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Around the Jewish World a Small Town in Iowa Isn’t New York, but People Figure out Ways to Be Jewish

Toddlers wearing brightly colored kipot are not unusual in big cities with big Jewish populations. But in Waterloo, a small town on the plains of Iowa, a yarmulke is as rare as a mountain. Ben and Noah Susskind, 3-year-old twins, do not know this yet. They eagerly got dressed for the Passover seder, kipot on their heads, excited about matzah and grape juice boxes. They don’t understand yet that their traditions and faith make them a marginal group in their hometown.

Judaism thrives on community. So it’s hard for Jews when that community is so small a minyan isn’t always guaranteed.

The Jewish community of Waterloo, Iowa, like those in many other North American small towns, is composed primarily of two groups — senior citizens who’ve watched their children and grandchildren move away, and young families transplanted from larger cities to work for a big local employer — perhaps the university in town, or a large company.

They are a tight-knit crew, organizing potlucks for all the major Jewish holidays, because few have extended family nearby. Especially on Passover, the gathering is tailored for the children. For the last few years, children have led the seder instead of the adults.

They have become each other’s family, joining to navigate the challenges that small-town life throws their way.

Jewish life is easy in a big city — it has a kosher deli, a Jewish bookstore, a youth group that meets weekly at the JCC. Outside America’s urban centers, however, Jews must find their own ways to connect with their Judaism. Their town may have one synagogue — and that’s it.

“Jews in cities often take for granted their community. There’s a certain Jewish ambiance, and people can be with Jews by virtue of where they live,” said Rabbi Edward Sukol of Congregation Bethaynu, an unaffiliated shul in Cleveland. Before he moved to Cleveland, Sukol had lived in Waterloo.

“In a small town, if you don’t go out of your way to be Jewish, it won’t happen,” Sukol said.

Noah and Ben’s parents, Robin Gurien and Josh Susskind, both of whom work at the University of Northern Iowa, think a lot about raising Jewish children in a predominantly non-Jewish community.

“I want them to think being Jewish is so normal. But as they grow and continue with this lifestyle, they’re going to know it’s not normal,” Gurien said.

Howard Gerwin and Sena Cooper have similar concerns. They moved to the area last year from Detroit with their daughter Bryn, now 2. Gerwin, an engineer, was offered a job by John Deere, the producer of farm machinery.

Neither Cooper nor Gerwin has ever been religiously observant, mostly because growing up in Southern California and Milwaukee, respectively, allowed them to feel Jewish without actually doing anything Jewish.

Both sets of parents worry about giving their children a strong Jewish identity without the community support they had as children.

“It falls upon us to teach her,” Gerwin said.

Susskind and Gurien have started by making their home as Jewish as possible There is no kosher butcher in town, but they never eat pork or mix milk and meat. Their twins say the Shema every night before bed; they know it almost by heart. The family has Shabbat dinner every week, complete with a homemade challah, and always conclude the meal with Birkat Hamazon. The children look at Jewish books and are learning to recognize letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

“But is it enough?” the parents wonder.

“The major issue for people who live in a very small Jewish community is: how do we give our kids a sense of Jewish identity?” Sukol said. “And that’s not easily addressed.”

Sukol worked at the Ohio University Hillel in Athens for four years in the 1990s. He’s now the rabbi at a synagogue in Cleveland; he moved so he could send his children to Jewish day school.

“We loved Athens, but there was no Jewish day school, and ultimately we wanted to give that to our kids,” he said.

Although Waterloo’s Sons of Jacob Synagogue has a full-time rabbi, many shuls do not. Without an official leader, it’s the congregation’s responsibility to maintain a Jewish presence in the community at large.

“It requires a dedicated community for a small-town congregation to survive,” said Yvonne Youngberg, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

Youngberg is a student rabbi in Watertown, N.Y., an assignment arranged by her school. Congregations request a student rabbi, and a rabbinical student is paired with the synagogue, required to spend one Shabbat each month there.

“It’s taught me you don’t measure things in numbers,” said Avi Olitzky, another student rabbi who is working with a congregation in Canton, Ohio.

It’s the small successes that are cause for celebration. In Watertown, even if seven people show up for Saturday morning services, Youngberg is pleased, because each congregant takes an active role in the service.

Olitzky, who is Conservative, worked with a local ice cream parlor to develop a few kosher flavors. It’s not only for the Jews who keep kosher — by many standards of kashrut it is not necessary to eat only ice cream with kosher approval — but also the impetus for interfaith dialogue. A customer who overhears an order for kosher ice cream might ask what “kosher” means.

In Waterloo, the synagogue celebrates its centennial later this year. The university and local industries continue to bring a trickle of new Jewish families to town. The grocery stores started carrying kosher for Passover food last year and the local Barnes and Noble now has a section for Jewish holidays.

The increased availability of such items made this year’s seder a little easier to organize. It was held in a meeting room at the University of Northern Iowa. Four tables were covered in the kind of paper tablecloths usually reserved for mock seders at a shul, but feeding 50 people doesn’t lend itself to fabric and fine china.

It’s not the way Gurien or Susskind grew up celebrating Passover, but it’s become tradition for them.

“Jews in small communities are willing to put aside religious differences for unity,” Sukol said. A quick scan of Waterloo’s seder proves this to be true. The group is made up of interfaith couples, converts, kosher eaters, cheeseburger lovers, those who feel uncomfortable in the formality of a sanctuary and those who pray daily.

“One huge advantage is that we get aliyot often,” Gurien said. “And the members complain less about how unruly the kids can be because I think they realize that we have to tolerate the young so the synagogue can continue.”

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