New faces in Judaism

For a block or two in every direction from Arbell Matthews’ home, 50 or so African-Americans could be heard belting out the Shema, an ancient Hebrew prayer, gospel-style.

They had spent a year and a half traveling almost weekly to Rabbi Lynn Goldstein’s home in Maryland Heights, a journey that would bring them back to this cramped white house in this dying city and to their new lives as Jews.

Former drug dealers, infants, factory workers, old ladies, former gang leaders, lawyers, gunshot victims, high school football players, barge workers, crack addicts, nurses and musicians – a reflection of the diverse, decaying place they call home – had packed into two vans and eight cars for each 350-mile trip.

They all were raised as Christians, most of them Baptists. One day last month, each was immersed in a ritual bath, or mikvah, in Memphis, Tenn. When the last of them emerged from the water, almost 3 percent of Cairo’s black population had converted to Judaism.

Today, fewer than 3,000 people – 65 percent of them African-American – call themselves residents of this spit of land at the confluence of the two largest rivers in North America. Once home to 15,000, Cairo has seen its population sink by 80 percent since its heyday in 1920.

Every block here seems to boast its own church, though many of them are as empty as the lives of some residents. Pastors at several of the 30 or so active churches in town struggle to put together a congregation of a dozen souls. Skyrocketing utility bills often force congregations to meet in their churches’ basements.

The Rev. Donald Topp, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church of 12th Street, said he exerts a lot of pastoral muscle trying to persuade people to hope again.

“They don’t seem like they have anything to look forward to, especially the young people,” he said. “They’ve seen so much gloom, doom and despair, they look around and that’s what’s familiar, and it becomes comfortable.”

So a crowded, sweaty, joyful gathering of Cairo worshippers – even on a Saturday – is something of a novelty here. And people are beginning to take notice of the gleam of hope Cairo’s new Jews are bringing to their town.

“I welcome them,” said Topp. “If they can come in and make a difference or give somebody hope, I welcome them.”

Congregation Grows

Phillip Matthews, Arbell Matthews’ 39-year-old son, is a former Cairo policeman and agent for the Southern Illinois Drug Task Force. Today, the stocky, bespectacled computer technician is the spiritual leader of Cairo’s new Jewish community. Weekends when the group can’t make it to Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale, Matthews leads a two-hour Torah study session Friday nights and a three-hour worship service Saturday afternoons.

On the first Saturday of this month, Matthews manned a keyboard that straddled his mother’s kitchen and living room. His congregation squeezed snugly into every corner of the house, wherever they could fit. When the music subsided, he preached from the book of Exodus, in which God’s chosen people follow Moses out of bondage in Egypt, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, to the Promised Land.

“We remember the day we came out of Egypt, and we are never going to forget,” said Matthews, whose fellow converts call him Moreh, or “teacher.”

“God parted the Red Sea, and it took us 18 months to get to the other side. But we converted to make a difference, and we will make a difference – not just in the lives of our families and friends, but in the life of this city as well.”

Matthews sees purpose in his group’s conversions. He sees a local version of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for “repairing the world.”

“When you look at our city, you see a battle raging all around us,” said Matthews. “But God is incapable of failure. Remember the day you came out of Egypt so you can teach your children how to walk out, too. Perhaps you are that light that shines real bright in this dark place.”

Matthews left law enforcement in the mid-1990s, around the same time he left the Baptist church. Corruption, dishonesty and hypocrisy left him disillusioned with both institutions, he said. In 1997, he began studying the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. The books of Moses.

Soon, Matthews’ sister (he’s one of 18 children) began studying with him. More siblings, cousins and friends joined them through the years. For nearly a decade, they met and talked about ancient Scripture.

From time to time, someone would poke his head in Arbell Matthews’ front door to see why all the cars were parked outside. Often that person would stay. By the next week, he was part of the congregation.

Eric Lewis, a life insurance agent and Baptist minister from Clinton, Ky., showed up at Arbell Matthews’ house in those early years to collect a payment. He stayed.

Now 37, Lewis said he lost his insurance job and another as a truck driver so he could observe the sabbath. He, his wife and two teen sons all converted in Memphis.

Gary Whitfield is another convert. “This thing just sort of spread from within,” said Whitfield, 32, a former gang leader in Cairo’s McBride housing complex, just a block from Arbell Matthews’ home. “It didn’t happen overnight, but it just came to be.”

