Curious about a Jewish community in Paducah, I did some research and found the remnants of a once-vibrant community that dates back to the Civil War. The building is beautiful and there is an historical marker outside.
Summer services are at 5:30 and there is no rabbi. Mala, the president of the congregation, led the brief service for the four of us who attended. They were so happy to see me that they couldn't stop thanking me for coming and gave me the honor of lighting the candles.
Although I am reform, I prefer the Hebrew for most of the prayers and remember them better when there is a melody (which there wasn't). Mala told me that 6 years ago when she moved here there were 25 people on a Friday night. Most of them were old and many have since died.
As in many places, the malls killed the individual retail businesses, leaving the downtown vacant. Because there are no cities nearby and there is neither industry nor corporate headquarters here, there are no jobs. The kids leave for college and never come back because there is no work, so the only ones left are aging. She said they will hang on as long as they can; this is the story in many small Southern towns. The nearest viable congregation is in Carbondale, IL - an hour and a half away - and only because there is a university there.
That's the story. I feel that I did a mitzvah, but it left me feeling very sad.