2012: The year in review

Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School Director of Jewish Life Carol Rubin (right) gets a hug from board vice president Galia Movitz on the first day of school in August. Movitz and her husband, Milton, were co-Presidents of the Solomon Schechter Day School board during the process of merging Schechter and Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy.  File photo: Yana Hotter

BY DAVID BAUGHER, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

From day school mergers to electoral nailbiters, the Jewish community of St. Louis had an active year in 2012. Fundraising remained a challenge, the Federation saw a leadership change, a synagogue put its building up for sale and the New Jewish Theatre cleaned up at the Kevin Klines. Below are some of the highlights from the last 12 months, a few of the names, faces and places that made the news in the pages of this year’s Jewish Light.

January

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The year opened with unsettling news for the Jewish Federation’s campaign. Figures released for the annual effort showed numbers tumbling another 5.5 percent, reaching lows not seen in more than a decade. Hammered by the departure of a few major givers and the erasure of one-time fundraising mechanisms, the drive fell for the fourth straight year since the economic collapse, shrinking to $9.4 million, a nearly 15 percent retreat from its 2007 highs. On a brighter note, the umbrella agency’s overall financial picture improved by nearly half over the previous year, reaching $25 million on the strength of longer-term commitments such as those spurred by the Create a Jewish Legacy program.

The new year also marked the official beginning of the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, a new K-8 institution that arose from the joining of Solomon Schechter Day School and Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy. Organizers hoped the marriage might represent a model that could serve as a template for collaboration among Jewish organizations at the local level and beyond. Initially operating out of separate facilities, by the end of summer, students were finally merged into the former SSDS building on Congregation B’nai Amoona’s campus. Initial enrollment numbers were healthy at 165 students and, by April, the school reported more than $2 million in fundraising.

Temple Israel ushered in the new year with a continued celebration of its 125th anniversary. Founded in 1886 as an offshoot of Congregation Shaare Emeth, TI marked the milestone with the bestowal of the Malachi Award on Rev. Earl Nance, Jr., for his interfaith work as congregants recalled visits to the synagogue from names like Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Kissinger, Abba Eban and Simon Wiesenthal. Events were set to run through November.

February

The Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry found a new home with Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s purchase of what would become the 24,000-square foot Max and Drew Erlich Center on Baur Boulevard near Warson Road. Bought for $885,000, the facility was designed to serve the exploding demand the pantry has experienced in the past few years. Powered by gifts from the community, including a $1 million donation by the Erlichs, the pantry would move from its basement residence at the JF&CS Hoffman Building to its new site in October.

March

The Jewish Community Center was the target of a lawsuit by creditor Bank of America, which alleged the Judaic institution was withholding millions of dollars in payments in order to force a restructuring of bond loans related to capital improvements at its two locations. The JCC responded that it had worked diligently to find an equitable solution to the matter and was surprised and disappointed by the financial giant’s actions. In July, Missouri attorney general Chris Koster would file papers seeking to intervene in the case in an effort to protect the JCC’s charitable assets.

In synagogue news, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Shaare Zedek Synagogue restarted merger conversations. The on-again, off-again talks resumed more than a year after they stalled with the failure of a board vote to proceed. March also saw the departure of BSKI’s Rabbi Mordecai  Miller after more than two decades with the congregation. Only the third spiritual leader in the half-century-old congregation’s history, Miller was honored with the title rabbi emeritus.

Late in the month, ownership of the Cedars at the JCA changed hands with a purchase by Mark Suissa, operator of six skilled nursing facilities, half in the St. Louis area. The acquisition marked yet another chapter in the history of the long-troubled Jewish community institution, which had defaulted on its mortgage seven years previous. Traditions Management continued to operate the facility. Both Traditions and Suissa, who is Jewish, said its Judaic character would be retained.

 April

The New Jewish Theatre took home six honors out of 14 nominations from the local Kevin Kline Awards. Recognitions included “Awake and Sing!” for Outstanding Production of a Play and Outstanding Set Design. Meanwhile, “The Immigrant,” picked up four awards out of eight nominations, including top honors for lead actor, supporting actor and supporting actress. The entire cast received an Outstanding Ensemble Award.

