A look at 2016’s top stories in St. Louis Jewish news

St. Louis hosting the JCC Maccabi Games was one of the major stories in the St. Louis Jewish Community in 2016. Maccabi photo: Mike Sherwin

Compiled by Jewish Light staff

Some would rather forget the year 2016, which will likely be remembered for its contentious presidential primary and election processes. But in St. Louis, it was also a year of several highs, including the city hosting the JCC Maccabi Games last summer, with more than 4,500 young athletes from around the country competing, as well as some lows, including a Jewish day school here fielding a bomb threat, and the closure of a longtime Jewish high school. Here’s a month-by-month look at the top stories affecting the St. Louis Jewish community in 2016.

 

January

The year kicked off with news that the Cedars of Town & Country, a senior care center with deep Jewish roots, was being purchased by a Lutheran group and would be called Mason Pointe. Lutheran Senior Services (LSS) planned to spend $34 million to purchase the 252-bed facility. For some, the sale was seen as the final chapter for the once-Jewish senior facility. The Cedars was built by the Jewish Center for the Aged in 2003 as part of the legacy that began in 1907 with the Orthodox Jewish Old Folks Home. However, The Cedars had not been operating by the Jewish community for several years and became a for-profit business.

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Batya Abramson-Goldstein officially retired as executive director of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council and was replaced by Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss while Congregation B’nai Amoona USY took top chapter honors at an international convention in Baltimore.  

 

February

Tension ramps up as several Jewish day schools in Great Britain and the United States, including the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School in Creve Coeur, receive bomb threats. Mirowitz staff, faculty and students evacuated the building within minutes of receiving a garbled phone call at 9:15 a.m. in which someone sounding like a man said, “A bomb will go off.” After nearly four hours of investigating, police found nothing, though school administrators decided to cancel school for the day.

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The Jewish Light initiates a Young Publisher’s Society for those ages 45 and under willing to pledge $180 a year (a significant discount from the standard rate of $500) to the nonprofit paper. Young Publishers are invited to special thank-you events and help support some of the Light’s special sections, including its monthly Ohr Chadash teen section.

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More than 250 young people from around the world participated in the seventh annual Songleader Boot Camp at the Jewish Community Center’s Staenberg Family Complex. Led by Jewish Rock Radio guru Rick Recht, this unique three-day event aimed to strengthen Jewish identity and engagement through the power of music.

Tpheris Israel Chevra Kadisha Congregation, an Orthodox Jewish shul on Ladue Road, launches the Chesterfield Kollel, a Jewish place of learning and the St. Louis area’s second kollel. The group hired two rabbis to head the organization, and four kollel members who agreed to live in the community and learn for three years. In Orthodox communities, the kollel serves not only to teach Jews more about the Torah but also as a key piece of infrastructure, like a kosher restaurant or a mikvah.

 

March

Holocaust survivor Leo Wolf, dies at age 95.  He was a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz and Dachau and one of three co-founders of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center. 

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Congregation Bais Abraham celebrates its 122nd anniversary, making it the oldest Orthodox synagogue in St. Louis and one of the oldest west of the Mississippi.

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Missouri Governor Jay Nixon visited Israel for the third time, leading a weeklong trade mission, which included state leaders and local Jewish professionals and businessmen. Nixon said he was proud to build a stronger relationship between Missouri and the Jewish State. Jewish Federation of St. Louis President/CEO Andrew Rehfeld was part of the trip and talked to Israeli business leaders about the city’s Jewish community.

 

April

The New Jewish Theatre hosts the Association for Jewish Theatre conference in St. Louis. The three-day event, “Redefining Jewish Theater in an Age of Multiculturalism” is typically hosted by a member theater. NJT last hosted the conference in 2002.

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The Jewish Light named its 2016 Unsung Heroes, each of whom was honored at a special event in May as well as in the paper’s Oy! Magazine. The heroes were Philip Deitch, Harvey Ferdman, Ann Frank, Susan Goldberg, Elad Gross, Pam and Stu Katz, Betsy Mehlman, Joy Millner, Shirley Mosinger, Carl Sherman and Bonnie Solomon. The annual event, which was begun in 2010, shines a light on individuals or groups of individuals who fly under the community’s radar, but generously volunteer to help the St. Louis Jewish community as well as Jewish St. Louisans who volunteer not only within the local Jewish community but also the community at-large.

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Former congregants and others say goodbye to the Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel building in Richmond Heights at a special ceremony where they were encouraged to share memories of the structure. In 2013, BSKI and Shaare Zedek merged to form Kol Rinah, housed at 829 N. Hanley Road in University City.

