2020 in review: St. Louis Jewish community adapts to life during a pandemic

The logo of Jewish Family Services — formerly Jewish Family & Children’s Service.

By Ellen Futterman, Eric Berger and Mike Sherwin

As much as many of us might like to, no one will forget the year 2020. Not only did the deadly coronavirus pandemic shut down much of St. Louis and the rest of the world by mid-March, but the year also saw one of the most divisive and contentious presidential elections in U.S. history.

In St. Louis, closings due to the pandemic caused employees at several Jewish organizations and institutions to be furloughed and beloved traditions such as Passover seders, summer camp and High Holy Day services to largely take place virtually.

But there was still plenty to get excited about including the groundbreaking of a $21 million Holocaust museum expansion and a $400,000 renovation of the mikvah, both on the Millstone campus, not to mention a Jewish pitcher joining the St. Louis Cardinals. 


January

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Jewish Family & Children’s Service changed its name to Jewish Family Services (JFS). However, its mission remains the same: supporting families and seniors, alleviating hunger and improving mental health. Miriam Seidenfeld, the executive director of the agency, said the change was motivated by concerns that there was a lack of awareness of the organization’s work, which includes serving more than 60,000 clients annually through counseling services and at places such as the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy moved at the end of 2020 and reopened Jan. 6 in its new, smaller location, at 8645 Old Bonhomme Road in University City, along with Yeshivat Kadimah High School. The former Epstein location on Warson Road eventually was transformed into the Miriam Foundation’s Miriam Academy, which opened in July. 

The St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center received a $750,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. According to the NEH, this is one of the largest grants for a Holocaust-related project and one of fewer than 10 grants of this magnitude in Missouri. The grant came just as the museum was getting ready to launch a major renovation that will triple its current space.


February

Plans began to enhance building security at local Jewish facilities after Jewish Federation of St. Louis allocated $350,000 to this effort in December 2019. According to Scott Biondo, Federation’s community security director, improvements included strengthening or adding physical barriers outside buildings and upgrading audio-visual equipment at entrances as well as training staff about what to do in case of an attack.

The New Jewish Theatre received a record 21 nominations for the 2020 St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards for outstanding achievement in St. Louis Professional Theatre. NJT’s previous high was 12. (It wound up taking home six of the honors, more than any other troupe in the running.) NJT is a program of the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis.

The Jewish Light hosted The Events Event: 20/20 Vision for Life’s Celebrations. One-hundred-eighty guests browsed exquisite tables designed by wedding, bar mitzvah and event planning professionals, and heard from guest speaker Simcha Lourie, an award-winning party planner in St. Louis. View a photo gallery of the table designs here, or a gallery of guests attending by clicking here


March

Like much of the rest of the world, the St. Louis Jewish community shut down mid-month to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Most employees began to work from home as synagogues and other Jewish institutions closed, b’nai mitzvahs and other celebratory events were postponed or cancelled and funerals and shiva calls started to take place virtually.

Five members of same St. Louis family battled the coronavirus.  Jane Weinhaus, a beloved teacher at Temple Israel’s Deustch Early Childhood Center, spent more than two weeks at Missouri Baptist Hospital and was on and off a ventilator. Her husband, Michael Weinhaus, also was hospitalized with the virus. The couple’s adult sons, Jason and Ryan, and Ryan’s wife, Dr. Brittanie Weinhaus, also tested positive for the virus, though they quarantined at home. The Jewish Light first reported this story, which was picked up nationally by outlets including NBC’s “Today” show, ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CNN. All five members eventually recovered.

Temple Israel of Godfrey, Ill. shut down after nearly 100 years. The small Reform congregation suffered a steady decline in membership; the number of congregants at closing was 11. As a result of the pandemic, the temple had to forgo its planned ending Shabbat, which was supposed to include a ceremony celebrating the transfer of the temple’s remaining Sefer Torah to Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. Temple Israel’s second Torah scroll was donated in August 2019 to a congregation in Missoula, Mont.

