A tale of two synagogues


Twenty-five years ago, two groups of people met to create two Reform synagogues in the St. Louis area. One group headed east; the other group went west. And from these two separate groups the geographical landscape of the St. Louis Jewish community was extended further than it had ever been before.

The two synagogues celebrating their 25th anniversary year are B’nai Torah, located in St. Peters, and Central Reform Congregation (CRC), located in the city of St. Louis. B’nai Torah is the only synagogue in St. Charles County; CRC is the only synagogue in St. Louis city. The two mark the eastern- and western-most congregations in the St. Louis area (at least west of the Mississippi).


While these two synagogues share the same anniversary year, they have each carved out distinct paths for themselves and the communities they serve.

Westward Expansion

“Soon after we moved to St. Charles we put our name on our mailbox. A neighbor, Rita Michelson, came over and introduced herself by saying, ‘With a name like Cohen you must be Jewish,'” said Jack Cohen, one of the founders of B’nai Torah. Out of that introduction came the beginnings of a friendship and a synagogue. “She said that her family (husband Mike), along with others in St. Charles County, had been trying to form a synagogue for a couple of years.”

Cohen joined the efforts with eight other households committed to this venture. The group contacted Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), now known as Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), for assistance. Coincidentally, at that time the UAHC local office was headed by Rabbi Howard Kaplansky, of United Hebrew Congregation. With his guidance B’nai Torah received its charter and became a member of the Union.

“More and more Jewish families are moving out here,” said Larry Comensky, another founder of B’nai Torah. “At the time of our founding there were approximately 250 Jewish families living in the St. Charles County area.” He said that the synagogue pulls in members from cities such as Wentzville, New Melle, Troy and O’Fallon, as well as a few from Chesterfield and Creve Coeur. Comensky serves as the synagogue’s chazen and spiritual leader.

“The St. Charles area is still a very transient area with families moving in and out. St. Peters back then was growing because families were able to get more home for their dollars,” Comensky said. “But they wanted a place to go where they didn’t have to drive back and forth over the bridge for Shabbat services or for Hebrew and Sunday school.”

For the first five years, B’nai Torah held Sunday school classes in Jack and Laura Cohen’s home. Eventually, as new members joined, the synagogue was able to rent space from First United Methodist church in St. Charles. Then in 1991, the membership purchased a home that had been converted to a Baptist church. B’nai Torah has been operating out of the site, at 1701 St. Peters-Howell Road, ever since.

Currently, at 45 households, the synagogue is always looking for new members. “B’nai Torah is about Jewish camaraderie. When we celebrate Hanukkah we invite the entire Jewish community whether they’re members or not,” Cohen said. “Our Shabbat services are beautiful and festive celebrations. We encourage the children to come to the bimah to dance when Larry sings V’shamru.”

B’nai Torah holds Friday night Shabbat services on the first Friday of each month. Religious school classes occur on Sunday mornings during the school year; parents are asked to come in to the synagogue, to either attend classes or help out around the building, while their children are in school. And once a month on a Sunday evening, a rabbi from the St. Louis Kollel visits and holds an adult education session.

“We’re a small, intimate group where people are there for each other,” Comensky said. “And words can’t express what the volunteers mean to B’nai Torah.”

Sanctuary in the city

Twenty-five years ago Ed Harris, one of several CRC founders, never imagined that those early meetings with a few families hoping to create a new kind of synagogue would eventually evolve into a membership of 750 households years later. “Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think we would have what we have now,” said Harris.

In fact, when this small group of people began meeting back then, the majority was unaffiliated with any synagogue.

“We were looking for a kind of Judaism that was relevant and spiritual,” Harris said. “In our early meetings we shared what worked for us from other congregations we had once belonged to and what didn’t. And then we talked about what we’d want it to be.”

“We really wanted to have a community, that was first and foremost,” Ginny Weil, another founder, said. “Many of us had belonged to other congregations at one time but hadn’t found that any of them fit our needs. And we wanted our congregation to be lay-led to avoid a hierarchical structure.”

Armed with these initial thoughts, a group began meeting to shape what would become the only synagogue currently in the city of St. Louis. “We had a sense that there needed to be something for people living in the near suburbs, like Clayton, University City, as well as the Central West End and the city,” said Roger Goldman, another founder. “Gary Tobin had recently conducted a demographic survey, through the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which found a whole lot of Jewish people who would form the core of a congregation if it stayed in the city.”

