The Closing of a Historic Synagogue in a Small Midwestern City

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July 1, 2022

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(NEW YORK) — There were myriad bustling port towns lining the banks of the Mississippi River in 1869. Quincy, Illinois, known as Illinois’ “Gem City” was one of those booming towns, with an abundance of industry such as steel, timber, and grain. Around this same time, a group of predominantly German Jews set up a synagogue, which they named B’nai Sholom. This congregation thrived for many years, often serving as the spiritual home to multiple generations of families — until it was forced to close its doors in 2019.

The history of B’nai Sholom is one of vast changes along the way. In fact, the building itself would eventually become one of the oldest continuously used religious buildings in the Midwest.

One of the earliest Jewish residents of Quincy was a man by the name of Abraham Jonas, who settled in Quincy in 1838. Jonas, an immigrant from England, was a successful lawyer who was later elected to the Illinois state legislature, becoming one of the first Jewish elected officials in the United States. Upon traveling to the state capital, he quickly became close friends with another man, who shared his first name. That man was Abraham Lincoln.

When Lincoln became a congressman, it was Jonas who helped persuade him to run for president of the United States. While Lincoln went on to become the 16th president, Jonas returned to being a private citizen in Quincy. There, he and his two brothers became instrumental in the founding of B’nai Sholom in 1870.

The eventual closure of B’nai Sholom fits in with the larger theme of the decline of synagogue membership throughout the entire United States. This trend has been particularly hard on synagogues located in small towns and cities across the nation. “The challenge for small congregations is to remain viable as long as possible, when the population ages and people move away or die,” said Noah Levine, Senior Vice President at the Jewish Community Legacy Project in Atlanta, GA.

B’nai Sholom was built in a neo-Byzantine architectural style, much like other synagogues around that time. Before it closed in 2019, B’nai Sholom had been the oldest synagogue in the state of Illinois, and one of the oldest active synagogues in the U.S.

David Frolick, a retired political science professor, grew up in Quincy and was a member of the temple when he was young. He, like many others of his generation, did not end up returning to Quincy afterward, as they pursued their careers in other cities. However, Frolick stayed very active and involved in the temple’s affairs and has done his own extensive research and writing on the congregation’s history. He explains that the temple, at the time, was centered in an ideal location — Quincy was located in an opportune location for commerce and the like. Frolick describes the congregation as thriving during the early years, throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, saying that “none other than Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who was ‘rabbi reform’ in this time period, came to Quincy to do the dedication. He did it, in part, because he knew some of the people who were there. Some of them had made donations to Hebrew Union College, to the reform movement, so they were known players.”

“This building had spires, minarets, that went up about nine stories,” Frolick said, calling it “a landmark building” in Quincy. “When this was dedicated, there was heavy community involvement, not only of the Jewish community but in the non-Jewish community.”

Located in the heart of the Midwest, right across the river from Mark Twain’s hometown, Quincy is now a city of approximately 40,000 people. It had previously been a boomtown. In fact, during part of the 19th century, it had the second-largest population in Illinois, second only to Chicago. But this was the extent of the population boom for Quincy. B’nai Sholom, throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, was both a religious and social hub for Jews who lived in the community.

Antisemitism and religious discrimination were some of the major obstacles that many Jews faced upon moving to this small midwestern city. Laura Timmerwilke’s family moved from New York to Quincy when her father joined a medical practice in the area. She explains that many other Jewish families moved there to work in the medical profession in the mid-20th century. Timmerwilke recalls the synagogue being the main social hub for Jewish people in the city. “Back then, Quincy country club didn’t allow Jewish people to go there,” she said. All the doctors belonged there, but not the Jewish doctors. So the Jewish people tended to hang out together. My parents’ social lives revolved around the temple.”

Much like Timmerwilke’s family, Michael Libmann’s family settled in Quincy, Illinois, as his father was also a physician. “My father came out of Germany in 1933 and had a medical degree,” he said. “Growing up we had a pretty large congregation—at one time, about 100 families or so.”

“That continued through 1970 when I went to college. For about 15 years I was not involved in the temple. I was living out east. I’ve worked for many years in the financial service industry. When I came back [to Quincy] we had a pretty large congregation,” he said.

Like many similar-sized cities, however, the population of Quincy began to shrink in recent decades as a result of deindustrialization, with factories shutting down and many jobs moving overseas. The Jewish population in Quincy generally tracked with this overall trend as well. By the late 20th century, the congregation had already merged with others in similar-sized communities nearby, including one across the river in Hannibal, Missouri. On top of that, the temple had to go through much-needed repairs, which were exceedingly difficult with a somewhat dwindling membership population.

