Santa Rosa man finds Judaism on the back roads

“I travel for work weekly, crisscrossing the U.S. as a regional trainer for a major corporation. I find myself in towns I’ve never heard of, places like Pittsburg, Kansas; Aberdeen, South Dakota; and Ponca City, Oklahoma. I wait until my classes are done and set out for a little adventure.

“Usually, I just ask a local, ‘So, is there a synagogue around here?’ The answer is always surprising.”

Roy Camarillo

Roy Camarillo penned those words in an essay about his favorite pastime. Camarillo, 62, who frequently travels the country on business, lives in Santa Rosa with his wife, Tamar Landau, and their daughters, 9 and 15. They are members of Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.

Recently, Camarillo was in Minot, North Dakota, where he asked around about a synagogue. And an adventure ensued.

“No one seemed to know if there was a shul, so I looked it up on the Internet,” he wrote. “A site directed me to an old section of town where I found a white house with four tall pillars, a Georgian Colonial style single-story structure built in 1930, complete with a plaque that read, ‘Temple Beth Israel.’

“The plaque proudly stated that the synagogue, together with the Jewish cemetery, served the Jewish community of northwestern North Dakota. The sign out front had the name of the shul under the name of ‘Berean Baptist Church,’ and it said that they held Shabbat services on Saturday.”

Camarillo flagged down a passing letter carrier and asked whether the congregation still met. She gave him the name of the Baptist minister, and Camarillo drove a few blocks to Minot’s Railroad Museum to look in the phone directory.

Temple Beth Israel, built in 1930 in Minot, North Dakota, now houses a Baptist church. photos/courtesy roy camarillo

“I was surprised to find a train museum, a beautiful old relic beside a set of railroad tracks that crisscrossed at a nearby switching yard there in the middle of town. I stepped inside this old stone building and entered a world of travel from days long gone.”

At the museum, Camarillo found the number and called the minister, who directed him to a Dr. Dennis Lutz. When Camarillo asked the woman at the counter for another look at the phone book so he could call Lutz, the woman pointed across the room.

“She motioned to a gentleman with white hair, moustache and beard standing there watching me, just a few feet away … in a dark coat, feet planted firmly, a look of patience on his face, wisdom in his eyes. Nothing about him looked as if he were in a hurry about anything at all.”

That was Lutz. A collector, he owned the museum. Camarillo explained his interest in Judaism in America. Lutz said Minot had been a major railroad town, one that had drawn many Jewish families. Over time, the Jewish population shrank to five families, Lutz’s among them. For a while, Lutz even held services in his home.

Lutz added that originally, he had three Torahs from Temple Beth Israel, but he had to sell one to help maintain the Jewish cemetery, which has more than 100 graves. The two remaining Torahs are packed up and locked away. Camarillo asked Lutz what else he had from the shul.

Dr. Dennis Lutz shows where remnants of the synagogue are stored in a railroad museum storeroom.

“He led me to a locked storeroom there in the train museum, off to one side. We threaded our way past piles of antique furniture pieces … all covered in dust. He walked to a far corner of the room, grabbed the edge of a clear plastic tarp and pulled it back.

“And there was the aron hakodesh, the holy ark. It was on the floor, up against the wall. I recall seeing a parokhet, or curtain, which is typical of an Ashkenazi ark, but I also remember seeing wooden doors [off] to one side, which would indicate a Sephardic custom. The Ten Commandments were carved in wood on the doors with gold lettering, and flanked by two lions facing opposite directions. Several electric menorahs were set off to one side. All of it stacked neatly. All of it, relics, covered in plastic.”

Afterward, Camarillo and Lutz walked out of the building to the parking lot.

“I shook his hand, thanked him for his time and hospitality. Before I walked away, it occurred to me that so much of what had just happened could only be counted as a bizarre coincidence. I called out and asked him, ‘Dr. Lutz, what do you call a moment like this?’

“He grinned. ‘A mitzvah,’ he said.”

Camarillo started his Jewish spelunking about two years ago while reading about Jewish history in El Paso. He learned that in the 1880s, after a Jewish man died when traveling through the Texas city, local Jews pooled their money and established a cemetery so the man could be properly buried.

“Then they said, ‘Look how many there are of us,’ and they started a shul,” Camarillo said.

An electric menorah is among the relics.

“As [new Americans] came across the country in the 1800s, in some places Judaism took hold, sometimes only briefly. On my travels, I make it a point to search out what Judaism looks like out on the two-lane blacktops of America. All you have to do is talk to strangers, ask questions.”

His adventures have included being led to an “odd-looking hot tub” in the basement of what is now a single-family home in Aberdeen, South Dakota. It was Congregation B’nai Isaac’s mikvah until the early 1950s. “At one time, the synagogue had 400 members,” Camarillo said. “When I asked how many Jews were in town now, [one of the members] told me if I were Jewish, that would make 13 of us.” Still, the synagogue will celebrate its 100th year in 2018.

Camarillo was brought up Roman Catholic in Midland, Texas, where he recalled knowing just one Jewish family. He studied at a seminary in San Antonio, and later taught English and worked as a school principal.

He converted in 2011 so his daughters would be brought up in one faith, but his ties to Judaism go back further than that.

“I proposed to my wife with a Kiddush cup on the top of Mount Langley [in the Sierras] in 1993,” he said.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.