Dozens of African-Americans from Cairo, Ill. convert to Judaism

The arrival of a caravan of three vans and six cars, a patchwork of automobiles, some barely able to withstand the almost three-hour journey from small Cairo, Ill. started a movement. The vehicles carried 55 African-Americans ranging from a 70-plus year old matriarch, to a former Baptist minister, and everything in between. The meeting between those individuals and Kol HaNeshama Rabbi Lynn Goldstein in the spring of 2006 in Creve Coeur Park provided a unique milestone in St. Louis Judaic, rabbinic and African-American history.

On Dec. 9, that group formally converted to Judaism at Beth Shalom in Memphis, Tenn. The year-anda-half process, spearheaded by Goldstein, required a network of clergy and congregations between St. Louis, Carbondale, Memphis and Baltimore for such a massive conversion, when reportedly only approximately 40 normally occur area wide in an entire year.

Besides Goldstein, a dozen St. Louis rabbis served on a Bet Din, conducting 44 sessions. They were Rabbis Annie Belford and Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth, Amy Feder and John Franken of Temple Israel, Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew, Joshua Taub of Temple Emanuel, Ryan Dulkin of Central Agency for Jewish Education, Jay Goldburg, a retired chaplain of Barnes Jewish Hospital, Mordechai Miller of BSKI, Daniel Plotkin of B’nai El, Neal Rose of B’nai Amoona, and Lane Steinger of the Union for Reform Judaism.

It all began with Phillip Matthews, a former law enforcement agent in need of nourishment to calm his restless spirit. Finding himself disillusioned with his traditional Baptist upbringing, his day of change took place on a pew when one remark changed his beliefs.

“The pastor said the Ten Commandments were done away with. I remember thinking ‘Does he realize what he’s saying?’ Then I thought, ‘What’s the possible consequences of that to me?'”

Matthews walked out and left the church. That was 1995.

“It wasn’t the proper path for me. I’d been studying the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) all my life, but really began to study it for myself. It felt true to me and sent me on a different path,” he said.

Although Matthews always studied the Hebrew Bible, he began delving further the next decade. Along the way, it became a family affair when several siblings joined in discussions and subsequent studies.

Unbeknownst to him, Joseph Oliver, another Cairo resident whom he casually knew through social circles, was also studying. Matthews began using his mother’s residence, a 1,100 square foot modular home, to accommodate the growing numbers.

“I needed something else. I just kept looking and it brought Phillip and I together,” Oliver said.

After several years of self-guided study and no synagogue or formal Jewish teaching in Cairo, Matthews sought help.

“I first called Carbondale, which led to me talking to Sam Goldstein, which lead to me calling the Jewish Federation and Lynn Goldstein,” Matthews said.

That call came on March 6, 2006. Rabbi Goldstein assumed it was a conventional inquiry into the conversion to Judaism, until Matthews tried to find a way to explain the situation.

“I kind of eased into it,” Matthews recalled. “I said, ‘It’s my family and a few friends,'” he laughed.

As Goldstein recalled at what she thought would be the end of their conversation, Matthews mentioned he had a brother that also wanted to study and then he kept adding more. “When it got up to 8 or 9 people, I finally said, ‘Phillip, exactly how many people are we talking?'”

His response: “It could be 20 or it could be 25.”

“I had never heard of it happening that way before with a concept of so many people at once,” Goldstein said.

It was decided the group would begin attending services in Carbondale, but Matthews wanted to know one thing and get it out of the way upfront. Would race be an issue?

“I just said will anyone have a problem with blacks coming to the synagogue. I didn’t know how people would react. Lynn assured me first, there were black Jews and Ethiopian Jews, and it would be okay. Not only did they welcome us with open arms, Lynn opened her home to us,” Matthews said.

The group began traveling to St. Louis weekly, every Wednesday, for three-hour sessions. Later, they journeyed every other Sunday for eight-hour sessions. Goldstein challenged herself to find unique ways to educate them and incorporate Judaism into their studies including conducting field trips ranging from the Holocaust Museum to a kosher market.

It was not without personal, professional and private sacrifices, including isolation from their community, cars succumbing to the numerous highway trips and loss of jobs by some individuals for honoring the Sabbath.

“I didn’t know these things were going on. This was the most important thing to them despite what they were facing and they never complained,” Goldstein said.

“It was really encouraging seeing so many people go this route, despite the negativity we received (from people) who don’t understand what we’re doing,” said Oliver. “Everybody stuck together and stayed the course. It was like one big family and loving how we were received by other Jews.”

When it proved cost prohibitive to hold the conversion in St. Louis, Beth Shalom in Memphis became the venue. Congregants set up babysitting services, provided food, and moral support. At the conclusion of their immersion in the mikvah, the congregation wept as the Cairo delegation sang a specially composed Sh’ma honoring their new faith and African-American heritage, complete with a piano and drums.

“I’ve truly learned that God is in complete control. Just how Lynn came to us was a miracle,” Matthews said.

Goldstein is writing grants to take the group to Israel while they works on a CD. For more information, call 314-591-8559.

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