For S. Illinois congregation, High Holidays offer chance to reconnect

Members of United Hebrew in Benton, Ill. come together for High Holiday services on Sunday night. Photo: David Baugher

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

BENTON, Ill. — The chirping of crickets filters through the cool night air drifting in the open doors of a low-slung unmarked building on West Park Street in Benton, a small Illinois town of 7,000 along Interstate 57, about 100 miles southeast of St. Louis.

As the sun sets, Rosh Hashanah is arriving and inside United Hebrew Temple in Benton, a group of worshippers have gathered for food and prayer.

“It is a time for us to get together,” said Carol Zwick, 70, as the assembled congregants enjoy steelhead trout along with salad, pumpkin pie and apples and honey. “We haven’t seen most of these people all summer…It’s more like a giant family.

“Everybody takes care of each other,” she adds.

Zwick considers herself a newcomer. She’s only been here 49 years. Her husband Malcolm was the first bar mitzvah in the structure, which the congregation has occupied since 1958 after it moved from a house across town.


“It was really kind of a cool old building,” said Malcolm Zwick, 71, said in recollecting the temple’s old home, “but at that time, it was too small for our congregation.”

That wouldn’t be a problem today. Despite the High Holiday bustle, United Hebrew’s present facility looks somewhat underutilized with unused rooms and empty halls. The memorial wall has more than 100 names — easily outnumbering the current membership of the little temple. Nearly 60 chairs are set out for congregants but when services start more than half won’t be filled. 

At its height, United Hebrew could boast some 50 to 60 families. Today, no one seems to know exactly how many families call this place their spiritual home. Estimates range anywhere from nine to 20 – with most falling closer to nine.

“I don’t think there’s over a dozen families — maybe shy of that,” said, Ivan, another member of the Zwick clan. Ivan Zwick is one of the oldest members of the temple, which his family helped to found. 

“It is going to be very difficult for them to maintain because their offspring are leaving the area,” he said of the temple’s future. “The job opportunities are really not here.”

In fact, this was once coal-mining country and towns in the area were relatively prosperous. There was a considerable Jewish presence through the region — doctors, lawyers, and merchants. United Hebrew even had a rabbi — well, a third of a rabbi anyway. The temple once shared a spiritual leader with synagogues in nearby Carbondale and Paducah, Ky. There was also an active Sunday school. 

But those days are past and small towns are struggling to hold onto population. There aren’t enough children to support a religious school. Services are held only once a month and usually break entirely for the summer. The dropping population has left this Benton temple with the unusual distinction of having no actual members from Benton. Every single person enjoying services this Rosh Hashanah is here from surrounding Illinois towns, mostly Herrin and West Frankfort, both modestly larger settlements to the south of here.

“You see the three little kids in here are the only [Jewish] ones in this area,” said Cecilia Uban, “in this county probably.”

Uban, 33, is here to enjoy services though she herself is Catholic. Her husband Isaac is Jewish and her two children Miriam, 2, and Micah, 4, are being raised in their father’s faith. She said that Jewish resources are sparse in the local school districts though she has received help with her son from the area’s Catholic school.

“They are very supportive. The priest was excellent. He understood what was going on. We talked at great length,” she said. “I had to send a little cheat sheet to the teacher in case he decided to do Hebrew prayers. That way, she at least knew what he was saying.”

Mother-in-law Karen Uban, 63, said providing identity for the next generation is the purpose of a place like United Hebrew.

“It is hard to get the kids a Jewish identity when they are the only Jewish kid not only in the school but also in the whole school district,” she said. “But that’s the beauty of having a congregation so close, so small, so intimate. When they do come here, they are very much a part of this culture.”

As problematic as United Hebrew’s declining numbers might be, there is also an advantage. The two dozen people here to mark the High Holidays really do seem like a family.

“We’re a small congregation so everybody knows everybody,” said Karen Uban. “It has a small town feel to it.”

And with the break in services over the summer, Rosh Hashanah has the feel of a family reunion as people scattered from nearby towns reconnect with the onset of fall.

“It is not like a synagogue with 300 families in it,” she said. “It is very small, very intimate. We catch up with each other. It is a very communal environment.”

It is also a familiar environment for Cantor Linda Blumenthal who has led services here for five years. After three decades at Temple Israel in St. Louis, she travels each month to Benton, a town only about 30 miles up Route 34 from Harrisburg, which is her hometown.

“It is nice to be in a small congregation because of the community,” she said. “That’s probably the one thing that most people want when they join any kind of religious institution is community.”

She said that at a larger temple, people might get offended that you don’t recall their name immediately even if that can be hard with hundreds of members, some of whom only come for holidays. That’s never a problem in Benton.

And there are still some ways to boost turnout.

“Serve food and people will come,” she laughs. “That’s true in every religion.”

Loren Collins of West Frankfort, said he also enjoys the intimacy.

“I’ve visited a few bigger temples,” said the 43-year-old. “It is nice but after so long being raised in a small community like this, it is sort of nice to have the tightness. The bigger ones can be a little overwhelming.”

Collins’ father converted to Judaism before Loren was born. At the time, the temple leadership welcomed the new member but they went through a number of steps to test his knowledge and seriousness before approving him.

“They were impressed but it still took about a year-long process,” he said. “They made sure. There was actually a council of elders here.”

“We lost such a strong scholastic presence,” Collins added. “As the years went on they died out. Their kids moved on.”

He said the town has been mostly welcoming although the past saw some unpleasant elements. This area had an active presence from the Ku Klux Klan for years. Even as late as the 1990s, the group held a rally in the town square.

And there have been incidents where the motivation is unclear. This Rosh Hashanah service is taking place in front of stained glass with a few panels shattered with jagged holes. It may just be mischievous kids though. Collins said it has happened a few times over the past couple decades.

Like a lot of Jewish kids who grew up in the area, Collins attended Camp Ben Frankel, one of the few Jewish resources in the area. It has been a way to help youth continue to connect with their faith. 

“That binds the kids together that come from Carbondale and Peoria and Springfield, wherever they come from,” said Karen Uban.

Places like United Hebrew help as well.

“It’s different for me because I grew up on the East Coast and the temples were much more prominent, larger with full-time rabbis, full-time cantors,” remarked Joe Lerner, a 46-year-old attendee from Herrin. “But for us, it’s a good opportunity to come. We’re glad this is here so the kids can experience it.”

Most seem to share that feeling. As 5777 dawns in central Illinois, the shadow of population decline is tempered by the warmth of togetherness in these walls this Rosh Hashanah.

Nate Bernstein, song leader for the congregation puts it simply.

“It is better for a person to share his identity in a temple,” he said. “That’s what we do.”