Federation created a Community Response Fund to meet the unprecedented needs caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. “Throughout our 119-year history, Federation has always stepped up to meet the challenges of our community… This fund will help meet those unexpected demands on our services,” said Brian Herstig, president and CEO of Federation. In addition, Michael and Carol Staenberg created a matching grant to double the impact of any gifts totaling up to $100,000. As of late April, more than 360 donors had given to the fund, raising $600,000. 


April

Passover looked very different this year because of the pandemic, with more local families taking to Zoom as the safest option to gather their family for seders. Chabad of Greater St. Louis offered free, to-go seder kits, which included essential items needed to host and lead a seder (but no brisket!).

Due to a rapid decline in advertising since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jewish Light began publishing its print edition every other week. On alternate weeks, the paper publishes online only at www.stljewishlight.com. All obituaries continue to be published both online and in the next available print edition. The paper also started delivering free, weekly email newsletters that readers can sign up for at www.stljewishlight.com/email.

For a short time, the J furloughed the majority of its staff, due to the coronavirus pandemic. The organization, which has campuses in Chesterfield and near Creve Coeur, furloughed more than 100 employees and kept about 70 staff members at reduced hours or salaries. However, within two weeks, the J received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government and rehired its entire full-time staff and some part-time staff. Across the Millstone Campus, Jewish Federation froze salaries, bonuses and hiring.

With the help of local philanthropist and developer Michael Staenberg, the Sylvia Green Memorial Mikvah on the Millstone Jewish Community Campus got a $400,000 makeover and name change. The mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath that caters to Orthodox families. Immersion in the mikvah also serves as a final step in the process of conversion to any stream of Judaism. Renovations included an overhaul of all three immersion pools as well as the addition of a new preparation room and more changing space. Staenberg agreed to fund half the cost of the renovation while members of the board of the mikvah were responsible to fundraise the rest. The new mikvah, which opened later in the year, is now called the Staenberg Family Mikvah.


May

Jewish Federation of St. Louis eliminated its Center for Jewish Learning, including all adult education classes, because the programming was “often duplicating or competing with other institutions and synagogues. That is something our own criteria call for us not to do,” a Federation spokesman stated in an email. The cuts were not related to the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, the spokesman added. The organization planned to maintain the center’s Sh’ma: Listen! Speaker Series, the Shinshinim Israeli emissary program, and professional councils connected to religious school and early childhood educators.

Congregation Shaare Emeth leaders decided to cancel the Reform synagogue’s two summer programs because of the pandemic. The J also decided to cancel its summer overnight program at Camp Sabra at Lake of the Ozarks.

Rabbis often steer clear of politics, but this year, clergy fromTemple Emanuel, Temple Israel; Shaare Emeth; United Hebrew; Central Reform; B’nai Amoona; Kol Rinah; Bais Abraham; and Young Israel urged Gov. Mike Parson to allow residents to vote by mail for any reason because of the pandemic. Parson later approved a bill to allow all Missourians to vote by mail.


June

As the country continued to grapple with the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, Jewish activists wrote an open letter signed by more than 900 Jews, at least seven from the St. Louis area, including Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation. The letter urged Jewish institutions to commit to a number of actions within three years, including having a fifth of staff, senior leadership and board seats filled by people of color; participating in anti-racist education; investing a fifth of all grants in organizations led by people of color; and committing to replacing contracts with police departments with alternative structures of community safety.

Federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council stated in a response that the organizations would bring “together leadership of Jewish organizations across our community to study your calls to action and determine how to realize this bold new future”

The pandemic sliced into a significant portion of Kohn’s Kosher Deli’s revenue because of the loss of catering for events and hot dog sales at Cardinals and Blues games. But the Creve Coeur eatery saw its online sales increase by more than 50%, much of it going to customers along the East Coast.


July 

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed legislation aimed at combating the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. The law requires companies entering into a contract with the state to certify that they will not engage in a boycott of Israel. It applies to companies worth over $100,000 with 10 or more employees. The passage came after years of efforts from pro-Israel lawmakers and advocates.

Just six months after starting in the position, Sandra Harris resigned as executive director of the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center. The museum did not provide a reason for the resignation and Harris could not be reached for comment. The move came as the organization prepared a multi-million dollar expansion of its museum.

