Looking back: The Jewish Light in the 1960s

The St. Louis Jewish Light in the 1960s

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The 1960s were a time of turmoil and change across the nation and the St. Louis Jewish community was no exception. From demographic shifts to the push for civil rights, from the moon landing to the taking of Jerusalem, from the killings of great men to the controversy over Vietnam, the decade featured a wide array of names, faces and events that defined an era in American history unlike any other.

‘Why did this happen?’

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Sometimes national and local events intersected in unusual ways. The Nov. 13, 1963 Jewish Light issue excitedly announced on the front page that Peace Corps director and future vice-presidential candidate Sargent Shriver was set to speak at the dedication dinner for the opening of the new Carlyn H. Wohl Building.

But Shriver never made it. The event that changed his schedule was made obvious in the next issue – which featured a full front page memorializing President John F. Kennedy. He had been shot days earlier in Dallas.

The Kennedy spread was notable in many ways. For one, it chronicled a 30,000-strong interfaith procession in St. Louis. Originally planned as a racial unity event, the gathering became a remembrance for the fallen president. The Light’s editorial on his death morphed into a plea for the racial justice he believed in, calling the march “the most dramatic outpouring of people for a single cause in the history of St. Louis.”

“Faces and dress of all kinds could be seen,” it said, “nuns in their habits, priests in their garb, children, adults, teenagers, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Negroes and whites — all silently marched for freedom.”

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 area Jews congregated at United Hebrew to hear Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association tell them, “The question we are all of us trying to answer is why did this happen and we all feel some guilt for the deed.”

Unfortunately, JFK wasn’t the only figure of the decade to find his way into the pages of the Light through an assassin’s bullet. Slain civil rights martyr Martin Luther King, Jr. was featured on Page One after his 1968 murder with a statement from the Jewish Federation calling him a “Great American” whose passing must not be in vain.

“Abhorrence of violence, striving toward genuine equality, pursuit of peace,” wrote an editorial in the Light entitled “Shalom, Dr. King,” “these are not the goals of black men, nor are they the property of white men, nor of Jew, nor of Christian. They are the goals of morally sensitive men, wherever and however they live.”

Just weeks later, the Light would have another grim opportunity to eulogize a famous American with the murder of Kennedy’s brother Robert, and emphasized killer Sirhan Sirhan’s hatred of Jews as a cause. Below a blunt cartoon featuring the dead presidential candidate crumpled beneath a handgun labeled “Arab Propaganda” the Light opined angrily “Senator Kennedy died because he dared to demand that the people of Israel shall live.”

In a dark irony, the front page of the same issue featured a photo of the Israeli ambassador arriving at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to meet with local leaders. It was Yitzhak Rabin, a future prime minister who would himself fall victim to an extremist less than three decades later.

‘The grave sin of cold indifference’

The Jewish community, of course, was a major force in the cause of civil rights in which King and the Kennedys believed and that battle regularly turned up in the pages of the Jewish Light. A January 1964 brief noted that United Hebrew adopted a policy urging Congress to pass a civil rights bill and “further suggested that these principles be adopted by every individual committed to democracy and the religious interpretation of life.”

A March 1969 effort by Temple Emanuel saw black educators meeting with about 60 congregants in an effort to promote understanding.

But local Jews went further than mere words. A March 1965 Page One article chronicled the journey of more than 50 St. Louis religious leaders to Selma, Ala. for a protest. Rabbi Abraham Pelberg of Young Israel complained that the group was blocked by law enforcement from reaching the city’s courthouse, while local rabbi Lawrence Siegel admitted he was fearful.

“I was very afraid at first, but as the march began I forgot that and was just glad to be there,” said Siegel who felt the group’s presence helped prevent further brutality by the city’s infamous police force.

Another participant, Rabbi Bernard Lipnick of Congregation B’nai Amoona, said he confronted the city’s director of public safety who turned his back and refused to listen.

“We came here to ask those who wield the political and police power of Alabama to set these people free,” Lipnick told the Light. “If this country is to remain great, we must rise to this challenge.”

The intensity of the battle over race played out in letters to the editor. An October 1963 reader remarked on the hypocrisy of noted segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond joining in a resolution condemning the Soviets for anti-Semitism.

“Oh, what the Russians can do with that one,” the writer said. “Sen. Thurmond blasts Russia for anti-Semitic acts while all the time he fights against the constitutional rights of a U.S. minority group.”

A September 1965 letter expressed pride in the participation of Jewish and other clergy in common cause with the Civil Rights Movement.

“Faced with injustice against Negroes, ministers, priests, nuns, rabbis and many men and women from all parts of the country raised their voices and did not commit the grave sin of cold indifference and silence which had such terrible results in Germany,” it read.

