COVID-19 cancels farewell event for Illinois temple shutting down

Temple Israel in Godfrey, Ill., will close permanently at the end of March. The sale of the congregation’s building closes on March 26. 

By Carol Wolf Solomon, Special to the Jewish Light

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Last Friday, March 20, was to be the final Shabbat service in the life of Temple Israel of Godfrey, Ill., a nearly 100-year old small Reform congregation that will cease to operate at the end of March.  It was to be an opportunity to reminisce, share stories, to laugh and to cry. It was to be an occasion to reconnect with past members and leaders who planned to attend.  A capacity crowd was expected to fill the sanctuary of this small congregation that now numbers just 11 members.

The service was also to include a ceremony to gift Temple Israel’s remaining Sefer Torah to Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. Temple Israel’s second Torah scroll was donated in August to Congregation Har Shalom of Missoula, Mont. 

But it was not meant to be. The spread of the COVID-19 virus and prohibitions of gatherings of more than 10 people forced the cancelation of the service. “This certainly threw our plans out of kilter,” said Temple Israel President Gail Lipe. “One minute we’re planning a special service with a full house and the next minute the rug is pulled out from under us.”  

Temple Israel Rabbi Lane Steinger, who is also Rabbi Emeritus of Shir Hadash, expressed concern for his Temple Israel congregants who have now lost the opportunity to participate in a ritual that would have provided a sense of closure. 

“It’s very sad,” he said. “It’s something akin to experiencing a death and not being able to have a funeral or ceremony to confront the finality.”

There won’t be an opportunity to reschedule the service at Temple Israel, as the sale of its building, a small converted house on West Delmar Avenue in Alton, will close on March 26. The Torah scroll has been given to Steinger, without ceremony, to safeguard in his home. It cannot yet be taken to Shir Hadash because the congregation meets for services at the Jewish Community Center near Creve Coeur, which is also currently closed due to COVID-19. 

Shir Hadash, like many area congregations, has moved its programs and worship services online.  When the congregation is able to resume meeting in the J’s Arts and Education Building, it plans to honor Temple Israel members and “formally recognize this wonderful gift” at a future Shabbat service, according to Shir Hadash President Richard Katz. He added that all Temple Israel members are welcome at Shir Hadash. The two congregations have long shared a common bond in their small size and spiritual leadership. 

“Rabbi Lane Steinger has been the religious leader at both congregations and has been an indispensable bridge to connect our two congregations,” Katz explained. 

Temple Israel’s gift of its Sefer Torah marks a milestone for Shir Hadash, according to Katz. “This will be the first Torah that is owned by our community.” Shir Hadash is currently using two Torah scrolls that are on loan from other St. Louis congregations. 

Steinger acknowledged that Temple Israel should take great pride and comfort in knowing that its Torah scrolls are benefiting two other small congregations. 

“There are three stakeholders with this gift,” he explained. The first is the Torah itself. “A Torah scroll needs to be used in an appropriate way with great care, consideration as something holy, and frequent rolling and resetting.” 

The second stakeholder is Temple Israel. “For Temple Israel members there’s a reassurance in knowing that in a vicarious sense their community will continue to exist in the lives of two other congregations.” 

Finally, for Shir Hadash, Steinger said, the congregation finally has a Sefer Torah of its own. “It will become integral in the life of our community.”

Lipe is grateful that Shir Hadash is planning a service down the road to formally recognize the gift. She hopes that her fellow Temple Israel members will attend so that they can achieve the closure lost with the cancellation of the service in Alton. For now, she is feeling a bit overwhelmed by the chaos created by the COVID-19 virus and the need for social distancing as Temple Israel members, all of whom fall in the high-risk demographic for the virus, work to remove the congregation’s belongings and vacate the building.  

The irony in the chaos is that it took a pandemic to throw a major wrench into what had up until now been a very smooth and orderly process.  In 2011 Lipe read an article in Reform Judaism magazine about the Jewish Community Legacy Project (JCLP).  According to its website, JCLP is devoted to “helping small Jewish communities honor their pasts while planning for their futures.” The organization helps small-town Jewish communities address their unique challenges and create a long-term plan that addresses a number of important issues including “preservation of historic documents, the disposition of ritual objects, identification of legacy endowments, and perpetual care of a cemetery, if applicable.”

With the guidance of the JCLP, in 2014 Temple Israel leaders embarked on a long-range planning process for the congregation. Their first step was to evaluate the current status of their community, communal assets, artifacts, library, historical records and communal relationships. Lipe met with Diane Everman, archivist at the St. Louis Jewish Community Archives, who provided direction on how to properly identify and preserve photos and materials. Temple Israel plans to donate all of its historic documents and photos to the archives.

Ritual items and artifacts were inventoried and donors were identified, wherever possible, to aid in their eventual disposition.  When the decision was made in June 2019 to put the building up for sale and implement the plan for winding down, Temple Israel leaders were well-prepared.  

Thanks to the ingenuity and connections of congregant Nancy Gent, furnishings are being donated to other non-profits, wherever possible. Chairs went to Join Hands East St. Louis, an organization that provides programs and mentoring for area youth. Many other items are going to the Church of the Living God in Alton, a congregation that is preparing to move into a larger facility at the former Elm Street Presbyterian Church building in North Alton.  Elm Street Presbyterian Church closed its doors at the end of 2018 after almost 100 years in operation. 

While the membership at Temple Israel has steadily declined to its current number, the congregation’s fiscal health has remained strong. Prior to downsizing and moving into their current building in 2004, the congregation sold its larger synagogue building in Godfrey.  

When the congregation ceases to operate, all of its remaining monies will be placed in an Endowment Fund it established at the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois. The congregation has designated the Endowment Fund to support Camp Ben Frankel, a coed, overnight, summer camp for Jewish children and teens located near Carbondale, Ill.  Camp Ben Frankel is a program of the Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri and Western Kentucky. Many Temple Israel members have strong ties to the camp.  Lipe’s oldest daughter was even married there.

 “We decided early on to support the camp because children and youth are our future,” Lipe said. 

With the closing of Temple Israel of Godfrey, four synagogues remain in the Southern Illinois Jewish Federation — Agudas Achim Beth Israel in Belleville, Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale, United Hebrew Temple in Benton and Temple Israel in Paducah, Ky. — along with the Chapel at Scott Air Force Base. Steinger believes that Camp Ben Frankel provides a foundation. He added that the endowment fund created by Temple Israel to support the camp is a fitting tribute and will help ensure that the congregation’s legacy and Jewish life in the region will endure.