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Owensboro Synagogue Welcomes Non-Jews for High Holidays and Friday Studies

A synagogue in Owensboro, Kentucky is preparing to hold services for the High Holy Days that begin at sundown on Oct. 2. 

The synagogue was built in 1877 by 13 founding families. There are currently seven member families, as well as a few non-members who participate.

The effort to keep the synagogue functioning is led by two Jewish members who open the doors for a Friday evening study session. Through those open doors have come several non-Jews drawn to the Jewish teachings.

“Come let us welcome the Sabbath. May its radiance illumine our hearts as we kindle these tapers,” said synagogue President Sandy Bugay, as she recently lit the candles that mark that start of the Jewish Sabbath that begins at sundown Friday and ends at sundown Saturday.

Bugay led the Hebrew blessing for the half-dozen people gathered around a table in a meeting room at the synagogue:

“Baruch atah, Adonai, Eloheinu, melech haolam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat…"

Bugay started attending this synagogue, Temple Adath Israel, when she was five years old. Bugay continued the blessing over the candles.

"May the Lord bless us with Sabbath holiness. May the Lord bless us with Sabbath peace. Amen."

Bugay says in the 1950s and 60s, the synagogue had about 50 members, but membership has continued to decline. 

“The children grew up, went to college and left for opportunities in other cities and the elders, some left to retire in warmer states and then some just passed away.”

Stuart Spindel is the other Jewish member of the synagogue who has been keeping the traditions alive. He’s been a member for 20 years and leads holiday services and most of the Friday evening study sessions. On a recent Friday, Spindel led the discussion of the weekly portion of the Jewish Bible that’s studied in synagogues around the world.

“Ma Tovu…how goodly are your tents, Oh Jacob. You know, he’s bragging how wonderful the people were and how peaceful everything was.”

Spindel says once student rabbis stopped coming once a month to lead  services, the weekly Friday night study seemed the most dependable way to let people know the doors are open. Spindel says some of the people who have come through those doors are non-Jews.

“I think they may be those who are kind of with us. The Bible talks a lot about the strangers who travel in your midst. They may not follow the rituals, because they haven’t converted, but they apparently feel more comfortable here than other places.”

Marty Miller used to go to church, but says she found her way to the synagogue eight years ago.

“I would walk down the street at night and I would see the lights on in the back room and I would always wonder if I could go in there. You know, people don’t…we’re pretty naïve about the Jewish religion in Kentucky.”

Curiosity got the best of her.

“I even peeked in the window one night to see what they were doing, you know, because I see through the blinds and they were in there studying and I decided to just walk in and asked if I could join their group and they said, ‘Sure, come on in’.”

Another person who kept noticing the synagogue is Kay Whittington. She was an ordained deacon in the Presbyterian Church, but felt drawn to Judaism. Whittington has been coming to Adath Israel for five years and likes the values that are emphasized.

“I think overall, in Judaism there is a marker for tolerance, mercy, fairness, charity.”

This year, as in several years past, Whittington says she will attend services for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the final day of the holiday.

“The High Holy days have always intrigued me. I love coming here for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I mean, those are just traditions that are very meaningful.”

Whittington will join a group that will likely number 15-to-20 worshippers for the High Holidays. There will be Jews and non-Jews. They will confirm that by keeping its doors open to all, the Owensboro synagogue is keeping its spirit alive.

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