But not all Jews were as happy with the effort. Some felt the protestors were troublemakers and “do-gooders,” who represented dangers to society or were even enemies of the Jews. One tweaked the Light for support of St. Louis’ famous Jefferson Bank demonstration and other protests.

“Write all the editorials you want. Say what you will,” read the October 1963 missive. “Do not try to include all Jews in your article, including some good ones who support the Federation.”

One feared the presence of Black Muslims in the movement while another from April 1965 sarcastically noted the prevalence of yarmulkes at protests.

“It’s a shame that yarmulkas [sic] weren’t in vogue back in July of 1964 when Negro rioting in Jersey City, Brooklyn and Rochester, N.Y., caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to Jewish merchants in those areas,” it said.

“Our children have been fed such a diet of civil rights, brotherhood and integration,” read another from February 1967, “that it is no wonder they are leaving the fold. They think nothing at all of dating teens of other religions and more recently, teens of other races, as is happening in New York.”

‘Doing the only thing we can do’

The worsening conflict in Vietnam was another point of contention that cropped up increasingly as the years wore on. A series of articles in late 1965 talked of the challenges of Jews serving in the Southeast Asian nation. Entitled “Viet Nam Troops Miss Lox, Bagel,” the September cable from the JTA noted the conditions facing the 500 or so Jewish soldiers then in country, all of whom were served by a single rabbi. That rabbi, Capt. Richard E. Dryer, would pen an article the following month in the pages of the Light backing the military effort.

“I too was opposed to American involvement in the Vietnamese war – before I came over here,” wrote Dryer, noting that the Vietnamese he’d met were supportive of American involvement. “In fact, it took about four months before I became firmly convinced that we are doing the only thing we can do.”

“Our present policy of continuing the military struggle is not a pleasant one, especially for those of us who are over here,” he added, “but the prospect of giving in to a brutal, tyrannical aggressor is much less attractive,” he added.

Dryer would later reappear in an article from March of the following year, this time noting the best places to find kosher fare in Saigon. Restaurants operated by vegetarian Buddhists fit the bill well, he said.

St. Louis Jews also debated the war’s wisdom and impact, often in light of ongoing Mideast issues.

“I am wondering what happens should we decide to give up our fight for the Saigon government and allow that country to fall to the communists,” read a letter in May of 1967. “Could it be that the next chapter will show the Arabs invading a democratic Israel and once again the U.S. will decide that is not for them – a confrontation between the U.S. and the powerful Arab oil controllers.”

Still, others felt differently.

“…we permitted ourselves,” read another letter from the same month, “on the say-so of the vested interests in our country to expend our land’s strengths, our land which was once known as a protector of peoples, to a war of literal slaughter and land devastation in Vietnam. These same vested interests in our country would also set the policy should the oil rich Arab nations invade Israel in an undisputed act of aggression.”

Then there were the touching moments. One University City Jew noted how important his subscription to the Jewish Light was to him.

“I am stationed in Nha Trang, Vietnam,” read an April 1968 note, “and to read about the people I know and love is truly the biggest morale booster a Jewish soldier can have.”

‘Penny-loafered bobbie-brooks girls’

Vietnam was also a strong contribu tor to another topic found frequently in the Light – campus unrest. A July 1969 piece entitled “I think we’re trying to say something” captured well the ennui and confusion of the era as protests over the war and the inequalities of society escalated at the nation’s universities.

“As Jews, we have a long history of social awareness and a sense of justice which the students involved in these movements are fulfilling in our time,” said Washington University student Manuel “Manny” Magence, who opposed the violence but supported the protests. “We also have a long history of progressivism and tolerance and these students for the most part fall within this tradition.”

A January 1966 letter complimented the Light for its coverage of the disturbances.

“Anytime there is strong protest against anything, there is surely going to be some fringes of ugliness,” it said. “But isn’t this better than a police state where such activity would be met with clubs and jailings?”

Sometimes even being viewed as non-radicalized was a cause for concern. A June 1970 letter signed “The Student Body, Torah Academy High School” objected to their portrayal in an article the previous month as “25 virtually unaffected… ‘straight’ kids,” something no doubt meant as a compliment.

“We were disconcerted to see that we impressed your reporter as being penny-loafered, Bobbie-Brooks girls,” wrote the students. “So we don’t wear army surplus rejects! But does that mean that we are apathetic to the oppression of Soviet Jewry and African Blacks? To the continual massacres in Indochina? To the rat-infested slums in our own city? Does being involved with our nine-to-six education mean that we cannot identify and participate with our student brothers on the campuses?”