Search for a Rabbi

There is evidence of Jews living in Cairo in the 1870s, but the last synagogue anyone remembers closed years ago. Today, the little brick synagogue with stained-glass windows is part of the public health department. It has a clear view of the Bunge North America soybean processing plant that, with 83 jobs, is the city’s largest employer.

The Rev. Larry Potts, pastor of Cairo Baptist Church, said he could think of only two Jews left in Cairo before the conversions.

When Phillip Matthews’ group began talking about converting, Matthews decided that without any rabbis in town and close to 60 members, he needed help.

Looking for help outside of Cairo is a time-honored tradition. Escape is a natural desire in a place Charles Dickens famously described, in 1842, as “a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death.”

In the spring of 2006, Matthews went in search of a rabbi. He found Goldstein, a Reform rabbi from St. Louis who is affiliated with Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale.

“Phillip called and asked about conversion classes,” said Goldstein. “Then he asked if there was such a thing as African-American Jews.”

She assured him there were.

The 2001 National Jewish Population Survey found 37,000 African-American Jews age 18 or older. That’s just under 1 percent of all 4 million American Jewish adults.

For the next 18 months, the group made the three-hour trek – each way – from Cairo to Goldstein’s house. The rabbi taught them about Jewish history, philosophy and theology, holidays, liturgy and life-cycle events. Group members had textbooks and homework each week. Goldstein took them on field trips to a kosher butcher, to hear a cantor and to the Holocaust museum.

Along the way, Goldstein introduced the group to the congregation at Beth Jacob in Carbondale, a synagogue of about 48 families. The congregation has since welcomed the group as members and has asked Matthews to be on its board.

“We’re a group of Jews with European origins, mostly college professors, so this is very different,” said Jack Wides, the synagogue’s president. “I think it’s wonderful.”

‘Once in a lifetime’

As the group members got closer to completing the course, Goldstein began to make preparations for the actual conversion. All the males in the group who had not been circumcised went through the rite. Those who had, went through a hatafat dam, or a ritual removal of a single drop of blood.

Over four months, each member of the group sat before a bet din, or rabbinic court, to answer questions about his or her new faith. A dozen Reform and Conservative rabbis from St. Louis sat on the various courts.

Goldstein ran into difficulty when trying to secure the St. Louis mikvahs for the conversion ceremonies. Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, executive director of the St. Louis Vaad Hoeir, the area Orthodox Jewish legal authority, said the group asked for a discount on the mikvah’s $165 per person conversion fee. But the committee that oversees the mikvahs was “not willing to discount groups,” said Zuravin.

Goldstein moved the conversion ceremonies to Beth Sholom Synagogue in Memphis, whose members agreed to a much smaller fee. (The Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeastern Missouri and Western Kentucky paid the $1,800 total.)

That ceremony, said Rabbi Aaron Rubinstein of the Conservative synagogue whose members turned out in force for the conversions, was a “once in a lifetime, amazing event.”

The new Jews of Cairo had been official for less than a month when Alpha Gordon, 24, stepped out of Arbell Matthews’ home Jan. 5, a bleak Saturday afternoon in the city. Gordon said he felt different than he had a month earlier.

“I do feel Jewish,” he said. “And that feels good.”

Rashelle Brown, 19, left Arbell Matthews’ house with her two daughters, 5 years and 15 months, in tow. Her husband, Greg, was still inside, putting the house back together after the service.

“Judaism is the oldest religion, and it’s the best thing I’ve found for raising my kids,” said Brown. “I’m so proud to be a Jew.”

That pride has led many in the group to a desire to visit Israel. Goldstein is trying to get a grant to take them. Matthews said people come to him each week and ask to join the group. He’s directed some to Goldstein for conversion classes. If there was more room at his mother’s house, the group could grow to 100 by the summer.

Matthews said that kind of interest tugs him in two directions:

Stay in Cairo and help his damaged city come back to life, offering more residents the promise of getting off drugs, avoiding violence, earning a second chance after prison.

Or leave Cairo as a group of 55 Jews, braving the wilderness for Israel, the promised land.

“Just like when Moses died, God raised up Joshua,” said Matthews. “There are always people waiting to succeed those who are taken to other places. But if it is God’s will to keep us here a while to help this city, that’s what we’ll do.”

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