African Americans Look to Judaism A small town in Illinois is home to a number of new Jewish converts, many of them are African American. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on the unique community in Cairo, Ill.
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African Americans Look to Judaism

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African Americans Look to Judaism

African Americans Look to Judaism

African Americans Look to Judaism

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A small town in Illinois is home to a number of new Jewish converts, many of them are African American. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports on the unique community in Cairo, Ill.

CHERYL CORLEY, Host:

I'm Cheryl Corley in for Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're broadcasting from Chicago Public Radio. Still to come, while Israel marked its 60th anniversary this week, not everyone celebrated. We'll talk with a Palestinian whose family was uprooted from West Jerusalem in 1948.

But first, our Faith Matters conversation. A story about conversion to Judaism. Some of the latest census figures put the number of Jews in the United States about six and a half million, slightly more than two percent of the country's population. The number of black Jewish Americans is vastly smaller. Temple University's Center for Afro-Jewish Studies puts its estimate at about a half million people. In Cairo, Illinois, a small town near the southern tip of the state, black residents are adding to that number. More than 50 have converted to Judaism and more hope to do so.

During a drive through Cairo though, it seems almost incongruous that this town, sandwiched between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers would be the site of a growing Jewish community. There are churches everywhere.

PHILLIP MATTHEWS: Now this is really incredible. Now in one block, here's a church right here, right across the street is a church. Right on the corner is a church. Right down the street is a church.

CORLEY: Phillip Matthews (ph) is 39. A former Cairo police offer and now a computer technician who has lived here in Cairo all his life. This area was once a major shipping port, but it's been on the decline for decades. Fewer than 4,000 people live here, many of them are poor. Cairo does have a moneyed section, but the city's historic downtown, a shamble of abandoned crumbling buildings is evidence of Cairo's long decline.

MATTHEWS: Here is the Jewish synagogue that used to be here, and you see the glass - stained glass still there. I don't remember what the name of it was, but this is where they used to worship - the congregation of Jews.

CORLEY: It hasn't been a synagogue for years. This building is home now to Cairo's public health clinic. Even so, there has been a resurgence of Jewish faith in Cairo, and Phillip Matthews is the catalyst. One of 18 children, Matthews was raised as a Baptist and used to play the piano at church services. Now he and many of his friends and family meet in Matthew's mother's home to observe Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.

MATTHEWS: First and foremost, I would like to say Shabbat Shalom to everybody.

GROUP: Shabbat Shalom.

CORLEY: Matthews says he is the descendent of an Ethiopian Jew and has been studying Jewish scripture and culture for years. He is the leader of this group, all African-Americans who have become Jewish by choice.

MATTHEWS: Let us stand and face Zion as that's our homeland. Homeland that was promised unto our fathers unto Abraham, unto Isaac...

CORLEY: The small living room of the Matthews' house is filled to capacity this afternoon. The furniture has been pushed back, rows of chairs put in place, a keyboard sits near the kitchen. Fifty-five of the regular attendees are now Jews, 44 adults and 11 children. Matthews says after studying informally for years, it was time for the group to take the steps to become Jews.

MATTHEWS: And I'm not saying that I hate Christianity or that I hate Christians, because I came from there. What I'm saying is there's a better way.

CORLEY: And that's a belief that all of Cairo's new Jews-by-choice hold, including 28-year-old Yoseph Oshaya (ph), a computer technician who works at a local college.

YOSEPH OSHAYA: It's like you say, Shalom. It's the wholeness - the sense of wholeness of peace and that's what we have through Judaism is Shalom, is peace.

GROUP: (Singing) Shabbat Shalom. Shabbat Shalom. Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat, Shabbat Shalom.

CORLEY: At Beth Jacob Synagogue, Rabbi Lynn Goldstein leads the singing and prayers. The small temple is an hour's drive from Cairo, and the members here welcomed the new Jews who doubled the synagogue's membership. Goldstein is a reform rabbi from St. Louis, and also leads this synagogue. Two years ago Phillip Matthews contacted her seeking to learn more about Judaism. Goldstein says she didn't find out until later that more than 50 people wanted to convert.

GOLDSTEIN: And it was kind of astounding, but by that point I really knew people in the group and was not concerned about their intentions or that it was some kind of weird flaky thing. I really learned about what they had been learning and studying on their own and why they were coming to Judaism, and I really experienced how serious they were about it and how very much they wanted to be Jewish.

CORLEY: Initially, the group drove six hours round trip weekly to St. Louis to meet with a rabbi for three hour classes. They were dedicated. Some even lost jobs because of the schedule, but they kept coming as the rabbi coordinated trips to Jewish institutions and events including a tour of a local kosher butcher shop.

GOLDSTEIN: It wasn't an easy thing. They were in a community that Judaism is not known. There are very few Jews in Cairo - now there are more. But there just didn't - there was no Jewish community there to support them. The closest community is the community in Carbondale, and they drive an hour to get here. They're driving two and a half hours to get to St. Louis, and so it was very difficult.

CORLEY: It was a spiritual journey that lasted more than a year and a half, and the 55 African-American residents of Cairo became Jews during a ritual ceremony at a Memphis synagogue.

MATTHEWS: It was closing a chapter of a long trek as far as driving up and down the highway, but also the beginning of something greater. We understood that we have begun, we had come a long way, but we had much, much farther to go.

GROUP: (Singing) Hiney Matov Umana'im. Shevet Achim...

CORLEY: Now, Matthews composes and rearranges Jewish songs and Hebrew prayers. He bristles though when his arrangements are called gospel-like.

MATTHEWS: At the time of conversion we had to learn Hebrew, and the easiest way to teach all 55 people Hebrew was to write it in song.

CORLEY: So the music is a bridge which has helped these new Jews learn the language of their faith. A faith which Matthews says could even spark a spiritual renewal in Cairo.

MATTHEWS: I'm not saying that Judaism is going to convert Cairo or Judaism is going to take Cairo to a new high. But what I'm saying is Judaism gives our people an opportunity to look at things different.

CORLEY: Late last year, Matthews and a few of the other Cairo Jews travelled to Israel. He says plans are in the works for more of them to go, and there are even more conversion candidates in Cairo who wish to become Jews.

GROUP: (Singing) Hiney ma tov uma..

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