“The ‘fruits of our labor’ are not only consumer housewives, as your article tends to imply: our aspirations are somewhat higher than those you have attributed to us,” it added.

‘Our daughter will have no parents’

While issues like Vietnam might have provoked conflict, some international events were more unifying.

“How great to be a Jew, on this day, at this hour,” wrote one reader at the close of the Six Day War. “Saturday, June 10, 1967 will go down in Jewish history as another Chanukah, a story to be told and retold to our children and grandchildren, a day to be sanctified as beginning a precious new chapter in our unfolding, living Jewish heritage.”

But it wasn’t long before some of the luster had worn off and the reality of ongoing terrorism set in with continuing stories of hijackings and bombings. Some of these had local connections. A December 1969 front-page article told the story of a Kirkwood man injured in a deadly grenade attack on the El Al office in Athens, Greece. The following year, the Light interviewed a University City family who were onboard a harrowing New York-bound El Al flight which was targeted by an unsuccessful hijacking.

“We all thought we were going to crash,” said Sarah Krywat, a 69-year-old on the flight with her husband Favish and four other family members, as she recounted the plane’s terrifying 25,000-foot earthward plunge during the chaotic struggle for control. “Women shouted that they wanted their children with them when they would die. My husband and I said goodbye to each other. My nephew said, ‘My God, our daughter in Israel will have no parents.’ People were saying the Sh’ma.”

Yet despite a gun battle in the cabin with the grenade wielding terrorists, the couple said the airline did a fine job. Passengers even broke into choruses of “Am Yisroel Chai” and “Havahna-Gillah” after the situation was brought under control.

“Thank God for El Al,” Favish Krywat said. “It’s by far the safest airline in the world.”

It turned out that the incident was one of four attempted hijackings that day, the others taking place on TWA, Pan Am and Swissair. The El Al attack was the only one that was foiled.

‘Other denominations come to their people’

Local issues also made the news, including the continuing westward migration of Jewish synagogues and institutions from city to county. Throughout the decade, facilities stories were a regular feature with new or planned buildings popping up frequently. The Jewish Community Center built the Wohl edifice in 1963. B’nai El Congregation broke ground in 1964 in mid-county the same year Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha began considering a move from its Delmar site and Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel was building its new sanctuary. Plans got underway for the NCJW-sponsored Delcrest, (now the Gladys and Henry Crown Center for Senior Living) in 1965 and Traditional Congregation formed in Creve Coeur.

Clearly the Jewish community was on the move. It was not always a migration that came without controversy.

“All of the new west-located temples require parents to drive their children to and from religious school,” wrote a Ladue resident regarding the possible relocation of Congregation Shaare Emeth in 1967. “I am disturbed over the prestige-seeking aspect of the proposed move. The present fine facilities can serve well for an indefinite period. Funds required for construction of a new temple would be better spent on maintenance of the fine social institutions this community has constructed in recent years but doesn’t seem willing to support with operating funds.”

A February 1964 meeting of the Vaad Hoeir expressed alarm over the trend.

“The impact of suburbia is having a devastating effect on many traditional or traditionally inclined families,” said executive secretary Hyman Flaks. “When a Talmud Torah is not in the neighborhood, the children go without Jewish education.”

At the meeting it was estimated that the Jewish community had spent some $10 million in facilities outlays in the move to the suburbs, the genesis of which those assembled felt was not always rooted in the best motives.

“We therefore call on all individuals as well as institutions to make an effort in preserving the existing neighborhoods, not to panic and run if a Negro moves into the street,” read part of the resolution adopted by the gathering. It also warned against a notorious practice of the time known as “block busting” in which white residents were encouraged to sell because of black migration into an area.

But others said the move was simply natural. A letter in the following issue opined that community leaders needed to adjust to the new demographic reality of where Jews were living, not condemn it.

‘A cold reaction’

Increasing rates of intermarriage also prompted concern in the community.

“We lost some six million Jews during the Hitler slaughter and now we are losing one-fifth of a million a year through intermarriage,” raged one October 1963 letter writer.

However, a November 1966 note told of the remarkably rude rejection received by an interfaith couple when they asked to be married.

“I never anticipated such a cold reaction from my rabbi…” read an anonymous note full of hurt and surprise. “With the way my fiancé and I were treated — I am not the least bit ashamed to say that my Temple and Congregation have lost a member and a possible convert.”

But not all the Light tackled was serious or controversial. The space race was in full swing by the mid-60s and the Light noted that with sunrises coming for astronauts every hour and a half, the Sabbath would need to be observed every 630 minutes.

“There are other problems,” responded a July 1965 letter. “How do you don a yarmulka under that big, bulky space helmet?”