Former drug dealers, infants, factory workers, old ladies, former gang leaders, lawyers, gunshot victims, high school football players, barge workers, crack addicts, nurses and musicians -- a reflection of the diverse, decaying place they call home -- had packed into two vans and eight cars for each 350-mile trip.
They all were raised as Christians, most of them Baptists. One day recently, each was immersed in a ritual bath, or mikvah, in Memphis. When the last of them emerged from the water, almost 3 percent of Cairo's black population had converted to Judaism. Nationally, just one-tenth of 1 percent of black Americans are Jewish, according to the most recent data from the General Social Survey done by the National Opinion Research Center.
Today, fewer than 3,000 people -- 65 percent of them black -- call themselves residents of this spit of land at the confluence of the two largest rivers in North America. Once home to 15,000, Cairo has seen its population sink by 80 percent since its heyday in 1920.
Every block here seems to boast its own church, though many of them are as empty as the lives of some residents. Pastors at several of the 30 or so active churches in town struggle to put together a congregation of a dozen souls. Skyrocketing utility bills often force congregations to meet in their churches' basements.
The Rev. Donald Topp, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church of 12th Street, said he exerts a lot of pastoral muscle trying to persuade people to hope again.
"They don't seem like they have anything to look forward to, especially the young people," he said. "They've seen so much gloom, doom and despair, they look around and that's what's familiar, and it becomes comfortable."
So a crowded, sweaty, joyful gathering of Cairo worshipers -- even on a Saturday -- is something of a novelty here. And people are beginning to take notice of the gleam of hope Cairo's new Jews are bringing to their town.
"I welcome them," Topp said. "If they can come in and make a difference or give somebody hope, I welcome them."
Phillip Matthews, Arbell Matthews's 39-year-old son, is a former Cairo policeman and agent for the Southern Illinois Drug Task Force. Today, the stocky, bespectacled computer technician is the spiritual leader of Cairo's new Jewish community. Weekends when the group can't make it to Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale, Matthews leads a two-hour Torah study session Friday nights and a three-hour worship service Saturday afternoons.
On the first Saturday of last month, Matthews manned a keyboard that straddled his mother's kitchen and living room. His congregation squeezed snugly into every corner of the house, wherever they could fit. When the music subsided, he preached from the book of Exodus, in which God's chosen people follow Moses out of bondage in Egypt, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, to the Promised Land.
"We remember the day we came out of Egypt, and we are never going to forget," said Matthews, whose fellow converts call him moreh, which means teacher.
"God parted the Red Sea, and it took us 18 months to get to the other side. But we converted to make a difference, and we will make a difference -- not just in the lives of our families and friends, but in the life of this city as well."
Matthews sees purpose in his group's conversions. He sees a local version of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which is Hebrew for "repairing the world."
"When you look at our city, you see a battle raging all around us," Matthews said. "But God is incapable of failure. Remember the day you came out of Egypt so you can teach your children how to walk out, too. Perhaps you are that light that shines real bright in this dark place."
Matthews left law enforcement in the mid-1990s, about the same time he left the Baptist Church. Corruption, dishonesty and hypocrisy left him disillusioned with both institutions, he said. In 1997, he began studying the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. The books of Moses.
Soon, Matthews's sister (he's one of 18 children) began studying with him. More siblings, cousins and friends joined them through the years. For nearly a decade, they met and talked about ancient Scripture.
From time to time, someone would poke his head in Arbell Matthews's front door to see why all the cars were parked outside. Often that person would stay. By the next week, he was part of the congregation.
There is evidence of Jews living in Cairo in the 1870s, but the last synagogue anyone remembers closed years ago. Today, the little brick synagogue with stained-glass windows is part of the public health department. It has a clear view of the Bunge North America soybean processing plant that, with 83 jobs, is the city's largest employer.
The Rev. Larry Potts, pastor of Cairo Baptist Church, said he could think of only two Jews in Cairo before the conversions.
When Phillip Matthews's group began talking about converting, Matthews decided that without any rabbis in town and close to 60 members, he needed help.
Looking for help outside of Cairo is a time-honored tradition. Escape is a natural desire in a place Charles Dickens famously described, in 1842, as "a breeding-place of fever, ague, and death."
In spring 2006, Matthews went in search of a rabbi. He found Goldstein, a Reform rabbi from St. Louis who is affiliated with Congregation Beth Jacob in Carbondale.
"Phillip called and asked about conversion classes," Goldstein said. "Then he asked if there was such a thing as African American Jews."
She assured him there were.
The 2001 National Jewish Population Survey found 37,000 African American Jews age 18 or older. That's just less than 1 percent of 4 million Jewish American adults.
For the next 18 months, the group made the three-hour trek each way from Cairo to Goldstein's house. The rabbi taught them about Jewish history, philosophy and theology, holidays, liturgy and life-cycle events. Group members had textbooks and homework each week. Goldstein took them on field trips to a kosher butcher, to hear a cantor and to the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center.
Along the way, Goldstein introduced the group to the congregation at Beth Jacob, a synagogue of about 48 families. The congregation has since welcomed the group as members and has asked Matthews to be on its board.
The new Jews of Cairo had been official for less than a month when Alpha Gordon, 24, stepped out of Arbell Matthews's home on a bleak Saturday. Gordon said he felt different than he had a month earlier.
"I do feel Jewish," he said. "And that feels good."
Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.