By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
David Frolick remembers B’nai Sholom Temple as a place in Quincy, Illinois where everyone showed each other genuine concern; where Jews, despite differences, banded together as a minority in this town of fine old houses and churches on the mighty Mississippi.
Among the 60 members in the 1950s and 1960s were clothing merchants, doctors, lawyers and a family that owned a soy processing plant on the river, said Frolick, a retired professor in Columbus who is the historian for B’nai Sholom.
The temple has the distinction of being the oldest in the state of Illinois in continuous existence and the second oldest west of the Allegheny Mountains.
The public school system was excellent and Quincy was a great place to raise kids, said Frolick, who was bar mitzvahed in the temple. But he was an exception to the sad fact that too few Jewish children were growing up in Quincy.
Gradually, young people moved away for better economic opportunity and the membership grew older and infirm. People passed away with no one to replace them.
Due to the high cost to maintain the building and a Jewish cemetery, the temple at 427 N. Ninth Street is closing in May. A deconsecration ceremony has been planned for five years as part of the Jewish Legacy Project, a national organization that helps small Jewish communities honor their pasts while planning for the future. Commemorative events and a ceremony that will remove the sacredness and make it just another building to be sold will take place over the course of the weekend of May 17 and May 18.
Organizers are reaching out to Chicagoland residents to drive the five hours to attend if they have any family connection to the Jewish members who settled in Quincy as early as 1832 when it was the edge of the frontier.
“Former congregants are coming from all parts of the U.S. to celebrate with us,” said Carla Gordon of Quincy, who sits on the temple’s board of trustees. “We’re going to move forward with whoever we have left and rent some space from one of our area churches.
“A huge piece of Jewish history in the state of Illinois is going to be closing,” Gordon said. The building was started in 1869 and finished a year later. This year marks the sesquicentennial celebration, Gordon said.
“We know that when the building was completed, they danced the Torahs from the town center to the temple’s present location,” Gordon said. “It was a joyous occasion and many members of the clergy from Quincy came and participated.”
Jewish people originally came to Quincy for economic opportunity. By the mid-1850s, the town was developing into one of many ports along the Mississippi River. The land was rich with minerals and timber. “The strategic location of Quincy at the junction of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri made it very prominent,” Frolick said.
Historians have said that the first Jew to settle in Quincy was Abraham Jonas. Beginning as a carriage, chair, window and paint merchant, Jonas quickly plunged into local Masonic and political affairs, according to the temple’s website. He was known as Abraham Lincoln’s closest Jewish friend. It was Jonas who helped propel Lincoln’s candidacy for president, Frolick said.
By 1852, the congregation had a minyan and those men decided to raise funds to build a temple. At one point an Orthodox faction in the synagogue broke away and many moved two hours away to St. Louis. “The rest stayed in Quincy and they evolved into the Temple B’nai Sholom we know today,” Gordon said.
At its height in the 1930s, 500 members belonged to the temple not including attendees from the surrounding small towns of Keokuk, Iowa and Hannibal, Mississippi and Pleasant Plains, Illinois. Today there remains 15 regular family and individual members. An itinerant rabbi who visited the synagogue is no longer available, Gordon said.
The temple owns an old cemetery, dating back to 1851, called the Valley of Peace that continues to be in use until this day. “There are many generations of families who are buried here, and some their lines have died out,” said Gordon, who is originally from Skokie, but moved to Quincy with her husband to raise her three children in the temple community.
As part of the deconsecration, two of the temple’s Torahs are being distributed to towns in Germany and South America. That leaves two that the congregation will hold on to. They have been invited to give one to the historical society of Quincy and Adams County. “They are going to take some of our items, preserve them and give them a good home,” Gordon said. Other congregations may be in need of pews, prayer books and other necessities, she added.
“During the weekend of the deconsecration, we are asking that family members that wish to have them, take their memorial plaques for their loved ones,” Gordon said. “We’re going to have a grave dug in the Valley of Peace cemetery and will be burying things according to Jewish custom and tradition.”
What will happen to the building after it’s sold is unknown. The Byzantine, Middle Eastern style brick building has big, beautiful stained glass windows, a large sanctuary and lamps that were converted from gas to electricity. Two turrets once existed that were blown away by a tornado in 1945 and never rebuilt.
“If the temple is torn down, it will be a shanda,” Gordon said of any prospective buyer. “That’s how we feel.”
“With the closing of B’nai Sholom, between St. Louis, Missouri and Rock Island, Illinois there is no community with a synagogue along the river,” Frolick said. “This is it. This is the last one. That’s quite a stretch of miles.”
Frolick will speak during the May weekend about the temple’s history and present a photo archive display. He is emotional about its closing “I’m heartbroken, literally heart broken. In my talk, I’m telling people to look around, look around this sanctuary. Remember the faces that are next to you, but also look at the faces who aren’t here, that we all sat next to over the years. I can still see all those people in their regular pews.”
For more information about the weekend of activities for Temple B’nai Sholom, call 217-222-8537.