KANSAS CITY, Mo. (JTA) — One family after another hurried through Erin Jones-Avni’s front door, anxious to get their first glimpse of the new arrival — to admire its ornate silver breastplate and touch its satiny mantle.
“People just kept coming, and they’d make a beeline for the Torah,” she told JTA from her home in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital and largest city. “They were overcome with emotion, to show it to their children, to take their picture with it.”
All were members of the country’s first egalitarian minyan, which was founded earlier this year at the home of Gabriela Alonso and her husband, Rabbi Julian Vainstein.
“Now, to have the Torah here, it is amazing,” Alonso said. “It is a new beginning.”
It is also a new chapter in a story that started more than a century ago and a continent away. The inscription on one of the scroll’s wooden dowels is faded but legible: “Property of Cong. B’nai Jacob, Ottumwa, Iowa.”
How this Torah found its way from the plains of Iowa to the central hills of Paraguay is a remarkable story of Jewish geography and connection, of history and timing, of ancient ties and internet links. Through a series of fortunate events and the efforts of more than a dozen relative strangers, the sunset of Jewish life in one part of the world is providing a spark of vitality in another — and there may be more to come.
“It almost reminds me of the story of Queen Esther,” Jones-Avni said. “The only reason that this worked is because of all these little things that taken out of context would not seem like big things at all. But when you put them all together, you have this miraculous event.”
More than 5,000 miles away, on East Main Street in downtown Ottumwa, the pristine, silent sanctuary of Congregation B’nai Jacob seems almost expectant. When this stately Renaissance Revival building was dedicated in 1915, the community numbered more than 100 families. Today, B’nai Jacob counts perhaps three active members in town. It has been five years or more since a Rosh Hashanah service or a Passover seder.
“It was a wonderful community, an active community,” said B’nai Jacob board member Sue Weinberg, 60, who spent most of her childhood in Ottumwa before leaving for college in Iowa City, where she still lives.
Weinberg’s great-grandparents helped found B’nai Jacob and donated one of its four Torah scrolls. Their story reflects the larger history of Ottumwa’s Jewish community.
Arriving in New York in the late 1800s, originally from Russia, they sought life beyond the sweatshops and ventured west. Her great-grandfather arrived in the coal mining town of Ottumwa as a peddler, eventually opening a hardware store, which morphed into an appliance shop. The 1915 city directory listed some two dozen Jewish-owned businesses in Ottumwa, from grocers and mattress manufacturers to clothiers and shoemakers — many of the shopkeepers’ names are still embedded in the sidewalk along East Main Street.
A Jewish cemetery had been established by an earlier settlement of German Reform Jews, and the new influx of mostly Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe expanded it, established B’nai Jacob in 1900 and bought the lot upon which the synagogue would be built in 1915. Other institutions — B’nai B’rith, Hadassah — followed, and by the early 1960s there was even talk of building a larger synagogue.
“It was like one big family,” said Bernie Ullman, who was born in Ottumwa in 1939 and now lives in Kansas City. “It was nothing for us to walk over to an aunt and uncle’s house. You didn’t even knock on the door, you just walked in.”
Over time, the synagogue evolved from Orthodox to Conservative. Oral history claims it was Weinberg’s grandmother who, nursing a broken leg, first refused to climb up to the women’s balcony. Later her granddaughter — Weinberg’s sister, Ellen — became the first woman to read the Torah from the bimah.
Yet eventually most of Ullman’s and Weinberg’s generations left. Those that remained largely intermarried and lost connection with the Jewish community. By 1970, B’nai Jacob could no longer support a resident rabbi — though the High Holidays continued to be a scene, when many former Ottumwans returned.
“I can [still] see where everyone was sitting — there were probably a couple hundred people, and the personalities were so vibrant,” said Allan Gonsher, a child psychologist and ordained rabbi who, starting in the 1980s, trekked to Ottumwa from Omaha, Nebraska, to lead High Holidays services for more than 30 years.
“Very few really knew how to daven, but they understood. If you gave them an aliyah [called them to bless the Torah], they saw that as the most valuable thing. When the Torah was walked around, people would kiss it. This was a community that felt their Yiddishkeit — in the shul. Outside — pork, shrimp, whatever. But insidethe shul, there was a sanctity.”
Every year, Gonsher made sure to use a different scroll, and to roll it, because otherwise, he said, “the ink dries out. If Torahs are not read, they’re not breathing, they’re not living.”
The community continued to dwindle, even as the Ottumwa-born philanthropist Ida Rosenman Sands paid to have the scrolls refurbished and sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into a complete refurbishment of the synagogue, which Ullman’s late mother, Bessie, protectively endeavored to have added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. She also arranged for the city to take over management and care of Ottumwa’s Jewish cemetery.
“She saw the writing on the wall,” Ullman said.
When Congregation B’nai Jacob was dedicated in 1915, the community numbered more than 100 families. (Courtesy of Sue Weinberg)
A continent away, a different transition was taking place.
