After 38 years, Block Yeshiva closes its doors

Rabbi Amiel Rosenbloom congratulates students at the Block Yeshiva High School commencement ceremony in 2010. File photo: Lisa Mandel

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

After 38 years of serving St. Louis area Orthodox teenagers and their families, Louis and Sarah Block Yeshiva High School has closed. Rabbi Gabriel Munk, principal of the school, said significant declining enrollment numbers led to the closure before the start of this academic year. 

Munk and others said that the opening of two new Orthodox schools in the last decade pulled students away from Block and ultimately led to its closure. Ten years ago, there were 74 students; last year there were 11, according to the school. 

The school, which opened in 1978, went from being a place that attracted families from across the Orthodox Jewish spectrum to a school without a clear niche, said Munk and others connected to the school.

St. Louis now has an Orthodox girls school, Esther Miller Bais Yaakov High School, which opened in 1995; Missouri Torah Institute, an Orthodox boys school that opened in 2007; and Yeshivat Kadimah, a coed Modern Orthodox school that opened in 2013. 

“So all the bases were being covered, and we were no longer the umbrella school,” said Munk, who spent 19 years at the school. 

He said school leaders had decided at the end of the last academic year to close but Munk decided to make it official on Tisha b’Av, a day on the Hebrew calendar that commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples. He described the Block Yeshiva closure as a “very tragic event in the Jewish history of St. Louis.”

But he also described himself as sad rather than angry about the closure. He mentioned that he and a number of other faculty members, including three rabbis, are now looking for jobs. 

“When a school that employed passionately loyal teachers to the students and parents of the community is forced to disband, it hurts. It is sad,” said Munk.

The school is still exploring other options, he said, and may reopen as a Jewish vocational school.

In addition to declining numbers, the school also frequently moved in the last two decades, using space at facilities including the Reform synagogue Congregation Shaare Emeth, the Orthodox congregation Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, the Chai Building on the I.E. Millstone Campus and H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy.

Despite that uncertainty, teachers and students still said Block featured a challenging academic environment. As is frequently said about small schools, the teachers were able to give students personal attention. Esther Trevino, 18, recalls that one of her teachers spent every lunch period helping her with math. And when her mom had a double lung transplant a few years ago, the entire faculty and other students sat with her at the hospital. 

During her four years at Block, Trevino said she saw a number of classmates leave for other schools, including Kadimah. She delivered the speech at her graduation last year.

“Even though I kind of knew (the closure) was coming, I still didn’t feel like it would because of the spirit at the school,” said Trevino, who is spending a year in Jerusalem before starting school at Touro College in New York.

Aside from the Jewish studies, the school had a largely Catholic staff. Joseph Master spent 32 years teaching English at Block, in addition to working at Ursuline Academy, the all-girls Roman Catholic high school. He cited a number reasons why teachers remained at Block rather than leave for better-paying jobs at other schools. They included: 

• The fact that he was able to teach seven kids from a single family over many years. “You get to know that family intimately and you realize the sacrifices that they are making to keep the school going. How could I not go there to teach when I see what they are sacrificing?”

• The emphasis on Judaism. “As a person of faith, I really appreciated that the school values the ability to express one’s faith,” said Master, who is Catholic.

• The dedication of Munk and other teachers. The school had not been able to provide a raise to faculty in almost a decade. “I don’t how those who were full-time there did it.”

When the Rabbinical Seminary of America, located in New York, decided to open the Missouri Torah Institute in St. Louis, Munk said, he told founders that it would likely lead to other new schools as well. Later, when Kadimah opened, school leaders appeared not to want to interfere with one another. 

At the time, Munk told the Jewish Light, “We all decided not to make comments about each other so I am going to stick with that.”

Jimmy Fendelman, who was the founding chairman of Kadimah, said the school “was not designed or considered to be in competition with Block.”

He said he and others started Kadimah because the Orthodox community was losing a significant number of students after middle school. Since Kadimah opened, he said students have not been leaving the Jewish community. 

“Ultimately whether people chose Block or Yeshivat Kadimah was their personal choice; I tried very hard not to do anything to pressure anyone,” said Rabbi Moshe Shulman, the founding dean at Kadimah. “Anytime a Jewish educational institution closes, it’s very sad and very unfortunate. It’s not at all something that was desirable from any point of view.”

Linda Markowitz, whose daughter graduated from Block in 2013, had served on the school board as the head of the parent’s support organization, the Block Boosters. She said the school promoted its small size in recent years, with signs in the hallways stating “small but mighty.” She described the opening of Kadimah as the “nail in the coffin” for Block. But now she hopes that the school can find its own niche as a vocational institution. 

“I think there is a need in the community,” said Markowitz, who works as the office manager at the St. Louis Kollel. “We don’t have anything like it. I think if there’s anyone who can make it work, it’s Rabbi Munk.”