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A local start-up business designed to teach youngsters about modern-day Israel and STEAM careers wins a $30,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. The money came from a new competition program for young entrepreneurs called JFACE, which supports Jewish innovators and innovations. About a dozen members of the Jewish community took part in the competition.

 

May

St. Louis Jews were able to get a first-hand look at the complex nature of daily life and governance in Israel. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly called for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians — and an American Jewish group tried to ramp up pressure on the Israeli government — a group of Arab and Jewish students traveled from Israel to St. Louis for a competition, and eighth graders from Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School headed the other direction. “We encourage them to grapple with current affairs, to understand Israel’s complexities, and to know that their connection to Israel is not a political issue,” wrote Cheryl Maayan, the head of school. During a robotics competition at the Dome at America’s Center, the Arab and Jewish Israeli students — who were helped by Americans of the same age — appeared no different than any other team. An Arab student said, “At first it was hard for us because of the difference in the language.” She added, “We are very grateful that we have this opportunity to come to America.”

 

June

What sets the Reform movement apart from other parts of the Jewish community? That question came to the forefront in St. Louis with a couple of high-profile visits from Reform Jewish leaders in June. Anat Hoffman, the chair of Women of the Wall, a Reform-affiliated group that advocates for women to be able to wear prayer shawls, read from the Torah and pray in an egalitarian space at the Western Wall, spent a Shabbat at Congregation Shaare Emeth and said in an interview that Jews should visit Israeli consulates and “demand from the consul general to convey to Israel that you want to have the women of your congregation hold the Torah, read the Torah” at the Wall. The issue of women’s prayer at the Wall remains unsettled. Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs visited St. Louis for the group’s North American board of trustees meeting and said, “We have (had) an important role historically and in the present in making America a more just and compassionate society but we better update our understanding of the issues and make sure that we play the most constructive role possible.” 

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Jews and others were reminded that intolerance still exists with the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. In response, St. Louis Jews participated in a vigil for the victims and later marched in the annual St. Louis PrideFest parade. 

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Covenant Place opened a new senior residence facility in Creve Coeur, the first phase of a three-part plan.

 

July

Jews around the world mourned the loss of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author best known for his efforts to ensure the world continues to think about and learn from the atrocities he witnessed. Rabbi James Bennett, senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth, had met Wiesel and said he “put a human face on the painful story of the Holocaust and allowed all people to access the obligation to transcend hatred and prejudice and violence and to build a better world.” 

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On July 31, the JCC Maccabi Games opened at the Chaifetz Arena with more than 4,500 people from around the country trading pins and cheering for their respective cities. The city last hosted the games in 2003. 

 

August

The athletes from cities as far apart as Scottsdale, Ariz., and Yokneam, Israel, maintained goodwill while competing in volleyball, tennis and baseball, among others sports, during the six-day event. “You get especially close with the athletes of your own sport. I met people from all over competing in all different events,” said Riley Deutsch, a 16-year-old swimmer. “Hopefully, I’ll have some new lifelong friends.” 

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Louis and Sarah Block Yeshiva High School officially closed after 38 years. Rabbi Gabriel Munk, who spent 19 years at the Orthodox school, described its end as a “very tragic event in the Jewish history of St. Louis.” 

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The New Jewish Theatre and the Jewish Food Pantry celebrated their 20- and 25-year anniversaries, respectively.

 

September 

Jewish Federation of St. Louis unveiled a new model for its Annual Campaign, shortening its duration to 100 days from more than 16 months. The organization held its annual meeting and campaign kickoff Sept. 1 at Busch Stadium. Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld said the St. Louis chapter also has tried to change the way in which it interacts with donors. He said the perception of Federation has been that “you donate first, then we engage you…We have to inspire people about the value of Jewish life before we start asking them” to donate, he said. 

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Orthodox congregation Nusach Hari B’nai Zion played host to the St. Louis area’s first kosher barbecue contest on Sept. 11. Ten teams from across Missouri and Illinois — some Jewish, some not — participated. Teams barbecued turkey, chicken and two kinds of beef (ribs and brisket). 

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Chabad of Greater St. Louis cut the ribbon at its newly revamped Morris and Ann Lazaroff Center on Delmar Boulevard during a dedication event that featured Gov. Nixon and other dignitaries. “In 1981, when Chabad in St. Louis began operating out of a rented apartment, the opening of this building would have seemed pretty impossible,” said Rabbi Yosef Landa. “Today, because of those who had the vision and dedication to plant the seeds, what was once a dream now stands before us as a very beautiful reality.”