Pumpernickle’s, a longtime delicatessen popular in the Jewish community, came under new management, being purchased by Harlan Levin. After launching a $45,000 revamp, Levin said he would simplify the menu and increase portion sizes on sandwiches as well as begin delivery service.

May

Temple Emanuel opened the search for a new spiritual leader with the departure of Rabbi Justin Kerber. Kerber, who had assumed the senior rabbinic job from Joseph Rosenbloom in 2009, did not seek renewal of his contract and was granted a sabbatical for the remainder of his term, which runs until July 2013.

Eric Greitens, a native St. Louisan and founder of the not-for-profit Mission Continues, which assists veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, won the prestigious Charles Bronfman Prize. The national humanitarian award came with $100,000 in prize money. Greitens, an ex-Navy SEAL who had also done charitable work in Rwanda and Bosnia, received letters of recommendation from NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and former U.S. Senator Harris Wofford.

June

In the wake of a bruising 2011 campaign, the Jewish Federation announced cuts to constituent agencies’ unrestricted budgets with some recipients shedding a tenth of their allocation. The Federation distributed about $8.5 million, a decline of 6.5 percent over last year. However, the figures also represented a new focus towards programmatic grants aimed at strategic planning priorities. Despite the overall cutbacks, such hardwired funding jumped by almost a fifth.

Andrew Rehfeld, a political science and law professor at Washington University, was named as the next chief executive officer and president of the Jewish Federation. The result of an 18-month search, Rehfeld, who was signed to a two-year contract, replaced Barry Rosenberg, who spent more than two decades helming the umbrella agency. The 46-year-old Rehfeld assumed his duties in September.

August

As the presidential race heated up nationally, local primary contests ensured that the number of General Assembly seats in the state legislature held by Jews would shrink to two. St. Louis area representatives Jill Schupp and Stacey Newman were both unopposed for their general election bids in November. However, Newman’s August primary results showed her ahead of fellow Jewish representative Susan Carlson by a single vote after being redistricted into the same turf as her fellow Democratic incumbent. A later twist in the saga found that more than 100 voters were given the wrong ballot, necessitating a re-run of the entire election between the pair the following month, which Newman won.

September

September was dominated by synagogue news. Concluding a process that dated back to 2009, BSKI and Shaare Zedek finally voted to merge into a new institution, Kol Rinah, or “Voice of Joy.” The vote to create St. Louis’s newest synagogue was overwhelming in both Conservative legacy congregations, which had long examined a potential joining as a way to reinvigorate spiritual life and deal with pressing financial and facilities concerns. A new board was selected in December but the parent institutions are expected to continue through early 2013. The target date for the full transition is March 1.

The month saw B’nai El Congregation put its campus up for sale. The 150-family Reform institution in Creve Coeur had long shared the 28,500-square foot facility with SMDS-RJA, but the school left after the merger with SSDS and an attempt to find a new tenant, including negotiations with a local Islamic school, failed. The congregation, which is in a process of redefining itself, has been in existence since before the Civil War.

Among the oldest synagogues in the United States, United Hebrew Congregation began its 175th anniversary celebration over the High Holidays. Events, including a gala at the Coronado Ballroom, a Shabbat service with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and a Megillah dedication were set to run through May 2013.

October

Lisa Klein, a University City mother whose sudden diagnosis of cancer had brought an outpouring of support from the Jewish community, died less than two months after the discovery of her condition. Friends, family and strangers raised thousands of dollars to support the Shaare Zedek congregant’s infant daughter Annie though donations and fundraisers.

November

Missourians narrowly chose Jewish state Rep. Jason Kander, a Kansas City-area member of the General Assembly, as Secretary of State over Republican Shane Schoeller in November’s balloting. According to the Huffington Post, the 31-year-old Democrat will be the youngest statewide elected official in office anywhere in the nation.

December

Congregation Neve Shalom completed its move into the Covenant/CHAI facility becoming the only synagogue on the Millstone Campus. The small, non-denominational congregation of about 70 families signed a two-year sublease for three rooms in the building after leaving its longtime space at nearby Rainbow Village.