Small but dedicated community keeps Belleville synagogue moving forward

The main chapel of Agudas Achim Beth Israel synagogue in Belleville, Ill. The congregation currently has around 30 member families. 

By Olivia Riutcel, Freshman, Webster Groves High School

The Illinois city of Belleville was once home to a thriving Jewish community. Everywhere you looked, there were Jewish teens and young adults. Over the past 50 years or so, the Jewish community in that area of St. Clair County has largely decreased; many older Jews who once lived there have passed away while many younger Jews have moved away. 

As a result, Temple Beth Israel and the Agudas Achim Congregation, which were both located in Belleville, merged to create one larger, more religiously diverse temple called Agudas Achim Beth Israel (AABI). 

Currently, the synagogue is mostly made up of around 30 families. Arlene Katz,  a member of one of those families, first belonged to Agudas Achim and now AABI for a combined 62 years. 

“[At High Holiday services] every pew used to be  filled. That’s how full it was,” Katz said. “Unfortunately, this year at high holiday services, AABI had a low attendance.” 

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Katz isn’t the only member who has had a deep connection to the synagogue. Norm Greenberg, a member of AABI for 20 years, also has a personal history that dates back to his grandfather. He served as a rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in the early 19th-century and helped prepare youngsters for their bar/bat mitzvahs. Despite this connection, Greenberg’s grandfather and his family eventually moved from Belleville to St. Louis.

“We started [when my daughter attended] Sunday school,” Greenberg said. “That’s when we got involved. More than 10 years ago, the Sunday school that Gabi started closed, causing the few children attending to look towards St. Louis for a Jewish education.” 

Greenberg’s history and legacy at AABI is one that not many members share in their community. One of his biggest influences on the synagogue was aiding in the hiring of Rabbi Justin Kerber as a part-time rabbi. Kerber joined AABI in the summer of 2017 and was warmly welcomed by the community. 

Kerber understands that the AABI community is shrinking, and that he’s faced with a challenge in trying to enrich the Jewish experience there. Often, students from various universities and colleges like McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill. or Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, will come to AABI for Friday night Shabbat. They participate in services and afterwards ask some members about the history of the temple and certain Jewish holidays.    

“I love it when young people come,” Kerber said. “It doesn’t matter if two or 2,000 people come, [because] I always give 100 percent.” 

I am the youngest member of AABI. As a member since my Hebrew naming ceremony, I am the last person to have had a bat mitzvah at AABI, which was in 2015. As a younger child, I didn’t understand the decline of members at AABI, but now I understand that the future of the synagogue does depends on the few of us who continue its traditions. 

When I asked Kerber about the future of the shul, he said that it was unclear and something he would not and could not predict. “It’s not about the size of the crowd — it’s about the experience,” he said.