Rabbi Janine Schloss, who had spent a dozen years at Shaare Emeth before moving to Seattle, returned to St. Louis to become the spiritual leader of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community. She replaced Cantor Joshua Finkel who relocated to Mahwah, N.J., to become cantor of Congregation Beth Haverim Shir Shalom.

In its 20th anniversary year, the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis reimagined its Back to School! Store to continue to serve 2,000 children, providing school essentials, clothing and more. Usually, the children, accompanied by an NCJW volunteer, get to select the supplies and clothes they want at a festive event. In 2020, volunteers had items delivered directly to children.


August

Rabbi Joseph Rosenbloom, who served Temple Emanuel for almost six decades, died Aug. 3 at age 91. “He really loved his congregation, and growing up, almost every vacation, if it was a long vacation, he would get a call to come home because something had happened, and it was never a negative thing for him. He just loved serving his community,” said his daughter Dena Rosenbloom.

The Cardinals added to their nest of Jewish players. Fourteen years after Jason Marquis last played for the Cardinals, the team again had a Jewish pitcher: Rob Kaminsky. The left-hander made his major league debut on Aug. 16 against the Chicago White Sox. Remarkably, he did not allow a hit in his first four appearances.


September

The Jewish Federation of St. Louis held its 2020 Annual Meeting virtually on Sept. 10. Jewish Federation presented the Fred A. Goldstein Award for Professional Leadership to Tova Greenblatt, the principal of the Esther Miller Bais Yaakov High School; the David N. and Roselin Grosberg Young Leadership Awards to Melanie Winograd and David Palatnik; and the RubinBrown Corporate Leadership Award to Royal Banks of Missouri.

Synagogues and Jewish organizations had to get creative with the High Holidays this year due to the pandemic. Rabbi Yosef David of Aish stopped by people’s homes for a kind of curbside shofar service. In addition to virtual services streaming online, some congregations took services and celebrations outdoors to parks or parking lots. For example, young families with United Hebrew Congregation gathered in Millennium Park in Creve Coeur and Congregation B’nai Amoona offered families a Rosh Hashanah service in its pavilion and a drive-in shofar service in the parking lot. Chabad offered seven outdoor Rosh Hashanah services in local parks and outdoor spaces, from locations in the Central West End to St. Charles.

The Jewish community mourned the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18. She was remembered as a trailblazer and a “pursuer of justice,” according to a Jewish Light editorial. At a vigil, former Missouri State Rep. Stacey Newman said: “A true tzaddik has passed.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a true hero of our lifetime.”


October

The Jewish community lost business leader and philanthropist Sidney Guller, who died Oct. 3 at age 96. Guller was a major benefactor of Washington University’s Olin Business School, the Technion Society, Jewish Family Services and the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry, to name a few.

In preparation for Election Day on Nov. 3, Central Reform Congregation and Congregation Shaare Emeth offered volunteer notary services for Missouri voters planning to mail in their ballots. Notarization was required for most ballots if a voter is under the age of 65.

A Southern Illinois synagogue was vandalized three times in about six weeks. During those incidents someone broke stained glass windows, stole audio equipment, and damaged the Hebrew letters on the congregation’s ark at United Hebrew Temple in Benton, Ill. (not to be confused with United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis). The synagogue is located about two hours from St. Louis. The Jewish Federation of Southern Illinois, Southeast Missouri and Western Kentucky organized a fundraising campaign to pay for repairs at the synagogue and to purchase new security equipment.

Longtime Jewish community leader Harris Frank died Oct. 19 at age 95. For decades, Frank was a visionary leader and generous supporter of numerous organizations and causes. Frank served as president of Congregation Shaare Emeth, the J, Federation and Westwood Country Club.  He was also a co-founder with the late Kenneth Marshall of both the local and national Senior Olympics. Rabbi Jeffrey Stiffman of Shaare Emeth called Harris “the heart and soul” of the congregation and noted his support as a benefactor and lay leader of the temple. Lynn Wittels, president & CEO of the J, remembered Harris as “a leader among leaders.”

