The Conspiracy

Little Town, Big Heart: Finding Jewish life in America’s Heartland.

When I first began my college search, or perhaps it’s better to say when my mother started suggestively leaving college pamphlets on my desk, I refused to acknowledge a life after high school. The prospect of recreating myself and re-establishing my Jewish identity in a foreign environment frightened me enormously, but I needn’t have worried. Little did I know that the school I chose–Knox College–which lay nestled in the heart of a sleepy railroad town called Galesburg, Illinois, would turn out to have a steady Jewish pulse.

I was not expecting much from Temple Sholom. From the outside, it struck me as bland; just a plain beige building, with nothing distinguishing it as an establishment of any sort–much less a religious one–other than the unremarkable sign stuck in the ground. But upon entering the building, I was filled with the sense of awe that one feels when they glimpse a sunrise for the first time: that humbling smallness and wonder that fills every cell in your body. This is not to say that the interior was more beautiful than the exterior, because it was not. But love and spirituality blazed from the building’s very foundations. Never for a moment did I feel awkward or out of place in this new space. All forty members greeted each other with genuine New Year’s salutations, kissing and laughing as though they were family. To my delight, they greeted us college students similarly, like old friends, and made sure that we got good seats by the Bimah.

Services were wonderful and moving. Available were packets of all the evening’s prayers, transliterated, so that those who had never learned Hebrew would not be excluded from the night’s prayer. The rabbi delivered a stirring and humorous sermon and assured us college students that we were always welcome back. I left that night having found my place in a Jewish community I never knew existed.

7 Older Responses to “Little Town, Big Heart: Finding Jewish life in America’s Heartland.”

  1. Karen
    September 14, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    Beautifully said. Some of my best “Jewish” experiences were in a little town called Joplin, MO. There is something almost magical found in smaller communities. Can’t wait to read more.

  2. Aaron Cohen
    September 14, 2010 at 3:19 pm #

    Wonderful piece. At a time when many people question the depth and sincereity of connection of young Jews, this piece provides another voice–a new voice–relating the reality.

  3. Christine Eik Winick
    September 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm #

    Yes Jenna, Galesburg does have a steady Jewish pulse! This is a beautiful piece and I shared the URL last night so that others from our “family” could enjoy. Welcome to Temple Sholom, Knox College and Galesburg!

  4. Marc Wollman
    October 18, 2010 at 3:45 pm #

    Yes, this is a very strong little congregation. Having taught religious school there when a Knox student, I saw it close up. And equally remarkable, many of the rabbinic interns have become significant rabbis (including my own,) a number of Knox students who were involved in Temple Sholom have become rabbis, and one of my pupils from religious school at Sholom is a cantor. All that from 35 families!

  5. Gerry Walter, Knox '69
    October 18, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Thanks, Jenna, for bringing back such good memories. I am one of the rabbis who graduated from Knox and who taught religious school and was a student cantor at Temple Sholom. My Knox education, along with the extraordinary community which exists at Knox, together with my experience at Temple Sholom — all of these things have served me well in life and in my rabbinate.

  6. Erica Jaffe
    October 18, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    Jenna – what a terrific article – I’m so glad Knox’s Gizmogram featured it. Your words brought back many fond memories of my time at Temple Sholom and with Knox’s Hillel.

  7. Sheri Morrison, Knox '75
    October 19, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    I’m so delighted to hear about your experience at Temple Sholom. When I was a Knox student, I taught Sunday school there for a year. It’s so nice to know that not only is the congregation still there, but that it’s still “haimish” (warm, friendly, “human”).

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