Michael Bukstein served as president of the temple for a few years prior to its eventual closing. He and his family joined B’nai Sholom, as it was the closest synagogue to where they lived in Hannibal, Missouri. As his children got older, Bukstein and his family began to become more involved in the congregation.

Bukstein said, “We were not terribly active, as they grew older. But we went to Friday night services and the congregation continued to get smaller and smaller.”

Hebrew Union College announced in March, that they may soon stop new enrollment in their Cincinnati, Ohio campus. This particular college was a feeder program for many student rabbis throughout the Midwest and Southern United States. Even as this was the original campus of the college, the school has made this recommendation, due to the vast majority of their students now opting to either attend the New York or Los Angeles campuses. The implications of this were significant for already struggling congregations in smaller towns across the country.

“The thing is that student rabbis kept these small synagogues alive for all of those years,” Timmerwilke said, adding that the potential lack of influx of these rabbis could be “the nail in the coffin for a lot of these small synagogues.”

Many of the Jewish congregations in other similar cities have suffered similar fates in recent years. With young professionals often moving to cities after college, smaller towns do not necessarily have the population to sustain membership. While this is an inescapable reality, there is still a great deal of history that is lost in the process.

Religious artifacts, that are often generations old, often originating in Europe, are housed in these congregations. While most are donated to museums, given to members as gifts, and so on, many of these religious items are synonymous with these synagogues themselves. Some items in these synagogues are as old as the buildings themselves, often being brought there by each respective founder. With these congregations closing, many of the stories behind the buildings and items themselves leave the community as well.

Levine’s organization, the Jewish Community Legacy Project, primarily helps small congregations across the United States prepare for legacy plans. They partner with Jewish nonprofits and federations across the country in order to work with congregations in small cities that need help. Levine said that “the challenge for small congregations is to remain viable as long as possible when the population ages and people move away or die.”

The organization has continuity and connection programs, which serve as a bridge to help small congregations navigate a multitude of complex needs and challenges that they may be facing.

In many cases, the organization helps “with what we call sustainability planning — which is how do you engage your congregants to attend, to participate, to volunteer, to give, and to take on different leadership positions,” says Levine.

In Timmerwilke’s assessment, she agrees that the Quincy Temple closing is part of a much larger nationwide trend, saying that “the world just changed, a lot of companies closed. A lot of people in the Jewish community who were professionals moved elsewhere.”

“I think what happened in Hannibal and Quincy is just typical of every rural Jewish community,” Bukstein said. “The Jewish population in rural America just started shrinking. There are books written about it, and articles written about it. It’s just natural post-immigration shifts of people going to more urban areas.”

Frolick concurs, saying, “Believe it or not, as I’ve written, at the apex of this community — which is when the dedication took place — the warning signs were already on the horizon that it was going to struggle. The railroads came through and people moved to the big cities. There was not a large influx of Jews for some time, so replacement was low.”

Upon looking at these closures, a significant issue comes to light, as it relates to Jewish individuals still living in these communities. Temple B’nai Sholom was the only Jewish congregation from St. Louis, Missouri to Springfield, Illinois at the time of its closure. Quincy, for example, has a very small Jewish population, but nevertheless still has some 25 or 30 Jews here. So, it begs the question — where do they turn to for a religious home, now that their old one is no longer there?

When looking at these factors, Levine said, “Jews that want to make the drive from Springfield or St. Louis will do that. COVID has opened up the whole live streaming world. So people are able to go almost anywhere for their Shabbat and holiday services, education, and so on.”

He goes on to say, “That’s an issue for congregations that shut down — what happens to the Jews that are there? Oftentimes a stable synagogue will say ‘We’ll take you under our wing, you can join us at no charge.’ But it’s a problem when you have a congregation like Quincy, so far away from other synagogues.”

As for what was done with items at the temple in Quincy, many of the papers and historical documents were sent to the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio. The congregation’s four Torahs were sent to various temples around the world — with one going to a synagogue in Indonesia and another going to a synagogue in Germany. Additionally, donations were made, of the money that was left, to charities and Holocaust remembrance organizations.

Perhaps the hardest day for members of this synagogue was May 18, 2019 — the day of the deconsecration of the temple. For many of these members, a flood of memories washed over them, stretching back decades in many cases. The unanimous feeling among the remaining congregants was one of immense sadness and a void left in their lives. Many of them felt like this was a culmination of the many good times that they had at this place. This was a space where many had experienced joyous moments like weddings and bar mitzvahs, as well as grieving experiences when deaths and losses occurred.

Frolick said of his experience during the day of the deconsecration of the synagogue, “It was melancholy, let’s put it that way. It really was. I think it was like a wake. That’s the best way to put it.”

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