Congregation Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) in Bentonville continues to see increases in its membership as the Wal-Mart supplier community grows.
As with other religions, this is a busy time for the synagogue. Chanukah is celebrated December 8-16 and Etz Chaim will lead the festivities in the area. Rabbi Jack Zanerhaft is the congregation’s first Rabbi and joined in 2006. He shares his time with Congregation B’nai Emunah, the Tulsa Jewish Retirement Health Care Center and the Charles Schusterman Jewish Community Center. His wife serves as Etz Chaim’s cantor.
The synagogue was formed in 2004 and has seen a 10 member-family increase each year.
“We get a lot of calls from people who are thinking about moving this area for potential job opportunities whether it’s with Wal-Mart or a supplier,” said Etz Chaim President Michelle Malashock. “I would say 90% of our phone calls are related to Wal-Mart. They are intrigued to know what the Jewish community is like here and they have a lot of questions.”
One of those calls came to Malashock earlier this year from Julie Fidler, the mother of two boys and account director for Stratacom.
“We would not have moved here without the Etz Chaim community,” said Fidler, “We celebrate Shabbat every Friday evening, keep kosher in our home, read books with Jewish themes, celebrate Jewish holidays and more.”
There are no formal programs for recruitment for membership. Malashock relies on the power of the web and old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing. She said it seems people find them and they didn’t even know they existed. For some, they seek out the Jewish community after receiving a job offer from Wal-Mart or area suppliers.
“When the (companies) recruit, if they are Jewish, their second call is to the synagogue. They want to feel better. I hear it in their voice,” said Malashock.
Those who move to Benton County are often from established Jewish communities with their children going to Jewish Day School.
“It’s very much their way of life. For them to move to some place very unfamiliar to them like Northwest Arkansas, it is really comforting to know there is a community, regardless of how big it is.” Malashock explained.
Malashock said some were raised to believe there isn’t a Jewish population in Arkansas and while their numbers aren’t staggering it isn’t the lowest in the country. The American Jewish Yearbook states there are 1,725 Jews in Arkansas, more than 59,000 in neighboring Missouri and 4,700 in Oklahoma.
“Knowing that there are others in the Northwest Arkansas area that do some of the same (rituals) was very important to us,” said Fidler.
Historically, Jews have always been a tiny minority in Arkansas’ population. However, their history in the state dates back to mid-nineteenth century. Jewish immigrants from Europe establish communities and congregations throughout Arkansas. Many arrived before the American Civil War as part of the “German wave” of Jewish immigration.
While Etz Chaim was founded in 2004, other synagogues in other parts of Arkansas have closed its door. Congregations in Helena, Blytheville, and El Dorado struggled to survive and have closed. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities such as Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville, and Bentonville.
“It’s a way of life for many, even if they aren’t super-religious,” said Malashock, “Even if you don’t go to Temple every Friday, you want to know there are people like you and celebrate the same holidays, especially for those families with children.”
Fidler adds that if one moves to Bentonville, is Jewish and wants to remain and strengthen their beliefs, it is possible.
“Being Jewish here takes a little more work but the reward is paid tenfold,” said Fidler, “The community is phenomenal, warm, welcoming and multi-generational. Continuing to keep kosher here seemed completely outrageous but it has been far easier than I thought.”
This year to commemorate the holidays, Etz Chaim’s Pot Latke event will start with the Menorah Lighting on the Bentonville Square at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 14 and move to the Boys and Girls Club off Walker Street for the Pot Latke dinner at 7 p.m.