— Proud to be known as the heart of the Illinois Bible Belt, the residents of Mattoon fill dozens of Christian churches.
There's also one Jewish congregation, which has the distinction of being the smallest Reform synagogue in North America. The membership? Four households.
The Mattoon Jewish Community Center isn't a center at all but a group of dedicated congregants who meet in Trinity Episcopal Church. Even at
"When the kids leave, they just don't come back," said Ted Bogart, a 57-year-old optometrist who describes himself as "president and janitor" of the congregation.
The dwindling numbers tell a narrative repeated in dozens of small towns across the Midwest and the South. In the late 19th century, first-generation Americans were attracted to rural towns because of a particular factory, mill or railroad. They eventually traded their pushcarts for storefronts, becoming successful enough to educate their offspring, who found better opportunities elsewhere, leaving graying and dying Jewish communities in their wake.
"It's the classic immigrant story," said Rabbi Victor Apell of the Union for Reform Judaism, the governing body of the Reform movement, which compiled data on its 900 congregations and shows Mattoon's to be the smallest.
Mattoon — which has had a vibrant Jewish presence dating back at least 150 years — inched out tiny congregations of six households in Selma, Ala., and seven in McGehee, Ark., according to the URJ, which counts households, not individuals. In Illinois, the towns of Herrin, Alton and Galesburg all tallied Jewish congregations of fewer than 30 households.
The situation has become so dire that some Jewish communities — such as in Dothan, Ala. — offer relocation bonuses and assistance with down payments to recruit young families. And when all efforts fail and a congregation is no longer viable, the URJ has initiated a project to preserve its legacy, making sure the Torah scrolls and other artifacts find a place elsewhere.
Such circumstances are unthinkable to Marjorie Hanft, a psychology professor at Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston and a member of one of the Mattoon congregation's quartet of families.
"Keeping this little shul alive is very important to me," she said, using the Yiddish word for synagogue.
When Hanft arrived in the mid-1980s from
But in 2007, four elderly members died. The next year, the remaining members — all in their 50s and 60s — were hit with a long list of repairs for the structure, including a new roof. It became clear that survival meant selling their building.
"Disbanding was not an option," said Elaine Fine, a 25-year member who teaches music appreciation at Lake Land College.
So Hanft went to New York for special training to step up as a lay leader, while others cold-called surrounding churches. They found a new spiritual home at Trinity Episcopal Church, a short drive away.
"We feel privileged to have them share our facility ... and I personally value the friendship I have developed with them," said the Rev. Ken Truelove, who knows a thing or two about vanishing membership. His own flock has fallen to "the low 30s," a fact he attributes to everything from the town's economic decline to malls being open on Sundays.
There's no question that the community of about 18,000 about three hours south of Chicago has struggled. It was developed in the 1850s as a railroad community and named for an official of the Illinois Central. The energy and automobile demands of
In exchange for a monthly donation, the Mattoon Jewish Community Center uses the church for twice-monthly Sabbath worship and High Holy Day services, when the demand is so high that most Chicago-area synagogues require tickets to attend.
It is unlikely that there are smaller Conservative or Orthodox congregations — the other two branches of Judaism — because of their strict adherence to the requirement of a minyan (a quorum of 10 adult Jews, and among the Orthodox, 10 adult Jewish males).
There are no problems with seating in Mattoon, where the leaders hoped to fill two of Trinity's pews for Yom Kippur, a day of reflection and renewal. They didn't have a rabbi, but they could afford a cantorial soloist from Indiana. After the service, everyone looked forward to a potluck supper in the church kitchen to break the traditional fast.
On Tuesday afternoon as light streamed through a large stained-glass window of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, Truelove was busy tending to last-minute details for Yom Kippur. He wanted everything to be just so in his sanctuary, where the Ark — which contains two Torah scrolls, the sacred texts — is adjacent to the altar.
"He's one of us," said Fine, who plays the viola at services.
The congregation doesn't meet during the summer and reunited for the
It's the need for fellowship — to connect to something larger — that is the glue that holds them together, said the members, who pay dues of $600 a year to belong to the Mattoon Jewish Community Center.
Fine was not affiliated with a synagogue back in her native Boston. With lots of like-minded neighbors, friends and familiar food, it was easy to take her Jewish identity for granted. Not so in Mattoon, where if she wanted matzo at
"There's nowhere to hide," she said. "Everyone has to be involved."
Fine can tick off not only the names of all the congregants' children but their birth dates as well. Over the years they have rejoiced at each other's celebrations and mourned each other's losses. And no matter how hectic her schedule, she's always found something — a reading, some music — that serves as a refuge, a reminder of the continuity of generations.
There are other advantages too. They are very inclusive, accepting of people with no knowledge, money or some who aren't even Jewish but just want to learn more. At this size, they cannot afford disagreements over doctrine or other petty squabbles that are inevitable with larger organizations.
"You just have to make more of an effort," Hanft said. "You have to really want to make this a part of your life and part of your children's lives."
But the kids — all in their 20s — have scattered, in college and launched elsewhere. In the early 1950s, Ted Bogart's dad, who attended optometry school in Chicago, thought this wide-open swath of central Illinois was a dandy place to open a practice, which he passed on to his son. But Ted Bogart's only child married and moved to Seattle.
"Who's going to take our place?" he asked. "I just don't know."