NJT announced it was postponing performances until fall 2021 because of the pandemic. The postponement from J leaders followed an industry-wide trend, as concerns and restrictions around large public gatherings continued.


November

Democratic Missouri State Sen. Jill Schupp, who is Jewish, lost to Republican U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner by a 52% to 45.4% vote in the run for Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District. However, Schupp told the Jewish Light after the election that she plans on serving the rest of her term in the Missouri Senate, which ends in January 2023. Voters also elected two new Jewish state representatives, both Republicans, for their first terms in office: Adam Schwadron of St. Charles and Michael Davis of Kansas City. 

Like so many events, the J’s 42nd St. Louis Jewish Book Festival shifted to a virtual format this year. The festival opened with a keynote talk by director and cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld (“Men in Black,” “Get Shorty,” “The Addams Family,” to name a few) on Nov. 1. Over the following seven days, the festival featured 13 additional authors, including Bruce Feiler, Judy Gold and Sara Paretsky. Read our interview with Sonnenfeld here

This year’s festival was immediately followed by the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival, also held virtually, which typically takes place in June. The documentary “Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles” opened the festival and was followed by 11 additional films, including documentaries like “The Spy Behind Home Plate,” Aviva Kempner’s documentary about Morris “Moe” Berg, and feature films.

Kol Rinah welcomed the Light for a tour of its new synagogue building in Clayton as it nears completion of a $5 million renovation. The Conservative synagogue was created from the merger of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Shaare Zedek in 2013. In 2015, the congregation agreed to a building exchange with the Journey, a Christian church that had a location on Hanley Road in Clayton. The church and the synagogue shared space in the former Shaare Zedek building while Kol Rinah completed its renovation of the former church building, which includes an 8,000-square foot addition. Kol Rinah Rabbi Noah Arnow said the new synagogue building is like “having a really wonderful, big secret that you can’t share with anybody because right now you can have such small groups in our building safely, and I just wish that we could actually share this amazing accomplishment and this spectacular sacred space with our whole community.”

The newly renamed St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum held a virtual groundbreaking on Nov. 15 for its new $21 million facility.  The 35,000-square foot building, which the organization hopes to open in 2022, will triple the museum’s size. The museum had previously been the Holocaust Museum & Learning Center in Memory of Gloria M. Goldstein and has been renamed for the family of Gloria Kaplan Feldman, a local Holocaust survivor with a long history of philanthropy in the local Jewish community. Feldman wrote in a letter to the Light that the museum is “dedicated in honor of the survivors and in memory of the victims, not only our family.” She noted that she, her late husband, Rubin Feldman, and her brother David Kaplan “are committed to Holocaust education as survivors of the atrocities.”

The Jewish Light recognized seven individuals and one group of dedicated volunteers as 2020 Unsung Heroes. This was the 11th year the Light has honored individuals or groups making a difference in the community and doing so without significant public recognition. This year’s honorees were Allen and Ronnie Brockman, Mark Dana, Aleeza Granote, Sheryl Kalman, Steve Rosenblum, Alan Spector and the volunteers of the National Council of Jewish Women St. Louis’ Back to School! Store. (View the Nov. 19 virtual event online at stljewishlight.com/unsung.)

Congregation Temple Israel held its 34th annual Thanksgiving Dinner for Those in Need. Typically, the synagogue welcomes guests to the temple for a Thanksgiving meal, but due to the pandemic, volunteers delivered the meals— serving more than 350 individuals and families.


December

St. Louis adapted its Hanukkah celebrations to remain safely socially distanced. Synagogues held drive-through celebrations, Jewish organizations lit menorahs outdoors, and events like the Brothers Lazaroff’s annual Hanukkah Hullabaloo went virtual. 

Judaism Alive, the nonprofit led by local Jewish musician Rick Recht, launched JKids Radio, a streaming service that offers contemporary Jewish music and educational programming for children and families. Judaism Alive had operated PJ Library Radio, a streaming service sponsored by PJ Library, which sends free Jewish children’s books to families. The organization has changed the name of that music stream to JKids Radio and added “all kinds of wonderful programming for children and their families, so that’s what really excites me,” Recht said. (For more information, visit JKidsRadio.com.)