Little Houses of Worship on the Prairie, Dwindling and Divided

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.

The dwindling community of Jews in this small prairie city is split into two camps, with only one 81-year-old woman attempting to bridge the gap.

Dorathea Polski spends her Friday nights moving between two religious services at St. Joseph’s two synagogues, praying and pushing for the two to finally merge. Polski starts with a 5:30 p.m. service at the Reform synagogue, Temple Adath Joseph, where the median age of the congregation is over 70. Then she drives her Honda Civic 10 blocks to the Conservative synagogue, B’nai Sholem, for its 7:30 p.m. service.

Polski’s two synagogues are relics of a time when this city, 50 miles north of Kansas City, had 3,000 Jews and the main drag, Felix Street, was lined with Jewish businesses. As the community has shrunk to 150 Jews, there have been numerous efforts to merge the two synagogues, but each effort has foundered on past resentments and only increased the division in this small community.

With her Friday night marathon, Polski is one of the few people still actively promoting unity.

“Why can’t we pray together under one God?” Polski asked in a loud voice after a recent service at the Reform synagogue.

“Are you going on about that again?” one of the synagogue’s board members asked, with fatigue in his voice.

When Polski arrived from Milwaukee with her husband, now deceased, in 1953, the two synagogues were running at near capacity. At the city’s one Sunday school, where Polski taught, there were 88 students. That Sunday school, which was jointly run by both congregations, folded three years ago.

Since 1953, the overall population of St. Joseph — where bank robber Jesse James was assassinated and rapper Eminem was born — has remained at about 75,000. But as in many cities in the Midwest and the Old South, the Jewish community has been decimated by the decisions of young Jews to move to more prosperous centers. The experience of St. Joseph is not uncommon, but it is particularly drastic.

“There were no births, nor did any new members move into our city,” read the final lines of the Reform congregation’s most recent history, written in 2003. “St. Joseph itself does not grow, so we should not expect the Jewish population here to increase either. Apparently there is no solution to our declining numbers and increasing problems.”

Both synagogues where Polski prays were built to handle crowds of the earlier era, when there was only one additional synagogue — an Orthodox one — helping to serve the city’s 3,000 Jews. With its stained-glass windows and massive organ, the main sanctuary at the Reform synagogue, Adath Joseph, speaks to those headier days. Adath Joseph was founded around 1860, and its current structure was erected in 1910 in one of St. Joseph’s poshest neighborhoods.

Now the main sanctuaries at both synagogues remain closed for all but the High Holy Days and a few special events, and the nearby Victorian mansions are boarded up or falling apart. Regular services are held in small chapels to save on heating bills. On a recent Friday night, the 20 to 30 people who attended each synagogue did not fill the chapels.

The dwindling membership is particularly apparent on High Holy Days when the large, main sanctuaries are used.

“I found it kind of sad,” said Rabbi Debbie Stiel, part-time rabbi at Adath Joseph. Stiel resides in Kansas City. “I’m used to the High Holy Days — there being throngs of people — and there just aren’t. You see these rows and rows of empty pews.”

This year was the first time the Conservative congregation, B’nai Sholem, had no rabbinic personnel, and Stiel invited the congregation to spend the High Holy Days at Adath Joseph. They sent back a letter politely declining.

The last serious effort to bring together the congregations came in the late 1990s. A group of younger families put together a committee to draw up a merger deal. From the beginning, the elderly leaders at the older, Reform synagogue — who grew up in the congregation — said they were opposed. Part of the reason was lingering resentment from the merger of the Conservative and Orthodox synagogues in the 1960s, but it was also much more basic.

“The first thing to answer is, ‘Where are we going to have a new synagogue?’” said Allan Lowenberg, 87, a former president of Adath Joseph. “They don’t want to come here, and we don’t want to go there. There’s no neutral ground.”

Nevertheless, the committee drew up a document, and both sides came to the negotiating table. To deal with Lowenberg’s concerns, the committee proposed that the congregations pool their resources and build a third, neutral building for a merged synagogue. In the end, the Reform leaders came up with terms with which they felt comfortable — the Reform leaders believed it was “a deal they couldn’t refuse,” according to the current treasurer of Adath Joseph, Richard Optican.

But the Conservative synagogue balked at the level of control that the Reform leaders demanded over the new board. The Reform leaders requested the presidency and a majority of seats on the new board for three years, pointing to the greater financial assets they were bringing to the partnership. The Conservative leaders refused the terms and walked away. Robert Ott, who was involved in the negotiations and who now is the 48-year-old president of the Conservative synagogue, said that “their absolute control was a problem.”

“There are some members of the Reform congregation who cherish their history and their assets more than they do the future of the community,” Ott said.

Since those negotiations fell apart, the decline in the Jewish community has been precipitous. The last full-time rabbi left the Reform synagogue at around the time of the merger talks, and two years ago the temple’s sisterhood folded. Earlier this year, the Conservative congregation lost its part-time rabbi, and the local Jewish federation fell dormant when its last president died.

One of the more substantial losses was the Sunday school, which had been sponsored by the federation. Today, there are only a handful of families with children. Three families recently have begun receiving lessons from Stiel, the Reform synagogue’s part-time rabbi. But the others drive an hour south each Sunday, past miles of endless farmland, to the greener Jewish pastures of Kansas City.

The fading nature of this city and its Jewish community belies the grander past of both. In 1849, when pioneers headed West during the gold rush, St. Joseph became the primary trading post west of St. Louis. A Jewish burial ground was opened a few years later. In 1860, the founding year of Adath Joseph — the city’s first Jewish congregation — the city became the starting point for the Pony Express.

The big influx of Jews began in the 1890s, first from Germany and then from Eastern Europe. By the 1930s, Felix Street, the center of downtown, was dominated by stores like Optican Jewelers and H.B. Keller Furriers, alongside kosher bakeries and butchers. In the communal realm, St. Joseph had its own chapters of B’nai Brith, Hadassah and the American Zionist Movement, and each synagogue had a men’s club and a sisterhood.

It was in those early days that today’s divisions began. The wealthier German Jews went to Adath Joseph, and the poorer Eastern European immigrants went to the Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, which were founded in the 20th century.

That history gave Adath Joseph a sizable endowment that the leaders wanted to protect in the merger. The multiple bequests that the congregation has received also allow it to survive financially without large numbers of members. Optican said the congregation dips into its savings for about $20,000 each year — a situation that he said is sustainable for some 20 or 30 more years.

Nowadays, there still are times when the whole Jewish community in St. Joseph comes together. For one day each month, the congregations jointly field volunteers to staff the city’s food pantry. Every few years, there is a joint Holocaust commemoration. And there are weekly mahjong games for women. But when it comes to services, there is nothing.

Separately, the two synagogues continue their weekly activities. Stiel, Adath Joseph’s part-time rabbi, said that while membership may be declining, the members the synagogue does have are ardently involved: Attendance rates are higher than Stiel has seen in any other community in which she has lived. The Reform congregation has a Christian organist and a Christian cantorial soloist who come every week, even on Christian holidays. During prayers, they read along with the congregation.

And the town’s three Jewish cemeteries are immaculately kept. In a historical irony, the most popular cemetery today is the Orthodox one, which is maintained by members of the Reform congregation. The cemetery has a number of fresh graves, but it is still half empty. The open space was one of the places under consideration for a new synagogue building during the merger talks.

Now, though, “it would be a miracle if all this space is used,” Optican said, looking out over the vast, brown field. “All the people would have to come back who left.”

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