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The St. Louis Jewish community mourned the loss of former Israeli President and Prime Minster Shimon Peres, who died at age 93 on Sept. 28. Peres visited St. Louis a decade earlier, in September 2006, raising funds for Jewish Federation’s Israel Emergency Campaign after the Lebanon War. 

 

October

Reform congregations B’nai El and Shaare Emeth decided to merge, in a move that marked the official end of one congregation that had largely been gone already. B’nai El was founded in 1852. The congregation’s board voted in 2012 to put up for sale its 28,500 square foot building and six-acre lot at 11411 North 40 Drive in Frontenac. However, the property has remained unsold.  Under the merger, Shaare Emeth will take ownership of the property, which it plans to sell, said Marci Rosenberg, former president of B’nai El.  Leaders of both congregations described the merger as a “reunification” because in 1867 Shaare Emeth spun off from B’nai El. “The wonderful thing about this is it’s just like the parent coming back to the child; that’s how we see this,” said Rosenberg. “In our times of trouble, we came back and the child has taken us in.”

 

November

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who is also the Jewish State’s most decorated soldier, addressed an audience of more than 2,000 people Nov. 1 at a St. Louis Speakers Series event. Barak didn’t take sides in the then-upcoming U.S. presidential election, but he did have words of praise for the presidency of Missouri-native Harry Truman. Barak said Truman was a man of action, “and today we need leaders who talk less and act more.”

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Best-selling author Scott Turow headlined the 38th annual St. Louis Jewish Book Festival, which opened Nov. 6 at the Jewish Community Center. The writer of several legal thrillers-turned-movies including “Presumed Innocent” and “The Burden of Proof,” Turow was one of more than 30 authors featured during the two-week festival. 

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The Gladys and Henry Crown Center for Senior Living celebrated its 50th anniversary with a gala event in November. The senior living center began as an initiative of the National Council of Jewish Women-St. Louis Section. 

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On Nov. 10, Missouri voters elected the state’s first Jewish governor, Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who grew up in Maryland Heights and attended B’nai El Congregation. 

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It has been a long road for Jewish candidates seeking to move into the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City. The highest executive office attained by Jewish candidates had been that of lieutenant governor, won by Democrats Kenneth Rothman and the late Harriett Woods. Rothman also had served as the first Jewish speaker of the Missouri House of Representatives. This election was also the first in which two Jewish candidates ran for statewide office. The other was Jason Kander of Kansas City, who was elected Missouri Secretary of State in 2012 but lost his bid to oust Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.

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On Nov. 29, Missouri lost Richard Teitelman, who was the first blind and the first Jewish Missouri Supreme Court justice. He was 69. Teitelman had served on the Missouri Supreme Court since 2002. The judge was known not only for what he achieved despite being legally blind but also for his liberal ideology, compassion for underprivileged Missouri residents and friendly manner with others in the legal world.

 

December

A group of Missouri legislators traveled to Israel for a weeklong trip sponsored by Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Six Republican and two Democratic state senators and representatives participated. In March, Federation representatives accompanied Gov. Nixon and other state leaders on a trade mission to Israel. Federation President and CEO Andrew Rehfeld said Federation will follow-up with legislators after the trip about economic and social initiatives that could benefit Missouri, the U.S. Jewish community and Israel.

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Torah Prep School of St. Louis underwent a $2.5 million renovation of its girls division school in University City. The Orthodox school, which instructs students from preschool through eighth grade, now features a new roof, as well as new heating and air conditioning, windows, lighting, landscaping and a redesigned entrance, among other changes. Rabbi Tzvi Freedman, the school’s executive director,  started with a handful of students 30 years ago and now leads more than 260.

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On Dec. 25, the sixth annual Jewish-Muslim Day of Community Service drew an all-time high of 900 volunteers to 25 sites spread across the St. Louis area. During a breakfast event for volunteers at the Daar-Ul-Islam mosque, Rabbi Jonah Zinn of Congregation Shaare Emeth invoked the Hanukkah holiday to demonstrate how Jews and Muslims could send a powerful message through their interfaith community service. “[Hanukkah] is a powerful symbol for us all about the potential to bring light to the world, to take a place of darkness and illuminate it through our presence and our actions and our love and through our generosity,” he said.

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Jewish Light Publisher/CEO Larry Levin stepped down after eight and a half years of service at the paper, overseeing significant changes, initiatives and improvements, which led to more than 30 national and regional journalism awards for the newspaper.