125 Years of Jews in Greene County, Missouri: A Mini-Memoir

By Mara W. Cohen Ioannides

Mara holds her book, Jews
 of Springfield in the Ozarks 
In 2018, Temple Israel celebrates 125 years in Greene County. The first Jews arrived in Springfield in the early 1860s and the community expanded after the announcement the railroad would arrive in Springfield in 1870. The first congregation was organized in 1893.

I joined Temple Israel in Rogersville in 1996, the year the congregation moved there from its longtime location in Springfield. I came from New Jersey in 1993 to take a position in the English Department at Missouri State University.

Our Written History Begins
Soon after I arrived, Dr. Don "Doc" Holliday, professor in the English Department and editor of OzarksWatch magazine, would came to my office. It was a cozy space, barely bigger than the desk that was in it. He sat in the chair next to my desk and began, "You know, no one's ever done a history of the Jews of the area."

And I would respond, "You know best."

A couple of weeks later he came back and repeated, "You know, no one's ever done a history of Jews of the area."

And I would answer the same.

Finally, after many months, he said, "I think you should do an edition of OzarksWatch magazine on the Jews of the Ozarks."

He had worn me down, and just to make him stop coming back I agreed.

OzarksWatch is published by Missouri State and focuses on the history and culture of the region. The edition on Jews came out in 1999 and has been their most popular edition, being reprinted numerous times. I edited the issue and wrote a few pieces. I worked with a journalism professor who had his students do a number of articles for the edition. I put out a call for articles, and people from all over the Ozarks submitted articles. The late Dr. Marc Cooper of the History Department at Missouri State wrote a piece for the edition, as did Julie Hennigan his assistant, for an oral history project he did of the Springfield Jewish community.

A Documentary
I then started a research project with Dr. M. Rachel Gholson, who is the folklorist in the English Department at Missouri State. We received a Missouri Arts Council Grant to do a year-long study of the women of Temple Israel and to produce a documentary from these materials, The Women of Temple Israel. The documentary has been shown at film festivals around the world. With all the materials we gathered, we created a photographic exhibition, Seeing Traditions, that has been shown at Meyer Library at Missouri State twice and the West Plains Civic Center during the Ozarks Studies Symposium. It is now part of the collection at The History Museum on the Square, Springfield. Rachel and I have done separate work with the materials as well.

The materials we gathered founded the Ozarks Jewish Archive at Meyer Library and the Temple Israel, Springfield, MO collection at the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati. The AJA is the best and most respected collection of American Jewish materials in the world. I love going there to do research and have been very lucky to be one of the few to get two research grants from them.

A Book
Rachel and I decided to do a photograph history of Springfield Jewry with Arcadia Press. We felt it would get us moving on a more academic history. Many people from all over the country donated some wonderful pictures. They were so proud, even those who are not Jewish but their ancestors are, to be part of the Springfield Jewish history. Our photo-history, Jews of Springfield in the Ozarks came out in 2013. It's available at The History Museum on the Square, among other places.

Exhibits in the Synagogue 
People in the Jewish community were very supportive of our work. I realized after we started that Jews in Springfield have no idea of their history, mostly because our community has few people with roots in the community. I put up an historical exhibition at Temple Israel with the help of Anne Baker, the head of Special Collections at Meyer Library. I've never done an exhibition before and she's a great friend who has. There's a wall of rabbis and a wall of places of worship. We have a photograph of the first Sunday School class from 1893 among the items. Our members and guests love it. It really puts the congregation in perspective. Then I added, with the help of the community, a display of religious objects. We have so many people who visit Temple Israel that it seemed the best way to introduce guests to our religion. The Sisterhood, which has a history almost as old as the congregation, sponsored both exhibitions.

Our Caring Jewish Family
The whole experience has been eye-opening for me. I grew up in a very large congregation on the east coast, and American Jewish history has until the last decade really ignored the Midwest. So doing this research and creating these exhibitions has helped me to become a part of the 125-year-old congregation I now belong to. I see myself not as a transplant, but as an integral part of Springfield's Jewish family. We are a family. We are barely 100 household, so we know each other quite well and care for each other. In some ways, being a member of Temple Israel has encouraged me to do research on American Jewry.

Mara W. Cohen Ioannides is a Senior Instructor in the English Department at Missouri State. Photo courtesy Mara Cohen Ioannides.

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