Of Paraguay’s nearly 5 million people, approximately 1,000 are Jewish. Many are also the descendants of European immigrants who arrived a century ago, according to the World Jewish Congress. Most of them live in Asuncion, where a traditional Masorti-affiliated congregation, Union Hebraica, has existed since the 1920s.
At the end of 2017, as a result of one of Judaism’s most timeless traditions — synagogue politics — Rabbi Vainstein found himself discharged from the Hebraica pulpit he had served for eight years, only months before his own daughter’s bat mitzvah. He announced that he would be leading Shabbat services at home should anyone wish to join his family. He and Alonso prepared for perhaps a dozen people. Nearly 70 arrived for the first service in January. And like that a new minyan, or congregation, was born.
“I told my husband, this is my house, and here women count for the minyan,” Alonso said. “And when the time comes that we have a Torah, women can make an aliyah.” Thus the new minyan became Paraguay’s first egalitarian Jewish congregation.
Over its first months, the minyan has averaged nearly 40 worshippers on Friday nights, with slightly smaller crowds on Saturdays. More than 60 people attended the group’s first Passover seder in April.
Jones-Avni’s young family arrived in Asuncion from Washington, D.C., nearly two years ago when her husband, Dani, a Foreign Service officer, was posted to the U.S. Embassy. They began attending Hebraica, but “feeling like we’ve found a Jewish home — it’s definitely with this group of people,” she said of the weekly gatherings that became known as Igualitario Minyan de Asuncion. Hers is the only American family among a mix of mostly Paraguayans and Argentine transplants that includes very few English speakers.
“They have gone out of their way to make sure that we’ve had a really positive experience here,” said Jones-Avni, a former director of engagement at American University Hillel. “There is such spirit.”
By spring, the minyan’s founders realized that its long-term success depended on something more tangible.
“‘One day, someone said, ‘Erin, we need to ask a favor of you,’” Jones-Avni recalled. “‘We would like to find a Torah. You’re from America. There’s lots of Torahs there … maybe you know of one?’”
The last full minyan at B’nai Jacob took place in May, when Weinberg and a delegation of about 40 people from Iowa City, many also with Ottumwa roots, gathered to decommission the synagogue on the Shabbat just before Shavuot. Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz of Agudas Achim Congregation led a special ceremony, and the Torahs were read from the pulpit one last time.
“We are here to fulfill a difficult and heartbreaking mitzvah: to accompany this community to its dignified end, to provide good Jewish homes for its sacred scrolls and other implements, and to cherish and treasure over a century of memories of simchas and tzuris,” Hugenholtz sermonized. “Although B’nai Jacob will not continue in its present form, we … will place the sacred fragments of this beautiful community in our collective ark and carry it with us into our own Jewish future.”
The Weinbergs’ ancestral scroll traveled back to Agudas Achim, and a search began to place the other three.
“We decided we specifically want them to go to egalitarian congregations that really need a Torah,” Weinberg said.
Two weeks later, Agudas Achim hosted Rabbi Juan Mejia as its scholar in residence. Born in Bogota, Colombia, and now based in Oklahoma City, Mejia is the Southwest/Latin America regional director for Be’chol Lashon, a San Francisco-based organization that promotes Jewish diversity. He had come to Iowa City through his close friendship with Hugenholtz, forged years earlier at the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel over their shared status as Spanish-speaking converts to Judaism. (Hugenholtz was born in Amsterdam and spent much of her youth in Spain.) She introduced him to Weinberg, who shared the story of Ottumwa and its Torahs.
Days later, Mejia was at a wedding in Colombia. So was Vainstein, who by now had accepted a new job in Barranquilla. The men met and talked about Paraguay.
“He said, ‘There’s this new community and they need a Torah,’” Mejia recounted. “And I said, ‘Well, funny you should mention that …’”
Word traveled north and south, to Weinberg and to Alonso, and then to Jones-Avni, who volunteered to help coordinate the American connection. A native of Colby, Kansas, she realized that if someone could get the Torah to Kansas City, her parents could bring it to Paraguay on a planned visit.
“Hopefully the timing would work out,” she said.
It was a relay race against the clock. Jones-Avni tapped on old friend in Chicago, Leah Jones (no relation), to mine her Midwestern Jewish social network. Within an hour they had found a family in Fairfield, Iowa — Gary and Barbara Wacknov, the cousins of the cousins of a friend of a friend — who happened to be passing through Ottumwa on a visit to Kansas City. Once retrieved from B’nai Jacob, the Torah rested at the Kansas City home of Bruce and Gayle Krigel, before another friend of a friend, Amy Ravis Furey, arranged to have it picked up — wrapped in the tallit of Gayle Krigel’s late father, Elmer Price. Furey packed it in a hard-sided golf club travel case, which Avni-Jones’s brother-in-law collected on a Friday morning and brought home to Randolph, Kansas — a 300-mile round trip — so the Torah wouldn’t have to travel on Shabbat.
As Jones-Avni came to Judaism in her early 20s, this would be her non-Jewish family’s first interaction with a Torah scroll. Educating them on the customs and requirements surrounding the scroll made it more meaningful.
