Little Shul on the Prairie

24 Sep
Bat Mitzvah pic

Ilene Fox at her Bat Mitzvah

Growing up in a small town in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, I just wanted to fit in and therefore did not want anyone to know that I was Jewish.  Sitting in the hallway while my classmates were in Bible class was a dead giveaway.  I was devastated when someone signed my yearbook, “you dirty Jew” and when one night someone rang our doorbell and threw an axe through our door, I was downright terrified. Another Jewish family had their mailbox chopped down that day. There were many more incidents and I would go to school the next day as if nothing happened.

About ten Jewish families lived in my hometown and together with the Jewish populations of the surrounding towns, there were about thirty families who belonged to my synagogue, Temple House of Israel (THOI); please visit for more information. Although I did not realize it at the time, I found refuge at THOI, which my husband aptly nicknamed “the little Shul on the prairie” when we attended the 125th anniversary a number of years ago. There I was openly Jewish and celebrated simchas and holidays with a close-knit congregation. (OK, I will admit being forced to go to Sunday School).  I loved the Oneg  Shabbats with tables overflowing with home-baked goodies and the feast at the annual break-the-fast. But mostly I relished in the camaraderie of people with whom I shared traditions and with whom I could be comfortable and feel safe. Mine was the second Bat Mitzvah held there and although I did not invite school friends, the THOI congregants were in full attendance.

As an adult, I look forward to visiting THOI when I visit the area every year or so.  The old-timers of my childhood are long gone, but their children and newcomers are welcoming and friendly.  Once, it happened to be the yartzeit of my grandfather and I was in tears as the rabbi called his name during services. My childhood experiences left me keenly sensitive to anti-Semitism but THOI taught me the value and importance of Jewish community. I now send a yearly donation to THOI so that today’s children will have the opportunity to make the memories that I have.

What memories do you have of synagogues of your childhood?

Ilene Fox is the Director of Women’s Philanthropy at The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee.


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