there would come a time when Jews would be chewing unleavened bread on the banks of the Mississippi.” By 1850, if not earlier, Jewish merchants were putting down roots where the Mississippi River flows east to west, rather than north to south.

Over time, congregations were formed along ethnic lines and worship practices. Some survived. Others did not. Some merged.

The river that divides Illinois and Iowa has also served as a divider between the threads of Judaism. Rabbi Simon Glazer, a leading Orthodox figure of his time, wrote in 1900: “Rock Island is a unique little Jewish community. It is a ghetto in the full sense of the word. They all keep the Sabbath. Friday night he puts a holy garment over that part of Rock Island where the beautiful little school is located. “

Glazer also observed: “It is as difficult for a Davenport Jew to be Orthodox as it is for a Rock Island Jew to be a Reformer.”

More than half a century later, Rabbi Oscar Fleishaker, who directed the Tri-City Jewish Center from 1946 to 1954, agreed with this view in his doctoral thesis: “Jewish families did not mind associating with each other. Illinois Jews did not want social ties to the Iowans and when Eastern Europeans began arriving, German Jews simply refused to acknowledge their existence or presence in the community. Both groups, East Europeans and Germans, coexisted for more than 75 years, yet there was almost no relationship between them.

That ice began to melt in the 1940s, and most of the remnants have long since melted.

Founded in 1936 as a traditional congregation, the Tri-City Jewish Center, known as “the Center” by locals, affiliated for several decades with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He has since left the organization, but remains a conservative in religious practice.

Just as the references to the Tri-Cities gave way to the Quad-Cities, the name of the Center became something of an identity problem. “Around 2007-2008 we decided as a board that ‘the Tri-City Jewish Center’ sounded more like a JCC than we wanted,” said Maynard Siegel, longtime member and past president of the congregation.

In recent years, the Center has been identified as the “Beth Israel Congregation at the Tri-City Jewish Center,” taking its name from an Orthodox congregation that built the first Rock Island synagogue in 1902 and then merged with the center in 1950. .

In Davenport, the B’Nai Israel Orthodox congregation, founded in 1861, joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations of the Reform movement in 1879 and adopted the name Temple Emmanuel in 1886. It remains the oldest continuously functioning Jewish congregation in Iowa.

The current sharing agreement began to take shape when the Tri-City Jewish Center recognized that it no longer needed the 30,000-square-foot home it moved into in 1981. It sold the building a couple of years ago to Two Rivers YMCA, which it shared. the space with the Rock Island Public Library.

Around that time, members of the Tri-City Jewish Center community purchased a building in Davenport that they thought might, at a future date, be suitable for a synagogue as the community began to shift demographically across the city. River. “They bought it as a placeholder,” Siegel said.

The Tri-City Jewish Center had broached the idea of ​​sharing an Iowa home with Temple Emanuel before, but the sale of their Rock Island property accelerated that conversation. The 13,000-square-foot Temple Emanuel building, which opened in 1953, is now up for sale.

Even after a dozen years of joint educational programs and Christmas celebrations, when it came to discussing the sharing agreement, both parties were cautious.

“The fear of the unknown was part of the problem,” Rothbardt said.

Siegel said: “Every tradition was jealously guarded. A good number of people were very concerned that their traditions would not be invaded. “

“It’s always an agonizing process, especially when different synagogue cultures meet in the same building and work with each other. Nowhere that I know of has been easy, ”Ross said.

The sharing agreement extends to the Beit Shalom board, which deals primarily with issues related to the building; It is made up of three members from each congregation and two representatives from the federation (one attending Beth Israel and the other attending Temple Emanuel).

Bertenthal acts as a bridge. Initially hired by Temple Emanuel as an interim rabbi and then full time, she is now hired as an “established rabbi” for both congregations.

Although he was ordained in the reform movement, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion-Los Angeles, Bertenthal is learning Beth Israel’s liturgical and musical traditions. He performs a renovation service on Friday nights and a conservator on Saturday mornings. The services alternated in a similar manner throughout the High Holy Days.

Bertenthal said he has found much of the liturgy in common, although there are differences, such as the Musaf service, which is part of the conservative cult, but not reform. There are also variations in the wording of some prayers and melodies preferred by Beth Israel parishioners. “But they are being very kind and generous in giving me time and space and they are grateful that I am trying to learn their ways and means of doing things,” he said.

Blumberg said, “He’s making a very brave effort and admits he doesn’t know things,” adding that Beth Israel’s parishioners, who understand the need to share a rabbi, fill in the gaps.

When Bertenthal meets potential parishioners in his Judaism class, he recommends that they attend services at both congregations to help determine where they feel most comfortable.

The Beit Shalom building itself is an exercise in sharing. The doors open onto a mosaic of the Tree of Life on the floor, its trunks representing each of the congregations and extending up to the walls. The yahrzeit or memorial walls of both congregations have been reinstalled in the vestibule, and the ark integrates the doors and the large letters that represent the Ten Commandments of the Center, as well as the stained glass windows of the Immanuel Temple.

Bertenthal credits the leaders of both congregations for “looking with a clear vision to the future and seeing that the future is not sustainable if we do not do something to change the facts on the ground.”

The change has not been easy. “There is a lot of emotional resonance when it comes to household issues,” he said. “Both congregations really want to feel at home in this new building, and therefore what the other congregation does has some impact on them.”

The Torah procession was “one of the useful transitional moments,” Bertenthal said, acknowledging that acceptance will take time for some parishioners. Life cycle events and sharing of Shabbat and holidays will play an important role. “As we have those experiences, we will feel at home,” he said. A few weeks after the Rosh Hashanah mix, both congregations came together to build a sukkah.

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