COLUMBIA — Rabbi Yossi Feintuch does not covet his neighboring church’s members. But he is envious of their numbers.
Feintuch is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom, the only Jewish synagogue in Columbia. He said that on an average week, about a quarter of the 150 households that make up his congregation attend a service.
“Every Sunday morning, when I pass a church parking lot, I am envious because they are filled,” Feintuch said.
The Jewish festival of Shavuot began Tuesday night at sundown. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah. Though there are several holidays throughout the year, Shavuot is one of only three pilgrimage festivals in the torah. However, Feintuch did not expect many people to attend the evening Shavuot service.
“It is very easy to miss it because it’s only one day and there aren’t rituals . . . and yet it is a biblical festival, on a level with Passover and Sukkot,” Feintuch said.
Another reason Feintuch didn’t expect many people to observe the holiday is that Congregation Beth Shalom is part of the Reform movement of Judaism. One of the principles of the Reform movement is that you can pick and choose your beliefs, Feintuch said, adding that as a result, many people aren’t as disciplined in their religious observances.
By 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, 22 people had gathered for the evening Shavuot service. While the number was higher than the rabbi expected, the turnout was less than an eighth of the total congregation.
While their numbers were few, the attendees were dedicated. They followed the rabbi as he led them through prayers and chanted songs, leaving a sense of reverence and expectation in the air.
Their personal reasons for attending the service varied, but in general, people came because they believed it was important to celebrate Shavuot because it was a major festival.
Gary Golden was one of the people in attendance. He is from a more traditional St. Louis congregation, but he lives and works in Columbia during the week. He said he came to the Shavuot service because he wanted to pass a sense of dedication on to his children.
“If you’re going to do a part, you might as well do it all,” Golden said. “It’s important to me that my children and their children find Judaism important.”
Even though Congregation Beth Shalom is Reform, Rabbi Feintuch tries to meet the needs of Conservative Jews, such as Golden. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have anywhere in Columbia to attend services.
Feintuch described Congregation Beth Shalom as “conservative light,” saying that it includes much more Hebrew and has a much closer attention to ritual than other Reform congregations.
Despite the effort to cater to a diverse group, Feintuch recognized that some Jews in Columbia don’t find what they are looking for and end up not attending services at Congregation Beth Shalom.
Feintuch said the problem with that is that Congregation Beth Shalom is the only way to be part of a Jewish community in Columbia. There is a Hillel Center on the MU campus, but it is for students only.
“The other option is assimilation,” Feintuch said. “It is hard to keep a (Jewish) household unless they are a member of a community.”
Without community, Feintuch said, people tend to "pitter out and fall out of the loop.”
Leah Cohn knows the importance of being part of the Jewish community. She has been part of the congregation for 16 years. She said she attended the evening Shavuot service because it was a major religious holiday, and she wanted to be part of the community.
“You have to work at being Jewish in mid-Missouri,” Cohn said. “If you’re a Christian, everyone celebrates those holidays, and school’s out.”
But that’s not the case for most Jewish holidays, Cohn said, “So unless you think about it and make it an active part of your life, it (the Jewish holiday) just goes by.”
Although the numbers are few, Randee Shenkel said it helps build the sense of community among the congregation members.
“Everyone knows your name,” Shenkel said. “They are incredibly warm and welcoming.”