Sunday, August 21, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jews Dwindle In Small Towns Of Mid-America -- Sioux City Is Typical; Population Falls To 560, Synagogues Merge


SIOUX CITY, Iowa - The list of the dead fills the rear wall at Shaare Zion synagogue and extends down each side of the sanctuary.

About a thousand names, each in Hebrew and English, each with its own remembrance light, seven or more per household in the dwindling Conservative congregation.

Each year, more lights. Each year fewer members.

Next year Shaare Zion, "Gates of Zion," will be Mount Olive Baptist Church.

Two blocks south and two blocks east, faded yellow paint is peeling from the 93-year-old United Orthodox Synagogue, one of the oldest in continuous use in the Midwest.

Services are down from twice daily to once a week. It takes help from Shaare Zion to get the 10 men over age 13 that are required for formal worship. Even with a cane and a companion, Rabbi Saul I. Bolotnikov, 87, can barely manage the three blocks between home and shul.

When Bolotnikov cannot attend, there is no one to read the scripture. Without him, the congregation will cease to exist and the city will be without an ordained rabbi for the first time in nearly a century.

Across from the Orthodox shul, immigrants speaking Khmer, Lao, Vietnamese or Spanish study English as a second language and send their preschoolers to a Headstart program at the Jewish Community Center.

"Why not use it? It's just sitting there empty," says Doris E. "Dodo" Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Sioux City. "It's so good to see some life in here."

Next year the 10,000-square-foot building is going up for sale.

What was once the center of Iowa's second-largest Jewish community is becoming a nondescript area on the downtown fringe.

Shaare Zion and a smaller Reform temple, Mount Sinai, are merging into a dual-affiliation synagogue to be called Beth Sholom.


Community leaders are raising $1 million to remodel the temple and add federation offices, more classrooms, a chapel and a mikveh, or ritual bath. James Sherman, lay spiritual leader of Shaare Zion, is taking the combined pulpit. A Holocaust memorial will be moved from the community center to the temple grounds.

Tucked away in a residential area two miles north of Shaare Zion, it will be the last stand for 560 Jews, the remnants of a community that numbered as many as 3,000 between World Wars I and II.

Most are over 65. Few of the children expect to stay.

Sioux City is an archetype of America's vanishing heartland Jewish communities, the quiet fading of a once-vibrant, often quirky feature of the nation's small-town landscape.

Outposts of Judaism from a few dozen to a few thousand souls once stretched from mining and logging camps in the West to antebellum cotton and tobacco towns in the South. They produced the likes of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, escape artist Harry Houdini and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan.

From Sioux City came advice columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, noteworthy diplomats, medical researchers, lawyers and business entrepreneurs.

In a generation or less, only the graves of those who stayed or returned to be buried may be left.

Around Iowa, once-thriving Jewish communities are down to double or even single digits in Centerville, Dubuque, Fort Dodge, Keokuk, Marshalltown, Mason City, Muscatine, Oskaloosa and Ottumwa.

Only in Des Moines, home to nearly half the state's 6,000 Jews, and the university towns of Ames and Cedar Rapids-Iowa City has there been stability or modest growth.

Nearby, Omaha and Minneapolis have had about 6,500 and 22,000 Jews, respectively, for 20 years.

"I think what you're seeing there is certainly characteristic of a number of small towns . . . mostly in the Midwest and South," said Sidney Goldstein, a sociologist at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

In the 1880s, about 30 percent of all U.S. Jews lived in Jewish communities of fewer than 1,000, the kind found mostly outside major metropolitan areas.

In 1957, American Jewish Committee figures showed 90 percent of the nation's teen-age and adult Jews lived in urban areas with at least 250,000 residents.

Of the 5.8 million Jews in the United States today, slightly more than half live in center cities, 45 percent are in suburbs and 5 percent are outside metropolitan areas.

In the 1920s, there were more than 400 Jewish communities with 100 to 999 people, 7 percent of the nation's Jewish population.

In 1937, a census found 9,800 U.S. communities of 100 Jews or fewer.


They and their descendants were the least likely in the country to remain Jewish, according to a Commentary magazine article in 1952, "The Disappearing Small-Town Jew," by Rabbi Lee J. Levinger, a native of Burke, Idaho, and veteran of pulpits in Paducah, Ky., Evansville, Ind., and Wilmington, Del.

"Thus as time passes, it seems that we shall soon have to write off most of the 150,000 village Jews from the roster of American Jewry," Levinger wrote. "True, they are but 3 percent of our total number. But they have included many of our boldest and most admirable spirits, and we cannot be indifferent to their loss."

Only in New England and a few scattered areas with unusually strong local economies are there stable or growing Jewish communities in the hinterlands, sociologist Goldstein said.

In the U.S., Jews have followed economic growth to a greater extent than the general population.

The Jewish community in Sioux City grew from 200 in 1890 to nearly 2,500 by World War I, when the gates of immigration slammed shut.

The first synagogue was Adas Jeshurun, which opened in 1899, complete with ritual bath. Its intricately hand-carved Torah ark, made by an unschooled cattle trader named Abraham Shulkin, is displayed at the Jewish Museum in New York - a rare example of an ornate, Old World aron kodesh made by a Jew in the New World (Sherman is a great-grandson of Shulkin).

Mount Sinai, which opened in 1901, was as Reform as Adas Jeshurun was Orthodox.

Between World Wars I and II, 60 to 70 clubs, classes and organizations ranging from socialist workers to Zionists met at the community center in Sioux City.

In 1944, a one-mile stretch of West Seventh Street contained 22 Jewish-owned businesses.

Then came the end of World War II. Of the 418 Sioux City Jews in the armed forces in 1945, only 114 returned to stay.

For three decades, prosperity masked a gradual population decline.

A few Jews had come to Sioux City from smaller towns, but far more left. Retirees moved to Arizona and California. Kids left for college and returned only to visit. The Jewish Mile faded from memory.

Fed up with revolving-door rabbis who came fresh from seminary and stayed only long enough to find work in larger communities, Shaare Zion turned to Sherman, a former poultry farmer and dry cleaner, in 1986. By then the population was about 700.

By 1990, Shaare Zion and Mount Sinai had merged their religious schools. Sherman, a Sioux City native, was voted spiritual leader.

Now Sherman ponders how many of the combined congregation's dozen Torahs to keep, whether Shaare Zion's stained-glass windows can be moved and what to do about all those remembrance tablets.

"We don't know if we can take these lighted boards. That's one of the biggest problems I'm having to deal with," he said. "These plates may be too heavy to bolt them all to those wooden walls."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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