New Jews, New Hope

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Saturday, February 2, 2008


For a block or two in every direction from Arbell Matthews's 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, Mo., 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 recently, each was immersed in a ritual bath, or mikvah, in Memphis. When the last of them emerged from the water, almost 3 percent of Cairo's black population had converted to Judaism. Nationally, just one-tenth of 1 percent of black Americans are Jewish, according to the most recent data from the General Social Survey done by the National Opinion Research Center.

Today, fewer than 3,000 people -- 65 percent of them black -- 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 worshipers -- 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," Topp said. "If they can come in and make a difference or give somebody hope, I welcome them."

Phillip Matthews, Arbell Matthews's 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.

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