Temple welcomes diversity

GALESBURG – Temple Sholom, a Reform Jewish synagogue, built in Galesburg in 1958, was once a place of worship mostly for business owners of the city. Today, as Dec. 21 marks this year’s first of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the temple itself has changed. It is now a community that is both diverse and tightly knit.

Tom West, an attorney and Temple Sholom’s oldest living member, has been active in the synagogue’s congregation for over 60 years, even before the building existed. He has seen it change and take in new members from many different backgrounds.

“I’d say the biggest change over the years has been demographics,” West said. “The membership used to be primarily merchants, many on Main Street. But those (original) 32-ish families disappeared as bigger businesses came in. Now (synagogue membership) is more associated with Knox College.”

The new members include former Protestants, Catholics and Baptists, people of Caucasian as well as African-American heritage, and the changes also involve women in prayer leadership in addition to traditionally active men.

Come sundown on Hanukkah, old and new synagogue members will begin lighting candles on menorahs, or candelabra, for the eight-day festival of light. In so doing, they will join in celebration with millions of Jews the world over. Among those in Galesburg will be Cathy Walters, director of international advising at Knox College. Walters, a seven-year member of Temple Sholom and a major part of the synagogue’s change, is African-American.

“When you think about Judaism, you think white,” Walters said. “But being Jewish, being black and being involved is better in a smaller area. People seem to be more willing to accept you.”

Walters was raised by a Protestant mother and a Baptist father. She started exploring religions when she was 13 years old, going to many different places of worship and learning about many faiths. None seemed to fit.

“I even looked into Islam, but that was a bit too out there for me,” said Walters. Eventually, however, she found Judaism, and began actively participating in Hillel, a Jewish campus organization, during her last three years at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. She converted to Orthodox Judaism, the more traditional form of the faith, after she graduated in 1978.

“It made sense to turn towards the origin of Christianity,” Walters said. Her father was accepting of Judaism, but her mother was a bit wary of her daughter’s choice of faith. Walters feels this was due to her mother’s rigid Protestant beliefs. However, Walters’ mother eventually recognized her daughter’s faith and has even attended Temple Sholom a few times since Walters took a position at Knox College in 2001.

Other synagogue members have come from separate belief systems as well. Nancy Eberhardt, professor of anthropology and sociology at Knox, is a regular attendee of Temple Sholom’s services. Her son Maury just recently had his bar mitzvah.

“I was raised Catholic. Although I have not formally converted to Judaism, I consider it my ‘adopted’ religion,” Eberhardt said.

She became a part of the Jewish community in Galesburg when she was engaged to her husband, Knox College professor of economics Steve Cohn. However, she had other experiences with Judaism before her engagement.

“I had been to many Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) dinners at the home of Penny Gold (professor of history) and David Amor (instructor in journalism and anthropology/sociology), and had started attending Passover Seders (the celebration of Jews leaving Egypt) at Steve’s house before we were ‘dating.’ I really enjoyed the rituals associated with Jewish life, so when Steve and I got serious about each other and talked about having children, it was not difficult for me to make the commitment to have a Jewish home.”

Interfaith marriages within Temple Sholom are not uncommon. Physics professor Chuck Schulz is a Quaker while his wife Faye is Jewish. Still, Schulz attends services with his wife.

“I am the sort of Christian that’s dubious of the divinity of Christ and believe that while the details of religious practice differ, the ends of religious practice are generally similar,” Schulz said. “It’s enriching to experience that commonality when I participate in services at the temple.”‘

Even those without any particular religious beliefs are still welcome at the temple. Knox’s Hillel adviser, Jennie Bunde, is married to assistant professor of computer science David Bunde. The former has been raised with the Jewish faith, while the latter is more skeptical of religion.

“He calls himself ‘none of the above,'” said Jennie Bunde, in reference to her husband’s religious beliefs. However, he is still a part of the Temple Sholom community. “He comes to temple with me all the time.”

Temple Sholom, which is a Reform Jewish Temple, is not as rigid with religious laws that other forms of Judaism, such as the Orthodox, follow. Besides the diversity of cultural backgrounds, Reform synagogues like Temple Sholom have also broken the barriers of sexism within the religious world.

According to West, there has been a great change in the role played by females in the religion and in Temple Sholom over the course of its existence.

“In the past, they were more subservient throughout Judaism,” he said. “But now we have a female student rabbi and we’ve had a few in the past as well.”

The current female rabbi is 51-year-old Ora Simon Schnitzer of Highland Park. Her father was also a rabbi but she did not become a rabbi until later in life.

“As has happened in the U.S., over the years women’s roles have changed. Over time, women went from being solely nurturing in Judaism, to (serving) in a more leading role,” said Schnitzer. “I believe the Reform movement allowed women to become rabbis in the early ’70s, and the Conservative movement accepted women rabbis in 1986.”

Although the Jewish community in Galesburg is a small group, West feels the openness and mutual support seems to be keeping Temple Sholom running.

“We have maybe 25 families involved in the Temple but only 10 or 12 that are really active. This seems to be the problem with all religions, though. Peoria, which is a much bigger community than us, is unable to keep a rabbi. We have a much bigger turnout percentage-wise than there.” said West, “It is a point of pride to have an active temple in town.”

Eberhardt echoes this sentiment in how she believes Temple Sholom is still running.

“It’s a miracle! Sorry, that’s the Catholic background showing through. We’ve also been lucky to have some very competent people in each generation who have shouldered the responsibility for the building, the religious program, etc.” said Eberhardt. “There was a group of ‘elders,’ most of whom have passed on now, who were truly incredible in their devotion to Temple Sholom, and I think those of us who overlapped with them were inspired by their example to carry on with the work they started. Because we have no paid ‘staff,’ we realize that Temple Sholom is truly ours.”


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