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Jewish Traditions in the Ozarks

(Logo courtesy Temple Israel)

The Jewish faith is steeped in tradition, and that goes for the local Jewish community as well.  To find out about some of their traditions I spoke with Rabbi Barbara Block of Temple Israel near Rogersville.

When we talked last week in the library of the synagogue, Chanukah, the "Festival of Lights," was just ending. There are certainly various traditions associated with Chanukah, but as Rabbi Block pointed out to me--and gentiles are often not aware of this--just because Chanukah and Christmas occur around the same time every year, they don't hold equivalent significance as religious festivals.

"From a religious perspective," said Rabbi Block, "it is NOT one of the major holidays.  It is largely a festive time. But who doesn't love lighting candles and exchanging gifts? So it's become very popular, especially since it occurs at the time of Christmas, and everybody is celebrating holidays.

"The story about the lights," she continued, was written by the rabbis of the Talmud many years after the actual events.  The original holiday celebrates a military victory, and a very important one, because the military victory was over people who wanted to suppress the Jewish religion." (It commemorates the rededication of the Temple after it was defiled by the Greeks.) "But the rabbis weren't so big on celebrating military victories, and so they they came up with a story of oil that was only supposed to last for one night but lasted for eight nights. One of the very cool things abotu Chanukah is, you may have noticed that our (Jewish) holidays move around on the calendar. We follow a lunar calendar, so many of our holidays are either on the new moon or the full moon.  Chanukah happens the same date every year (on the Jewish calendar): it's always the 25th of the month of Kislev (the ninth month in the Jewish ecclesiastical calendar).  And at that time the moon is all but gone.  And the holiday ends eight days later just as the new moon has begun. And so we light candles during the very darkest time of the darkest month of the year.

Many Jewish holidays involve food in one way or another, and Chanukah is no exception, said Rabbi Block. "We have a food tradition that is actually related to the meaning of the holiday. The story of Chanukah involves the burning of an oil lamp.  So, it's traditional to eat foods that are fried in oil--so our own potato pancakes, or our fried jelly donuts, are specific to Chanukah."

Block calls Chanukah, in common with many Jewish holidays, "predominantly a holiday of the home.  We light candles for eight nights in the home. This community (in Springfield) does have a tradition of having a Chanukah dinner together, and having, at our regular Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) service, specific songs and prayers for Chanukah."

Temple Israel itself has a very long tradition, said Rabbi Block.  It was founded here in Springfield in 1893, and they will celebrate their 125th anniversary in 2018.  So, in addition to the annual Chanukah dinner, what other kinds of local traditions have developed within the local congregation?

"Our most regular tradition, of course, is our Shabbat service," said Rabbi Block, "which we hold every week, and to which we invite visitors. And we celebrate life-cycle events: everything from baby namings through funerals, and in between, weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvah. One of the wonderful things about this community is, if there's a Bar Mitzvah, members of the congregation will show up to support the young person becoming a more adult member of the congregation."  It's not just an event for family and friends, in other words.

Temple Israel consists of some 100 local households, and maintaining a sense of community is one of their most important traditions. Rabbi Barbara Block called it "an extended family. We are there for each other. We welcome Jews of all levels of observance, political ideologies, and different sexual preferences or sexual identities.  We're open to interfaith families." And, when the congregation built their location on Farm Road 193 just south of Highway 60 some 20 years ago, they were able to make the building totally handicapped-accessible.

Another important tradition for the Temple Israel congregation is community outreach. "We have a long, long tradition of being involved (locally)," said Rabbi Block. "The very first charity supported by our Sisterhood in the early 1900s was the Orphan Home in Springfield.  Since then we've supported many different charitable organizations and activities. The largest that we have now is our Community Garden.  In 2017 we donated over 1700 pounds of produced (from the Community Garden) to Ozarks Food Harvest." Having plenty of room for a Community Garden is just one more perk they enjoy in their current location--when the synagogue was located across from Rountree Elementary School (currently home to Credo Dance Academy), there was never this kind of space available.

Temple Israel also co-sponsors, with the local Council of Churches, a Holocaust memorial service every spring.

Jewish religious rituals are, of course, a fundamental tradition for the faith.  But, said Rabbi Barbara Block, they can serve a variety of purposes. "They bind us together as a people; they will serve to bring an element of holiness into our lives; ideally, the ritual will bring us to a place of service to the world as well."