Another reason for the fledgling group to locate in the city had to do with one of its founding goals: an emphasis on social action. “That could happen easier in the city,” Goldman said, “plus there was the notion of walking to the synagogue.”

In fact, the word “Central” in the synagogue’s name reflects the founders’ original intents. “We chose our name because it has three meanings: CRC is central in our lives; we’re located in the central corridor of the area; and we’re in the center of the Reform movement,” Weil said, “which means we didn’t want to ritualize everything so they would become pro forma and at the same time we didn’t want to have no rituals.”

Once this seed was planted, the group of 10 households set a goal to have 30 households by Sept. 1, 1984. With each household pledging $1,000, CRC would have enough money to operate, pay expenses, and rent space from the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis at Kingshighway Boulevard and Waterman Avenue. The founders met their initial goal, and by the end of 1984 counted around 50 households. By the end of 1985 that number had more than doubled to over 100 families.

In the spring of 1985, CRC hired a rabbi who had been consulting with the group to work quarter-time. For the founders, the rabbi they selected had to embody their core values. They found that rabbi in Susan Talve. As more households joined, the rabbi’s work increased to half-time, then finally full-time.

“I liked their values. Even at that time they wanted to stay committed to the city in a central area and not move west,” Talve said. “This was a group that was really struggling with the issues of the day like how to incorporate interfaith families.”

A place for all

The founders had some definite core values in mind when CRC was in its infancy. “It was based on participation of all members. In fact, that was a requirement of membership,” Weil said.

That requirement also took the form of another core value: Inclusivity. “We want people to feel they have a place here. We hear everyone’s voice in terms of their needs, not just in prayer and singing,” Harris, said. “At our meetings we make sure every voice is heard. Even in our earliest days our services were open. That’s why our High Holiday services are at the Chase [Park Plaza]…so we can have 2,000 people. We know there are people in the world who maybe can’t afford services and we want them to have a place.”

In addition to inclusivity, tikkun olam is another of CRC’s original core values that continues to this day. This commitment to social action is in the form of the joint venture with Cote Brilliant Presbyterian Church that features mentoring, education programs and an annual Martin Luther King Day service; an annual weatherizing project; a Holy Ground partnership with neighboring churches; social responsibility Shabbas; a food pantry and clothing closet located at the entrance of the building; and many more ventures.

“Being located in the city has absolutely affected how CRC and I operate,” Talve said. “My closest colleagues are African-American ministers who are really committed to the city because of social action. And, it has helped us recognize the importance of being open to Jews of color and to be a part of healing the racial divide of the city.”

As CRC continued to grow, it began to face a problem of ever-dwindling space. It was outgrowing the church but the founders did not want to own a building. “We never wanted to own a building. We didn’t want to be putting more effort and money into a building than into our programs,” Goldman said. And yet, the struggle to juggle schedules with the church was also a conflict with the founders’ core value of inclusivity.

“We wanted to make our congregation open to the community as much as we could. And as we grew we couldn’t continue to make that happen at the church,” Weil said.

So after many meetings and discussions, CRC purchased from the city the run-down lot across the street from the Unitarian church. In 2000 it opened its doors to its new, and current, home.

While the new building was a step toward accommodating the physical aspect of the growing membership, the congregation also needed to address the increasing time demands on one rabbi. So that same year, Randy Fleisher joined CRC as the assistant rabbi and became the associate rabbi in 1984. Recently, Harris became ordained as a rabbi and in addition to his chazen role, he helps out on a part-time basis with the growing demand for rabbinic services.

In spite of CRC’s growth, the congregation still maintains its core values. “We listen to each other and our values are in everything we do,” Harris said. “They’re not separate from our programs; they’re our foundation and the fabric of what we’re doing.”

Rabbi Talve said that everything CRC does has to be in synch with its core values. “We are mission driven. I believe our core values are in synch with Torah and come right out of being Jewish,” she said.

Harris said this tenet of CRC is emphasized at the start of its High Holidays services. “We always start with the chant that says ‘May the doors of this synagogue be wide enough to receive everyone.’ We want to make our doors open to people who are looking for a spiritual home.”