“I am moved by the number of Christians that were deeply involved in this effort,” Furey added, including her own husband, who did the actual schlepping. “Those people that love us are also deeply connected to the Jewish people and will help us to flourish as a community with their commitment.”
Jones-Avni’s parents stopped to get the scroll on their way through to Kansas City International Airport, where they checked the precious cargo for the three-leg flight to Asuncion.
Only then did word start to spread that a Torah was on the way.
“There was always a little bit of heart in throat,” Jones-Avni said. “If it didn’t work out, we didn’t want people to be disappointed.”
The journey of B’nai Jacob’s Torah is dramatic, but may be becoming less uncommon as similar small communities dwindle — and others arise in unexpected places.
“This is what we hope congregations will do,” said Noah Levine, senior vice president of the Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization that helps synagogues in towns like Ottumwa plan for their eventual dissolution. Last year, his group facilitated the transport of a Torah from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to an emerging community in Guatemala.
Mejia, whose rabbinate focuses on creating connections between American congregations and the broader Diaspora, sees more opportunity than anxiety.
“Yes, some people assimilate and disappear,” he said. “But for the people who come out, there are people who come in. For communities that close, there are communities that open.”
Hugenholtz stressed that the internet has awakened once-lost ties to Judaism — or, through conversion, new ones — like never before.
“That is, I think, the vision that the prophets had, that without coercion, we are disseminating a very beautiful and ethical and sacred way of life,” she said. “And because of technology, people are picking up on it and building these connections that bind them to Torah.”
And when a new Torah scroll can cost tens of thousands of dollars, it is just as important to connect older communities with resources to those whose primary asset is spirit and energy.
“When you bring them together,” Mejia said, “they can achieve great things.”
The Jones family’s baggage, including the Torah, had been rerouted through Chicago. When they arrived, their own luggage was back with them — but not the Torah. An airport staffer assured them it was on its way, though they were not told exactly on which flight.
“It felt very perilous,” Jones-Avni acknowledged. “I felt very personally responsible.”
Yet when the Torah finally touched down shortly after 11 p.m. Paraguay time — 19 hours later than scheduled — nearly a dozen members of the minyan were there to receive it, as the Jews of Ottumwa had done, perhaps more than a century ago.
The exact origins of this Torah are lost to history. Weinberg says that even her mother, Irene — who died last year at 97 — didn’t know.
Cynthia Gensheimer, a Denver-based historian who studies Midwestern Jewish communities at the turn of the 20th century, doubts the early immigrants would have brought a Torah with them, though it is conceivable that relatives in Europe could have sent one later. Most likely the community pooled resources to purchase or commission a scroll. At least one and probably more of B’nai Jacob’s Torahs predate the synagogue, she said, citing a 1907 report of “one Orthodox congregation” in Ottumwa.
“I’m certain they would not have called themselves a congregation without a Torah,” she said.
It’s a distinction that resonates with Jones-Avni.
“This is what makes it real,” she said, polishing the Torah’s ornate breastplate hours before its Shabbat debut. “Now we’re not just a group of people who get together. We’ve been acknowledged as a group of people who are doing something special.”
The next morning, every adult member of the community came up for an aliyah before the scroll. It was Jones-Avni’s first, and Alonso’s first in eight years of “suffering because I couldn’t do it.”
The next Shabbat, on July 21, marked two more firsts: the Avni family was called up for the naming of its infant daughter, and Alonso and Vainstein’s daughter Sofia read from the Torah as she finally became a bat mitzvah.
It will be somewhat bittersweet for Alonso’s family: A few days after the bat mitzvah, her family was scheduled to make the permanent move to Colombia with Vainstein. The Avnis, too, are set to leave Asuncion in November, to take up another post in Mexico.
But they feel secure about their community’s future now that there is a Torah — and perhaps a new building. Plans are in the works for the minyan to move into an old Sephardic synagogue that has been boarded up for 25 years.
Meanwhile, the final chapter of Ottumwa’s Jewish story is still being written. With Levin’s help, a third B’nai Jacob Torah is destined for Ezrat Yisrael, an egalitarian minyan that meets at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. What will become of the fourth, as well as the shul’s other ritual items, its memorial plaques and the building itself, remains to be seen. The only thing sure to survive, and grow as more Ottumwans come home for good, is its cemetery.
But B’nai Jacob will also continue, in a meaningful way. A few days before its Torah arrived, Minyan Igualitario voted to adopt a new name: B’nei Iacob.
“In honor of this generous gesture … and this concern for other Jews in another corner of the world that they did not know, we chose to identify with that name and continue with their legacy,” Rabbi Vainstein posted, in Spanish, on Facebook. “The Torah that was read in B’nai Jacob of Ottumwa, we will now continue reading, in B’nei Iacob of Asuncion. The heart of Am Yisrael is still beating.”
“It’s a great story, right?” Jones-Avni concluded. “Now this Torah is going to have even more stories.”