Small-town shul opens once a year for Detroiter-led High Holiday service.
When Ilana Eastman’s college roommate told her there was no one to lead the Rosh Hashanah services her family attends in a small Illinois town each year, Ilana had a reaction that keeps on giving.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you ask my dad?’” recalls her father Dr. Mitch Parker.
This week, he spent his 10th Rosh Hashanah in Spring Valley, Ill. Parker recalled thinking, “I hadn’t led services in a few years, and I missed it. It seemed like both an interesting and an important cause, so I decided to give it a try. I’m always up for something new.”
Eastman’s roommate at the time, Heather Goldstein, had told her that she grew up in St. Louis, but that her family observed the holiday with relatives on her mom’s side from various cities at Shari Tzedek in Spring Valley, 105 miles southwest of Chicago.
Formed as an Orthodox synagogue in a coal mining town before World War II, there were 50 families affiliated with Shari Tzedek, with a kosher butcher and bakery nearby.
“Now, there are only a handful of Jewish families living in the town, and the shul is closed for most of the year,” Parker said. There haven’t been enough congregants to continue weekly Shabbat services since the 1960s. These days, the doors remain locked and the building unused, except for two days each September.
“The shul opens on Rosh Hashanah because my family makes a minyan there for the holiday every year,” Goldstein said. Her parents now live in Baltimore and travel from there.
With no rabbi at Shari Tzedek since the 1950s, for the 45 years before Parker was solicited, the High Holiday service had been led by the late Allan Goodkind, who started as a teenager, and traveled yearly from Chicago, but was unable to continue after a 2005 move to Pittsburgh.
The first thing Parker did to prepare for his time in Spring Valley was to call Heather’s great-uncle, Charley Steinberg.
“He was born, bred and still lives in Spring Valley,” Parker said. “He is largely responsible for what goes on in the shul, makes it his job to maintain the building and makes sure there is a minyan every year to run services. They would open for Yom Kippur, but it is hard to get everyone together twice in two weeks.”
When Steinberg got the call from Parker, he was delighted. He had been planning to call the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to see if a rabbinical student could lead the service.
“Mitch came with a great reference from my cousin, Dr. Jerry Buckman, a retired internist, who grew up in Spring Valley,” Steinberg said. “His son, Rabbi Lee Buckman, (founding rabbi of the Frankel Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit and now head of Tenenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto), has been to services at our shul.”
The entire Rosh Hashanah congregation consists of Steinberg relatives. And that, says Steinberg, includes the Parkers.
“We have adopted them as our family,” he said. In turn, Parker refers to Steinberg as “Uncle Charley.”
Parker has a humorous take on the group’s yearly visits.
“I look at it as a sort of Brigadoon,” he said. “The shul ‘descends’ once a year, the people reappear. It is the only place I know of where everyone comes to daven in the same space, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform, and gets along for 48-72 hours.”
Parker leads services for about 30 congregants each day of Rosh Hashanah.
“I do most of the davening, but members read Torah, give divrei Torah and blow shofar,” he said. “I give the sermon one day and a congregant does the other. I sometimes teach a Torah class during down time.”
Goldstein, who now lives in Pittsburgh, has attended Parker’s service three or four times, including once with her husband, former Detroiter David Chudnow, who grew up across the street from the Parkers. The couple and Eastman attended University of Michigan together in Ann Arbor.
Charley Steinberg is the grandson of I.L. Steinberg, founder of the more than 100-year-old Shari Tzedek. Built in 1910, it is the only synagogue in Spring Valley, a town with a population of fewer than 6,000, including only three Jewish families.
“There are my wife and I, our daughter Leslie (Steinberg Ruda) and Jerry Buckman’s brother, George,” Steinberg said.
The Steinbergs also run a longtime business in nearby Peru, Ill.: Steinberg’s Furniture, also founded by I. L. Steinberg, in 1888.
“After him, my dad and my uncle took over, and then me for 60 years,” Charley Steinberg said.” The store is now run by Charley’s children, Steinberg Ruda and Bruce Steinberg.
“The Steinbergs are an essential part of their small community,” Parker said. “I am always struck by how many people stop to talk with Charley while we are walking to shul just to say hello and wish him a good holiday.”
Shari Tzedek’s 60-seat sanctuary was constructed for exactly what it is used for today: for congregants from nearby towns to have room to have services for the holidays. “
On each visit to Spring Valley, Parker is accompanied by his wife, Cheryl. The first year, and on a few subsequent trips, Ilana also joined them. “She and her husband, Ben, will be coming this year from their home in Silver Spring, Md.; Ben for the first time,” Parker said.
“Everyone in the minyan has all major meals in Charley’s house,” Parker said. “All the furniture in the living room and dining rooms are removed to make room for long tables to seat the approximately 30 people who participate in the yom tov meals. Every family has its assignments; what foods to bring, what foods to prepare. By now, we all know what favorite foods will be served at each meal.
“Charlene, Charley’s wife, who is responsible for all-things-food, begins work weeks before the holiday preparing meats and soups for everyone.”
And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We are so happy to do it every year,” Charlene Steinberg said. “Every year I say, ‘God give me the strength to do it again.’”
Destination Spring Valley
A couple of weeks before the holiday this year, the Steinbergs drove to Chicago to pick up a huge kosher meat order.
“We have a 100 percent kosher home,” Charley Steinberg said. “And we walk the six blocks to shul with our shomer Shabbos guests.”
Some visiting relatives stay with the Rudas and others with Bruce Steinberg’s family about five miles away in Peru, Ill.
“At our house, we have mattresses all over the floor,” Charley Steinberg said. “The door is always open.”
This Rosh Hashanah, the Eastmans stayed there, too.
“Every year on Rosh Hashanah, I lament that I am missing hearing my father daven,” she said. “It is a strong memory from my childhood, and I am really excited to share that with Ben.
“Growing up in Buffalo, my father was one of the primary leaders of our small congregation, Kehilat Shalom,” she said. “It seemed natural to me that my father would be interested in taking part in a small, informal, but warm community like the one in Spring Valley.”
In Buffalo, Parker was the lay rabbi/coordinator of the congregation for about 25 years. A child psychologist working with families of children who have developmental and learning challenges, he also is a community educator, offering adult Jewish education courses through Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.
“For the past 7½ years, I have been commuting as the principal/clinical director of Zareinu, a Toronto day dchool for children with developmental and learning problems,” he said. “I am now back in Detroit.”
The Parkers live in West Bloomfield and are members of B’nai Israel Synagogue, also in West Bloomfield.
Earlier this summer, Parker was in the Upper Peninsula area with a friend.
“We went to visit Temple Jacob, a lovely shul in Houghton/Hancock that is also the same vintage as Spring Valley and is also, at this point, only open on the High Holidays,” he said. “When we went in to visit, my first comment was, ‘This place smells just like Spring Valley.’”
Looking forward to his next trip back to Shari Tzedek, Parker explained a reason for going, in addition to the enjoyment of leading the service and the connection his family has with the Steinberg clan.
“It is a mitzvah to help a group of Jews who want to pray together in their ‘ancestral shul,” he said.
Goldstein expressed personal gratitude.
“It allows this great tradition that my family has had for so many years to continue and allows a shul that is now over 100 years old to still be able to function — even if only once a year.”
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Contributing Writer