New Faces in Judaism

Tim Townsend, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 12, 2008

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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.”

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